The Drama of Revolution

How revolutionary are revolutions? Are they accelerated historical developments? Or are they merely dramatic and shocking moments that somehow capture a moment, and lend themselves to compelling narrative? Having just finished Simon Schama’s monumental Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, I’ve been thinking a lot about how genuinely revolutionary revolutions are, so to speak. Schama himself is sceptical on how much the Revolution changed, and excoriating when it comes to the needlessness of the violence that surrounded the fall of the monarchy in France. While there was a disempowering of the clergy, and some transfer of wealth in that sense, little else really changed in France, in terms of social order and loci of control. While at the time the book was seen as a revisionist work, I am persuaded by his arguments that the required social reforms were underway well in advance of the Revolution, and that the subsequent reversion to traditional power structures further emphasised its vapid core. The General Will, as the wags had it, was ultimately replaced by the General’s Will, as the shadow of Napoleon loomed large over the epilogue.

One thing that is certain to me is that, from a temporal point of view, the events were inevitable. This is not to say that alternate outcomes and developments were in some sense possible; it is to argue that given the context and the history and the facts that led up to the Revolution, no other decisions could have been taken by the protagonists. This is a philosophically determinist view, one that I hold close, but it is important for the following arguments that I will make here. The high level ‘table quiz  answer’ for why the Revolution happened is that the poor of France could no longer afford bread, and therefore something had to give. By 1793, however, Jacques Roux, curé of one of the poorest sections of Paris, castigated the Revolution at the onset of The Terror, calling the commercial aristocracy ‘vampires’, but most tellingly harkening back to pre-revolutionary France where such offences would not have been tolerated: ‘Under the old régime,’ Roux lamented, ‘it would never have been permitted for basic commodities to be sold at three times their value.’

Schama comments that Roux’s candour landed with force, because it revealed something few could publicly acknowledge: that many of those revolutionaries of 1789 ‘…had never much been enamoured of economic liberalism or individualism. Much of their anger had been a reaction against the unpredictable and impersonal operation of the market….and, so far from wanting the state to dismantle all customary protection, wanted a more interventionist policy. They were not only indifferent, then, but actually hostile to much of the modernizing and reformist enterprise embarked on, first by the monarchy and then by successive revolutionary inheritor regimes.’ Schama’s argument then is not only had the Revolution been unsuccessful in terms of redistributing wealth, or restructuring institutions or social order (apart form the church), it had actually been counter-productive, exacerbating inequality. As if this was not bad enough, it had been done so by design – at least in part – by economic mercantilists and conservatives. Rational, yes; enlightened – perhaps not.

The circumstances that had led to the events of 1789 were of course themselves contingent, and the inevitability of revolution, regicide and all the rest was therefore baked in. It could only have happened that way, both for contingent reasons, and for the singularity of our timeline: there is only one history, there is only one set of events. What it tells us about our history is no less interesting for that; though what Schama reveals is perhaps that the drama – the guillotine, the bloodshed, the immolation of convention and tradition, with the attendant incendiary speechmaking and colourful cast of characters – provided excellent fodder for storytellers, history makers and politicians building for themselves their own self-servicing ontologies, their interpretations of how the world really works. Edmund Burke built for himself a legend with his denunciation of the Revolution, launching his own platform on the corpses of Louis XVI and the rest. The Revolution itself – taking it as the key events, from the storming of the bastille, through the executions of the King, Queen, Robespierre, and the rest, into the Napoleonic Wars – was incredibly evocative, and dramatic. Underneath all that drama was a shift that had been happening already, in France and elsewhere, though perhaps it was less well realised at large for its dullness in the popular imagination.

A question gnawed at me as I read through the book, whether Schama would have written the same book today, almost forty years on, as the world has been through a kind of liberal Summer of the 1990s post-Communism, and then an autocratic Winter post-9/11 culminating in the Trump presidency, Brexit, and the steady escalation of Putin’s border wars. The 1980s was a time of fledgling hope in the death throes of the Cold War, and of a cold real politique in the face of nuclear threat. The 1990s saw enormous liberal optimism, before the 2000s saw a reversion to fear and confusion as the post-9/11 Western totalitarianism was followed by market failure in 2008/9. Perhaps following the last decade of Trump, Brexit and Putin we are on the cusp of a new period of hope and optimism, as the cycle comes around again? Can we see history like that, and situate the French revolution in such cyclical terms, in the context of a world lurching for balance as its peoples seek novel models of survival?

Maybe it is true that the violence had been unnecessary, that the reforms needed by France to sustain its population and avoid social collapse were already underway. One can argue the philosophical / existential / deterministic toss on whether it was actually inevitable. But it seems to me that, as an event, or as a series of somehow important events, the French Revolution was firmly established in a continuum, a context, even a Deleuzean flow, that was merely illuminated by the drama, rather than directed by it.

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