FC105: Analyzing the French Revolution and Revolutions in General


FC105 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lectures #1780 and #1836.


When analyzing the French revolution and revolutions in general, there are several recurring aspects we should keep in mind.  For one thing, revolutions tend to develop like a fever that starts mildly, but worsens progressively until it reaches "fever pitch" and then breaks.  This cycle may recur several times before matters finally are resolved.  A second theory is that revolutions start out rebelling against an absolutist or arbitrary power and end up setting up another arbitrary power in its place.  The French Revolution certainly fits into both of these patterns.  Finally, the revolutions that succeed do so because the ruling regimes are too weak willed to crush the opposition early before matters get out of hand. That was the case with England in the 1640's, Russia in 1917, and certainly with France in 1789.  However, even a corrupt and decaying government, is if it acts decisively at the start, can usually crush a revolution before it can spread and grow.

The French Revolution

All this makes sense when one considers that a revolution is against an order that people have come to depend on over a long time.  Most people, however dissatisfied, are still reluctant to get rid of that "security blanket" and take their chances with something new and untried.  Therefore, successful revolutions, like fevers, start off small and moderate.  This has its good and bad points.  For one thing, their moderation makes them seem safer to more people and does not invite a severe crackdown by the authorities.  In fact, at this early stage, a revolution may seem more like a reform movement than a revolution. That was largely the case with the very moderate National Assembly that took power in 1789.

However, the very moderation that makes a new regime such as the National Assembly so widely acceptable also creates problems in a couple ways.  First of all, in order to seem legitimate, the government feels it must hang onto many of the very policies and symbols that had triggered the revolution in the first place. In the National Assembly's case, it was keeping the king as a figurehead and honoring his debt.  In the Russian Revolution it was keeping Russia in the First World War.  In both cases, these policies, while making the new governments look more legitimate, also severely undercut their power.  Second, the new regime's moderate policies keep it from taking the drastic measures necessary to solve the problems that led to revolution in the first place, since that would seem to betray the principles of the revolution.  Despite these shortcomings, the new regime leads to high expectations that it will solve the nation's problems.

However, a major problem the new regime faces is that the transition to a new government will cause a good deal more confusion and turmoil before it starts turning things around.  The new regime's failure to solve the nation's problems quickly just adds to the frustration of people who expect a quick fix to the country's problems and do not understand that solutions to such deeply rooted problems take time.  This leads to a vicious cycle that will drive the revolution to a crisis stage.

First of all, more radical elements will exploit the government's problems and weaknesses in order to seize power.  In France those "radicals" were the Girondins, who were still relatively moderate.  They in turn found themselves faced with many of the same problems the original National Assembly had as well as high expectations that they would solve them.  Unfortunately, the more radical the revolution gets, the more alarmed neighboring countries become about the prospects of the revolution spreading.  Also the more turbulent the revolution, the more tempting it might be for outside powers to intervene for their own greedy purposes.  This results in the other countries ganging up against the revolutionary country, as happened to France in 1792.  Naturally, internal anarchy makes the revolutionary regime ill prepared for war and it starts losing.  This creates more internal turmoil, giving a new group of radicals the opportunity to gain support and seize control, which is what the Jacobins did in France.  This feeds back into alarming foreign powers who increase outside pressure on the revolution, thus triggering more confusion and turmoil, and so on.

At some point, this mounting feedback between internal anarchy and military defeat leads to three things.  First of all, the revolution reaches a crisis stage where someone has to take firm control of affairs if the nation and revolution are going to survive.  In the French Revolution, the Jacobins organized France into what was in essence a police state under the "reign of terror".  However these measures, including a universal draft that led to huge armies by the standards of the day, did provide the internal order and productivity necessary to support France's armies.

However, the revolution has also unleashed two other factors that will help save it.  One of these consists of new ideas and symbols, in particular nationalism, which inspired the French people to fight, sometimes with inspired fury, for a nation they now saw as their own, not the king's.  Finally, the revolution freed the French to think in innovative ways, especially in the form of new military tactics introduced by a new generation of officers who had taken the place of the departed nobles.  This combination of nationalism, new military tactics, and police state measures saved France in the crisis of 1793-94.  But the revolution was not finished yet.

As stated above revolutions tend to go from arbitrary power to arbitrary power.  This happened with Cromwell's military dictatorship in the English Revolution and with Lenin's dictatorship in Russia.  It also happened in France.With the passing of the crisis of 1793-94 there was a backlash against the radical Jacobins and their reign of terror.  A more moderate government, the Directory, took over and found many of the old problems (e.g., food shortages and inflation) re-emerging.  It also found a new coalition of foreign enemies ranged against it, even more scared of the revolution after its recent, nearly miraculous comeback.  In such a situation, the solution lay with the army, much as it did with Cromwell's New Model Army in England and Lenin's Red Army in Russia.  Likewise, in France, it was an ambitious young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, who seized power and established a military dictatorship.

On the surface, it may seem that Napoleon killed the French Revolution and that nothing had been gained.  However, one should keep in mind it was powerful revolutionary forces that brought him to the top and gave his army the power to march across and dominate Europe.  Napoleon may have tamed the revolution's more chaotic aspects and stifled its more radical innovations (especially in the way of democracy), but he also consolidated it.  He kept and expanded its administrative and economic reforms.  He codified into law its principles of social and legal equality for all men.  And he shamelessly used the concept of nationalism to inspire his armies in battle.  He also provided the stability necessary for economic growth and the further rise of the middle class.  And it was the combination of repressing parts of the revolution and fostering others that gave Napoleon and France the power to conquer or dominate nearly all Europe by 1807.

Whether or not he meant to, Napoleon also spread the revolutionary ideals of liberalism and nationalism across Europe where they took root and grew into a force largely responsible for his eventual defeat.  Foreign powers armed the masses and invoked the power of their own nationalism to defeat Napoleon by 1815.  Long after Napoleon the ideas of the revolution imbedded in the law codes he had imposed upon Europe continued to take root and grow, first in Europe, and then by way of Europe's colonial empires, across the globe.  Then it was the turn of non-Europeans to use the powerful ideas of the French Revolution to overthrow European rule in much the same way that Europeans had used those same ideas to overthrow Napoleon.  When put into that kind of perspective, one can see what a powerful force the French Revolution has been in modern history.