Saturday, July 14, 2018

In defense of the French Revolution

Celebrating the French revolution 200 years later

The Militant July 28, 1989

The heads of state of the seven most powerful capitalist countries were an unlikely lot to be in Paris celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French revolution or the anniversary of any revolution. There's not a revolutionary bone among them.

But this wasn't really a problem, since the great spectacle in Paris didn't have much to do with what happened in France 200 years ago. And reportedly President George Bush even missed the red-white-and-blue, flag-waving, fire-works-bursting-in-midair grand finale to get a little shut-eye.

If there was any content at all to the summit discussions of the seven leaders while they were in Paris, it was aimed at keeping the Third World debt crisis from provoking revolutionary explosions.

George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, et. al., are the chief representatives of a social system that is in decay - a system whose only perspective for humanity is more wars for profits, massive unemployment, breakdowns, hunger, homelessness, and spoliation of the environment.

The reactionary capitalist class today is light years away from the revolution that overturned centuries of feudal social relations and institutions in France, brought the victory of the newly dominant capitalist class, and ushered in a new era.

Like the English revolution in the previous century the French revolution was genuinely international. Karl Marx explained that they were "revolutions of a European type. They did not represent the victory of a particular class of society over the old political order; they proclaimed the political order of the new European society. The bourgeoisie was victorious in these revolutions, but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of the division of the land over primogeniture, of the rule of the landowner over the domination of the owner by the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois law over medieval privileges."

While 200 years later capitalism's top politicians either danced, drank, or slept their way through what passed as a commemoration of one of the most momentous events in human history, the ideologues for today's capitalist rulers were churning out distortion after distortion about the revolution and what it accomplished.

The headlines from a small sample of articles gives a feel for the direction of this obfuscation: "Did Anything Change?" "The Trouble With Revolution," "A Failed Revolution," and "1789 - A Middle-Class Revolution That Went Wrong."

Among the main themes are that the French revolution did not represent a fundamental social change. Feudal social relations had essentially been cleared away. The revolution was primarily a search for efficient management. Its off-
spring were dictatorship, extremism, and excessive violence.

Many of these notions have been dished out in a book published earlier this year by Harvard professor Simon Schama, Citizen: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. And a good deal of the coverage in the United States of the bicentennial has focused on reviewing and praising this 948-page volume.

The reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, for example, noted, "The French revolution, according to Mr. Schama, was no bourgeois thrust against stodgy despotism or anachronistic aristocracy. The old regime was not old, nor did it act anachronistic, fusty or decrepit. Neither stagnant nor reactionary, the French nobility, at least its most audible and visible members, were more open to new blood, ideas and ventures than they had ever been."

Another common thread is that the revolution started out all right in 1789, but as it became more extreme-that is as the mobilization and organization of the most exploited toilers deepened-it went berserk in a frenzy of terror. This, however, simply expresses the disdain and fear the capitalists and their hangers-on today have of the most revolutionary classes of town and country and their methods.

In France between 1789 and 1794 the toilers dealt with the monarchy, landlordism, and medievalism in France in a more thorough manner than did the capitalists of that day who were the revolution's indian victors.

That is why today from every pulpit, academic rostrum, and editorial page, the supporters of capitalism attempt to either defang the French revolution, pooh-poohing what revolutions can achieve, or use it to show the inevitable evil consequences of all revolutions.

But working people are not going to be deterred by this, and while not copying the methods of 1789-94, we will draw inspiration from the determination of the revolutionary working people of that time.


The Militant July 28, 1989

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