Revolutions: The Revolutionary Tradition in the West, 1560-1991

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The French Revolution 1789-99

Gwynne Lewis

Has the French Revolution a ‘beginning’ and an ‘end’? For some historians, concerned with its place in the wider scheme of modern history, the Revolution has been traced back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and forward to the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. The renowned Annaliste historian, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, has suggested that the duc d’Orléans - Regent of France in 1715 - was an early enlightened despot who set the agenda for the French Revolution, while the equally celebrated, Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, has argued that the entire period from the 1780s to the 1830s represents ‘a process [my italics] of transformation that had already convulsed the continent and would go on convulsing it’. 1 Conservative or communist, there has been widespread agreement that the French Revolution is the ‘mother of all modern revolutions’. But if there is agreement about the universal influence of the French Revolution, opinion remains very divided over its more immediate historical legacy. Did it lay down the foundations for twentieth-century ‘totalitarian democracies’? Was it a political upheaval with social consequences, one that laid the foundations for a liberal world of representative government, parliamentary democracy and individual choice? Or was it the first of a series of ‘social revolutions’ with political consequences, whose ultimate objective was the extinction of mass poverty, the emancipation of men and women from the shackles of a developing, capitalist, world system? The structure of this chapter, with its three chronological and thematic divisions, will enable us to engage with these interpretations of the Revolution. The conclusion will examine its legacy, which time, careless of historical compartmentalisations and controversies, has hardened into a single block.

The Revolution of the radical-liberal bourgeoisie

The Enlightenment and the Revolution

Nineteenth-century liberalism would revolve around four major ‘freedoms’: those associated with political and religious rights, property rights, and the


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