What Shall Libertarians Think of the French Revolution? 1

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.