Studying how historians study history can be a revealing exercise. The way they view certain events can be indicative of their political commitments, whether those commitments are conscious or unconscious. Last month was the 226 anniversary of Bastille Day, the day on which the French Revolution officially began as hundreds of demonstrators attacked the Bastille, the medieval prison that represented the thousand year hegemony of the Ancien Regime. When historians speak of the French Revolution they speak of the anarchy, mass executions, explosions of violence on the streets, and the Reign of Terror. Clearly, for these historians, this social convulsion was not a world historical revolution, but the first example of modern totalitarianism. However, when they speak of the American Revolution they speak of liberty, equality, independence, and self-governance. For them this event was a world historical revolution that expanded the march of world historical progress.
If one examines both revolutions one discovers that they share many of the same characteristics. However, there are also a number of substantive differences. Differences that reveal much about the events and the historians who study them, for it is in how the revolutions are compared to one another that an academic’s political allegiance is revealed. The American Revolution began with mass, popular resistance to British economic policies that would weaken the colonial economy and extract significant portions of its wealth. But it did not remain a popular mass movement. Instead, the American Revolution was more of an aborted revolution, or perhaps, a counterrevolution. The only substantive change, from the pre-Revolutionary period to the post-Revolutionary period which has any bearing on the consideration of whether or not it was a revolution, is the fact that the legitimate political authority moved from London to the colonies.
After the Seven Years War the British Empire was deeply indebted. Not wanting to tax the British ruling class to pay down the war debt the British Empire initiated a series of taxes on the colonies. These actions precipitated a mass movement dedicated to acquiring political representation in the British system in order to properly represent their interests to the empire. The mass action taken against the British military and civil forces stationed in the colonies made enforcement of the taxes impossible. The formation of political organizations and the organization of meetings, parades, the burning of effigies, the erection of liberty poles, confrontations between crowds of protesters and British soldiers, as well as the destruction of property, and boycotts were the tactics used to frustrate the process.
For nine years resistance would follow a cycle of flaring up and then settling down in the face of British resignation. The colonial ruling class, fearing the dangerous possibilities that open revolution could result in the creation of a system of radical democracy that would undermine men of property and power attempted to both tamp down the most radical demands of the masses and keep pace with the overall zeitgeist. It was only after the Tea Party in Boston harbor that the British military, in finally moving to crack down on the popular resistance, that the colonial ruling class was at last forced to create a parallel power structure in opposition to British rule. The hope being to channel and control popular resistance toward their own, more conservative, aims. Ultimately, the reign of property and an oligarchical republican democracy of the north combined with an oligarchical slaveocracy of the south defeated the attempts to form a radical democracy. The true American Revolution, or perhaps the completion of the American Revolution, as Marx considered it, is the Civil War. Though that too would be partially overthrown by counter-revolutionary forces.
If not a genuine revolution, or even an aborted revolution, then the American Revolution was a counter-revolution. Proponents of this case make note of the fact that at the time the British Empire was in the process of abolishing slavery, limiting the territorial expansion of the colonies according to a framework established in treaties with the indigenous peoples, and taxing the colonial ruling class to pay for the empire’s defense of the British colonies during the Seven Years War. In order to maintain their way of life the slaveocracy that dominated the colonial economy, and would go on to dominate the political system established un the American constitution, recognized the necessity of a war for independence. Ultimately, according to this view, the American Revolution was not a progressive step forward, but a conservative step backward fought in opposition to the emergence of a new economic class, the bourgeoisie, which had begun to dominate the British Empire and the northern colonies. Ironically, from today’s point of view, a constitutional monarchy that was controlled by the bourgeoisie was slightly more progressive than a republican democracy controlled by a set of slave owning oligarchs.
The French Revolution, on the other hand, was a conflict that directly threatened the ruling classes of Europe. Just as the British economy had suffered from the military conflicts of the preceding years the French economy suffered, only worse. Bankrupt from continuous military and economic conflict with a more capitalistically advance Britain the monarchy was forced to reform itself away from feudal traditions toward an emergent capitalism. France at this time had three general classes, or estates, the nobility, the clergy, and the commons, which included practically everyone else. The nobility and the clergy did not pay taxes so the financial burden for the maintenance of the state fell upon the masses.
The King create a committee to modernize the state and its tax system which included making the previously untaxed estates pay their share. In response the ruling class rejected the idea outright and attempted to organize popular resistance among the masses to oppose the reforms. An Estates General, constituted of the three previously mentioned classes, was called to resolve the dispute. When the Third Estate, or the commons, refused to subordinate their interests and declared themselves a National Assembly, even going so far as to offer an alliance between them, the nobility and the clergy, the King closed the hall and refused them entry. They then took an oath that promised they would not disband the National Assembly until the King agreed to the creation of a constitution. The King responded by firing his most important reformist adviser and ordered 20,000 soldiers to Paris.
The storming of the Bastille was conducted in response to this attempted coup aimed at the National Assembly. The Parisian masses, comprised predominantly of working class laborers, socialized with the soldiers and won their support. In one fell swoop feudalism had been abolished, human rights had been established, and a new revolutionary National Guard was formed to back the infant civil authority. A mere three months after the revolution a royalist conspiracy being directed from the palace at Versailles was discovered and 20,000 revolutionary soldiers, led entirely by working class women, marched from Paris to the palace and arrested the king, placing him under popular surveillance back in the city.
When the peasantry heard the news hundreds of thousands of them marched to the homes of their landlords to destroy the deeds establishing their control over countryside. In one fell swoop feudalism had been abolished, human rights had been established, and a new revolutionary National Guard was formed to back the infant civil authority. Over the subsequent two decades time and again the masses would rise in acts of popular resistance against the reactionary forces working to roll back the revolution. For just like the American Revolution the French Revolution began with mass action that originated at the bottom of society. The constitutional monarchy created by the National Assembly in the wake of this popular resistance would only be the first example of this tendency.
Constituted mostly of men from the middle class the political representatives of the National Assembly was a conservative body. It established a constitution that restricted the right to vote with a property qualification and gave the king the power the delay enacting laws for two years. Stunted by conservatism and counter-revolutionary tendencies from within and targeted by the armies of the European ruling classes from without the French Revolution were saved again by popular resistance as the masses led a victorious insurrection against the constitutional monarchy and the invading armies resulting in the creation of the French Republic based on universal male suffrage.
But once again the new government, led primarily by men of property, tried to put the brakes on the revolution. This gave the counter-revolutionary forces internal and external to revolutionary Paris the opportunity to rebound necessitating another popular revolt that elected a new government dominated by the Jacobins and purged of the problematic republicans. It was here that the Committee of Public Safety was created, establishing a military draft, the nationalization of industry, and progressive taxation. The wealthy were forced to borrow money from the government, the Catholic Church had its land confiscated and redistributed to the people, price controls were initiated, speculation in the economy was made an offense punishable by execution, and the Reign of Terror began in order to prevent any further counter-revolutionary action.
What most historians ignore about this period of the revolution is the context provided above. Enemies both foreign and domestic beset the revolutionaries on all sides by its enemies. Rarely do we hear academics weep for the untold masses killed in the thousand-year reign of the French monarchy. Nor do they mention the repeated massacres of thousands of supporters of the revolution in towns conquered by reactionary forces outside Paris, like Lyons, Marseilles, and Toulon. Instead they weep for the executions of criminals who are given the appearance of nobility, justice, and legitimate authority through their control over the exploitative relations of a class society. Or they focus with grim fascination and lurid delight over the internecine use of the terror by the revolutionaries on other revolutionaries, culminating in that now infamous phrase, “every revolution eats its children”. The implication being that we are living in the age of the end of history and this is as good as it gets.
Like the American Revolution the French Revolution was left unfinished, aborted, and overwhelmed by counter-revolutionary forces. However, regardless of the features they share there is a great deal of difference between them, and it is in this sense that one is more progressive than the other. As mentioned briefly earlier the French Revolution was immediately recognized by the ruling classes of Europe as a direct threat to their interests. In a small way the war became a proxy war between France and Britain, with the primary beneficiary ultimately being the colonial ruling class. For it was after this that the French empire collapsed and the British never again had control in the colonies.
Let us also recognize that the American Revolution was economically regressive while the French Revolution was economically progressive. The former wished to sustain a slave mode of production that would soon become obsolete in the face of industrial wage labor production, giving way to the true American Revolution in the Civil War, the conflict exemplified by the contradiction between these two competing economic models. The French Revolution, on the other hand, tore down the remaining feudal anachronisms that were acting as a drag on the French economy as it tried to keep up imperially and economically with the more capitalistic Britain.
The French Revolution was unlike the American in that the popular resistance of the masses was routinely called upon to rescue the revolution from conservative and counter-revolutionary forces. The American Revolution was merely initiated through popular resistance before it was eventually subsumed by the more retrograde of the ruling class interests. And hence the need for the Civil War not even a century later to finish the industrial development of the society. Also, one must not overlook the socially reactionary and racist character that persisted. The French Revolution, however, was heavily influenced by the first slave revolution, which took place in Haiti, and came to support them while the American revolutionaries, such as Thomas Jefferson who was president at the time, opposed them and used their military might in an attempt to aid in Napoleon’s re-conquest of the island.
Despite the failures of the French Revolution its historical impact affected Europe for the next two centuries, advancing the development of capitalism and socialism for the next two centuries. It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that a revolutionary period such as that existed during the French Revolution when it seemed possible that a new world could be created that benefitted the masses. Therefore it becomes necessary to stamp out any memory of those moments when popular resistance constructed and routinely rescued society from the grasp of wealthy plutocrats.
1. A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium:The French Revolution
2. A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals: The Second Wave of Bourgeois Revolutions 1775-1815