Thursday, June 4, 2020


Are we Americans witnessing the start of a new revolution such as the one that swept France from 1789 to 1799? This question has appeared in the media recently; and I thought I would weigh in on it. I spent a large chunk of my life studying, teaching, and writing about the great French Revolution. In my younger days, I even published a vast partially annotated two-volume bibliography of virtually everything ever written about the Revolution. 

Massive demonstrations, riots in the streets, violent actions against the authorities and property owners, stealing, looting, and killing. This is what is happening in America today. This is what happened in the French Revolution. 

So, are we at the start of a new French Revolution? The short answer is "No."

The long answer requires a bit more explanation. The FR started out as a political revolution spurred on by a rising economy and rising expectations. From the Middle Ages, European countries developed under a ruling power structure of monarch/church/nobility. Only in England did a representative body develop to challenge this. In the Seventeenth Century, the French king Louis XIV altered the medieval alliance to form absolute monarchy (I am the state). He bought off church and aristocracy with favors as tax exemption and privilege. The weakness of absolute monarchy was that it rested on a strong monarch. Louis XVI, who arrived in 1774, was anything but. He was weak, indecisive, and basically incompetent. Meanwhile France enjoyed a great economic development in this period and a large middle class (bourgeoisie) developed. By the 1780s the king was facing huge financial problems (as borrowed money to help the Americans) that came to a head when he could not acquire enough new loans. His helplessness was on full display. 

Seeing an opening, the nobility forced the king to call an ancient body that traditionally had authority to raise new money, the Estates General (had not met in 175 years). It was composed of three houses: clergy, nobility, and commoners. Since all upper clergy were aristocrats, the nobility would control two of the three houses of the EG. This would give them leverage to force the king into power sharing with them.

What the aristocrats did not see was that the middle classes, schooled in the Enlightenment, had developed so much that they would not be pushed aside by resurging medieval powers. When the EG met at Versailles, in 1789, the third house (commoners) seized power, pushed the nobles aside and drew up a constitution setting up a constitutional monarchy resting largely on the middle classes. Now the revolution turned into a social and economic one. With the help of the lower classes, the middle classes cast aside absolute monarchy, established church, and the nobility. A coalition of middle and lower classes then carried out extensive democratically-oriented reforms primarily in the interest of the middle class but with concessions to the poor. When the old power structure resisted, the new power coalition carried out a reign of terror to enforce the new order. Heads rolled including the former king's. Eventually this volatile course of events led to the rise of a military strong man who promised law and order and stability based on the essential reforms of the revolution. In short, the French Revolution was the uprising of every social class, all for different reasons. It started not from poverty and decline but the opposite. On the whole, the capitalist middle classes prevailed and replaced the archaic medieval ruling structure.

The situation I just described is not what we have in America today. So, what do we have?

The French Revolution went through several distinct periods: 1-overthrow of the Old Regime, 2-moderation, 3-radical, 4-counter-revolutionary backlash and compromise between radicals and moderates. After several years of the fourth phase, Napoleon came to power.

We are now in Phase Four of the FR in America. Let me explain. The Twentieth Century was the time of the great democratic revolution in America. The Great Depression established the idea that the government was responsible for the economic welfare of the people. The Second World War established the supremacy of democracy as a political system. The post-Second World War period saw the great expansion of rights and inclusion of social elements heretofore excluded: African Americans, women, the disabled, and homosexuals. Enormous social, cultural, and economic changes came in as part of this revolution. However, there was a counter-revolutionary backlash led by elements that felt threatened of dispossession of power, mainly the angry white working class man, southern whites, and evangelical Christians. Republicans first organized this group in its Southern Strategy of 1968. They combined the economic attitudes of big business with the cultural attitudes of the whites who felt threatened. This was developed by Ronald Reagan and then, more so, by Donald Trump who promised, and enacted, a rolling back of some of the democratic reforms. Thus two coalitions came to clash after 1968: the impetus to extend the democratic reforms and the movement to limit or reverse the reforms for the protection of big business and the pre-democratic revolution power structure.

This is where American stands today. We are having a dramatic clash between those who want to extend liberty and equality, in more than just political ways, and those who want to roll back democracy. In the U.S. this works around the old and major issue of race (which was scarcely an issue in the FR). The important point about President Trump is that he not only wants to reverse democratic change, he wants to dismantle the institutions of the government that gave us the democratic reforms. Indeed, he is offering the counter-revolutionaries an authoritarian government that would virtually discard the constitution and rule by military force ("domination"). So, the upcoming presidential election will be between those who want an extension of democracy in American society (the revolutionaries) and those who want authoritarianism (the counter-revolutionaries). 

And, so I say America has had its French Revolution. We are now in the last part, the counter-revolutionary or backlash phase. Mass demonstrations and violence were a part of this period in the FR just as now in America. In the FR this eventually settled down into a sort of compromise before Napoleon cast it away and made himself emperor. In the long run, the democratic ideals and reforms of the great French Revolution prevailed in western civilization. In a sense, the world since 1799 has stood in the shadow of the American and French Revolutions.

The primary force in the FR, and in recent America, was the driving impetus to greater liberty and equality across the board. In the FR, the counter-revolutionary backlash ate away at the edges but could not stop the force of human rights in history. The test of today in America is how much the democratic spirit is ingrained in our culture. If it is strong enough, the pro-democracy side will prevail in the upcoming elections. If it is not strong enough, the anti-democratic, authoritarian side will prevail and will strike a severe blow to the historic course of the democratic principles of evolving liberty and equality. The counter-revolutionaries cannot stop history but they can wound and slow it.

So, what we are seeing on TV is not the start of a new French Revolution. What we are witnessing is the fruit of the French Revolution, the ideal that all people everywhere are entitled to the same rights protected by the state. We all deplore and denounce the lawless violence some people are enacting as sidelights of these demonstrations. But, I think we should all take encouragement that thousands of our fellow citizens are willing to get out into the streets all over the country and peacefully demand liberty, equality, and justice even if they are tear gassed and beaten by uniformed people. Today's demonstrators are the children of the great American and French revolutions. They are marching because they have the expectation that they can make a better world. They will prevail because they are on the right side of history.