Wilson Quarterly and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Wilson Quarterly (1976-).
by Maurice Cranston
July 14, 1989- BastilleDay- political and culturalleaders of every ideological persuasion assembled in Paristo celebratethe bicentennial of the French Revolution. Was there something strange about their unanimous applause? All subsequent major revolutions, such as those that took place in Russia and China, remain controversialtoday.But the French Revolution, which served as the direct or indirect model for these later upheavals, now passes for an innocuous occasion which anyone, Marxistor monarchist,can join in celebrating. Wasthis proof only of the anaesthetizing power of time, that two centuries could turn the French Revolutioninto a museum piece, an exhibitionacceptable to all viewers, even to a descendent of the old Bourbon monarchs? Or is there something about the French Revolution itself that, from its beginning, sets it apart from later revolutions? The tricouleur, the Marseillaise, the monumental paintings of David all celebrate a series of connected events, alternatelyjoyous and grim, which make up the real, historical French Revolution. But there is another French Revolution, one which emerged only after the tumultuous days were over and the events and deeds became inflated or distorted in the minds of later partisans.This is the French Revolution as myth, and it is in many ways the more importantof the two. It is so, one could argue, because the myth, and not the reality, inspired the scores of revolutions that were to come. The actors of the French Revolution, anWQ SUMMER 1989
nouncing their principles on behalf of all mankind, clearly intended their deeds to have a mythic dimension. They wanted to inspireothers to follow their example. Consider the Declarationof the Rights of Man, passed in Augustof 1789. At no point does it refer to the specific conditions or laws of France. Instead, it speaks in grand universals, as if it were the voice of mankinditself. Replete with terms like citizen, liberty,the sacred rights of man, the common good, the document provides the lexicon for all future revolutions. By contrast, the earlier revolutionary models which stirredthe French in 1789 to act- the English Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776- had been essentiallypolitical events, limited in scope and conservative in objectives. The English revolutionists claimed to restore the liberty that the despotic James II had destroyed; the American revolutionaries made the kindredclaim that they were only defending their rights against tyrannical measures introduced by George III. Neither revolutionsought to change society. The French Revolution, however, sought to do exactly that. Indeed, to many of the more zealous French revolutionaries, the central aim was the creation of a new man- or at least the liberation of pristine man, in all his natural goodness and simplicity, from the cruel and corrupting prison of the traditionalsocial order. It is easy to see how this...