The French Revolution/Histories, Fictions, Final thoughts

France loves a good upheaval. You can trace this back to the First Republic (which is incidentally the subject of the these latest posts), as a centralized authority, based entirely in Paris, attempted to create the French “nation” from a ragtag group of provinces, dialects, religions and social mores. There was revolt after revolt, a tradition carried on through the centuries, and at regular intervals. The Paris Commune is an excellent example, as are the Situationist riots in 1968, as are the latest upheavals in the suburbs of Paris, where the disenfranchised ethnic youth have gotten tired of being shat upon by White Paris. The revolutionary cycle of 1789-1793 still bears interest – we are still inheritors of the insurrection and the formation of a genuine Republic.

In order to understand why the Revolution took place in the first place, one has to understand the slow build-up of pressure, leading to an inexorable clash between the haves and have-nots. The Coming of the French Revolution by Georges Lefebvre analyzes this grinding process in beautiful, succinct prose. M. Lefebvre was himself a Marxist, who had the dubious privilege of having his books burned and banned by the Nazis for being too subversive. In some ways, they were right: This is history written from below, concentrating on mass movements as they dealt with structural changes in their livelihood, structural changes that led to unrest and ultimately open rebellion. This is not a book of big names and big battles; this an account of peasantry growing increasingly frustrated with the harsh indemnities that resulted from France’s pointless war against the English. It is a reminder that the Jacobins and every other revolutionary organizations would be utterly helpless without the participation of the masses.

Twelve Who Ruled takes a different tact, concentrating on the battles of personality between the individual members of the Committee of Public Safety – the organization responsible for most of the carnage during the Reign of Terror. The Committee’s judicial system was a very simple formula: first,the judiciary gave the suspect a trial (which the suspect would lose), give the accused a chance to appeal the sentence (which they’ll also lose), and then the accused would get his/her head chopped off. It was a cold, mechanistic system designed to root out counter-revolutionaries, one that quickly became embedded, and one that ultimately turned on its operators. Robespierre himself tasted Madame Guillotine. Twelve who Ruled neatly traces this trajectory.

In an effort to add colour to all of this, we should examine the novel, The Gods are Thirsty, by the Francophile Tanith Lee. It’s a somewhat fictional account of the life and times of Camille Desmoulins, a pamphleteer and propagandist for the Jacobins during the Revolution. Leave it to fiction to create nuance out of commonly accepted facts. The novel captures the headlong fervour of the revolutionary period, and the descent into despair that followed the establishment of the terror machine (and if you want to draw comparisons between this period, and, say, the Stalinist experience, be my guest). The writing is as rich red wine – it’s intoxicating, heady, with an ominous feeling of the morning after.

Paris is no longer the capital of the world, much less revolutions. The proletariat and the working poor of the city have been condemned to the outer suburbs, leading to isolation and the loss of the sense of community activism. Nevertheless, the explosions of Paris are indelible, even if the city itself has taken a few steps back in recent decades. The French Revolution means a lot of different things to different people, and it may be that this is ultimately a subjective event. But that subjectivity (which this author has ranted about in the past) just fuels the fire of inspiration. It’s an eternal ground-spring of ideas and hope, and it demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt the vitality of mass participation in crucial events.

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