FC130C: A Comparison of the French and Russian Revolutions

FC130C

Introduction

As indicated in the discussion of the French Revolution, there is a logical and long-range pattern that revolutions follow. Therefore, understanding the pattern of past revolutions can help us anticipate events in current revolutions, more specifically the final stages of the process now taking place in Russia and China. One word of caution, however: these are likely trends, not absolute certainties. Outside events (e.g., a major war) and other historical forces unique to Russia and China respectively, could divert events in a very different direction from what is indicated here. Still, this pattern generally holds up and should serve as a guide in how we deal with nations still undergoing this process. That being said, following is a comparison of the French Revolution, which after 82 years finally reached a stable democratic form of government by 1871, and the Russian Revolution, which after 92 years is presumably in its final stage of evolution toward democracy.

Forces leading to revolution

Both countries shared three elements that helped lead to war:
1) Both regimes were burdened by heavy debts incurred from wars. In France’s case, this was the debt incurred by its support of the American Revolution. For Russia, this was the even higher cost in lives and money suffered during the first three years of World War I.
2) In each country, there was a growing gap between economic progress and social and political stagnation. For the French this was the continued prominence and privileges of the noble class as opposed to the more liberal ideas and progressive economic practices of the middle class. For Russia, this largely came from the peasantry, whose economic progress from Peter Stolypin’s agrarian reforms contrasted with the repressive rights and privileges of the nobles. In each case new political ideas aggravated these frustrations. In France these were the ideas of Enlightenment philosophes such as Rousseau and Voltaire. In Russia it was Marxism.
3) Both countries had weak leaders who let events get quickly out of control. In France and Russia respectively, these were Louis XVI and Nicholas II.

The early stages of revolution

Both revolutions started out with moderate regimes that kept one or more of the old regimes’ policies to maintain the look of continuity and legitimacy. In France, that government was the National Assembly, which kept the king as a figurehead and honored the royal debt. In Russia, it was the Duma, which kept Russia in World War I. In both cases these policies just worsened the situation, leading to more unrest. Further aggravating both situations was the fact that replacing an old system with a completely different one (whether in politics, business, or sports) typically sees things deteriorate further before they improve. Unfortunately, the high expectations for rapid improvement did not give the new regimes the time they needed to turn things around.

The crisis stage of revolution

Faced with growing unrest at home and military defeats abroad (the French having rashly declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792), the moderate governments in France and Russia saw the rise of more radical factions supported by the urban working classes, which alarmed foreign powers and spurred them to intervene before the respective revolutions got out of control. Such intervention (by the First Coalition in France’s case and Russia’ erstwhile allies in World War I) in the short run just destabilized France and Russia further, which led to more military defeats, more support for the radicals, and so on.

In each case, this was the crisis stage of the revolution, where extreme radicals seized power and imposed harsh dictatorial rule to deal with the current emergency. In France it was the Jacobins, supported by the Sans Culottes, who imposed emergency economic measures, a universal draft, and the reign of terror. Similarly, Russia saw the Bolsheviks, supported by the working class soviets who imposed war communism to deal with the economic crisis and the Red Terror, which they consciously copied from the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

Conservative retrenchment and the dictator stage

In both revolutions, final victory and exhaustion from the crisis stage led to a brief conservative retrenchment to help their respective peoples recover. In France this was the period of the somewhat loose and corrupt Directory (1785-99). In Russia, this was Lenin’s New Economic Policy that allowed a degree of free enterprise to return so the economy could recover.

However, the overthrow of the Directory by Napoleon Bonaparte and Stalin’s rise to power after Lenin’s death in 1924 led to ruthless dictators who masked their repressive regimes with the revolutionary ideals they supposedly represented. Although Napoleon was finally defeated and Stalin won World War II and kept power till his death in 1953, both dictators effectively ruined their respective countries with their harsh policies.

Gradual evolution toward stable economy & democracy

Therefore, Russia has taken longer in its evolution toward democracy than France did, because it took another thirty-five years for Russia to finally collapse beneath the weight of the Stalinist system. Despite, this, Russia has continued to follow a path similar to France’s. After Napoleon France would undergo two more revolutions (in 1830 and 1848) and abortive attempts at democracy that would lead to a second dictatorship, this time under Bonaparte’s nephew, Napoleon III. Unlike his uncle, Napoleon III was much less aggressive in his foreign policy, focusing on France’s economic and industrial development. As a result, when Napoleon III fell from power in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, he left behind a strong economy and politically active and savvy middle class that ensured the stability of France’s Third Republic.

Likewise, Russia would see the overthrow of communism in 1991 and the establishment of a republic. However, as with France in 1830 and 1848, Russia’s economy was a shambles and it had virtually no middle class with which to sustain a viable democracy. Since then, Vladimir Putin has taken charge and, much like Napoleon III, has ruled with a firm hand while promoting economic growth. Presumably the middle class emerging from that growth will establish a stable democracy sometime in the future.