You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow – The Beatles
About two weeks and 231 years ago, on 14 July 1789, Parisians fearing a military coup that would disrupt progress toward the democratization of the regime being made in the new National Assembly, forced their way into the Bastille in search of gunpowder. Violence rapidly escalated (the commander of the garrison ended up with his head on a pike), and what we know as the French Revolution began that day.
The National Assembly was a more-or-less representative body – the “Third Estate” of the French middle class was no longer denied influence as in the old États Généraux – and the regime, dominated by the noble class, was beginning to worry that the constitution the Assembly had vowed to produce would limit their power.
France was in absolutely terrible shape. There were shortages of food, caused by the combination of the incompetent regime led by the decadent, lazy, and stupid Louis XVI, and various natural disasters (drought and cattle disease), the country was almost bankrupt, and the royal court and other nobles guzzled what was left. Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say that protesters screaming for bread should eat cake, but the attitude expressed in that famous misquotation accurately characterized the attitude of those on top.
There is no doubt that the regime – the whole class system – had to go.
What happened next was the violent dispossession of the rural nobility and those who supported the feudal order, tax collectors, sheriffs, and others. Most of the nobles fled and the Assembly abolished feudalism. This was certainly a painful process, but probably necessary. As the Left is fond of pointing out, those who hold power and property don’t willingly give it up.
In August, the Assembly promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the quintessential expression of Enlightenment political liberalism. If you haven’t read it, you should. No more beautiful expression of the ideals of a secular (but tolerant) civilization has ever been written. That was the high point. From here on, it was downhill all the way.
In September 1791, the Assembly finished writing a constitution. It called for a constitutional monarchy in which the King retained some power. Although it didn’t live up to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it was a step in the right direction. In England, the process of moving from a feudal absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional one worked itself out gradually over several hundred years. France was already on this path and could have continued on it.
But the inexorable dynamics of revolution asserted themselves. The King did his best to sabotage the idea of a true constitutional monarchy, and conspired against the revolution with foreign powers and expatriate nobles. In June 1791 he tried to flee the country, and was caught and returned. Worried that foreign powers were plotting mischief and wanting to export its revolution, the Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia in April 1792. In August, when the Prussian commander threatened to burn Paris if the King were harmed, Parisian radicals (the Commune of Paris) decided to act. They stormed the Palace of the Tuileries where Louis was confined, and arrested him (he would be executed in January 1793). In September 1792, the constitutional monarchy was replaced by the more democratic First Republic, and the National Assembly replaced by a new popularly-elected parliament called the National Convention.
In early June 1793, an extreme left-wing faction of the Jacobin Society led by the lawyer Maximillian Robespierre – the extremists came from the middle classes, as usual – seized control of the Convention with the help of the Paris Commune. On 17 September, the Convention passed the “Law of Suspects,” which provided for the speedy arrest and trial of anyone suspected of opposing the revolution. This marked the start of the Reign of Terror.
Marie Antoinette and some 21 Deputies of the Convention who belonged to a (slightly) more moderate faction than Robespierre’s were guillotined in October. One after another, political figures like feminist Olympe De Gouge and astronomer and former Paris mayor Jean Sylvain Bailly also lost their heads. Until Robespierre himself was decapitated in August 1794, more than 16,000 death sentences were carried out against anyone opposed to Robespierre, nobles, clerics, anti-draft protesters, scientists, philosophers and mathematicians, bankers, alleged spies or enemy sympathizers, and many, many others. Approximately 10,000 more died in prison without being tried. From 11 June 1794 to 26 July, 1376 people were sentenced to death, with no acquittals. In Nantes, some 10,000 more prisoners were drowned when they were placed on barges that were deliberately sunk. The husband of Joséphine de Beauharnais, who would later marry Napoleon, was executed.
The extremists did many things in addition to guillotining. They engaged in a campaign of “dechristianization” in which the Cathedral of Notre Dame was re-dedicated as a Temple of Reason. All places of worship in Paris were closed by the Paris Commune; but Robespierre declared a new religion based on belief in a “supreme being.” Meanwhile, war was ongoing at various times against Britain, Austria, Spain, Italy, and Prussia.
In 1795 yet another constitution came into force. France was now ruled by a five-member Directory along with the Convention. Napoleon continued his conquests in Europe and the Mideast. Finally, in 1799, he returned to France, and on 9 November executed a coup d’état making him in effect an absolute dictator.
So much for the Rights of Man.
Of course history never repeats itself exactly. The revolution that brought the Bolsheviks into power in 1917 was different, although in the long run the results were much bloodier. What is common to both of these revolutions is this:
A bad – repressive, incompetent, larcenous – regime behaves in a way that is intolerable. Ideological leaders obtain popular support in the name of justice and human rights. A multisided conflict, even a civil war, develops between parties and factions, marked by extreme hatred and violence. One faction comes out on top: the one that is prepared to act in the most ruthless and brutal way, often led by a psychopath like Robespierre or Stalin. In the former case, the chaos he nurtured ultimately caught up with him. In the latter, he built an empire that was one of the worst actors in modern history if measured by the amount of misery and premature death it fostered. Either way, the goals of justice and human rights of the initial visionaries were not achieved.
Remember the popular uprisings of the Arab spring? In Egypt, a repressive military dictatorship was overthrown, leading to a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime, which was replaced by another repressive military dictatorship. The initial pro-democracy activists that triggered it were swallowed up without a sound.
Successful social change is almost always gradual, like the development of democracy in the UK or the progress – yes, there is some, actually quite a lot – in race relations in the US since its inception. The American Revolution is an interesting case, but it was actually more like an anticolonial war than a true revolution.
There are many in both the USA and Israel who think that their existing governments are intolerable. There are persuasive arguments that in both cases the regimes are incompetent to deal with the challenges their nations face (although they do not fall to the level of Louis XVI or Czar Nicholas II). And some believe that the best strategy to fix that is a revolutionary one – destroy the system and rebuild it from scratch. Unfortunately, most of those revolutionaries do not even have a clear idea of what they would like to build, not to mention how to build it once the existing government is destroyed.
Even if they do, how do they know that they will be the ones left standing at the end – and not the Stalins or the Maos?