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The Multiplex Nature of The French Revolution

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The storming of the Bastille prison was a microcosm for the desire for a republic free from oppressive rule present amongst the people of France. And yet, after a few years after the pronouncement of a republic, France embraced a new Emperor. However, in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, it is unfair to assume hypocrisy. It was he who, based upon the ideals of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ which were derived during the early stages of the revolution, promoted French nationalism. Here, the notion of liberty and nation appear to be synonymous. However, this is still problematic since the ultimate aim of a revolution is transformation, integration and nationalism. These concepts, which appear to go hand-in-hand, fundamentally undermine each other -later on- in the French Revolution. Furthermore, whilst on the one hand the revolutionary armies wanted the people of France to be liberated from the oppressive rule of despots; this is since those who were not part of the Third Estate had no say on matters concerning politics. As a result, political discussion became significantly prevalent during the revolution. The aim of the revolution here was to turn France into a republic. Here, the cohesive argument is that liberty motivated the revolution and the formation of a nation -or at least the concept of nationalism- was an inevitable by-product which occurred. However, the ambiguities and contradictions that I, myself have experienced in this enquiry suggests that, is suggestive that, depending on their current condition, the French Revolution was about many different things to many different people.

The multiplex nature of the French Revolution means that there are ambiguities present when investigating the motivation behind said revolution. The multi-verbal themes which prevailed from the revolution appear to be, at times, either counter-intuitive and/or shadowy. For it was those who stormed the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789 -a pivotal move to tackle despotism and the oppressive rule of the Old Regime- who, in the streets, paraded the severed heads of officials. Whilst some scholars would argue that the violence/brutality was necessary during the Revolution, revisionist historians would go on to say that violence and revolution were synonymous. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to say that the themes of violence and liberty were both symbolic of the Revolution. However, a problematic factor for the question of liberty calls on the proclamation of a republic only prior to the acceptance of an Emperor a few years later.

During the Revolution, liberty was established relatively earlier on in the revolutionary period with the storming of the Bastille prison being an overt act to overthrow the Old Regime. Liberty, in the case of the French Revolution, recognized that all citizens were equal with common rights and interests. Including during the Terror, this premise remained fairly transparent and consistent throughout the whole Revolution period. However, when concerning nationalism, this was not the case. The notion of nationalism and revolution are generally intertwined in that they share origins and often leads to the emergence of nation-states. However, this is problematic -in the case of the French Revolution- since the aim of a revolution is for transformation, nationalism and integration (Kumar p. 2). Here, the people of France (the bourgeoisie and commoners) wanted a change from the oppressive system of the Old Regime. During the earlier stages of the Revolution period (1790), the notion of nationalism, patriotism and cosmopolitanism -inspired by the Enlightenment thought- were in alignment. However, in 1791, these ideals became conflicted when Anarcharsis Cloots redefined the defined the meaning of patriotism and citizenship to that of a universal Republic and cosmopolitanism rendering French aggrandizement no longer to be apriority. Being in line Robespierre’s, Cloots’ school of thought caught popularity (p. 591-2). Here, the principles of nationalism begin to deviate from and undermine the interest of the Revolution. In response to this, the revolutionary armies ironically mustered a sense xenophobic-nationalism -amongst the people of France- by endorsing counter-nationalism as well as allowing for kings and the aristocracy to develop state patriotism. From this point onwards, the doctrine of the revolution became one of sovereignty and autonomy for the nation.

Another plausible interpretation of the Revolution made by contemporary historians, during the 60s and 70s, concludes that the Revolution originates from the conflict between social classes over the then current oppressive feudal system. Said conflict was between was the rising capitalist bourgeoisie class and the nobility class/those belonging to the Third Estate whose interests where protected by the feudal and agrarian system of the Old Regime. Here, the bourgeoisie class sought the freedom for free trade and a representative democracy to accommodate their capitalist interests (p. 1295). However, there are empirical evidence present within this text -and others- which makes this narrative redundant and/or contradictory. On one hand, revisionist historians attack this line of approach by offering that there were members of the Third Estate who were capitalist -in the general sense- but invested their money in a non-capitalist manner (‘land, offices and rentes’) (p. 1295). Furthermore, Heuer introduces another possible perspective, derived from revisionist theories, which entails that, prior to the revolution, the bourgeoisie and nobility were in fact competing as opposed to being ‘a single propertied elite with shared interests’, thus, making redundant the notion of an oppressive system and the conflict for free-trade for the bourgeoisie.

Similarly, to the aforementioned point, Lewis (1993: 119) offers that instead of being about class, the Revolution was instead a conflict between capitalist bourgeoisie and the nobility. Lewis (1993: 119) argues that prior to the Revolution, France had already experienced an industrial ‘take-off’ as a result of the old regime. However, it was the post- feudal structure and mentality of the aristocratic society which hindered modern forms of capitalist production. It is plausible that the Revolution was exacerbated by the fact that the already current capitalist growth was led by the nobility as opposed to the bourgeoisie. So, instead of there being a class war, the conflict derived from this capitalist growth was in fact between the capitalist ‘elite’ bourgeoise and feudal nobility (Lewis: 1993: 119-21). Hence, instead of being about individual liberty -for the bourgeoisie- the Revolution was about control over the state. However, this premise doesn’t seem to acknowledge that there were inequalities present within society prior to the Revolution.

The desire for Liberty prior to/during the Revolution called for equal representation between the people of the France (commoners and the bourgeoisie) and what was previously known as the dominant class (nobility and the Third Estate). This notion of equality was to be applied both politically and generally, whilst the proclamation of The Declaration of the rights of Man and the Citizen was a good indicator for the motivation behind the Revolution. A resolution passed was passed -on November 14, 1793- to which the use of any language which addresses/refers to others as less superior to one self was prohibited was pivotal as to the direction of the Revolution, for example, the term ‘vous’ was to be replaced by ‘tu’ and/or ‘toi’. The petition for the National Convention to abolish ‘vous’ in 1794 was a microcosm for the desire for less social reserve and discrimination and more open familiarity, fraternity and equality (p. 22). These ideals placed a heavy emphasis on the transformation of social relations whereby individuals and certain classes were to be liberated from the oppressive societal norms causally directed from the Old Regime. From this, it is reasonable to conclude that the symbolic trinity of the Revolution (liberty, equality and fraternity) was synonymous during the Revolution.

However, with this said, certain events that occurred as a result of the Revolution -such as the Terror- were highly questionable in terms of their morality and utility. Before we proceed, it is worth noting that there are apparent ambiguities and contradictions present when investigating this aspect of the Revolution.

The occurrence in question here is the Terror which occurred later on in the revolutionary period around the year 1794 (p. 25). We can see that the initial interests of the Revolution appeared to be concerning class where the rising bourgeoisie class overthrew aristocrats thriving under the Old Regime. However, the motivations behind the violence inflicted during the Terror seemed tackle all forms of inequalities and counter-revolutionaries. Ironically, it was the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal who orchestrated the official Terror which took approximately 17,000 lives with 85 percent of those executed being commoners.

By this point, an ‘aristocrat’ was anyone deemed to be an enemy of the state (p. 25-6). Here, the narrative of the Revolution appears to have transgressed in a manner which contradicts its initial interests. The Terror is reflective of a totalitarian state mindset as opposed of the republic the Revolutionaries desired and fought for. Darnton (19989: 28), offers that this occurred because people cannot live in a state of ‘epistemological exhilaration’ -created after the siege of the Bastille- for long. By this point of the Revolution, people seem to have taken justice into their own hands and are driven by blood. It is reasonable to argue that the violence inflicted was a necessary evil to ensure the destruction of the Old Regime (p. 27). However, with this said, it is important to acknowledge that fact that -by this point- the Revolution may have lost direction and the violence inflicted was a result of blind populism.

The arguments made by far seem to indicate that the Revolution was about liberty -in the most general and broadest sense- for all. And whilst this was the case, it was only the bourgeoisie class that acquired any immediate political and individual liberty from the Revolution. It is also reasonable to argue that the bourgeoisie were the only class to benefit from the Revolution. Almost immediately after the siege of the Bastille, those belonging to the Third Estate were being unfairly and brutally persecuted by commoners as part of a public outcry over soaring bread prices due to the political instabilities immediately after the collapses of the Old Regime (Darnton: 25). Furthermore, the working patterns, position of the poor and social injustices remained unaffected (McPhee: 182). For the sake of their survival, the poor continued to live and worked in the same manner they had done before the Revolution (McPhee: 182). It appears that both the aristocracy and the poor were the most negatively affected by the revolution whilst also gaining the least. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that these immediate after-effects of the Revolution, however negative they may seem, paved way for a new social landscape still effective until today (Darnton: 28).

In conducting an enquiry into this topic, it has become apparent that ‘Liberty’ and/or ‘Nation’ are very broad and generic terms which I feel would not adequately describe the French Revolution. The French Revolution was multi-vocal in nature and held differing significance among different individuals. For example, even though the siege of the Bastille -a pivotal turning point indicating the start of the Revolution- was initiated by (capitalist) bourgeoisies with capitalist interests it was those who felt oppressed by the Old Regime who perpetuated the Revolution. This conclusion is derived from not only the historical approaches being conflicting but also the contradictory and undermining ideals of the French Revolution. And whilst it is very plausible -from the enquiry- that the Revolution was ultimately about class with nationalism being a necessity/by-product, the discussion regarding this is a wide and far. It is possible that the conflicting ideals of the Revolution were symbolic of the desire for societal and structural change whether being for liberty or nationalism.

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The Multiplex Nature of the French Revolution. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from
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