This article is about the fruits of the French Revolution.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1989. 5 pages.

1789-1989: The Two Hundredth Anniversary of the French Revolution

The French have their national holiday on July 14th. On that day they remember how in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, a Parisian mob stormed the Bastille, captured it, and later helped raze it to the ground. The Bastille had been a royal fortress which served as a political prison under the prerevolutionary government. Its cap­ture and destruction symbolized the beginning of the end of that old and oppressive regime, and July 14th is therefore considered to be the starting date of the Revolution. This summer the French will commemorate the bicentennial of the event, and, because of the world-shaking nature of the French Revolution, we may expect the rest of the world to follow suit.

Immediacy of the Revolution🔗

For many of us the most mem­orable picture of the French Revolu­tion has probably come from Charles Dickens' The Tale of Two Cities. The experiences of the main characters in this novel, such as Dr. Manette, his daughter Lucy and her husband, the relentless and sinister Madame Defarge with her circle of revolutionaries, and various others, give a vivid impression of the course of events. They show the selfishness and cruelty of the French aristocracy under the old regime, the poverty of the people, the inequalities and injustices they suffered, but also the fierceness of their hatred and the terrible nature of their revenge. Un­forgettable are the pictures of the farmers' carts rumbling through the streets of Paris and taking a never-ending stream of victims to their death, the ever-busy guillotine, and the Ter­ror that destroyed indiscriminately, killing not only the Revolution's ene­mies but soon also its friends, so that in truth "the Revolution devoured its own children."

Dickens tells us that throughout the writing of the book the story "possessed" him. That is a typical re­action to the French Revolution. It fascinated a later generation (Dickens wrote in the 1850s) as much as it did contemporaries. And the Revolution is still with us. Two centuries after the event, people continue to study it, debate it, fight about its meaning, and try to come to terms with it.

Why is this so? What explains this sense of immediacy and involvement, and also the passionate and contradic­tory responses to which the Revolution continues to give rise? In other words, what was the French Revolution? What did it stand for, and what did and does it symbolize?

It's Complexity🔗

It is not possible to answer these questions in a few paragraphs. The Revolution was too complex an event, too many-faceted, and it has given rise to too many opposing interpretations and evaluations to allow for a simple definition. All that can be done in this article is to select a few of its many aspects, discuss them, and try to come to some kind of evaluation and con­clusion, incomplete as they may be.

The first thing to notice is the ex­tent to which the Revolution trans­formed France. This is one of the out­standing characteristics of the event: the sheer magnitude of the changes that occurred in practically all aspects of the country's life — in political and economic affairs, in the relationship between church and state, in social and international relations, and also in peo­ple's ideas and ideals. These changes were epoch-making in the literal sense of the word: they introduced, for good or ill, the modern age. And they did so not only for France itself, but soon also for other European countries, and ultimately for the rest of the world. The French Revolution was not just a French, but a European and a world revolution.

Positive Accomplishments🔗

I just said that the revolutionary changes introduced the modern world "for good or ill," and I should add that to quite some extent it was for good. This must be made clear now, before we turn to the Revolution's darker sides. Because Christians have been only too well aware of the negative, even the anti-Christian aspects of the Revolution, there has at times been a tendency among them to deny the justice of the revolutionaries' demands, as well as the Revolution's positive achievements. By way of reac­tion they then adopt the extreme con­servative position, the stance of the counterrevolution.

This is an unfortunate reaction that should be avoided by those who take the Bible's message about social justice seriously. It is therefore good to be reminded that in 1789 the situa­tion in France was crying for reform. Whatever other factors may have helped bring about the Revolution — and I hope to discuss some of them — the soil for it was prepared by the in­efficiencies and decadence of the old regime, the fiscal, social, economic and legal inequalities, the absence of the most elementary civic rights and freedoms, in short, by a multitude of shocking abuses which none of the in­fluential parties — monarchy, nobili­ty or clergy — had been able or will­ing to reform.

The tendency to ignore this was already present among contemporary opponents of the Revolution, and it has continued since. The nineteenth-century Dutch statesman Groen van Prinsterer, founder of the confessional anti-revolutionary movement in the Netherlands and one of the most discerning opponents of the anti-Chris­tian spirit of the Revolution, was aware of this tendency and fought it. He warned those Christians who sought refuge in a reactionary attitude of the dangers of their position. And he expressed amazement at those who wished "to restore the abuses which the Revolution has eliminated" and to "undo ... the improvements which, in spite of the revolutionary spirit, have been the good and praiseworthy results of the social upheavals: freedom of religion, the end of the excessive privileges of nobility and clergy, equality before the law, reform oft criminal law, ... and regular influence by the peoples upon their gov­ernment." Here we have indeed, as the Dutch theologian J. Kamphuis com­mented when quoting these remarks, the line of demarcation between the anti-revolutionary and the counter­revolutionary position.1 It is a line of demarcation that Christians must keep in mind.

Radicalization and the Terror🔗

Because it introduced reforms that were so desperately needed, the French Revolution in its earlier, moderate stages received much sym­pathy throughout Western Europe. The storming of the Bastille was widely applauded. So were the reforms of the first revolutionary year, such as the abolition of feudalism and the passing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which at one blow ended special privilege and pro­claimed the principle of equality for all. Well-known, for oft-quoted, are the lines wherein the contemporary English poet Wordsworth described his reaction to these reforms: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven." To Words­worth, and to many others, it seemed that a new age was arriving; that the events in France would usher in the era of social justice, of liberty, equality and fraternity, for which mankind had so anxiously been waiting.

Yet within a few short years after this promising start all the fond hopes we're dashed and admiration turned in­to revulsion. One reason was the French declaration of war upon several of its neighbors. There was also the in­creasing violence of the Revolution, culminating in 1792, and especially in 1793/94, in the nightmarish Reign of Terror when thousands upon thou­sands were put to death under the guillotine or massacred by other means.

In this same period all kinds of other radical measures were taken. The monarchy was abolished in 1792; in 1793 the king and queen were publicly executed, a "Republic of Virtue" was established and a new religion intro­duced wherein a Parisian opera singer took center-stage as "Goddess of Reason." To make the break with the past and with Christianity as complete as possible, even the calendar was changed and the Christian calendar replaced by a revolutionary one. The Year of the Republic, 1792, became Year 1 of the new calendar; the months received new names; the seven-day week was replaced by a ten-day one; saints' day and Christian holidays were abolished and new holidays introduced in honor of revolutionary heroes and martyrs. Some of these measures aroused so much opposition within France itself that they were soon aban­doned, but in the meantime they had given a horrified world an indication of the fanaticism and the anti-Chris­tian tendencies of the Revolution.

The Importance of Ideas🔗

Why did these things happen? Historians give differing and conflicting explanations. Some are convinced that the radicalization and the Terror, as well as the wars, can be explained simply with reference to the internal and external threats which France and the Revolution faced at this time. Others, however, are of the opinion that they would have occurred regard­less of circumstances; that they were the logical consequences of the revolu­tionary ideology. To understand this viewpoint — which I think is the cor­rect one — it is necessary to turn once again to the problem of the causes of the French Revolution. This will not be of only historical interest. It should also increase our understanding of the phenomenon of revolution in general, and that is a worthwhile goal, for revolutions are a fact of life in the modern age.

As I suggested earlier, among the causes were the inefficiencies of the old regime and the abuses to which the common people were subject. This background was not, however, the on­ly cause. By itself it would not have led to a revolution. For the Revolution to occur, people needed a theory that justified their actions and that, at the same time, provided them with a direction.

That this is a necessary condition becomes evident when we realize that the abuses and inequalities had already existed for many years, even for cen­turies, and although occasionally they had given rise to riots and other distur­bances, they had never led to a sus­tained revolutionary effort aimed at overthrowing the entire system. That they did so now was a result of the fact that, by the end of the eighteenth cen­tury, a justification and guide had, at last, become available. It had been pro­vided by the eighteenth-century Age of Reason or Enlightenment, that is, by people like John Locke in England and Voltaire and Rousseau in France. It was their ideas, at some of which we will presently have a closer look, that inspired and guided the revolution­aries. To return to our earlier example: the abuses prepared the soil but the Enlightenment ideas constituted the seed that germinated in this fertile field and in due time yielded its revolution­ary harvest.

This same type of development is also noticeable in early twentieth-century Russia, when the Bolshevik Revolution occurred. In Russia too the people had suffered abuses for as long as their memory reached, and over the centuries there had been numerous uprisings. But before the actual revolu­tion could happen — the explosion that would, as in France, tear up and demolish the entire system — the Russians also needed a theory. They found it in an ideology that had arisen after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but that was influenced by both: the theory of revolutionary so­cialism or Marxism, adapted by Lenin to the Russian situation. In Russia as in France it was the theory that made possible a real revolution, provided it with its goals, and gave it its intensity. It also, as we will see, played a major role in the radicalization of the Revolu­tion.

Political Theory🔗

One of the Enlightenment ideas that influenced the French revolution­aries was the faith in the perfectibility of man and society. This was an aspect of the doctrine of progress. Enlighten­ment thinkers were convinced that things had been improving in the past, and that they would improve very rapidly in the future if only man made full use of his reason. Anxious to reform society, they did not, as con­servatives tend to do, go to the past for guidance. Neither did they turn to the Bible for inspiration. The Enlighten­ment thinkers were humanists, con­vinced that the only proper guide for human action was human reason. The Bible was not yet openly rejected, at least not generally; it was simply ig­nored as irrelevant.

Since politics are an important means to reform society, the philosophers of the Enlightenment gave a lot of attention to the applica­tion of reason to political theory. They also modernized it, and several of their concepts are still with us. John Locke and others emphasized the idea of man's natural rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property. (The American Revolution was to add man's right to the pursuit of hap­piness, and the French one his right to freedom from oppression.) The philosophers also popularized ideas like the social contract, according to which government was not instituted by God, but was a human invention, the result of a contract between sub­jects and ruler. They further wrote about the people's right of rebellion in case the ruler broke the contract by at­tacking or not defending the people's natural rights. Not in the last place, they stressed the concept of popular sovereignty: the idea that the people are sovereign, rather than the king. And rather than God.

Perfection through Revolution🔗

Following lines of argument that we do not now have the time to trace, 2 disciples of these philosophers reached the conclusion that violent revolution, a tearing down of the entire unjust establishment and its replacement by something altogether new, was the means whereby all evils could be removed and the just society intro­duced. The evils to be eliminated in­cluded not only the social ones, but also those afflicting and disfiguring man as an individual: his ignorance, his selfishness, his tendency toward crime, violence and war. All these, the Enlightenment thinkers believed, were characteristics not inherent in the nature of fallen mankind (they in fact did not believe that man had fallen and they did not consider him sinful); they were simply the result of an evil en­vironment, especially of evil institu­tions. If the environment was im­proved, then in due time an improved humanity could be expected to emerge, and human perfection would in turn lead to social perfection. We still notice the same reasoning, incidentally, with our latter-day revolutionaries, in­cluding those operating in democratic societies. They also imply that by at­tacking and destroying government and other institutions — the so-called Establishment — they can bring about justice, happiness, and peace. The spirit of Enlightenment and French Revolution is still at work, both at home and abroad.

This Enlightenment faith, then, helps explain the radicalization and the fanaticism of the Revolution. If so much is at stake: the perfection of the human race; if the attainment of this glorious goal lies in the frail hands of a small group of revolutionary leaders; and if, once the right opportunity has passed, it may never return, then it is not really surprising that people become desperate when they see, or think they see, opposition and betrayal, and that they want those who are suspected of enmity or disloyalty to be eliminated. The glorious end: the introduction of the ultimate, man­made paradise, then justifies any means, no matter how terrible.

The Totalitarian Character of the Revolution🔗

It is this conviction that con­stitutes one of the reasons why a man like Robespierre, the notorious leader of the fanatics in France during the Terror, enjoyed the people's support for so long. And, to draw one more parallel with the Russian Revolution, it also helps explain Stalin's ability to prolong for so many years his reign of terror with its endless trials, public confessions and purges. True, it is by no means the only reason. In both stances other factors played an impor­tant role, personal, material and ideological ones. I want to emphasize, however, what I feel to be the reli­gious, even the messianic character of the Revolution; of the French one and of all those that have been inspired by it.

The modern revolution has become a means of redemption, a redemption to be brought about by man himself. And in typical, totali­tarian intolerance the Revolution lays claim to every person's absolute sup­port in this endeavor, and to his entire allegiance. Competing loyalties, com­peting religions, heresies, doubts — nothing of this is tolerated. The Revo­lution claims all.

The Corrective🔗

It has become clear from the fore­going that the Revolution does not merely aim at the destruction of earth­ly authority, but that it is, first of all, a manifestation of the old rebellion against God, which began in paradise. This is already indicated by the old revolutionary slogan, Ni Dieu, ni maître — Neither God nor master. And it is not in the last place for this reason that a study of the French Revolution is still relevant for Chris­tians living now, two hundred years after the event.

It is true, the French Revolution has become history. And even more re­cent revolutions such as the Russian, the Chinese, and other left-wing ones, seem to have passed their peak: es­pecially in recent years we notice a decline in revolutionary fervor, a kind of ideological fatigue and a waning of the old Enlightenment faith. It is too early to say whether the trend is a per­manent one, and, if so, what new ideologies will replace the old ones.

But whatever is happening or will happen to the Enlightenment faith, the revolutionary spirit is still abroad. Mankind continues building his Baby­lon, his city of man, which is at the same time the tower that is to reach into heaven. For that reason it is not and it never has been enough to deal with the Revolution's material causes only, necessary as this may be: it re­mains the Christian's duty to promote social justice. But more is needed. The battle is first and foremost a spiritual one: a struggle against deformation, apostasy, and anti-Christian powers. It is because Groen van Prinsterer saw this that he could summarize his anti­revolutionary programme in the phrase: Against the Revolution, the Gospel. It would be good if the bicentennial of the French Revolution inspired Groen's heirs to study anew the profound and farreaching implications of these well-known words. And to apply them in their own, twentieth-century situation.


  1. ^ J. Kamphuis, Evangelisch Isolement (Gron­ingen, 1976), pp. 18ff.
  2. ^ I tried to show the connections in some earlier articles on the Enlightenment. See Clarion, XXVII (1978), nos. 18-22, and Reformed Perspective, I (1982), no. 8.

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