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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.

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Conditions in France, however, quickly evolved to eliminate all other options. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen popularized Enlightenment ideas of equality before the law. The French masses became increasingly self-confident, the fear of royal retribution quickly becoming a thing of the past. This even as the remaining powers of Europe threatened French citizens if any harm befell their king.

At a certain point, we must all hang together or we will hang separately.

On this July 14, the American and European financial, political and social elite increasingly resembles the aristocracy of the ancien regime. National economic discourse revolves around how much the poor should pay for the crises of the rich, or precisely how low taxes on these “job creators” should be. International military adventures deplete the national treasury despite widespread opposition. Civil liberties continue to be under attack, no less than they were under the previous Republican administration. The president declares the unilateral right to kill without trial or judicial oversight -- including American citizens. Wealth inequality sits at all-time highs, with disturbingly tragic levels of homelessness, unemployment, hunger and poverty plaguing the population.

And, in its own way, the restive population begins to become more like a Bastille mob. The Occupy movement showed that frustrated young workers don’t need the dominant political parties to take to the streets. Popular rage was fixed squarely on the financial elites, not this or that political party. The system itself came under attack. Though Occupy has become yesterday’s news, few are asking the question: What will come next?

One place where people are asking what's next is Egypt. The Egyptian working class showed incredible bravery, discipline and savvy during the Arab Spring. But it didn’t take a fortuneteller to see where the revolution was headed. Without attacking the real base of power in Egypt (namely the monied interests, international meddlers and the military elites that protect them both) the revolution was doomed to ultimate failure.

The wages of failure in Egypt are a reactionary Islamist puppet government backed by an authoritarian military junta. The question of how to make a revolution is neither abstract nor academic.

The study of revolution, however, provides numerous lessons, not least of which is the one taught us the hard way by the French Communards of the 19th century -- always seize the banks.

Nothing concocted in the radical circles currently reading in this article will be the next big thing. Social unrest has far greater impact when it is genuine, and a genuine radical movement will never come out of the left, so thoroughly isolated by the “successes” of McCarthyism.

Still, leftists of any stripe should not see this as discouraging. If we go back to France of ’89, it seems doubtful that a majority of those storming Paris’ notorious prison were well versed in de Tocqueville and Hume. Rather, these ideas trickled down from disgruntled aristocrats to the nascent capitalists and finally on to urban workers, small shopkeepers and other plebes. The sans-cullottes, urban laborers who formed the French Revolution’s most radical wing, likely didn’t know Hutcheson from a hole in the wall on July 14, 1789. But they were quick studies, with a clear self-interest in reducing the French monarchy to a pile of rubble.

History, the study of its processes and its ideas, is the necessary missing component of any social movement which aspires to remake society and fails. Objective circumstances, such as the necessary but tenuous alliance between the embryonic capitalist class, urban workers, intellectuals and radical aristocrats presented problems that no understanding of history, no matter how deep, could ever resolve.