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The French Revolution - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
The French Revolution
Alright. liwy and thewhiteowl asked for it...

Last night, I watched a documentary on the French Revolution on the History Channel. The advertising tag line for a couple of weeks has been, "For a couple of hours, it won't kill you to love the French."

As tag lines go, it wasn't bad. The petty pleasure in French-bashing is more or less over, and we're starting to feel a bit bad about it (until the next burst of American-bashing makes it across the Atlantic, anyway), so we're ripe for something that says, "Hey, cool. France. They're friends, right?" All would have been well except...

If this is what the History Channel thinks is going to make us love anyone, I really wonder what they think of their audience.

Throughout the doc, scholars were on about how the French Revolution was a watershed event in the history of men. Apparently without irony, they gushed about the power of the people while the camera was lovingly showing the guillotine basket with blood flowing through the wicker onto the cobblestones. "This was amazing!" someone enthused. "They got rid of the monarchy, the Catholic Church, and the aristocracy!" Then they showed the massacre of the monarchy, the Catholic officials, and the aristocrats.

Call me crazy, but when it comes to loving the French, this doesn't really inspire me. In fact, the only people in the whole documentary who seemed sympathetic were Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday (who killed Marat). I'd have loved to hear more about Charlotte Corday, personally, and the internal opposition to these lunatics. The whole thing had me wondering if there was some weird grain fungus around Paris that made everyone go completely bloody insane.

The commentators did strike me as being right about something--that this Revolution was the first of a long line of revolutions of its type. But it strikes me as being the start of a kind of truly problematic type of revolution, more based on the idea of a conquering army than a rebelling people.

Like the Stalinists and the Maoists, the French Revolutionaries started with an idea of How Things Should Be. They thought they could change not only the structures of society, but human nature itself. And it was total. You can't have the revolution without killing the king. You have to tear down the structures of society and change the very fabric of the world people know so that they forget the ancien regime. This will inevitably lead to the Terror because this is not the way people are.

Any insistence on instant change that comes dictated from above, no matter how reasonable the philosophy, is going to end in the Terror. Why? Because human nature isn't entirely rational. We're perfectly capable of saying, "Monarchy is a terrible idea. Oh, no! I missed the Queen's speech!" Hell, America's been anti-monarchical for over two hundred years, but we have great and exasperated affection for the British monarchs. We're attached to our religious calendars and the length of our week (the French revolutionaries tried to change this the latter, on the thought that if people couldn't figure out when it was Sunday, they would stop trying to pray). We have a comfort range of behavior, in how we address one another.

People are happy to entertain new ideas and may even ultimately be changed by them... if they are comfortable while they do it. And people are never going to be comfortable while someone is trying to force them into a mold that they don't want to fit or see any need to fit. The response to such an attempt is generally going to be surly resentment, which in turn will make the people at the Revolution (rightly) assume that people are hostile to them. This will seem like treason and might well become treason, so they start stepping on people's necks. And the next thing you know, you get heads in a basket and blood on the cobblestones.

There's no perfect way to achieve change, and even when a lot of the population wants something, there may have to be a fight to get there. And even when a lot of the population isn't sure, a revolution can be held and can be successful. The trick is what happens afterward, and what the philosophy of the Revulutionary government is. I couldn't help but compare Robsepierre and John Adams. Robespierre started out with the notion that capital punishment was wrong, but ultimately came to the conclusion that the revolution and the king couldn't co-exist. Adams, to the end of his life, said that the greatest service he ever did for his country was defending the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre and winning their acquittal. Now, a case can be (and has been) made that it was a huge PR stunt with a foregone conclusion, but the point is that the image they wanted driven home was that even enemies of the revolution would be treated justly. That's a difference in outlook that I think spells the difference between a few tough years and a Reign of Terror.

(Not that we didn't have our own problems, which involved some primal compromises in order to create a working country that later came back to bite us in the ass, but that's a whole different rant. I can't necessarily think of a single thing, philosophically, that would have prevented both a Reign of Terror and the eventual Civil War.)

I guess what I was thinking about mostly was the kind of total annihilation that this documentary pointed out (and lauded!) as a goal of the French Revolution. It's this kind of wholescale destruction of the past that really has been the perpetual bane of liberal revolutions. The best ideas in the world aren't going to go over if you insult and revile the things that people value and love. This will always lead to brutal repression because when a philosophical movement allows no disagreement, it's going to find itself surrounded by people who are a threat to it, because people not already devoted to a cause aren't going to be won over to it by fiat. Getting people to change their minds has to come from the bottom up, and a new government has to give them breathing space to do so.

Anyway, I guess that's the end of today's conserva-rant.
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Comments
shezan From: shezan Date: January 19th, 2005 03:22 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, the Revolution didn't happen at one go. From 1789, with the Abolition of Privileges and the taking of the (largely empty) Bastille, which most people would agree with, up to the Terror in 1793, which invents all the tenets - thoughtcrime, purges, secret police, murdering the reigning family & class enemies - of Leninism and Stalinism, you had a number of separate stages. The question is of course whether 1793 was already contained in 1789. Must all revolutions turn bloody? The American one didn't (too much), but then you got rid of the enemy without having to annihilate them; they just needed to sail home.

Er, how did they portray Robespierre? Here's one man who did not change that much.

I recommend Richard Cobb's books on the Revolution; they have the immene advantage of being based on thousands of private memoirs and archives, and to be written by an Englishman who became completely French while keeping an Oxonian sense of irony. Soboul is a Marxist and Schama is all pyrotechnics and no feeling.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 19th, 2005 03:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Robespierre was portrayed as a brilliant legal mind who became slowly radicalized, and toward the end (that whole goddess of grain thing) was getting a little flakey. The fact that he changed his mind from being anti- death penalty to demanding Louis's head was more or less explained as the contingency of war. The whole thing was framed with the story of his eventual execution. We were reminded several times that he was called "The Incorruptible."

The question is of course whether 1793 was already contained in 1789.

My point is that I think it was, just as 1787 (the Constitution) was contained in 1770 (the Massacre trial). It was the totality of the philosophy that ended up being the problem, the idea that human nature itself could and should be changed.
From: anatomiste Date: January 19th, 2005 03:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Heh, that advertising tag did make me do a double-take. "Love the French... for their guillotines?"

Most everything I remember from learning about the French Revolution back in tenth grade (didn't catch the documentary) would lead me to believe that, while possibly necessary to some degree, it was not exactly chock-full of high points in French history. From my notes:

Robespierre said that the vices of monarchy should be replaced by the virtues of revolution in every aspect of life, so that clothes, addresses, religion, furniture, the calendar, and everything else had to change. [Notes on the new calendar] Every tenth day was a day of celebration. Some of these were Hatred of Tyrants Day, Heroism Day, Frugality Day, Stoicism Day, Filial Piety Day, and Maternal Tenderness Day. On the five days left over, there was a huge celebration. The days were called In Praise of Genius, Labor Day (on which everyone worked), Noble Actions, Awards, and Opinion Day. This calendar was used for 22 years. Robespierre also wanted to replace Catholicism with a sort of deism, called the Cult of the Supreme Being. To celebrate the cult's beginning, there was a celebration in Paris. Statues made of straw, representing tyranny, greed, etc., were set on fire, and behind them a statue of the Supreme Being was to rise majestically from the ground. However, to make this statue light enough to lift, it had to be made of straw too... the wind shifted... down went the Supreme Being, ropes, pulleys, and all.

Poor enlightenment. :(
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 19th, 2005 03:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Um, pretty much the whole, "You'll love the French for this!" as the repeated theory, with the excited history professors going on about the great watershed in history and so on. Over and over.
ivylore From: ivylore Date: January 19th, 2005 04:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I guess what I was thinking about mostly was the kind of total annihilation that this documentary pointed out (and lauded!) as a goal of the French Revolution. It's this kind of wholescale destruction of the past that really has been the perpetual bane of liberal revolutions.

And that's exactly why the world will never see another Revolution.

The Reign of Terror has always struck me as an utterly paranoid period - where the revolution's greatest champions were weeded out and executed (like the leader of the feminist movement, for example), and the Revolution almost fed on itself from within.

Currently, we're covering this from the art angle at school and it's incredibly interesting. Robespierre commissioned a painting by J. L. David to capture the moment of 'Tennis Court Oath'...

http://artyzm.com/world/d/david/tennis.htm

But it was never finished because so many of the people in it were later accused of treason and delivered to the guillotine.

The whole thing had me wondering if there was some weird grain fungus around Paris that made everyone go completely bloody insane.

Hehe. I recognize that as one of the theories surrounding the witch trials.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 19th, 2005 04:49 am (UTC) (Link)
All right! Obscure Salem Village trivia recognized. :) It's also been implicated in the dancing sickness around the turn of the last millennium.
ivylore From: ivylore Date: January 19th, 2005 04:06 am (UTC) (Link)
And rats...

I don't know when the Canadian History channel will carry it.
kelleypen From: kelleypen Date: January 19th, 2005 05:16 am (UTC) (Link)
I saw it too. You know what ticked me off? At the end where they lauded the French Revolution for its courage and how it was a model that changed the world and showed the world how to take democracy. Huh? What about the American revolution? And that was less bloody.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 19th, 2005 05:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you. I was wondering if I was the only one totally flabbergasted by that.
From: isabela113 Date: January 19th, 2005 05:39 am (UTC) (Link)
I saw that documentary as well. I agree, for all it's midly gory shots of that bloody guillotine blade, the general attitude towards violence was rather cavalier. There was some commentary that I felt indicted the revolutionary leaders, but the people for the most part got off without much scrutiny. When they described the massacre of the political prisoners by the people of Paris, there was almost no discussion of the heinousness of the act.

I think that the whole thing would have benefitted from more discussion of the resistance. Surely not everyone was wild about the new calendar, the public executions, and the rampant paranoia. People like Charlotte Corday, mad though she was, provide a fuller picture of what was going on.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 19th, 2005 08:12 am (UTC) (Link)
When they described the massacre of the political prisoners by the people of Paris, there was almost no discussion of the heinousness of the act.

Right. They seemed more concerned about saying, "Oh, look how the other seized on this as an excuse to complain about the Revolution." Given the events, I didn't think that the English papers were all that far off in calling it the attack of beasts. And the fishwives going after Marie Antoinette--they didn't exactly approve of it, but they didn't disapprove, either!
malabud From: malabud Date: January 19th, 2005 06:31 am (UTC) (Link)
Like the Stalinists and the Maoists, the French Revolutionaries started with an idea of How Things Should Be. They thought they could change not only the structures of society, but human nature itself. And it was total. You can't have the revolution without killing the king.

I didn't see the program, but I've been thinking about the whole "killing the king" idea for a while now. And you know what? It's never worked. Like, ever. Think about it:

- The French Revolution (and Louis XVI's death) led to Napoleon. He led the French to great victories, but also to their most crushing defeats and humiliations. And didn't they want to get rid of kings altogether? Instead they got an emperor.

- The assassination of Czar Alexander II (or was it III?) of Russia caused the next czar to clamp down even tighter than before. Czar Alexander had been instituting reforms before his death, against the advice of many in his government. The anarchists and radicals still blamed him for not changing fast enough.

- Abraham Lincoln's assassination led to strict reprisals against the South. Lincoln had talked of mercy and charity towards the South in his inauguration just before his death. John Wilkes Booth doomed his home of the South to years of second-class status in the Union. But he did it to preserve the South!

- The murder of Czar Nicolas II and his family gave way to oppressive Communism. Stalin would later kill twenty million of his own countrymen. (Ironic historical twist here, too: Stalin's older sister was part of the group that assassinated Czar Alexander. She was executed for it, and Stalin cited his sister's execution as the impetus for him joining Lenin's group.) Surely Lenin did not intend to have so many die because of his revolution?

- The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand started World War I, the Great War, in which millions of lives were lost. And the shooter was Serbian who sought independence for his country from Austria. Serbia was much worse off after the war than before. In fact, Serbia effectively ceased to exist.

I am sure there are many more examples. Throughout history, killing the king, president, or leader never gets the result the assassin intended. Often, it gets the complete opposite. In religious history, it's the same thing. The Jewish leaders who called for Jesus's death could not have suspected that His death would leave to a worldwide religion. In my own Church's history, the first prophet was martyred by a group of a hundred or more men. They painted their faces black, stormed the jail in which he was imprisoned, and shot him in the back. Little could they know that the Church he started would be millions strong 150 years later.

Total change and change in human nature cannot happen on a grand scale. It happens personally, individually, one by one. If you try to change the fabric of society all at once, chaos and terror inevitably result. Think of Cambodia in 1975. Pol Pot decided the whole nation needed to start over, year zero as it were. He took children from their parents and attempted to destroy the family. Everyone who had an education was shot. If you wore glasses, you were shot. (Presumably, if you had glasses you could read.) The cities were emptied and everyone was forced into the countryside. The result: fully one-seventh of the country's population died, if not more. Many were executed, but most died from starvation.

Well, I've rambled on far too long here. I've just been thinking about this for a while, and your post coalesced everything down for me. As you say, change cannot be imposed. It must come from the individuals. That's why the American Revolution was so brilliant. They didn't want change. The British were the ones changing things, with the taxes and tariffs and the quartering of soldiers in privates houses, etc. The Founding Fathers wanted the status quo, and when they didn't get that, they declared independence.
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: January 19th, 2005 07:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
Executing Charles I didn't do much good either, when you consider James II. But getting rid of him seemed to work fine, but then, he wasn't killed. Reason why it was called the Glorious Revolution. It wasn't entirely bloodless, though, considering Ireland and Scotland.
danel4d From: danel4d Date: January 19th, 2005 08:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, this is where I have problems with some of the more radical leftists - in Britain, a couple of the literati never got the fact that Communism as practiced in the USSR was kind of a bad thing. I tend to prefer the liberal reform ethos to the radical revolution... and some of the liberal tendency to _know_ they're right, thus disregarding science, democracy or whatever should happen to disagree with them... Both right and left can do very silly things, and the French Revolution was a fine example of something very silly indeed.
akashasheiress From: akashasheiress Date: January 20th, 2005 02:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
''and some of the liberal tendency to _know_ they're right, thus disregarding science, democracy or whatever should happen to disagree with them...''

Why do say that's a liberal tendency? Wouldn't you agree that the left and the right can be equally stupid when it comes to this sort of thing?
beaustylo From: beaustylo Date: January 19th, 2005 12:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
What I thought was really interesting about that program was that it basically said that Louis's financial support for the American Revolution was what really provoked the French Revolution and lost him his head. So maybe we should love the French, or at least Louis XVI for that. There were many other reasons as well but spending the national treasury on Americans instead of the poor starving French was very key to what followed.
hughroe From: hughroe Date: January 19th, 2005 10:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah, but you must remember, France did not aid the fledgling United States out of the goodness of it's heart, but rather as a way to strike at it's traditional enemy England, which had basically shattered many French dreams of Empire in the Seven Year's War, taking Canada, most of the Caribbean and the Indian possesions away from France.
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: January 19th, 2005 07:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
malabud's comment above started me to think. Louis (whatever nuber he was)'s execution was the immediate catalyst for most of the countries in the Revolutionary Wars to actually declare war on France. Considering the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I, I wonder would anyone have thought the English didn't have a lot to say in the matter of killing kings. :)
Of course the execution of the French king wasn't the only reason Britian declared war, but it did seem to be the catalyst.
hughroe From: hughroe Date: January 19th, 2005 10:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
Just one little aside, I am very Glad that John was the Adams whose vision prevaled.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 19th, 2005 10:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, Lord yes. Every fourth (except this last one, because I wasn't feeling well), I go down to Quincy and say "Thank you, John Adams." And I put a stone on Sam's grave to say, "Thanks for the beer."
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