The turning revolutionaries

The Global Ramifications of the French Revolution - Ending the Terror
July 21, 1995

The Thermidorians, the politicians who overthrew Maximilien Robespierre and who ended the Terror of 1793-1794, were motivated on the day of Robespierre's arrest, the 9 Thermidor II (July 1794), not by any great principles, but by fear. Although they were later to rationalise their silence and inaction during Robespierre's ascendancy in terms of political virtue and careful calculation, they were finally spurred into action in the belief that the guillotine, long hanging over them like the Sword of Damocles, would fall on their necks unless they struck at Robespierre and his associates first.

Some of the Thermidorian leadership were turncoats with a strong instinct for self-preservation and political survival. It is little wonder that the French Revolution after Robespierre was not inspirational for future generations of revolutionaries in France, Russia and elsewhere. Instead, the great events of 1789 to 1794 provided them with their reference points.

While 19th and 20th century liberals may have protested their adherence to the principles of 1789, radicals and extremists looked to the less moderate phases of the Revolution: to 1792, 1793 or even to the height of the Terror in 1794. The only time the label "Thermidorian" has been applied by revolutionaries since the 1790s has been in a derogatory sense: for Leon Trotsky, the rise of Stalin was the Thermidor of the Russian Revolution. Historians have also treated the Thermidorians warily, if at all. In most cases, the decision to cut off narratives of the French Revolution when Robespierre's head fell has been a conscious political statement. The year of the Terror appears as the climax, the point where the Revolution came closest to fulfilling the egalitarian implications of its declared principles and the Thermidorians effectively turned the Revolution back from its radical march, so that all that followed until Napoleon Bonaparte's coup in 1799 was reaction, lacking in inspiration.

Apart from Simon Schama's Citizens, however, recent narratives have included the Thermidorian and subsequent regimes in the text of the French Revolution and growing interest in the period after 1794 has been fed by specific studies such as that by Baczko, first published in France in 1989. While Lefebvre saw social and economic interests at work in the dismantling of the Terror, Baczko focuses on the politics of the Revolution's emergence from the Terror. He succeeds in disentangling and then examining the various arguments, ideas and political manoeuvres acting on the revolutionaries as they sought a solution to the central problem: how to end the Terror and to provide France with an enduring political structure (in short, how to complete the Revolution) without repudiating the entire Revolution itself. In debating this issue, the Thermidorians also addressed other, related questions that still engage historians and politicians alike, such as why did the Revolution slide into Terror? How absolute should be the freedom of the press? What should be the place in society of extra-constitutional (and therefore potentially anti- constitutional) political organisations, such as the Jacobin clubs? In discussing these problems, the Thermidorians revealed the political concepts and institutions of the Revolution as a blend of the traditional and the modern: modern for its devotion, at least in principle, to individualism, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press; traditional for its inability to establish a consensus on the basis of which different interest groups could agree to disagree. Some revolutionaries also retained traditional views of the people as limited in their understanding of events, and therefore either as manipulable or needing education. One Thermidorian, Paul Barras, remained unabashed at his role in fabricating the unlikely rumour that Robespierre was conspiring to have himself proclaimed king, saying that it was the only means by which the people could be made to understand that Robespierre was a tyrant.

Myths, rumours and perceptions of events, no matter how misguided or fallacious, have, however, the potency of "real social facts", as Baczko reminds us, and, important as they were in France, they also had a role in provoking responses to the French Revolution outside France up to the present day. Such responses are the subject of the essays edited by Joseph Klaits and Michael H. Haltziel. Although surprisingly (while one essay looks at Mexico) the collection lacks a piece on South America, where struggles for independence in the 19th century owed some inspiration to the French Revolution, it is a useful book as it introduces the reader to the impact of the Revolution both in the long term and beyond the immediate reach of French armies and propaganda in the 1790s. The cultural and geographical contexts in which the French Revolution is discussed include the United States, Poland, Russia, Haiti, sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab world (particularly Egypt), the Middle East, Mexico and China. Most of the contributions helpfully do not assume a great background knowledge of the areas discussed.

What emerges from these essays is that while in some instances the impact of the Revolution was immediate, as in Haiti and Poland, its influence usually made itself felt indirectly and in the long term, as in Russia, the Arab world and the Middle East. Although Russians, Turks and Egyptians experienced direct contact with the French Revolution, both in the form of military conflict and through ideas on administrative reform, it was in the 19th century that ideas stemming from the French Revolution began to make their deeper mark on cultural and political developments.

The channels through which images and ideas of the French Revolution were communicated to audiences far removed from France were also significant for the effect they were to have. In the United States, the clergy played an important part as interpreter of the Revolution after 1795 by stressing its apparent adherence to deism. This view, disseminated by such an influential force in American cultural and political life, made Americans more willing to preserve the "purity" of their form of republicanism by turning their backs on Europe, both politically and intellectually. Where the French themselves spread the gospel of the Rights of Man, it is clear that the principles of the French Revolution were easily exploitable as a veil for colonialism. The very notion that human rights are universal enabled France to justify her mission civilisatrice, abolishing slavery and polygamy as she went, while conquering and subjugating those same people to whom she claimed to bring liberty and civilisation.

The French Revolution, both within France and without, was never a constant factor exerting its "influence" on social, cultural or political developments. Rather, its impact depended as much on the perceptions of people often far removed in time and space from the events of the Revolution as on the conscious decisions of the revolutionaries themselves. Many people in different places and in different times grafted and gleaned from the Revolution ideas, language, symbols and lessons and adapted them to suit their own needs and their own environments. These interpretations, perhaps more than the actual events of the Revolution itself, provided the enduring legacy of the French Revolution.

Michael Rapport is lecturer in European history, University of Sunderland.

The Global Ramifications of the French Revolution

Editor - Joseph Klaits and Michael H. Haltzel
ISBN - 0 521 45175 2
Publisher - Cambridge Univ.Press & Woodrow Wilson Center Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 209

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