The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny – Ian Davidson
Rather like the First and Second World Wars you would think that the last thing the world needs is another book raking over the coals of the French Revolution. But this book gives a refreshingly clear and thought provoking account of the seismic events that gripped la belle France without the usual Dantonist or Robespierrist guillotines being ground. Some of the themes that Davidson focuses on are remarkably relevant today.
Although the popular conception of the revolution centres around the storming of the Bastille, the execution of Louis XVI and the Terror or, as Robespierre styled it, the despotism of liberty, Davidson is at pains to show that the genesis of the revolution was from the bourgeoisie, frustrated by the glass ceiling imposed by the aristocrats and clergy and endorsed by the monarchy that prevented their advancement. Their aim was to build a better state and one of their first acts was to draw up a Declaration of the Rights of Man upon which many that are in existence today are based. They also introduced a form of elected local administration in France which is still used today. The revolutionaries were respecters of and felt bound by the law.
Davidson points out that the period was a time of revolutionary ferment across many parts of Europe but mostly the upstarts were successfully resisted by the monarchs and aristocrats of those counties. In France, however, Louis just caved in. And this caused the Revolutionaries no end of problems – what to do with him but, more importantly, what to replace him with. They never really solved this problem leaving a power vacuum that allowed factionalism to run rife and the unscrupulous to seize control.
Economics played a major role in the fortunes of the revolution. The assignats, bonds issued by the National Assembly from 1789 and underwritten by the sale of the newly nationalised properties of the church, were a piece of financial engineering that the Bulls of Wall Street would have been proud of and caused, inevitably, rampant inflation.. This in turn meant that the living conditions of the lower classes – variably in my edition described as sans culottes, sans-culottes and sansculotes – some editorial consistency on so vital a term would not have gone amiss – were unbearable. Attempts to control prices of basic foodstuffs failed miserably.
The lumpen prole was there for the unscrupulous politicians to manipulate – resonances of the EU Referendum if there ever were ones – and the pressure from the bottom together with the factionalism that the power vacuum had created meant that the enlightened principles of the early part of the revolution went out of the window. Instead, violence, waves of unspeakable barbarity and mob rule backed by the absence of the rule of law took centre stage.
It is remarkable that the revolution lasted as long as it did and no surprise that it was replaced by the dictatorship of Bonaparte who had worked his way up the greasy pole as one of the butchers of the reign of terror.
The book is full of fascinating insights. The Assembly chamber was narrow and wide and the radicals sat on the left of the chair and the moderates to the right, giving us the left and right political short-hand we use to this day.
An engaging read and if you really feel the need to understand the French Revolution, this is the book to go to.