French revolution a watershed for
BY DOUG JENNESS
The Militant February 24, 1989
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the opening of the French revolution, one of the great watersheds in the history of humanity .
More than 500 titles are churning their way through the French literary mills, and 56 conferences are scheduled this year to commemorate this event.
In other countries, too, articles are beginning to appear. Most include the usual sort of thing - the revolution was too bloody, it led to a new tyranny, and so on.
The one theme, however, of more than routine interest is that revolutions on the scale of the French example are not in the cards today .
Historian Robert Damton, writing in the January 19 New York Review of Books, states, "Today most of us inhabit a world that we take to be not the best but the only world possible. The French Revolution has faded into an almost imperceptible past, its bright light obscured by a distance of two hundred years, so far away that we may barely believe in it. For the Revolution defies belief. It seems incredible that an entire people could rise up and transform the conditions of everyday existence ."
An article in the Dec. 24, 1988, Economist, a British weekly, concludes, "At present 1789 may be regarded in France and the world as a toothless model. ... "
"But," the article then adds, "for how much longer?"
This is an apt query . Cuban President Fidel Castro argued in a speech last October that the objective conditions that gave rise to the French revolution and the October 1917 Russian revolution are "accumulating in Latin America" today. He explained that unequal trade relations between the imperialist and semicolonial countries and the massive debt burden of the latter is laying the basis for "the possibility of major social eruptions because the countries are in such ruins as to be ungovernable. "
This is similar to what happened in France leading up to 1789. France was the most populous country in Europe at the time and one of the most powerful, militarily and economically.
But the old monarchical regime, in which the landed nobility still enjoyed considerable privileges, was creating conditions of unbearable poverty and misery in both the towns and the countryside .
On the eve of the revolution hunger stalked the country and in some regions famine conditions existed. Millions of peasants either had too little land or no land at all.
Tithes to the Catholic church, feudal dues and rents to the landlords, and a wide range of indirect taxes made it impossible for a good many to make enough to live on.
Seasonal employment was widespread for farm laborers, and unemployment was high in the towns. At least one-tenth of the population in rural France depended on begging for survival.
Moreover, the monarchy kept squeezing working people more and more to pay for its wars.
The revolution was no palace coup or military takeover. It was the most massive mobilization of the downtrodden and oppressed that the world had ever seen up to that point. The lives of millions of working people were transformed as they showed they were not only a suffering class, but a force capable of making their own history.
In the most substantial and enduring change of the revolution, the peasants confiscated the lands of the nobility and the church and uprooted feudal landlordism and privilege. This was a genuine revolution in property relations.
Even after the first republic was overturned in a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799, wherever the French army went in Europe it initiated antifeudal reforms. This process was the deepest in Belgium, the German Rhineland, and other areas incorporated for a period of time into the French empire.
In a real sense the revolution in France was not a "French" revolution, but an international whirlwind that inspired the toilers and democratic-minded forces throughout Europe.
Europe would never be the same again as over the next decades democratic revolutionary movements eradicated one feudal and monarchical stronghold after the other.
But not only Europe was transformed. The revolution gave impetus to a slave rebellion in Haiti that swept away slavery and French colonial rule . And throughout Latin America a wave of anticolonial struggles won independence for most of Spain's former colonies.
When Castro compares the worsening conditions in Latin America today (and the rest of the semicolonial countries can be included too) to France in 1789, he is not referring simply to a revolutionary opening in this or that country, but the possibilities of revolution on a broader international scale, including the relatively more developed and populous countries.
The Militant February 24, 1989