Reflections on the French Revolution
14 July 1789 – A motley band of revolutionaries storm the infamous Bastille prison in Paris, discovering within only a handful of low level prisoners. This event is the beginning of a seminal and bloody chapter in the history of France and the world. The French Revolution overthrows the incompetent King Louis XVI, later executing him and his wife, the hated Queen Marie-Antoinette. Still to come is the relentless blood letting of the Reign of Terror, the glory and defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the long road towards a bourgeois republic. Few events in European history have had such an impact on the course of human affairs or cultural consciousness. Are there lessons to learn for today’s revolutionaries in the Arab world? Or even those of us in the complacent west?
Some believe the move towards modern democracy began in America when the thirteen colonies rose up against their British rulers and became a new, democratic nation called the United States of America. It is well-known that the French monarchy sent troops to fight alongside the American revolutionaries, little suspecting that those men would come home and begin demanding the same freedoms they had helped the Americans to win. But opposition to France’s ancien régime had been building for years. The middle and lower classes, professionals and merchants along with farmers and the poor, found themselves powerless to govern themselves trapped in an ancient system that kept a tiny minority, aristocrats and the clergy, on top. When the demands of the majority were denied, there was no recourse but violence.
This last year has seen revolutionary moments like 1789 in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and now Syria. The people, led by the middle class majority, revolted against powerful and long-standing regimes that had denied them the right to decide their own future. In Libya Colonel Gadaffi, just like Louis XVI, was killed by his own people. In Egypt Hosni Mubarak has stood trial like so many French aristos, but has avoided the guillotine. In Syria, civil war rages as the dictator, the last scion of an aging, hereditary regime, clings to power. It’s easy to draw parallels. Many of them are worrying but are nonetheless helpful. Western nations, particularly the United States, are worried about the rising power of Islamists in places like Egypt and Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood, long suppressed and considered subversive, now effectively rules Egypt and has made advances elsewhere. Is this unexpected? Is the election of apparent conservatives a reversal of the revolutions?
It is rare for revolutions to produce instantly good results. Often the aims of the revolutionaries aren’t achieved by the revolution. This is true in the French case: the revolution was followed by fighting between political factions, mass executions and foreign invasion. France became an empire in 1804 and after its defeat in the Napoleonic War, its old monarchy was restored until 1848. France would not become a republic permanently until 1871. Similarly in Russia, the ideals of the revolution were lost as Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks imposed their authoritarian version of communism on the country, complete with secret police and death camps. These are grim omens, if taken without wider consideration. No-one is saying Egypt and Libya will descend into anarchy and brutality, though Syria is very close to it now. It is possible that the Arab Spring will follow a more recent pattern – the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The end of communism in the early 1990s brought democracy to more than a dozen countries, most of which have been successful in granting and defending rights. Most former Soviet bloc countries are now in the EU and although they still have major problems to overcome, they are on the right path. Others, like Ukraine and Belarus, have not been so fortunate. Political corruption, dictatorship and government oppression are still present realities. And Russia, which seemed so hopeful in the ’90s, is now under the strict control of Vladimir Putin and has become something of a ‘mafia state’.
However, comparisons are odious. Every country is unique, every political situation too infinitely complex to put in a handy box. Things have definitely improved in countries touched by the Arab Spring. There have been fair elections with high rates of participation. There are political leaders who say they are committed to democracy and have so far acted like it. The story of Egyptian democracy or Tunisian democracy will be acted out over years, not months, though every day is critical in Syria, where the future is very uncertain.
As the French celebrate the beginning of their revolution, we should remember the slogan of those revolutionaries, one which should inform all free nations, particularly those in the west, which rose in defence of liberty, equality and fraternity earliest. In a Europe obsessed with interest rates and bankers, we ought to think about what people were and are willing to die for – freedom from oppression, the right to choose your own government, the power to live your life as you see fit. These are the ideas that stirred men and women to arms in Paris in 1789 and still do today.
Posted by Darragh Roche, Editor on at 2:00 pm.
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