Inventing Revolution: American And French Revolutions
The pull of the past is nowhere more evident than in the case of the American and French Revolutions. Repeatedly they made reference to the heroic deeds and figures of the past. Rome, the Rome of the Republic, was an inspiration to both revolutions. The revolutionaries frequently saw themselves in the guise of Gracchus or Brutus, opposing tyranny and striking a blow for the liberty of the people. Their painters and sculptors portrayed them in Roman costume. In their speeches they quoted the great Roman orators. They wished to revive the public spirit and civic virtue of the Roman Republic, to make citizens out of subjects.
The American and French Revolutions did in truth both begin with conservative intentions, or at least pretensions. The Americans wished, they said, to go back to the working arrangement that they had had with the British state since the seventeenth century, an arrangement upset by the "innovations" of the British Parliament; the French wished to restore power to the old institutions of the parlements and the Estates-General, in the face of a reforming and "modernizing" monarchy. In both cases the revolution rapidly went beyond these conservative premises, to the consternation of many who began the revolution. A new concept of revolution emerged in the course of these revolutions. Tom Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776) saluted the American Revolution as "the birth-day of a new world," went on in The Rights of Man (1791–1792) to see the French and American Revolutions as jointly inaugurating a veritable "age of Revolutions, in which everything may be looked for."
"What were formerly called Revolutions, were little more than a change of persons, or an alteration of local circumstances. They rose and fell like things, of course, and had nothing in their existence or their fate that could influence beyond the spot that produced them. But what we now see in the world, from the Revolutions of America and France, are a renovation of the natural order of things, a system of principles as universal as truth and the existence of man, and combining moral with political happiness and national prosperity." (Paine, 1984 ed., p. 144)
Americans, increasingly dismayed by what many saw as the excesses of the French Revolution (though Thomas Jefferson was not one of them), progressively downplayed the significance of their own revolution, giving it a conservative interpretation that dominated all discussion until recently. In this they paid unconscious homage to the defining character of the French Revolution. Fairly or not, it is the French, not the American, Revolution that has come to be seen as the inventor of the modern concept of revolution.
The French Revolution is the model revolution, the archetype of all revolutions. It defines what revolution is. This is a matter of fact rather than of conceptual analysis—or rather, it is a matter of the concept being shaped by the historical experience. For not only was it during the French Revolution that the concept of revolution unmistakably acquired its modern meaning. The French Revolution also established the classic pattern of revolution. It named the revolutionary experience, and wrote the script of the revolutionary drama. It showed, by its own example as well as its attempt to export its revolution, by its ideas as well as its armies, what it is a society must do to undergo revolution. In this sense the French Revolution was not simply the first great revolution. It can seriously be argued to be the only revolution. All revolutions subsequently were indebted to it. It was from the French that they borrowed their concept; it was the French Revolution whose practice they attempted to imitate—even when they hoped to go beyond it.
With the French Revolution, the hesitations and ambiguities of earlier revolutions were swept aside. Revolution now acquired its distinctively modern meaning. It came to mean, not the turns of a recurrent cycle or the reversion to some earlier condition, but the creation of something radically new: something never before seen in the world, a new system of society, a new civilization, a new world. Moreover it lost—though never entirely—its connotation of something natural, inevitable, and irresistible, something occurring beyond the province of human agency or the possibility of human intervention. Revolution was on the contrary now something quintessentially man-made. It was the action of human will and human reason upon an imperfect and unjust world, to bring into being the good society. This was for the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel the great discovery of the French Revolution: "Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man's existence centres in his head, i.e. in Thought, inspired by which he build up the world of reality.… This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch" (Hegel, 1956 ed., p. 447).
With the example of the French Revolution before them, it became possible for contemporaries to see earlier events as comparable in several important respects, and retrospectively to baptize them as revolutions—often with a polemical purpose in mind. French revolutionaries such as the Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought with the Americans against the British, were quick to refer to "the American Revolution," by analogy with what they saw as the similarly heroic enterprise embarked upon by the French in 1789. The French historian and liberal statesman François Guizot, in his Histoire de la révolution d'Angleterre (1826), was the first to call the English Civil War a revolution in the modern, that is, French, sense, in his case with the cautionary purpose of championing English moderation against French fanaticism. Dutch historians began to discover in the sixteenth-century "revolt of the Netherlands" rather a "Dutch Revolution."
Nor did the comparisons remain solely in the political field. The technological and economic developments transforming England in the early nineteenth century were seen in the 1820s as "the industrial revolution." Later scholars were to speak of "the revolution of the Baroque" and of "the scientific revolution" of the seventeenth century, to refer to the thoroughgoing changes in artistic practice and in scientific thought in that period. They would also speak of "revolutions of humanity," such as the Paleolithic and Neolithic revolutions, or the "urban" or "agricultural" revolutions. Changes of an epoch-making kind routinely came to be called revolutions, as in "the Roman Revolution," which produced the principate out of the republic in the first century of the common era.
In all cases what gave the term its meaning was the analogy with what increasingly came to be designated "the Great French Revolution" of 1789. In whatever sphere it was employed, political, economic, or cultural, revolution meant dramatic, fundamental change, change in a radically new direction, a complete change of "paradigm," to use the term popularized by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. Whether, especially in the political realm, the change had to be accompanied by violence, as in the French case, remained a matter of dispute. "Violence is the midwife of the old society pregnant with the new," said Marx; but Vladimir Lenin, noting this, penciled in the laconic comment, "some births are difficult, others easy." What mattered in the end was not so much violence as the degree and intensity of the change. Revolution was a speeding up of evolution. It was an action by which men changed utterly the way they had traditionally done things. It looked to the future, not to the past.
In this respect, too, the future belonged to the French Revolution, as much as it inspired a renaming and reimagining of past episodes of change. Not the English or the American Revolution but the French Revolution became the inspiration of the revolutionary movement throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Marx called it "the lighthouse of all revolutionary epochs," and he remained indebted to its example in his conception of the future socialist revolution. In the understanding of revolutionaries and revolutionary theorists everywhere, to undergo revolution was to imitate the French. The French Revolution displayed the universal "logic of revolution," the stages or phases through which all revolutions must pass. There would be a "rule of the moderates" followed by "the rise of the radicals," Girondists followed by Jacobins. Terror would gave way to Thermidor, the point at which the revolution ceased its radicalization and tried to achieve a period of stability. As in the French case, this would often lead to a military dictatorship that claimed to safeguard the gains of the revolution. The symbolic dates of the French Revolution marked, for generations to come, the successive phases of the revolutionary process: the "Fourteenth of July" (capture of the Bastille and seizure of power), the "Ninth of Thermidor" (fall of Maxmilien Robespierre and the beginning of the period of stabilization), the "Eighteenth of Brumaire" (Napoleon's coup d'état and the inauguration of the dictatorship). If, as was claimed in the nineteenth century, le nouveau Messie, c'est la Révolution ("revolution is the new Messiah"), it was the French Revolution that had inspired these apocalyptic hopes.
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