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What the French Revolution Tells Us About Today's Activist Movements

Today's protesters should remember the lessons of revolutions past, but most of all they should remember the importance of debate, discussion and argument.

On a July morning exactly 223 years ago, the Parisian masses exploded. At around 1:30pm local time, a crowd attacked the Bastille, an unimportant but symbolic prison. The crowd feared a vicious assault on the revolutionary parliament, the National Constituent Assembly. Deserters from the French Army soon joined in the attack. Six hours later, the nascent French revolutionaries accepted the surrender of the garrison. The storming of the Bastille was over.

We live in socially explosive times. Wealth disparity and increasingly bankrupt political and economic systems breed discontent not unlike that of 1789 France. The storming of the Bastille is the defining moment of world history. It kicks off an era of revolution that continues today. As such, it provides lessons as the ur revolution. Whether a disgruntled veteran of Zuccotti Park or a Tahrir Square militant wondering what the next move is, the study of revolutions in general and the French Revolution in particularly is highly instructive.

It’s unlikely that the revolutionaries understood the significance of their actions. If they did, there’s a good chance many would have flinched. However, the storming of the Bastille forms a crucial turning point not just for France, but for all of humanity. As the initial spark of the French Revolution, it initiated a period of history that proved collective social action could sweep away the vestiges of humanity’s despotic past. The next three years laid waste to archaic notions of “a place for every man and every man in his place.” The myth of divine royal authority took a bloody good hiding. Humanity now had compelling evidence that world history could be totally redefined by the majority.

Bastille Day is the day most associated with the French Revolution; however, it accomplished little on its own. The prison held seven prisoners who felt more annoyed than liberated. It took another three years to declare a republic. The French monarchs were not tried for treason until 1793. Still, the liberation of the Bastille has become the mythological event, the French version of the shot heard ‘round the world. It showed the French people that they could bloody the nose of royal power. King Louis XVI was no doubt glad that he slept in Versailles rather than Paris.

At the time only the most radical elements even thought of deposing the king. In four years time, the Bourbons would lose their heads to the national razor. The period between the spark and the final severing of historical ties took little more than four years. It’s a case study in social revolution: how they begin, how they play out and how they can ultimately be betrayed.

The dynamism of the French revolutionary period is particularly instructive. Resistance, even violent, armed uprisings are inevitable in conditions of such drastic social inequality. What is not inevitable is a revolution. The world had seen peasant rebellions and communal uprisings in the past. What it had not seen was such a shocking and effective disregard for “the order of things.” In storming the Bastille, but most of all in declaring a republic, the French masses might as well have pointed a flint-lock revolver at the face of Almighty God.

History is to some degree the study of revolutions and revolutions are, like all history, more process than event. A feedback loop forms. On the one hand, unrest rules the masses. On the other, an entrenched elite has to resort to sterner and sterner measures to ensure its continued rule. The restive population increases in militancy, while the elite soon begins to question its own capability to maintain order. The military itself begins to crack. Soon, the question of “revolution or death” becomes decidedly non-theoretical and abstract.