The Great Revolution

The Age of Democratic Revolution (Volume II)

by R.R. Palmer
Princeton, 650 pp., $10.00

The French Revolution, mother of monsters—Robespierre, Marat, Fouquet, Napoleon; or a gorgon of iniquities, destructive of religion, of tradition, of the slowly accreted virtues of human society; or a breeder of evil that even in this century has spawned tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin; or was it rather the awkward, blood-stained dawn of all that is best in the modern world? Does the passionate hatred of injustice, of tyranny in all its forms, racial, colonial, religious, stem from these few dramatic years in Paris, when the age-old laws of subordination were irrevocably broken? Is it possible to eradicate all the subtle propaganda from the dashing Scarlet Pimpernels and heroic Sidney Cartons to the subtler denigrations of a Madelin or an Aulard? Can we ever forget the picture of the Terror in which fine-drawn aristocrats meet their death with stoic wit and unbearable dignity? Or readjust our ideas of Robespierre, Danton, Marat? Will Robespierre forever remain in the historic consciousness of the West as the epitome of cold-hearted, passionless, intellectual revolutionaries who love ideas but hate men? Will Marat always seem to be as full of evil as of pus? And Danton lionhearted but wrong-headed? Questions, indeed, that are far from rhetorical, for the French Revolution has been too valuable a parable for the conservative forces in Western Society for them to permit, without a struggle, novel and disinterested judgments.

For the conservatives the importance of the Revolution lies in its failure. In their hands it becomes an appalling demonstration of the folly of intellectuals prepared to use violence to achieve their ideals. The attempt to create a new society, to break with deeply rooted traditions, led merely, so they say, to wanton bloodshed, to corruption, to the triumph of sordid adventurers, and finally to aggressive tyranny. In their hands this becomes the pattern not for one, but for all, revolutions. Atheistical and rational societies, they hope, will get the short shrift that they deserve from historical destiny. But they go further than this. They argue that the Revolution bred in the French a contagious folly and their addiction to the idea and practice of revolution brought about the insecurity and the instability of nineteenth-century Europe as the virus spread east and south. And they particularly castigate the idea, first adumbrated in the French Revolution, that a band of dedicated intellectuals might capture and mould the forces of society to their own purpose. For this they feel has brought the present world, through its success in Russia and China, to the brink of ruin. How much wiser, they feel, would Europe and the world have been to have followed the methods of Britain and the precepts of Edmund Burke: to have put their trust in the slow, organic growth of society, for each nation to have found, cautiously and empirically, those institutions of government and social forms that were best suited to its nature and conformable to its history. True liberalism, they suggest, is to be found in the history…

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