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.

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.

No one should look high in the sky for modern-day aristocrats to swoop down from the heavens and save us. Nor should anyone underestimate the importance of study and discussion. The lessons of the French Revolution -- that history is a process, that it’s possible to completely remake the world, that ordinary people can do this and that some people simply have a vested interest in the existing order -- are relevant today, perhaps more so than they were in 1789.

We today possess a number of advantages the Bastille rebels lacked. Technology allows for faster transformation of knowledge than ever. Our post-scarcity society offers the promise of plenty for all. Perhaps most importantly, we have an additional 200 years of history to draw from. The 20th century is largely the history of revolutions drowned in blood and the horrible consequences -- war and fascism -- flowing from stillborn revolutions. Learning from these tragedies is truly the only way to honor the struggle.

When the next Occupy or Egypt breaks out, remember the lessons of revolutions past, remember to be patient in the wheels of history, remember to have faith in ordinary people to do extraordinary things, but most of all remember the importance of debate, discussion and argument. No service is done to anyone by glossing over historical lessons or taking political shortcuts in the name of greater numbers. Indeed, the patronizing forced intimacy of “the broadest number of forces under the broadest possible program” might well be a recipe for disaster.

Nicholas Pell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasPell.
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