Read

Search form

Who's Afraid of the French Revolution?

Who's Afraid of the French Revolution?
Fri, 7/13/2012 - by Frances A. Chiu

"Après moi, le deluge."

Little could King Louis XV have predicted that his unfortunate grandson, the enlightened and well-intentioned but indecisive Louis XVI, would succumb to a guillotine after two expensive wars, national bankruptcy, and a revolution. Why does the French Revolution still resonate today and what can we learn?

Then, as now in America, French society was quite literally divided between the 1% and 99%, with the clergy and nobility belonging to the 1% (or thereabouts) and everyone else - from beggars to bankers - to the 99%. Then, as now, wealth was concentrated disproportionately on top, as the nobility owned a whopping 33% of the land and sizable amounts of government stock. Not only did they exact seigneurial dues from their communities but they also paid no direct taxes. Even less well-off nobles did better than most, including the French Paris Hiltons of the day who had “no taste for reading...nor indeed any occupation, but that of dressing their hair and adorning their bodies,” as Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett commented. Plus ça change!

At the other end of the social spectrum, nearly 50% were underemployed or impoverished. Then, as now, those slightly better off felt the perpetual risk of sinking into destitution especially during a bad harvest. The fact that prices rose considerably faster than wages didn’t help either. As one inspector of manufactures observed in 1777, “Workmen today need twice as much money for their subsistence, yet they earn no more than fifty years ago when living was half as cheap.”

More striking still are the parallels between ideas for reform now and then, as recorded in the cahiers de doléances of spring 1789, an early government survey of public grievances. If laborers and shopkeepers demanded more stringent trade regulations, peasants exhorted nobles to control the dirty effluent flowing from their mines. Many resented being treated “like slaves.” In turn, the middling orders desired “careers open to talents,” encouragement of enterprise, and an end to noble privileges. As for the nobility, they predictably sought a reinforcement of privileges and tax exemptions: after all, because their great-great-great-etc. grandfather fought in the wars, only commoners, i.e., the “little people,” should pay taxes. And much like billionaire Mitt Romney supporter and hedge-funder Ken Griffin, they also believed that the 1% deserved even greater political influence. Altogether, 18th-century France was a world where “the distance which separates the rich from other citizens is growing daily. Hatred grows more bitter and the state is divided into two classes: the greedy and insensitive, and murmuring malcontents.”

And the times certainly were a-changin.’ Not unlike Dylan in the 1960s, French writers and critics of the 1760s were already prophesizing with their pens, vindicating the 99%. The notorious atheist Baron d’Holbach (a frenemy of Voltaire) presciently observed that “bad laws are those that have as their object the welfare, the preservation, and the security of only a few members, at the expense of the rest of society.” Anyway, weren’t “laborers” and “intellectuals” more useful to society than “opulent imbeciles?” Fellow radical Diderot broadly anticipated Marx and Engels, calling for “downtrodden people of the world” to “rise up against their oppressors!” Not least, a near-viral stream of anti-aristocratic, anti-monarchical and anti-clerical pamphlets in the 1770s and ‘80s would stoke popular hostility, leading the chancellor of the French judiciary to dread a “revolution in ideas.”

And erupt it did - particularly after Louis XVI failed to stave off national bankruptcy during a three-year battle over taxes on the 1%. For spectators around the world, the early stages of the revolution were nothing short of sublime - much like the Arab Spring and the worldwide Occupy Movement. Wordsworth cried, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!” while George Washington declared it to be “of so wonderful a nature.”

Indeed, the collective cooperation and unity amazed many, beginning with the spirited popular support for the representatives of the Third Estate and the creation of a new National Assembly - not to mention the diverse crowd that protested Louis XVI’s unexpected dismissal of the well-liked minister Jacques Necker before storming the Bastille. Or the crowd of 7,000 women that forced their way into the National Assembly a few months later, demanding a resolution on bread prices and renewed support of the revolution. Even more impressive today are the laws passed between 1789 and 1793, before the onslaught of The Directory and Napoleon: slavery was abolished, homosexuality decriminalized (unlike in Britain) and property qualifications for suffrage eradicated. Severe penalties were to be introduced for wife-beating and procedures for spousal separation and divorce facilitated. Interestingly, however, women would not attain suffrage despite their considerable role in the revolution: perhaps because Robespierre had found himself too intimidated at a meeting of the Revolutionary Republican Citizenesses.

It is, of course, unfortunate that the revolution came to be tarred by excessive brutality. However, let’s not forget that the 18th-century world was a far more violent one than our own and that Louis XVI himself had only just abolished some of the most spectacular punishments in 1788: including drawing and quartering, breaking on the wheel and public burnings. Yet even then, mobs refrained from indiscriminate violence on their “betters,” choosing only to target the most egregious: for instance, the lord who imprisoned an 85-year-old woman for stealing a loaf of bread. Or Necker’s ministerial replacement, Foulon, for purportedly hoarding grains and quipping, “If the poor are hungry, they should eat straw.” (As a finishing touch, straw was stuffed into his mouth after a beating and execution.)

Less justifiable are the persecutions conducted by the Jacobin government even when violent threats from royalists and counterrevolutionaries are accounted for. Far from embracing a democratic ethos, Robespierre and his inner circle replicated an absolutist, hierarchical ancien-régime paradigm of authority: one all too evident from his rejection of Girondins and radical women. Ultimately, then, the tragedy of the revolution was not that it went too far--but not far enough.

But for all that, the French revolution continues to teach and inspire us, as it has for countless others. Certainly the French have learned, as they enjoy greater social mobility and job security than many others - including Americans. Perhaps we’ll learn to rethink entitlement in our day and age, whether in the form of rampant grade inflation at elite universities or bloated CEO compensation. Learn to shift tax burdens. Learn inclusiveness by listening to others and eschewing vertical, authoritarian paradigms for more egalitarian ones: in short, learn to embrace the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité all the way. Vive L’Occupy Worldwide!

Frances A. Chiu earned her doctorate at Oxford University and is an assistant professor at The New School. She has a blog.

Add new comment

Sign Up

Article Tabs

carbon emissions, Pakistan coal plants, Pakistan coal generation, Pakistan energy policy

On its projected track, Pakistan will generate a total capacity of over 23,000 megawatts of electricity from coal in the next few years to overcome its steep energy requirements.

student loans, student debt, college debt, Student Loan Asset Backed Securities, subprime mortgage securities, collateralized debt, Federal Family Education Loan Program, Student Income Loans, Student Income Loans

A crucial difference between the subprime debt bubble and the student debt bubble is that the properties that comprised subprime mortgage securities served as collateral to the mortgage debt.

DiEM25, austerity policies, Brexit, Lexit, Democracy in Europe Movement, Grexit

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis responds to his critics and lays out DiEM25’s plan for resisting within the European Union.

Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, anti-corruption movement, populist politics, Euro-skeptic party, Italian political corruption, Silvio Berlusconi, Virginia Raggi, Chiara Appendino

The transparency and political openness that helped the 5 Star Movement rise to power must now bring the party's current and future proposals to the forefront if it hopes to achieve any lasting change.

Occupy Wall Street, rising inequality, park occupations, financialization, debt, David Graeber, Occupy legacy, social protests, economic justice, Jeremy Corbyn

Five years after Occupy, organizer and anthropologist David Graeber speaks to ROAR about the power of finance, the history of inequality and the legacy of the movement.

Wells Fargo crimes, Wells Fargo accounts scam, Wells Fargo foreclosures, mortgage-backed securities, subprime loans, Wall Street crimes, John Stumpf

Despite all of the fines paid to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Wells Fargo continues to deny any allegations of wrongdoing. Now a former employee is disputing that claim.

Posted 5 days 11 hours ago
occupy, activism, creative activism, alt-right, white supremacy, neo-nazi, bigotry, racism, sexism, white nationalism, white genocide, Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Bertrand Spencer, Gabriella Coleman, hacktivism, Anonymous, hacker, whistleblower, digital ac

We're introducing a new segment for all those times you think to yourself, "Wow, that's fucked up." First topic: white supremacists.

Posted 4 days 17 hours ago
blockchain currencies, blockchain technologies, crypto currencies, Bitcoin, Federal Reserve, Bank of England, fractional reserve lending, Central Bank Digital Currency, bank bailouts, bail-ins

Central Bank Digital Currencies could supplant the money now created by private banks.

Posted 6 days 12 hours ago
carbon emissions, Pakistan coal plants, Pakistan coal generation, Pakistan energy policy

On its projected track, Pakistan will generate a total capacity of over 23,000 megawatts of electricity from coal in the next few years to overcome its steep energy requirements.

Posted 2 days 17 hours ago
student loans, student debt, college debt, Student Loan Asset Backed Securities, subprime mortgage securities, collateralized debt, Federal Family Education Loan Program, Student Income Loans, Student Income Loans

A crucial difference between the subprime debt bubble and the student debt bubble is that the properties that comprised subprime mortgage securities served as collateral to the mortgage debt.

Posted 2 days 17 hours ago
DiEM25, austerity policies, Brexit, Lexit, Democracy in Europe Movement, Grexit

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis responds to his critics and lays out DiEM25’s plan for resisting within the European Union.

occupy, activism, creative activism, alt-right, white supremacy, neo-nazi, bigotry, racism, sexism, white nationalism, white genocide, Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Bertrand Spencer, Gabriella Coleman, hacktivism, Anonymous, hacker, whistleblower, digital ac

We're introducing a new segment for all those times you think to yourself, "Wow, that's fucked up." First topic: white supremacists.

Wells Fargo crimes, Wells Fargo accounts scam, Wells Fargo foreclosures, mortgage-backed securities, subprime loans, Wall Street crimes, John Stumpf

Despite all of the fines paid to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Wells Fargo continues to deny any allegations of wrongdoing. Now a former employee is disputing that claim.

Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, anti-corruption movement, populist politics, Euro-skeptic party, Italian political corruption, Silvio Berlusconi, Virginia Raggi, Chiara Appendino

The transparency and political openness that helped the 5 Star Movement rise to power must now bring the party's current and future proposals to the forefront if it hopes to achieve any lasting change.

AFL-CIO, union organizing, Keystone XL pipeline, jobs versus environment, Dakota Access Pipeline, Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Standing Rock protests, Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United

In sharp contrast to Richard Trumka and the AFL-CIO, some unions really want to restrain climate change and are now vocally opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline.