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A revolution

The Ideology of the French Revolution

Culturally, the French Revolution provided the world with its first meaningful e
xperience with political ideology. The word, and the concept it expressed, were
revolutionary in origin. Indeed, it was Napoleon, a man who had no truck with id
le thought, who called the intellectual system-makers of the late eighteenth cen
tury ideologues, abstractionists, or, as we have heard in recent years, "egghead
s." The father of the DuPont who founded the famous American chemical company wa
s called an ideologue by Napoleon. And this Pierre-Samuel DuPont de Nemours (173
9-1817) spent half a lifetime drawing up constitutions, writing letters, while a
lso finding time to offer a learned paper to the American Philosophical Society
on the language of ants, and to inform his son that gout was the disease of the
However, DuPont was not a brilliant mind, and Napoleon was an opinionated soul.
Despite these two figures, ideology triumphed; it directed the French Revolution
, and it soon grew, like roses on a bush or the heads of hydra--a matter of outl
ook, of course--to provide the nineteenth century with an unusual number of comp
eting theoretical social systems.
What was ideology? It was and remains a system of ideas that are usually goal- d
irected. Thus, it is a theoretical explanation of the world's situation and a pr
escription for improvement or radical change of that situation. In this sense, i
deology is rooted in historical consciousness, in an awareness of mankind's prog
ress through time and how that progress might be redirected toward an alternate
objective. Most ideologies are, therefore, fundamentally political, bright descr
iptions of the means and methods by which the instruments of revolution, party,
or government ought be used for the purpose of social change.
Ideology is, in a way, the secular equivalent of theology. It directs the believ
er's attention to a perfected future when present woes will have dissipated and
social harmony will reign. The future, therefore, holds the promise for the ideo
logue that heaven holds for the devout, religious-minded individual.
The introduction of ideology into the modern world was one major effect of the n
ew secular spirit of the eighteenth century. Once society was deemed to be man-
made--and here the influence of the Enlightenment is noticeable--then it could b
e changed. Ideology was the prescription for that change. And the force of ideol
ogy was felt throughout the modern era.
In sum, the French Revolution did many things, unleashed new forces, destroyed o
ld ideas, offered new promises. Not the Revolution itself, of course, but the pe
ople who made it.
Many historians have described the French Revolution as the encounter of competi
ng classes. In such an appraisal the Revolution is seen to begin with aristocrat
ic protest against the absolute monarchy bequeathed by Louis XIV, then to enlarg
e in scope as a bourgeois movement seeking fundamental political change, and, fi
nally, to take on popular dimensions with working-class participation, particula
rly in Paris.
Certainly a most notable development of eighteenth-century political life was th
e reassertion of the French nobility. During the reign of Louis XIV it had lost
power and had become noticeable only in show, in attendance at court and in part
icipation in the elaborate rituals that Louis XIV seemed to enjoy. After that mo
narch's death in 1715, the nobility mustered its forces, with leadership now com
ing from the "nobility of the robe," the legal and judicial sections, whose memb
ers wore the robes of magistrates, and who raised matters of principle and law t
hat reaffirmed the ancient rights of the nobility and questioned the authority o
f the absolute monarchy.
In its first and nonactivist phase, from 1787 to 1789, the Revolution therefore
amounted to a legal debate between monarchy and aristocracy over the financing o
f the state and the political authority which each claimed to enjoy and exercise
. It was the near bankruptcy of the state, largely caused by aid to the American
revolutionaries, that served as the immediate provocation for aristocratic oppo
sition in 1787, when an Assembly of Notables (consisting of aristocrats), called
by the king and his finance minister, demanded political authority in return fo
r tax reform. This assembly achieved nothing but further aggravation between mon
arch and aristocracy. However, if the aristocracy now presumed to speak in the n
ame of the "nation," it certainly made no request to extend the political base o
f the nation.
Such an extension was demanded and obtained by the bourgeoisie, who ushered in t
he major phase of the French Revolution. To quote again the words of Georges Lef
ebvre, "The Revolution of 1789 restored the harmony between fact and law." The f
act was that the bourgeoisie were the most significant economic element within F
rance. The wealth they generated and the professions they filled were far more i
mportant than the political role they were allowed by tradition and law to play.
Through revolutionary ideology and institutional change, the bourgeoisie gained
a political authority not known before in any European country. In this sense,
the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. The abolition of aristocratic
privileges, the confiscation of church and aristocratic lands and their purchase
by the bourgeoisie, and the removal of internal obstacles to trade and commerce
allowed the middle class greater economic and social mobility.
In rhetoric and institution, the French Revolution was a liberal revolution, in
which the liberty of the individual was proclaimed, private property was respect
ed. Later, when Napoleon announced his doctrine of "careers open to talent," he
was following revolutionary thought and also anticipating the Horatio Alger them
e of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." In truth, the ideology of the
Revolution amounted to extended praise of the "self-made man."
Yet it should not be assumed that revolutionary practice directly followed revol
utionary principle. The exigencies of the time--war, counterrevolution, factiona
lism within the various governments--combined to tempt the revolutionary leaders
to shelve most of the ideals until peace and calm were restored. The most influ
ential factor in this decision was the war which the French began, out of fear o
f foreign invasion, on April 20, 1792. As the "Declaration of Revolutionary Gove
rnment," issued on October 10, 1793, succinctly stated: "The provisional governm
ent of France is revolutionary until the peace." Put otherwise, revolutionary ti
mes required revolutionary, not democratic, government. The now familiar argumen
ts about "national security" were then new, but no less disturbing.
The problem of war against France--England had joined Prussia and Austria in Apr
il of 1793--and the problem of provisioning the home population with sufficient
staples--again the issue of "bread"--complicated government and allowed another
social element to play an important role in the Revolution. This element was the
multitude, variously called the "crowd," "the mob," or the "rabble." Thomas Car
lyle, trying to paint a fiery-bright picture of the Revolution, described Paris
in the second week of July 1789 as already a city in which "the streets are a li
ving foam-sea.... Mad Paris is abandoned altogether to itself." From his mid-nin
eteenth-century perspective, Carlyle viewed the crowd as an uncontrolled mob, bl
ood-thirsty and wild-eyed.
Recent scholarship has disputed and abandoned this view. Today we know the so-ca
lled "mob" was composed primarily of lower middle-class artisans, that their ini
tial behavior was no more disorderly than that of protest movements we witness w
ith great frequency in our own age. Far from wishing to be part of a "spontaneou
s anarchy," as a French contemporary of Carlyle's saw the situation, the Parisia
n crowds were set upon relieving the unsatisfactory living conditions they felt
had resulted from a government both mismanaged and insensitive.
This urban crowd was made up of the sans-culottes, the craftsmen, skilled and se
mi-skilled workers who wore no knee breeches (culottes ), hence who enjoyed few
of the benefits of the wealthy and the aristocratic. They were interested in hav
ing their immediate grievances righted; high-flung ideological considerations we
re of no concern to them.
In a way, therefore, the revolutionary forces that disturbed France in the summe
r of 1789 were coincidental: the coming together at a particular time of people
protesting their economic plight and people seeking fundamental governmental ref
orm. As many critics have asserted, it was the weight of the urban crowds and th
e direction of the reform-minded bourgeoisie that gave the French Revolution its
force. At no time was the importance of the sans-culottes more obvious than in
the years 1792 and 1793, in that extended moment of transition from constitution
al monarchy to republican government. According to the eminent French historian
Albert Soboul, the sans-culottes were representative of popular democracy. They
disdained the aristocrats and viewed with contempt the airs and manners of the r
ich and well-born. In a public display without precedent in Paris, they strolled
the fashionable boulevards where before would have been seen only the knee-bree
chered gentleman with gold-headed walking stick and fair-headed companion in han
As the Revolution became more popular in support, it also became more intolerant
; this dual situation occurring in the years 1793 and 1794, when the Jacobin fac
tion, that most closely identified with the people of Paris and with democracy,
was supreme. (The Jacobins were named after their meeting place in a monastery i
n the rue St. Jacob.) In June 1793 the Jacobins effectively removed their politi
cal opposition and proclaimed a "republic one and indivisible," in which legisla
tive power would be predominant. The ascendancy of the legislative assembly had
begun earlier and had reached an important stage in April 1793, when the Committ
ee of Public Safety was established. This twelve-man group was, as its title sug
gests, responsible for the well- being of the state. But by the summer of 1793,
when the Jacobins had reorganized the Committee and effectively controlled the g
overnment, the revolutionaries were exhibiting a political ruthlessness unlike a
ny seen before. As they set out to eliminate their enemies, they seemed to follo
w the cynical imperative coined at the time: "Be my friend, or I will kill you."
It was during the Reign of Terror, 1793-1794, that revolutionary tribunals meted
out hasty justice. Opponents of the regime, revolutionaries themselves, fell be
neath the blade of the guillotine. This was the awful period in which "the Revol
ution devoured its own." Some eleven thousand individuals died as enemies of the
state, and their deaths added up to a new, horrendous activity of modern Wester
n civilization: institutionalized violence, the harsh elimination of political o
pposition by the state. Later, Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany would cause the
figures of the French Revolution to seem small. Unfortunately, the mass age wou
ld also mean mass annihilation.
The Terror was spent by the summer of 1794, when reaction against it set in. The
end was reached at the moment the individual most frequently identified with th
e harshness of revolutionary retribution, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794), wa
s himself beheaded on July 28, 1794. It is important to note that Robespierre ca
me closest to being the revolutionary "hero." A lawyer and one of the first decl
ared republicans, Robespierre was a man of determination, anxious to see the Rev
olution realized according to his lights. Many say that Robespierre was Rousseau
's translator, taking the philosopher's ideas on equality and civil government a
nd making them public policy. Yet Robespierre's political behavior was far from
democratic. Elected to the Committee of Public Safety in July 1793, he soon came
to dominate that group, hence dominate the revolutionary government. He exhibit
ed himself as a ruthless individual, incorruptible, dictatorial, impersonal, and
determined to sweep away all who opposed the Revolution. He urged the war on ag
ainst the monarchical powers of France, and he encouraged the Reign of Terror. H
e was feared and unloved. He was the image of the modern revolutionary whose pro
fession and passion are political.
But for all this, Robespierre was not of the heroic dimensions of a George Washi
ngton or a V. I. Lenin. The French Revolution did not support such a person. It
almost seemed as if individuals followed the Revolution, did not lead it. Some F
rench historians of a romantic bent have insisted that the real hero of the revo
lutionary decade was the French people, a collectivity then acting with one mind
, feeling with one heart.
Certainly, the French Revolution had a quality of spontaneity, of accident, that
later revolutions would not have. There was no clearly defined revolutionary pa
rty or conspiratorial group that initially plotted the Revolution, and the conte
nding factions that followed after the Revolution had occurred never gained a fi
rm grip on the nation's imagination or its institutions. The Jacobins came close
st, but their unchallenged period of rule was limited, lasting only a year.
It must be remembered that the French Revolution was the first major social revo
lution, of far greater dimensions and of deeper purpose than the American Revolu
tion that had preceded it. Only the Russian Revolution of November 1917, the one
that ushered in modern Communism, would rival in world importance what occurred
in France between 1789 and 1799. Underlying this extended dramatic development
was the new belief that revolution was the most effective means to achieve polit
ical and, consequently, social change. Not reform from within, but overthrow fro
m without appeared to be the new law of political physics.
The ten years of the French Revolution have since been reviewed in terms of the
old historical concern with change and continuity. To the revolutionary demand f
or a "new secular order" came the conservative response that society can never b
e built anew. According to this interpretation, we are all inescapably part of o
ur own age-- historically determined, hence socially indebted to previous genera
tions. The usual analogy made to support this argument was that of a house: the
present occupant can renovate, alter, add new wings; but if an attempt is made t
o remove the foundation, the whole structure will collapse.
At the basis of the debate over what the French Revolution could and did accompl
ish is to be found the nineteenth-century concern with liberalism and conservati
sm. To sweep away the old and begin the new was the liberal solution; it was pre
dicated upon the assumption that human nature was essentially good, mankind esse
ntially rational, and the purpose of life the "pursuit of earthly happiness." To
respect the past, to work within the social structure that now exists so that i
t is modified, not destroyed, was the conservative solution; it was predicated u
pon the assumption that human nature was weak, mankind essentially selfish, and
the purpose of life the search for social stability and order.
Equally enduring as a historical problem was the position of the French Revoluti
on on the time scale: was the Revolution the end of one era or was it the beginn
ing of another? It seems to have been both: it ended a world based on tradition,
on blood-right, on fixed social status. In principle and by legislation, it mad
e the individual citizen the center of a new social order. The social order shou
ld, therefore, be designed to maximize this freedom, this personal liberty.
Since the Middle Ages, France had been divided into a three-class system. The cl
ergy made up the first class, the nobility made up the second and the peasantry
the third. There was no room for social climbing: Kings gave birth to kings, pau
pers gave birth to paupers. For centuries, the Old Regime held all the power in
France. The nobility and clergy represented only 3 percent of the French populat
ion, but their minds conceived of the policies that governed the entire country
[source: History Channel]. This system was rigid and uncompromising, but no one
paused to consider -- or dared to say -- that it was unfair.
By the 18th century, the Enlightenment was dawning. Philosophers like Voltaire a
nd Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated for equality and reason. They asked why peopl
e put their faith in political and religious leaders who disregarded their needs
. In salons, the wealthy members of Parisian society debated these issues. Their
eyes were on the American colonies, where the Americans had gone to war to clai
m their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Meanwhile, Thomas
Jefferson, who'd described these principles in the Declaration of Independence,
had also declared that if France's queen Marie Antoinette had been shut up in a
convent, France could have avoided the revolution [source: Smithsonian].) While
the French nobles pondered the unfairness of the universe, peasants went hungry
in the streets of Paris and in the outlying provinces.
One of the medieval precedents that persisted in the 18th century was brutal exe
cution. Criminals were burned, drowned, tortured and maimed -- all under the con
senting eyes of the Old Regime. However, the French nobility were entitled to ex
ecution by decapitation. While it seems a particularly grisly way to die, decapi
tation is relatively swift and straightforward, a real gentleman's death. When D
r. Joseph Ignace Guillotin joined France's Constituent Assembly in 1789, he prop
osed that all capital criminals sentenced to death be decapitated [source: Hibbe
rt]. Guillotin advocated for the creation of a decapitation device like the ones
used in England, Germany, Italy and Scotland. The device was prototyped in Germ
any by the secretary of the Academy of Surgeons, who ensured that it was humane.
By 1791, after a trial period during which the device sliced through countless
cadavers, it was appointed France's national death-sentence machine. It was call
ed the guillotine.
The guillotine was just a small part of an enlightened equal rights movement swe
eping through France. While Guillotin advocated for equality in death, the Frenc
h people were fighting for equality in life. And ironically enough, the guilloti
ne would be misappropriated in this struggle. It became a tool of terrorism in t
he French Revolution as the undiscerning blade silenced nobles, radicals and ord
inary citizens.
It's a question for the ages: What could turn a group of loyal subjects into a b
loodthirsty mob? The movement that began as a reformation steadily devolved -- o
r evolved, depending on whom you ask -- into a full-fledged revolution. The Fren
ch Revolution lasted for 10 years, from 1789 to 1799. But trouble began brewing
in France years before dissident political factions went on witch hunts for coun
So did the revolution actually accomplish anything it set out to? Was it just ab
out brotherhood and bread, or were there darker forces at work? The events of th
e French Revolution and the motley crew of characters responsible for them are a
s varied, complicated and painstakingly interwoven as a juicy soap opera plotlin
e. We'll begin at the seat of power, in Versailles.
Once Upon a Time at Versailles: Before the French Revolution
The Palace of Versailles, in all its gilded architectural glory, was completed b
y 1682. Louis XIV had taken it upon himself to relocate the French monarchy 12 m
iles (19 km) from the squalor of Paris.
If Louis XIV's reign had been distinguished by extravagance, Louis XV's was char
acterized by carelessness. Louis XV was a perfect example of the Old Regime's dy
sfunction. He preferred to satisfy his mistresses (notably Madame de Pompadour a
nd Madame du Barry) rather than his kingdom. But he did pull himself away from t
he boudoir long enough to get France into some serious financial scrapes. Under
his reign, France was involved in the War of Polish Succession (1733-38), the Wa
r of Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years' War (1756-63). France lo
st valuable land during these battles, and the Seven Years' War nearly drained t
he treasury.
At Versailles, it was easy to forget about the French people -- and also pretty
convenient for a despised king like Louis XV. The people couldn't be ignored, th
ough. For many years, diseases like the plague had kept the peasant population i
n check. Now, the population was booming and clamored for sustenance [source: Do
When Louis XV died in 1774, the crown went to Louis Auguste, who famously intone
d, "Protect us, Lord, for we are too young to reign." No one had much confidence
in Louis XVI's ability to lead France, much less pull it out of debt. His young
wife, Marie Antoinette, only compounded his troubles. Marie Antoinette had been
married off to Louis to cement the relationship between the Austrian Hapsburgs
and the French Bourbons. They were teenagers when they wed, but already shy Loui
s and tentative Marie Antoinette were under pressure to create the next heir to
the throne. The couple floundered in the bedroom for nearly seven years before p
roducing a child -- and their first was a girl.
Young Marie Antoinette, blissfully oblivious to the fate that awaits her
Imagno/Getty Images
When she wasn't reproducing, Marie Antoinette was spending. Her reputation as Ma
dame Deficit was well-deserved: She amused herself by ordering hundreds of gowns
, trying out elaborate hairstyles and hosting lavish parties at her private retr
eat, Petit Trianon, on Versailles' expansive grounds. Marie Antoinette had a yea
rly wardrobe allowance of $3.6 million, but she easily surpassed that by orderin
g dresses trimmed with silver and gold and dripping with precious jewels -- even
diamonds [source: Thomas]. Her focus was on pleasing the courtiers and her new
family, and she may very well have been ignorant of the conditions in Paris. Aft
er a brief excursion to the city in 1773, she wrote to her mother, "What was rea
lly affecting was the tenderness and earnestness of the poor people, who, in spi
te of the taxes with which they are overwhelmed, were transported with joy at se
eing us" [source: Modern History Sourcebook].
The third class was fully aware of its spendthrift queen, though. Pamphlets circ
ulated with lewd cartoons of the queen at court orgies and with her eccentric st
ylist sweeping up her hair into impossibly high bouffants. It wasn't just her ex
travagance on display -- her lack of reproductive success was, too. Where was th
e male heir, the people wondered. Louis couldn't govern the bedroom; could he go
vern France?
Emasculated by this negative publicity and still smarting from criticisms at cou
rt, Louis exacted military vengeance. He pledged 2,000 million livres to the Ame
rican Revolutionary War; for that massive sum, he could've fed and sheltered 7 m
illion of his own people for a year [source: History Channel]. This mistake woul
dn't be his last, however. And the French would see to it that he was duly punis