By Dan Clendenin
Jeremy D. Popkin, A New World Begins; the History of the French Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 627pp.
After studying the French Revolution for forty years, at the end of his book Jeremy Popkin says that he still finds it to be an “endlessly complicated event.” That’s because it was nothing less than “an experiment in deliberately demolishing an existing order,” and then trying to rebuild it from scratch. In Popkin’s view, there’s no simple narrative of heroes and villains, even for people like the notorious Robespierre. For him the message and outcome of the French Revolution remain ambiguous, with many complexities and contradictions.
On the one hand, in 1866, France gave the Statue of Liberty to the United States as a powerful symbol of the enduring contributions that their revolutions gave to the entire world. These include political ideals that we easily take for granted today, like the inherent equality of all people, the abolition of hereditary rule, individual rights, the rule of law (not of arbitrary rulers), the abolition of slavery, universal public education, private property, a free market economy, freedom of conscience, and representative government that is rooted in the will of its citizens. Another enduring legacy of the revolution was its Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), which served as a model for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948.
And yet the French Revolution always struggled between political idealism and pragmatic reality, between the means and the ends. Despite its affirmation of human rights, the Reign of Terror executed 40,000 suspected “counter-revolutionaries” in the space of a year. The many revolutionary factions had to thread the needle between populist anarchy, the disintegration of social order, and unilateral rule by an elite minority. How do you balance the religiosity of the overwhelming majority of the population with the radical secularization of society by the government? What began with the execution of the absolute monarch Louis XVI in 1789, followed by ten long years of “revolutionary disorder” that disrupted every aspect of society, ended in 1799 with the dictatorship of a thirty-year-old Napoleon, who crowned himself the “Emperor of France,” and who began a return to arbitrary and authoritarian government under hereditary rulers.
And so the paradox observed by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book The Ancient Regime and the Revolution (1856) — a sort of law of unintended consequences, that improved social conditions lead to increased expectations that are often impossible to meet, and then to increased social frustrations: “The regime that a revolution destroys is almost always better than the one that immediately preceded it, and experience teaches that the most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform.”
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com
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