The French Revolution, and its unfortunate coda

no job too big……

The French Revolution, and its unfortunate coda

·         Lofty but understandable ideals were quickly swallowed by what became near 30 years of sustained violence, what grew into a Europe-wide tidal wave of death and destruction.

·         Marks the birth of the Modern Age?

·         But more because its Terror and the Napoleonic dictatorship it spawned became prototypical for calamitous 20th C variants?

·         Actions speak louder than words? The Anglo-Saxon/English liberal reforming experience achieved far more?


Featured imageIllarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov (1840-94). 1874. In the Year 1812 (The Retreat from Moscow), oil on canvas, 102 x 68 cm Odessa Fine Arts Museum


Not 1/………..  but 2/  …………….


1/       002                                                                      

  2/   003

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528 Nuremberg). C1499, Justice, engraving, 10.7 × 7.7 cm, Met, NY.
CRW Nevinson (1889 – 1946). 1914-15 Returning to the Trenches, oil on canvas, 51.2 x 76.8 cm, National Gallery of Canada


They dreamed of 1/…. but 2/ arrived …… degrading into 3/

1/    004


 2/  007


3/    006

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1937). 1915 Black Suprematic Square, oil on linen canvas, 79.5 x 79.5 cm., Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
1915 Suprematist Composition (with Eight Red Rectangles), oil on canvas, 58 × 48.5 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
 Jackson Pollock (1912-56) 1952. No 10 Convergence, 237.4 x 393.7 cm, Albright-Knox Art Gallery



The French Revolution which upended the Ancien Régime there erupted mid 1789, triggered by the Royalist Government having to raise money. It quickly took root and spread, feeding on a rich soil of deep, sustained and understandable domestic grievance and resentment.

The Revolution, driven by the Third Estate (representing the other 95%), started with lofty sentiments, goals, then actions, especially the August 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the abolition of privileges of the First (clergy) and Second (nobility) Estates, and later (1793) abolition of the monarchy.

But, it quickly descended into rampant widespread lawlessness, then extreme violence and injustice, in flagrant contradiction of the starting goals. The descent into disorder and violence was aggravated, propelled by:

1/ conflict among the rebelling domestic factions (“right” versus “left”),

and 2/ by external interaction – especially fear of foreign support for domestic Royalist resistance – which (from April 1792) quickly spilled into a full scale Europe-wide war which then continued on and off till 1815, about 23 years – and over 5 million lives, military and civilian- later.


After about 3 years of violent unrest, “escalating radicalism”, the Revolution lurched “left” in August 1792 when fear of foreign intervention and ongoing domestic royalist opposition helped trigger the bloody Republican Revolution, the abolition of the monarchy, Louis XVI’s execution a few months later on 21 January 1793, thence the Jacobin Terror, Sep. 1793 through mid 1794.

The surviving Girodin “right” fought back mid-1794, overthrew the Jacobins and installed the 5 year long Directory, a corrupt authoritarian anti-democratic regime which relied on the army to suppress domestic resistance (especially Royalists, especially in the Vendee) and also to help pay the bills through dividends from foreign wars, out of which Napoleon (a full general from 1795, at age 26!) emerged dominant. Finally Nov. 1799 he led a military coup, established a full blown self-serving nepotistic military dictatorship, waged war far and wide, then 1804 promoted himself Emperor!


The Revolution, including the subsequent 15 year Napoleonic dictatorship, started with noble and rational reformist democratic objectives, introduced a range of rational, secular modernising reforms (including freedom of religion, individual civil rights), but:

1/ it comprehensively failed to promote effective rule of law, to install institutional processes for real justice, respect for individual rights, freedom of expression etc;

2/ It descended into self-serving violent dictatorship from the “left” then the “right”, increasingly militarised.

The famously bloody Terror (over approx. 9 months to mid 1794) is excused by some sympathetic later historians as “Liberty or death”, as an understandable reaction to domestic resistance and fear of foreign intervention.

Before the Revolution the press was restricted to a small number of censored newspapers, in contrast to England where in the mid 18th C William Hogarth could publish biting visual satirical comment. Press publications exploded in Revolutionary France, helped to spread the new ideas. But were then proscribed, restricted so under Napoleon only 4 remained, all state-controlled.

Also the radical promotion of civil rights did not extend to slaves! To French slave trading or employing slaves in French colonies, where bloody slave revolts erupted.

Also “The abrupt end to seigneurial monopolies resulted in a massacre of wildlife.”?!

The Revolution did meet some stiff domestic resistance, particularly from some Catholics (after the Revolution dispossessed the Church and persecuted the clergy) as well as royalists.

3/ Finally, after the revolutionary journey had descended by 1799 into a corrupt disorganised dictatorship, reliant on the army for security and (in part) finance, it was hijacked by the supremely able but narcissistic and ambitious Napoleon, who overthrew the Directory.

4/ Then, ironically, he promoted rational administrative and other modernising reforms mainly to support his army and its military objectives!

5/ Thus the (family-run) Napoleonic dictatorship – which inducted, harnessed total foreign national populations and also introduced, developed total war – became a prototype for the three catastrophically destructive variants of the 20th C,

6/ So the eventual cost in lives and property, in France and across Europe, was immense, especially because the Revolution’s imperial child engulfed the rest of Europe, mainly out of French, and Napoleonic, perceived self-interest.


Ironically too once Napoleon’s prodigious ambitions were finally extinguished in 1815 and France could return to some semblance of peace it was through a restoration of the monarchy! In the Bourbon Restoration the executed king’s younger brothers took the throne, by Louis XVII, followed by his brother Charles X in 1830.


It’s interesting to contrast the catastrophic French modernising experience with that of England, ie centred on its 1640s Civil War and the 1688 “Glorious Revolution”, about 150 years earlier, in the mid 17th century. It was also bloody but far less so, and was far more constructive as a base for subsequent economic and political progress, notwithstanding the reforming process took another century or more to complete.


And it’s interesting to contemplate how France today recalls the devastating experience through rose-colored glasses. The epicentre of the internecine domestic violence is now ironically –with Orwellian overtones – called Place de la Concorde, and the main protagonist of the epic continental-wide military violence succeeding the Revolution is saluted, buried proudly in the heart of Paris.


The French Revolution helped establish the context for modern political ideologies, thus the analysis of its perceived class-conflict arguably contributed directly to the emergence of socialism.

And it highlighted the importance of rational Enlightenment-inspired Reason-based modernising political and economic reform (individual rights, equality before the law, freedom of religion, free trade), stripping away the injustice of the long established inherited privileges of monarchies and associated nobilities, of the aristocracy, and also of the entrenched Christian Church.


But actions speak louder than words and the reality is that the long and painful emergence of effective respect for individual rights (including private property), of enforceable rule of law based genuine liberal democracy in the West arguably owes far more to the hands on Anglo-Saxon / British reforming experience than to the problematic French version, notwithstanding it was long and uneven.


Whatever the long interminable debate about causes and nature there seems “a very widespread agreement … that the French Revolution was the watershed between the premodern and modern eras of Western history”. This view seems right, but alas perhaps more for negative reasons than positive.

Thus whatever the commendable ideals and founding intentions of the French Revolution, 1/ the evidential outcome was appalling and sustained violence, followed by the restoration of the monarchy, and 2/ the main message from the practical course of the French Revolution is the danger of dictatorships in the modern world, based on concocted self-serving quasi-religious national ideologies.  It shows the dangers of full blown anti-democratic centralised authority dressed up in the name of the People, which here became a prototype for the three major dictatorships which catastrophically blighted the 20th century.

But beyond these extremes it shows the dangers anywhere of self-serving authoritarian anti-democratic populism, still evident today.


So it highlights the never-ending challenge, down to the present day, of establishing and maintaining genuine, secular rule of law based liberal democratic government, a model still flagrantly resisted, avoided by obvious important countries today, by their self-serving authoritarian governments, and now too a model being assaulted by violent theocratic agendas.


Causes of the French Revolution

First, the trigger for the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was the indebted Government having to raise money. The Government was short of money for three main reasons:

  • first, and probably most important, was the cost of wars, the Seven Years War (), and backing the American colonists in their War of Independence against the British, France’s main European rival.
  • Second, the French monarchy had been extravagant in its spending for many years.
  • Third, the French economy was inefficient and unproductive.


Moreover, second, the Government was trying to raise money against a background of sustained, deep, rising resentment.

  • Short term factors
    • the winter of 1788/89 was unusually harsh and had caused famine and high prices in many parts of the country, and followed years of bad harvests.
    • significant existing unemployment.
  • Background factors:
    • high unemployment part because increased population growth in the previous decades.
    • a tax system inefficient and unfair, so that the main tax burden fell not on the rich (the monarchy and the nobility, ie the so-called first and second estates) but on the business class and the peasants, ie the third estate, in turn comprising most of the population.


Third, the revolution’s leaders emerged from, were encouraged by a conducive contemporary intellectual climate, ie especially the 18th C Enlightenment movement which favoured a rational approach to man’s affairs, opposed to absolute monarchy and political interference from religion.

Rebellious inclinations were encouraged too by the success of the American Revolution, a war which their Government had joined on the rebels side. Also they even learned of this success at first hand directly from returning French soldiers.


The driving figures of the revolution, the leadership – coming from within the third estate – were not the peasants and the poor but from among the growing bourgeoisie, lawyers and businessmen who were educated and articulate. They were supported by some members of the second estate (the nobility), especially those with business interests.


Fourth, the king and his monarchy dropped their guard, were largely out of touch with these underlying issues, remained inflexible, unresponsive with any constructive policy change. They believed in the traditional view of the king having absolute power, based on divine authority. The king’s weakness was not helped by his wife the queen being unpopular, mainly because of her extravagant lifestyle, but also because she was foreign (Austrian).


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