On the French Revolution and why we keep on fighting the same battles….

Colonne de Juillet – Place de la Bastille – Kamor Flickr

And by the same battles I am referring to the same or similar complaints that the revolutionaries in France had during this time period. The source of most of this diary comes from a site dedicated to the French revolution by George Mason University and my general interest – as well as the main topic of this diary – is the social and economic conditions that lead up to it and what came out of it.

If one reads this history well, one cannot but see how a lot of the arguments that existed then still exist today. Fortunately one thing we have learned over the years is that the use of violence to achieve these ends or prevent them rarely (if ever) results in their intentional purpose. IE they don’t work.

The writing at this site is very easy to understand and follows pretty much the same line as the one presented here on Bonjour la France and elsewhere, though in greater depth.

And what were the sources of contention at this time. For one, poverty and privilege. Resentment not just of the King And Queen but of all nobility. Though pressured into issuing a decree abolishing feudalism, it also presented another form of class distinction. One of property and income. Which did not set well with the commoners either.

For all its momentousness, however, the elimination of privilege did not bring an end to the social conflicts underlying the Revolution. Instead, it marked the beginning of another system of social distinctions, set forth in a new constitution introduced by the National Assembly. The most notable of these was the distinction between “active” citizens, who were granted full rights to vote and hold office, and “passive” citizens, who were subject to the same laws but could not vote or hold office. Membership in one class or the other was determined by one’s income level, gender, race, religion, and profession. With the Le Chapelier Law of 1791, the National Assembly further differentiated workers from property owners and banned worker associations as being harmful to national unity.

The National Assembly seemed unwilling to grant workers full political and social participation in the new society. One reason for this reluctance was the widespread fear of further unrest. Another was the strong belief among spokespersons for the Enlightenment that only those with a propertied stake in society could be trusted to exercise reason, or to think for themselves. Furthermore, many reform-minded revolutionaries argued that economic-based “combinations” formed by workers too closely resembled corporate guilds and would impinge on the freedom of the individual.Social causes of the revolution.

Sound familiar ? The workers were of course incensed by this and retorted that they were not untrustworthy and in fact hard working and honest citizens. Referring to themselves as sans-culottes meaning they wore pants rather and the more effeminate breeches of the upper class. These sentiments were to prove to popular with a number of writes as well, using the term sans-culottes in reference to any of the ideals of the workers at the time.

Moreover, one may wonder whether the views associated with the sans-culottes extended much beyond Paris. All the same, the sans-culotte concept took on increasing political significance, because those in authority saw reflected in it the genuine working man. Thus the use of the sans-culotte in radical rhetoric led contemporaries to believe that rich and poor were in conflict throughout the Revolution. How this perception influenced the course of revolutionary events may be seen in the case of Gracchus Babeuf. Before the Revolution, Babeuf had been an agent for seigneurial lords, but after 1789, he became increasingly attracted to the idea of social and political egalitarianism. By 1795, he was leading a conspiracy, although his goals and plans remained vague. Nevertheless, the political authorities worried about class war; they considered him a dangerous egalitarian revolutionary and arrested him. At his trial, Babeuf delivered an inspiring attack on private property and endorsed a system of property sharing that many see as a forerunner of socialism.

All of this going in in Paris but those in the country side became aware of this as well, stirring the peasants there to take action against the lords and manors. All symbols of the inequality that existed there. But this affinity with the revolutionaries soon turned to resentment among the farmers and small town folk and eventually to armed counterrevolution.

I found the ending to this chapter to be particularly intriguing.

Thus in both towns and countryside, it seemed that the Revolution was not producing the hoped-for results. Instead of bringing unity and a quick, political resolution to the questions of 1789, as intended by its originators, the Revolution was producing further conflicts. What had happened? Had the revolutionaries expected too much? Did the fault lie with the new political elite, because they excluded the lower classes from the optimistic prospects for change? Or did the leaders, despite their commitment to social equality, find it impossible to avoid making private property (and the differences in wealth it necessarily generated) the cornerstone of the new society?

A question that is just as relevant today. For in doing so they merely replace one form of inequality with another. There by focusing the resentment of the common folk on a different group. One that would prove to be equally repressive in the end.

I’m not going to go into the events of the revolution itself for they have been covered in great detail already and in my opinion greatly exaggerated by far too many. The rain of terror that existed under Robespierre and the wars that France entangled itself in were in a large part the result of various attempts of the government(s) to try and satisfy the populace and still maintain vestiges of the old order. There by giving Napoleon Bonaparte the chance to raise to power so as to restore some form of order once Robespierre was gone.

There were positive results from all of this though with France ending slavery in it’s colonies and the establishment of public education and most importantly the the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen which has been incorporated into their constitution and has been the basis for other constitutions as well.

But did the revolution, with all it’s upheaval achieve it’s goals ? I would say no since in the end all that it really achieved was the elimination of the monarchy and feudal system but replacing it with a system based on income inequality. Unfortunately this has been generally the case with other and/or similar revolutions as well.

Among the many documents at this site – there are more than 600 – are the writings of a large number of people at the time. Philosophers and leading officials and writers. One that I found particularly pertinent by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel a German philosophy professor.

Hegel argued that the French Revolution failed because it had not been preceded by a prior Protestant Reformation, as in the German states. Freedom, he insisted, depended on a mental change; it could not be enforced politically.

And I would add that one of the biggest reasons was the insistence on hierarchical system based on some arbitrary socio/economic criteria. The outcome of this is nearly always the same. Where those that become increasingly disenfranchised no longer respect or give legitimacy to the system and the the system collapses.

I found the reading of this history to be very informative and enlightening. Giving me more insight as to how we here and in other countries/cultures got to were we are. I would highly recommend studying the information at George Mason University site. It does give a very in depth view of what was probably one the most important socio political events in history.


2 thoughts on “On the French Revolution and why we keep on fighting the same battles….

  1. cmaukonen

    One of the reoccurring themes I found through all of this is how even after the monarchy was disposed of and the feudal system abolished, that what ever governmental body was trying to write a constitution and make the laws, they would always appease the bourgeoisie and write it so as to give this group more power and/or say in the dealings of the country.

    Bourgeoisie in this case referred to the wealthier people or those who did no manual labor for their income. Bourgeois were also those who lived from their invested income or property, thus “living nobly” and constituting a distinct social category that had its own representation in municipal politics.

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