What Shall Libertarians Think of the French Revolution?

By Anand Venigalla


The Revolution of 1789, while flawed and imperfect, was ultimately great.

The French Revolution, if anything, was the most momentous event of the 18th century, even grander than the American Revolution. Its design, the causes, the results, and the ideology are so hard to perfectly pin down, so much so that there are many, many different schools of thought on it. There is classic historiography (Aulard, Lefebrves, Mathiez, etc.). There are the liberal historians (Guizot, Tocqueville, Acton, etc.). Then there are the iconoclasts and revisionists (Furet, Schama, Cobban, etc.). And still there are the anti-revolutionaries and reactionaries (Molinari, Burke, Kuehnelt-Leddihn, etc.) who oppose the Revolution with all their heart and soul. Even so, there are great historians of the Revolution like the late Robert R. Palmer (a Rothbard favorite, BTW) and the British historian Jonathan Israel, who defend the French Revolution without succumbing to the typical excesses of some pro-revolutionary historians who go beyond defending it and instead endorse the worst aspects uncritically in an attempt to piss off conservatives and look cool and hip for the sake of looking cool and hip.

On the one hand, many would commend such things as the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which in many ways takes its inspiration from the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. It was also part and parcel of the great Liberal Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its libertarian legacy has survived, even as governments all over the world seek to restrict and inhibit liberty; the effect of this Revolution (including the French Revolution) was very great, and it was such that no one can ever really envision a feudal-monarchist society ever again. However, there is also the infamous Reign of Terror, the rise of the imperialist proto-neocon Napoleon, compulsory education, conscription, the continuation of state centralization that developed under Louis XIV, and state-mandated paper money which is part of the Revolution’s worst and statist legacy, which reared its ugly head in the Bolshevik Revolution and all other communist revolutions, as Furet and many others have argued. Surely, considering the statism of the later period of the Revolution, some will say, the Revolution was a bad thing and thus must be discarded.

My simple view on this can be summed up here: Despite the terrible parts of the Revolution — the Reign of Terror, the Committee of Public Safety and the national-security statism that ensued, the despotism of Robespierre, the war on La Vendeé and similar political opponents, the excessive egalitarianism— in many ways the French Revolution was great and legitimate. As Murray Rothbard once argued, it was on balance a great blessing for liberty and laissez-faire, removing feudalism and paving the way for agricultural freedom and the Industrial Revolution in France. As he said in The Ethics of Liberty:

The French Revolution, directed against the living embodiment of the strong state in Europe, was aimed at destroying both feudalism with its local restrictions, and the restrictions and high taxes imposed by the central government. The true dichotomy was liberty on the one side versus the feudal lords and the absolute monarch on the other.

Also, as the great 19th century historian Alphonse Aulard once stated:

From the social point of view, the Revolution consisted in the suppression of what was called the feudal system, in the emancipation of the individual, in greater division of landed property, the abolition of the privileges of noble birth, the establishment of equality, the simplification of life…. The French Revolution differed from other revolutions in being not merely national, for itaimed at benefiting all humanity.

By and large, the abolition of feudalism, the division of feudal property titles, the liberation of the individual — what’s not to like?

The Causes of and Conditions Before the Revolution

The common narrative goes like this: the people of France were suffering in dire poverty while the monarchy and aristocracy lived in luxury. Many attempts for reform were launched, particularly from classical liberals like Fenelon and Turgot, but since the monarchy refused to reform, a violent revolution was necessary to overthrow the monarchy. This would be the “classic” interpretation (or “Marxist,” since Marxists by and large held and promoted this viewpoint). In effect, the classic view was that the French Revolution was a victory for the bourgeoisie and capitalism over feudalism and the monarchy.

However, there are varying revisionist interpretations that differ from the conventional/classical view, some arguing that France was on the road to progress and that the revolution didn’t really impact much, or that if it did, it was to halt the progress that was occurring already. The French economist Gustave de Molinari, one of the fathers of anarcho-capitalism, held this view in contrast to the more sympathetic views of liberals like Guizot, Tocqueville, Mignet, and to a large degree Lord Acton himself. Subscribers to the revisionist interpretation —Alfred Cobban, Francois Furet, Simon Schama, William Doyle, and Lynn Hunt — typically hold a critical and negative viewpoint of the revolution as predecessor to 20th century totalitarian ideologies and revolutions.

Where do I stand? Were the conditions in France so bad that revolution was justified? Or were conditions improving, as the revisionists argue?

Well, in order to fully understand the conditions in pre-revolutionary France, we must look back not only to the 1770s and 1780s but even before then, earlier into France’s troubled history.

In the days before the French Revolution, France was a country wrecked with war debts, a bloated and unpopular monarchy that tried to reform but never could meaningfully changed, bad weather conditions, and food shortages. The absolutism and extravagence of the kings who ruled — particularly Louis XIV, the fiend and tyrant — impoverished the French people, as most state extravegence does.

Feudalism was on the way out, as many skilled historians have shown before, but even so, as Alexis de Tocqueville colorfully stated:

The feudal system, though stripped of its political attributes, was still the greatest of our civil institutions; but its very curtailment was the source of its unpopularity. It may be said, with perfect truth, that the destruction of a part of that system rendered the remainder a hundred-fold more odious than the whole had ever appeared.

Not only that, but high taxation, particularly that which was administered by the Royal Council, was also a part of the causes of the French Revolution. In order to support their lavish lifestyles and their efforts, the monarchy levied high taxes, the burden of which ended up on the shoulders of the bourgeoise and the peasants. In addition to the taxation, the parlements’ refusal to reform, the famine of the 1780s and even the successful example of the American Revolution in abolishing monarchism and substituting a liberal republic served as encouragements for revolution. The intellectual elite and the Enlightenment thinkers, while not necessarily radical and democratically oriented at the time, paved the way for republican-democratic-liberal thought to influence and motivate the French Revolution. Liberty, rationalism, democracy, prosperity — all these promises were part and parcel of the intellectual fervor that fed French Revolutionary thinking.

The Meeting of the Estates-General and the Tennis-Court Oath

Ultimately discontented with the ancien regime and the feudal-monarchist order that burdened them, both the poor and the rich eventually gathered together in what is known as the “meeting of the Estates-General of 1789,” which was assembled in May 6, 1789 and concluded a month later. The liberal historian Lord Acton, in his Lectures on the French Revolution, notes that despite their differences, they were essentially united.

They demanded liberty, both in the State and in society, and required that oppression should cease, whether exercised in the name of the king or in the name of the aristocracy. In a word, they required equality as well as liberty, and sought deliverance from feudalism and from absolutism at the same time. And equality was the most urgent and prominent claim of the two, because the king, virtually, had given way, but the nobles had not.

If anything, the French example shows how intertwined monarchy and feudalism really over. As Murray Rothbard once convincingly argued, feudalism and monarchy weren’t all that different, but rather, as the monarchy developed and grew, it superimposed itself on the feudal structure, becoming more burdensome and despotic as the decades passed by. While monarchy was surely on the decline, as Acton pointed out, the feudal monster still remained and thus the people needed to be free from that chain of bondage. As he colorfully says, “the ancient owners of the soil remained, with their exclusive position in the State, and a complicated system of honours and exactions which humiliated the middle class and pauperised the lower.”

However, the King prevented further meeting of the Third Estate, forcing them, and their leader Mirabeau, to meet at an indoor tennis court located near the Palace of Versailles, in the Saint-Louis district of Versailles. The Tennis Court Oath, one of the most revolutionary acts ever, was a step away from monarchist reformism and toward democratic republicanism. They pledged not to stop their assemblies until a constitution was written. In many ways, the Tennis Court Oath, before the storming of the Bastille, was one of the marker events of the French Revolution, as it was a step away from monarchy and into the democratic-republican ideology that influenced the Revolution. They referred to themselves as the National Assembly, one of the earliest revolutionary assemblies formed until its continuation by the liberal-constitutional National Constituent Assembly. Along with the liberal forces for revolution, the French right wing was also emboldened by it, intending to defend the monarchy against the revolutionary forces that were rising up to challenge the old and outdated tyranny that had crippled France for so many years.

The Fourteenth of July, 1789

On July 14, 1789, something happened that shook France and, ultimately, the whole world. The Bastille, one of the most egregious symbols of oppression and medieval statism, contained only seven inmates. Even so, the Bastille represented everything that was evil and cruel about the ancién regime.

It began when the partisans of the Third Estate stormed the Hotel des Invalides to gather muskets and ammunition. Approximately 13,6o0 kilograms of gunpowder was located in that place. The Gardes Françaises who defected to the revolutionary cause directed their attack, and they were, as Acton said, “the backbone of the people’s army.” The garrison consisted of 82 invalides, but was later reinforced on July the 7th by 32 grenadiers from the Swiss Salis-Samade Regiment. Eventually, the massive walls that protected the Bastille were broken down after repeated efforts to lower the drawbridge. After the walls were broken down, the soldiers ran in over the bridge, victorious over the invalides and the Swiss soldiers. After getting through, they brought out Governor Bernard-René de Launay and beheaded him in retaliation for crimes that was believed to have been committed by the governor.

At 2:00 that day, Louis XVI, king of France at that time, was woken up by the Duke of Liancourt, who broke into the palace and informed Louis of the recent events and their significance. Louis, shocked, uttered these words: “It is a great revolt,” to which the Duke glibly replied: “No, it is a great Revolution.” Finally, after hearing these shocking words, the king went and surrendered to the revolutionaries, guided by his brothers and the duek and without any royal trappings around him at the moment. Surprisingly, the revolutionaries gave the king a triumphal procession, almost forgetting their previous anger.

As for what libertarians can learn from the storming of the Bastille, we can rejoice in it. For it certainly launched a “National Guard” led by Marquis de Lafayette that Acton describes as the “the army of society distinct from the army of the state.” In many ways, one can argue that the National Guard was formed voluntarily and against a tyrannical government. What could be more libertarian than that? Also, it was formed to defend property rights as well, so that’s another plus for Lafayette’s army. The symbolism of the destruction of the Bastille, a building dedicated to government rule, is also a symbolism of the destruction of all forms of tyranny. That is the chief greatness of this powerful scene. Acton himself colorfully points out how important this point of the Revolution was:

The Bastille not only overshadowed the capital, but it darkened the hearts of men, for it had been notorious for centuries as the instrument and the emblem of tyranny. The captives behind its bars were few and uninteresting; but the wide world knew the horror of its history, the blighted lives, the ruined families, the three thousand dishonoured graves within the precincts, and the common voice called for its destruction as the sign of deliverance. At the elections both nobles and commons demanded that it should be levelled with the ground.

But even as the monumental events took place around Versailles, it is ultimately in Paris that the real change took place. As Acton says, “It is Paris that held the fallen power, the power of governing itself, the Assembly, and France.” It was ultimately where the transition from monarchy to republic occurred.

What happened to the Bastille was but a sideshow of the future radicalism and transformation that was to come to French society during the Revolution.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen: The Birth of The New French Society

August 4th was the second great date of the French Revolution, for it was the death of the old monarchy and the birth of a new liberal order based on freedom, free markets, property rights, democracy and the rights of man. The document that played the major part was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which was in essence the French Revolution’s version of the American Declaration of Independence. While its nationalism and emphasis on Rousseau’s “general will” were contrary to liberal principles, the essential liberal spirit and love of freedom still pervaded that great document.

Inspired by Enlightenment ideals, republican and democratic ideologies, classical liberalism, and a host of other philosophies, the Declaration was the first statement of the revolutionary trinity of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” which, while not stated in the document, were represented in it. While it did not extend to women’s rights or the abolition of slavery, the seeds for both were laid in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, much like the seeds for later reform in America were laid down by the Declaration of Independence.

Lord Acton says of the ideals animating French revolutionary thinking:

France might be transformed after the likeness of England; but the very essence of the English system was liberty founded on inequality. The essence of the French ideal was democracy, that is, as in America, liberty founded on equality. Therefore it was the interest of the democratic or revolutionary party that the next step should be taken after the manner of the last, that compulsion, which had answered so well with the king, should be tried on the nobles, that the methods applied at Paris should be extended to the Provinces, for there the nobles predominated. A well-directed blow struck at that favoured and excepted moment, when the country was ungoverned, might alter for ever, and from its foundation, the entire structure of society. Liberty had been secured; equality was within reach. The political revolution ensured the prompt success of the social revolution. Such an opportunity of suppressing compromise, and sweeping the historical ruin away, had never been known in Europe.

In contrast to the conservative bromide of the American Revolution being a “good” conservative movement and the French being some “evil” and “radical” movement, it is very true that the American and French Revolutions, for all their inconsistencies, were based in Enlightenment libertarian-democratic principles. While equality did sadly override liberty in the later stages of the Revolution, it was not so in the theoretical structure. As Alphonse Aulard notes in his history of the Revolution:

The evident sense of [the first clause in the Declaration] is this: that to natural inequalities it is not fair and equitable that institutions should add artificial inequalities. One man is born more vigorous, more intelligent, than another. Is it just that he should also find, in his cradle as it were sum of money or a landed property, which doubles or trebles through life his force of attack and defence in the struggle for life? Is it just that a man born imbecile or evilly disposed should inherit means which will render his imbecility or his wicked ness still more maleficent? Is it just that there should be, by act of law, men rich by birth and men poor by birth?

By and large, the French Revolution did not necessarily oppose natural inequality or natural aristocracy, but rather, its main hatred was the artificial and statist elitism that pervaded the ancién regime. While I would have nothing against inheritance like much of the Revolution did, I am in opposition to monarchial aristocracy, like the revolutionists were.

So my final analysis of this great document is that despite the anti-liberal aspects, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is on net balance a praiseworthy part of the classical liberal tradition, brilliantly inspired by the American Revolution and connected in the Modern Revolution that brought freedom and progress to the Western World.

The Waves of the Revolution

In dealing with the complexities of historical events, it is natural that division and compartmentalization time periods should occur. The French Revolution is no different, as it brought France through several waves of political systems. Some historians divide the event into two waves: the liberal-constitutional wave and the Jacobin-totalitarian wave. Still, others, like Jonathan Israel and Alphonse Aulard, divide it into even more. For example, British historian Jonathan Israel divides the Revolution into three sub-revolutions, which would be the constitutional revolution along the lines of Montesquieu and moderate Enlightenment values, the democratic-republican revolution of Enlightenment radicalism, and the authoritarian-populist revolution that was led by Robespierre and the Jacobins.

The division of these waves has the advantage of revealing that the French Revolution was not a purely monolithic event and that, like in any revolution, there were varying ideologies and motives. Even the American Revolution, for all its “moderation” compared to the French, was not all uniform with respect to the intentions of the participants. While a majority were likely in favor of decentralism and libertarianism (especially the Jeffersonians), a significant part of the revolution was definitely in favor of a more centralized government, like the Federalists and the Hamiltonians. Likewise, the French Revolution had its liberal factions and egalitarian-authoritarian ones too. While the liberal/libertarian faction arguably prevailed in the long run, the egalitarian-authoritarian influence via the Reign of Terror and the war on La Vendeé still left such a repellent taste (and rightly so, for these two events were despicable abominations that should never have existed) that that aspect is inflated by anti-Revolution historians to the virtual neglect of the positive aspects.

I acknowledge that many good libertarians, based on the later violence and the internal contradictions, have a negative evaluation of the French Revolution and view it as a predecessor to the 20th century’s communist and socialist revolutions. I don’t have any personal resentment against these, as they are principled defenders of freedom and as such are worthy comrades in the fight for liberty and against big government. For certainly the French Revolution had its negative and disgraceful aspects, specifically related to how it continued the centralization of state power that began under Louix XIV. However, the lesson I take from this is that despite the more statist aspects of the Revolution, I believe that the liberal-libertarian legacy, despite much opposition from conservative and socialist/communist forces, has been the most enduring one. Sure, there are not many genuinely free societies that exist, but the ideas of liberty, individualism, private property rights, economic freedom and democracy (which, despite totalitarian perversions later on, was by and large an anti-statist instrument in its original form) faciliated by the Great Liberal Revolution, specifically in the American and French revolutions, still live on in the hearts and minds of man.

As to which wave represented the best of the Revolution, many, including Lord Acton himself, would center it around what Israel would term both the constitutional and democratic-republican revolutions that were before the Jacobin Reign of Terror, and I would concur. For in both these periods the libertarian reforms, which were by and large undone in the Terror before gaining some resurgence later on, were carried out and implemented (along with the tragically statist ones of anti-clericalism and public schooling). It is here that the Revolution acted the most consistently with its libertarian-democratic ideals, which represent its true legacy.

The Reign of Terror

No discussion of the French Revolution is complete without covering the Jacobin Reign of Terror (1793–1794), the monumental event of terrorism and statist totalitarianism that has left such a horrible and disgusting taste in the minds of any decent human being that whenever one thinks of revolution, the Terror comes to mind as being synonymous with revolutionary activity. Thus, when anyone speaks of revolution, one would typically go, “We shouldn’t revolt against the government because if we do, we will end up with a Reign of Terror; the only reason us Americans did not end up with a Reign of Terror is because we didn’t really revolt; we just wanted to preserve our traditions against a revolutionary empire. Thus, revolution is evil.”

Again, like many of the anti-Revolution tenets, there is much valid concern expressed through here. After all, violent revolution has not always ended up well. In fact, the Soviet Union and Maoist China, both produced through violent revolutionary activity, are examples of revolutions failing to bring good results. Even the otherwise commendable American Revolution failed in a way, because the decentralist-libertarian ideals were betrayed, resulting in a government that is larger and more bureaucratic than the British Empire under King George ever was.

Anyways, we must return to our subject: the Terror. Here’s the short story: the egalitarian and anti-poverty measures that the peasants and poor people hoped for from the Revolution were not materialized enough, and thus the Committee of Public Safety was formed in April 1793, headed by militants from the Jacobin Club. Also, since revolution is essentially the displacement of the status quo, however moderate or far-reaching, counterrevolution is likely to occur, and such did happen, particularly from England and other neighboring nations from Europe who were fervently opposed to the Revolution. Edmund Burke himself and other anti-Revolution intellectuals were part of the fire that launched the counterrevolutionary fervor. Thus, the intensive measures of the Reign of Terror were in part reactions to the anti-revolutionary movement that was intended to restore the tyrannical ancién regime and destroy the Revolution.

However, apart from the origins and developing causes, the Terror started with the decline and fall of the liberal Girondins and on July 2, 1793, when Jacques Roux and Jacques Hebert purged many of them from the National Convention and instituted price control and limitation of the electoral franchise to the sans-culottes. They led to the arrest of 29 of these Girondins, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. The assassination of Jean Paul Marat on July the 13th also faciliated further Jacobin dominance and involvement in French revolutionary politics. Georges Danton, the anti-monarchist republican, was also kicked out and in his place came Maximillian Robespierre (1758–1794), who became the Committee of Public Safety’s influential member. Lord Acton rightly notes that “he remains the most hateful character in the forefront of history since Machiavelli reduced to a code the wickedness of public men.” For in Robespierre we see a culmination of both a betrayal of the Revolution and an elevation of its worst traits. In a sense, Robespierre could be called the secularist neoconservative. A disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a demagogue, a terrorist, an heir to the ideas of Machiavelli, a republican of the statist type (in contrast to the liberal republicans like Jefferson, Paine, Condorcet, and the Girondins), an ardent Deist cultist, Robespierre represented the egalitarian and anti-liberal spirit that existed to some degree within the early stages of the Revolution but which came to the forefront due to counterrevolutionary fervor and the philosophical contradiction between liberty and power. Robespierre, in his own terroristic and demagogic ambitions that laid the foundations for future totalitarians such as Stalin, Lenin, and Mao, also represents the temptation of revolutions to betray their own principles.

I thus interpret the Reign of Terror, not so much as proof that the whole French Revolution was evil or that revolution is always evil, but as a warning that even retributive justice, however just, can go out of hand, and that the State uses national-security issues, both real and false, to expand its own power, much like the Committee of Public Safety did. The execution of Louis XVI and other aristocrats could arguably be called just, since criminals and aggressors deserve punishment, but not the price controls, the anti-clerical tyranny, the suppression of La Vendeé, the mass persecution and murder/execution of mere political opponents, and the bloodthristiness of much of the Terror.

While the anti-revolutionary historians are right in that the Terror was a culmination of the Revolution, the liberal pro-Revolution historians are also correct in showing how the Terror was not so much an outgrowth of the Revolution as it was a betrayal of the classical liberal principles of it.

The classical liberal storyteller Mark Twain has an interesting and arguably balanced interpretation of the Reign of Terror, which was stated in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

There were two ‘Reigns of Terror’, if we could but remember and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passions, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred million; but our shudders are all for the “horrors of the… momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief terror that we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror — that unspeakable bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

Certainly the Terror was evil, but it was also an understandable attempt at justice that was a response to a very real danger, not a reaction to bogeymen a la the War on Terror (or to a large degree the World Wars and the Vietnam War). That doesn’t mean that I will go on to call the Terror “great,” as many leftists seem to do. But it means that I will take a balanced view, condemning it as a tyrannical period while at the same time not using it to write off the French revolutionaries, like it did Burke and some anti-Revolution libertarians today.

The Thermidorian Reaction

Predictably, as the Reign of Terror got out of hand, it would be logical to assume that there would be a reaction to this. And there was — it was called the Thermidorian Reaction, which was launched to destroy the Jacobins, the Committee of Public Society, Robespierre and all his followers, most famous of which would be Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. It was centered around Thermidor, the eleventh month in the French Revolutionary calender, originally running from July 19th to August 17th.

Eventually, conspiratorial groups went on to target Robespierre, who was slowly losing his control. Groups would include personal enemies for Robespierre, Dantonists desiring to avenge the blood of Danton (such as Joseph Fouché and Merlin de Thionville), leftists who viewed Robespierre as not radical and atheist enough, and Montagnards who hated the man.

What triggered the reaction, apart from the Montagnard conspiracy, was Robespierre’s essentially fearmongering speech which he condemned all his enemies without naming them. This caused many, even those who weren’t technically associated with the conspiratorial factions, to worry that they could be endangered by this fanatic.

On the 9th of Thermidor, Saint-Just was reading through a report to the Committee when Tallien interrupted him, insulting Robespierre and Saint-Just. The old Robespierrist withered and shrunk until Robespierre came up to his defense. Eventually, the cries transitioned to “Down with the tyrant! Arrest him!” Desparate, Robespierre appealed to the deputies of the Right, but they were unmoved. Eventually, there was an order to arrest Robespierre and his followers.

Conflict erupted between the Paris Commune and the Convention until a gunshot was heard throughout the scene. Robespierre was shot in the mouth, his jaw shattered. Whether or not this was Robespierre’s attempt to kill himself is still debated among historians to this day, but it was unquestioned: Robespierre was shot, and thus a covering was placed around his mouth to hide the wound and keep it from getting any worse. As for Saint-Just, he made no attempt at concealement or suicide, but the rest who did suffered greatly at the hands of the convention.

Eventually, on the 10th of Thermidor, July 28, 1794, Robespierre and 21 of his disciples were executed. It was then that the tyrannical Reign of Terror came to a close and the French Directory was born.

The French Directory (1795–1799): Liberal Reaction

Preceded by the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention, the French Directory was arguably one of the greatest reliefs from a two-year period of bloodshed and horror. While not entirely good, the Directory certainly never went to the horrific lengths that the Committee of Public Safety or the Convention went to.

Led by the liberal Ideologues, the Directory by and large was a return to the liberal wave that preceded the Terror, despite the continuing bellicosity and anti-clericalism that pervaded even the early revolution. Replacing the Constitutions of Years I and II, the Constitution of Year III, which is credited for the end of the Revolution and the beginnings of Napoleon Bonaparte and was ratified on August 22, 1795, instituted a liberal republic in contrast to the democratic Constitution of 1793, with a franchise based on payment of taxes, a bicameral legislature, and a five-man Directory. While it maintained the power to curb free speech as did the Convention, it was a sort of recovery from the Terror for proponents of limited government and classical liberalism

It was certainly a corrupt and inefficient government (not that government inefficiency is a good thing), and it led to the rise of Napoleon, but the French Directory was certainly a recovery period, and could likely be a necessary, if incomplete and still impure, period to follow a chaotic and crisis-driven time.

Eventually, the Directory fell too, when a coup d’état on November 1799 led to Napoleon’s rise to power. I will not say much of Napoleonn himself, other than that he could be called the French neoconservative, embodying a mishmash of both the liberal principles of the Revolution and the militarist, statist principles of his own. Like most of today’s neoconservative leaders, Napoleon sought to “make the world safe for freedom and the Revolution,” much like Woodrow Wilson and his disciples intended to make the world “safe for democracy.” Eventually, after Napoleon’s defeat and exile, the true liberal principles were somewhat codified in the Charter of 1814.

The Lessons of the French Revolution

The French Revolution is so grand in scale and design that not even this article can do it full justice, and neither can the great histories of people like Palmer, Israel, Furet, Cobban, Mathiez, Soboul, Lefebvres, or these other great historians of the Revolution. For surely it is a great and mighty symnol of liberty and the great Liberal Revolution, symbolizing the crushing of the Old Order and the rise of the liberal-democratic world of hope and progress. And yet, like ultimately all revolutions, the temptation to betray one’s own principles is indicative of the fact not that those principles didn’t exist or weren’t the major cause and ideology but that man’s nature is flawed and sinful. Thus, like with any good thing on this earth, revolutions are very likely to be corrupted and flawed. Even the American Revolution, which was by and large more libertarian and less inconsistent than the French, faced that internal contradiction, where it had a milder “terror” against Tories, so much so that the Tories who were expelled from America were numerically larger than the emigres during the French Revolution. What I mean by pointing this out is not to justify either the expulsion of Tories or the atrocities in the French Revolution but rather to show the inconsistency of those who treat the American Revolution as a measly and nice conservative movement while condemning the French as radical and thus evil (for surely, radicalism is always evil, and anything radical is to be shunned, which is really false and untrue).

First, the major lesson is that all revolution must be consistently anti-statist. It must not seek for the abolition of one state for the replacement of another state; rather, all revolution must essentially be consistently anarchist, in consonance with libertarian anarchist principles. The major reason most of these revolutions failed in bringing greater moves toward liberty is because oftentimes these otherwise largely libertarian movements did not always act in consonance with libertarian principles. Also, contrary to the typical libertarian-conservative bromide of revolution always leading to statism, it is true that revolutions by and large, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, have been steps toward liberty in their overthrowing of authoritarian regimes, and that despite the institutions of new states, the great principle of “correlation does not equal causation” applies here. For the fact that revolutions typically result in a new state being instituted does not necessarily mean that the institutions of new states are automatically the result of revolutionary overthrow.

Second, despite the internal contradictions and negative impact it did have, the French Revolution’s ultimate legacy was by and large a step forward, if only partially, for freedom and progress in the Western Civilization. Notwithstanding the setbacks of the Terror, the Napoleonic dictatorship, and the reinstitution of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814–1815, the Revolution brought about the liberalization of the economy, the abolition of feudalism, the furthering of religious freedom and the separation of church and state via the abolition of religious statism and the Old Order, the furthering of individual rights, the abolition of hereditary privileges, the greater allowance of popular representation, and the agricultural liberty that paved the way for the Industrial Revolution in France to take place. Also, it was a sort of beacon for the classical liberal ideals throughout Europe, spreading the ideas of liberalism throughout Europe. Whether or not some of its methods were justified, the Revolution certainly spread liberal ideas throughout Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and even to some extent Germany. One of the great positive effects of the Revolution was the liberation of Jews from closed ghetto life, which was particularly evident in Germany.

Lastly, as much as I have spoken positively of the French Revolution, the opponents of it are not so wrong in their criticisms. For with the Revolution’s positive legacy also came the proliferation of democratic total warfare, an upsurge in communist thought courtesy of Babeuf and many Jacobins, the continued centralization of the state that started with Louis XVI’s absolutist reign as documented by Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the Revolution, the use of state-issued paper money and inflation by the revolutionary governments, the rise of nationalism (which is hinted at in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen), the anti-Christian aspects that are certainly a predecessor to the anti-Christian Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions, the Revolutionary government’s genocide against Vendean royalists and Catholics, the nationalization of Church property under state control, and the institution of public schooling. These are the great and terrible evils that occurred under the French Revolution in consonance with the positives. For the fact that we may or may not sympathize with or approve of the French Revolution does not negate the fact that we must also look at the negative aspects of a certain event, unflinchingly analyzing them and accepting them as part and parcel of the Revolution.

I conclude with this: The French Revolution, as a mixed bag of positive and negative aspects, brought both liberty and tyranny and embodied the everlasting contradiction between liberty and power. As a liberal revolution, it embodied the classical liberal spirit of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, particularly in the 20th century, its tyrannical aspects laid the impact down for totalitarian democracies and communist revolutions, including the popularity of total war and democratic war that was a result of both the French Revolution and the World Wars. But ultimately, the French, and American, Revolutions still have the liberal spirit upon which we libertarians can build and expand upon, learning both the positive and negative lessons while at the same time viewing it in the context of the Modern Liberal Revolution of the 18th century, which was the death of the Old Order and the birth of a freer and more prosperous world.

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  1. In many ways Napoleon III was better than the French revolutionaries. He actually managed a free trade treaty and managed to only get in one major war (which he lost in a hysterically one-sided conflict).

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