Revolution and After: Tragedies and Farce


History always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.
Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte .


   The revolution in France has captivated the imaginations of historians since it exploded the European landscape two hundred years ago. There are few if any events in European history that are regarded as fundamental to the character of the European world as the giddy, frightening, farcical, and overwhelmingly tragic events during and after the French Revolution. It may be that the event has been grossly overestimated. It was, after all, a complete failure; it ended the monarchy in France, but it ended in a different monarchy so repugnant and violent that the sloppy laziness of the eighteenth century monarchy simply palled in relation to the calculated violence of the years of Napolean's emperorship. The ideas of the revolution were not new; in fact, the revolution itself was simply a gathering point, a boiling pot in which ideas of the Enlightenment and the philosophes erupted into a single action. The ideas that originated during the revolution bordered on the farcical. In their efforts to remake society based on individuality and rights, the French reformers insanely went about changing the days of the months and even instituting a church of Reason. In fact, if the cost had not been the loss of thousands of innocent, terrified lives, lives snuffed out at the mere whims of their accusers, the Revolution itself was little more than ludicrous farce played out on the stage of European history. But the Revolution was not an innocent affair; like the First World War, its sheer stupidity and ludicrousness got swallowed up in an ocean of blood and a flood of terror. While no event in European history is more important in the eventual formation of the modern state, the Revolutionaries and Napolean to follow also gave birth to modern mass destruction of human life. In sheer volume of lives lost, they are on a par with the violence of the Third Reich in the twentieth century.

   Matthew Arnold once wrote of the end of the nineteenth as a terrifying place, "caught between two worlds, one dead, the other struggling to be born." The extravagances and the tragedies of Revolutionary and Napoleanic France can perhaps be forgiven in that there was no model for a modern state or modern society. The old monarchy, the old aristocratic system, was effectually obsolete. A new society, formed mainly by the middle class and based on capitalism, was struggling to be born. This new society prized rights and property over hereditary birth, regional over national government, contractual over class relationships. It would take over a century for this new society to settle into new patterns of organization and authority; the Revolutionaries, however, wanted to do it overnight.

   But the Revolution was a complete and thorough failure, a fact that historians tend to pass over when discussing its importance. More important to the formation of the modern state was the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and the development of Parliamentary democracy in that country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These centuries saw the development of all the patterns of governmental authority that would underlie the modern state; their first actualization in a non-monarchical country, however, was in America. By the time of the French Revolution, a group of dedicated, classically educated thinkers, lawyers, and plain politicians in America had forged the first working, non-monarchical European state. This new state was based almost entirely on the principles that guided the Revolutionaries in France: democracy, checks and balances, non-religious state authority, capitalism, rights, and individuality. It, along with England's parliamentary government, would become the real model for the new European state.

   The Revolution, though, is a ripping good story. It also affected the largest population in Europe and so shook Europeans to the core of their being. Over 20% of Europe's population lived in France, and every European agreed that France was the central power of Europe. For such a large and powerful country to fall precipitously into such dark and violent change terrified everyone in Europe; the universal condemnation of the Revolution led to a flurry of introspection. The pain of the process, however, this long, difficult process of remaking society into a non-monarchical, industry-based society, would continue well into the 1940's and beyond.

   The story begins in the one world, "dead," the world of the ancien regime , in its last, blissfully unaware days. It unfolds into magnificent and visionary action: the brave defiance of the monarch, the visionary power of the middle class representatives in the Estates General, and the great documents on rights and autonomy. It quickly, however, descends into both tragedy and farce: the radical revolution that sought to remake society from the ground up, no matter what the cost in human life. It ends with Napolean, brilliant, visionary, cruel, and ultimately a figure of farce, if only he hadn't flooded Europe with the blood of so many people. It was the birth of the nineteenth century, the unambiguous start of a modern era, in which the French, alternatively majestic and vile at the same time, stepped away from the past without looking back.

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The Crisis of the French Monarchy


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-2-97