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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

French Revolution

Having written about the English Revolution in the 17th century and the political differences between England and France in the 21st century (2017), I feel obliged to delve into the French Revolution, which I regard (along with many other people) as one of the most amazing events in human history. The French Revolution occurred at the crossroads between Western Renaissance and the Modern Age, and it marked the tipping point between Medieval feudalist traditions and newly emerging capitalist ideals where technological and ideological innovations revolutionised the way people thought and lived. Its successful implementation (mutandis mutatis, the massive shed of blood and human price or the unnecessary, albeit utterly spectacular, conquests of Napoleon notwithstanding) in France and beyond had a seismic impact not just on Europe but on the entire world, since the French, like the Americans shortly before them, showed the world that it was possible to conduct their lives in another, more sophisticated, way. In many ways, the French Revolution laid the foundations of our modern world today, since it redefined the role of the modern citizen and revealed a host of new sociopolitical opportunities for the common man.

After the American Revolution (1765-1776), many European powers were in crisis, not only due to the fact that they had just lost a major colony and a huge source of tax revenue in America, but also because their imperial pride had just been given a massive dent. For the first time in history, the American Patriots showed the world that it was possible to stand up to colonial giants and be independent from them in the form of a Republic. This was truly a stirring and powerful statement. Also, the Patriots’ War laid a huge financial burden on the European colonial powers. In the 1780s, the people in France were living in dire conditions, namely food shortages, and this was not helped by the fact that they were heavily taxed by the feudal aristocracy headed by the ignorant and ineffective Louis XVI (and his infamous wife Marie Antoinette). Momentum was building and civil unrest was brewing. France was on the verge of civil war.

The sociopolitical hierarchy of early modern France was very imbalanced, since it consisted of a steep triangle where the privileged few (i.e. the feudal aristocracy and the Christian clerics i.e. the traditional and hereditary rulers from the Medieval era (le ancien régime)) had political advantage over the masses, known as the Third Estate. In matters of tax and land ownership, the Third Estate had to pay several times over that paid by the First and Second Estate (aristocracy + church), as it was a feudal constitution in which the country was regarded as property of the ruling class to whom the masses had to submit. By the the 1780s, however, certain members of the Third Estate, namely the wealthy Middle Class, were emerging as new economic powers, as they had greatly benefitted from the First Industrial Revolution and became the new owners of production. When the feudal aristocracy were increasing their hold over the common people during the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution by increasing taxation, this newly emerging class of wealthy owners felt that the time was right to part ways with the privileged few above. Major figures like Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Maras galvanised force in the urban centres (e.g. Paris) and brought the people, most of whom were workers in factories and plantations, to their side. They eventually succeeded in overthrowing the government and established France as a modern Republic. Many iconic moments followed, namely the Declaration of the Rights of Men, Abolition of Feudalism, Storming of the Bastille, Women’s March on Versailles, all of which are sealed into France’s national memory (le tricolor, la Marseillaise, liberté, fraternité, égalité ou la mort etc). The aftermath of the French Revolution was also huge, since the rise of Napoleon as the ruler of the newly established French Republic gave rise to one of the most spectacular military armies (la grande armée) of all time, as he swept across Europe in hopes of building an empire, and despite its eventual failure (Battle of Borodino, Battle of Waterloo etc), the ideals of the French Revolution were already disseminated throughout the First World and beyond, which also coincided with the spread of capitalism and technology worldwide. Global capitalism was a dead certainty by the beginning of the 19th century, and with it came this new form of society where the common man was no longer ruled or suppressed by an arbitrary and traditional monarchy/oligarchy but was able to work and participate in a sophisticated capitalist society as a modern citizen. Feudalist monarchy was deemed an obsolete concept, and the transition from European feudalism to global capitalism was thereby complete.

One wonders why there was such a subtle yet radical shift in the balance of power in favour of the French people. In Marxist class-based analyses, the capitalist revolution and its ensuing industrial and technological developments played a fundamental role in this, since it created a new class of capitalist owners who were in control of mass production in the big cities. Not only, then, were they the proprietors of daily, common goods, they were also the heads of the common working masses who had moved from the countryside to the city in hopes of seeking employment. The crisis in post-American-Revolution France triggered the populist movement, and under the leadership of the newly emerging capitalist class the people were finally able to execute this revolution and overthrow the ruling aristocracy. It is fascinating, therefore, that contemporary technological advances gave the people so many ideas, to the extent that they accumulated enough financial autonomy and political independence to rid themselves of the ruling upper-class bullies, and the change of tide reconfigured the structure of modern society and created the world that we have today. I have a lot of respect for the French. They truly are one of the most important innovators of our world. La Marseillaise moves me to tears every time I hear it.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité!

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