What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

What was so revolutionary about the French Revolution? The question might seem impertinent at a time like this, when all the world is congratulating France on the two hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the destruction of feudalism, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. But the bicentennial fuss has little to do with what actually happened two centuries ago.

Historians have long pointed out that the Bastille was almost empty on July 14, 1789. Many of them argue that feudalism had already ceased to exist by the time it was abolished, and few would deny that the rights of man were swallowed up in the Terror only five years after they were first proclaimed. Does a sober view of the Revolution reveal nothing but misplaced violence and hollow proclamations—nothing more than a “myth,” to use a term favored by the late Alfred Cobban, a skeptical English historian who had no use for guillotines and slogans?

One might reply that myths can move mountains. They can acquire a rock-like reality as solid as the Eiffel Tower, which the French built to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the Revolution in 1889. France will spend millions in 1989, erecting buildings, creating centers, producing concrete contemporary expressions of the force that burst loose on the world two hundred years ago. But what was it?

Although the spirit of ‘89 is no easier to fix in words than in mortar and brick, it could be characterized as energy—a will to build a new world from the ruins of the regime that fell apart in the summer of 1789. That energy permeated everything during the French Revolution. It transformed life, not only for the activists trying to channel it in directions of their own choosing but for ordinary persons going about their daily business.

The idea of a fundamental change in the tenor of everyday life may seem easy enough to accept in the abstract, but few of us can really assimilate it. We take the world as it comes and cannot imagine it organized differently, unless we have experienced moments when things fall apart—a death perhaps, or a divorce, or the sudden obliteration of something that seemed immutable, like the roof over our heads or the ground under our feet.

Such shocks often dislodge individual lives, but they rarely traumatize societies. In 1789 the French had to confront the collapse of a whole social order—the world that they defined retrospectively as the Ancien Régime—and to find some new order in the chaos surrounding them. They experienced reality as something that could be destroyed and reconstructed, and they faced seemingly limitless possibilities, both for good and for evil, for raising a utopia and for falling back into tyranny.

To be sure, a few seismic upheavals had convulsed French society in earlier ages—the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, for example, and the religious wars in the sixteenth century. But no one …

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