The Once and Future Revolution

By Agulhon, Maurice | UNESCO Courier, March 1989 | Go to article overview

The Once and Future Revolution

Agulhon, Maurice, UNESCO Courier

THIS year France is celebrating the bicentenary of the 1789 Revolution and, to judge by the long list of public functions and learned conferences already announced, the eyes of most of the world will be upon her.

For France, this is the occasion for an extra-special national day. Celebrated each year on 14 july, the official national day is, after all, a tribute to the Revolution to which it is directly linked. The Bastille was taken by storm on 14 july 1789, and 14 july 1790, the first anniversary of this event, was also the occasion of the grand and joyous Fete de la Federation (a federation of communes set up in many towns and villages to replace the former local authorities). indeed, the entire French panoply of national symbolism refers back to the Revolution-the tricolour, adopted in july 1789, the national anthem, La Marseillaise, composed in 1792, and La Liberte the figure of a woman wearing the famous red Phrygian cap which became an official French emblem at this period.

The French people of the day were very conscious of the fact that France had existed as a state for nearly a thousand years and had already produced many heroic, symbolic figures-great kings, such as Philippe-Auguste, Francois I or Henri IV, and great servants of kings, from Jeanne d'Arc to Richelieu. The year 1789, however, marks the beginning of the modern age of which the world of today is the direct continuation.

Since then, French public life has been ordered by a written constitution and by laws equally applicable to all. The people, through their elected representatives, have shared in the exercise of power, and basic rights and freedoms have been affirmed, east as an objective or an ideal. 1789 marks, not the birth of France, but rather her attainment of adulthood, of reason and of freedom. That 14 july should have been chosen as the national day is very indicative of the extent to which the desire to achieve the political ideal is inherent in the French national character.

Revolution as Enlightenment

Why are the events of 1789 seen and celebrated as being more than simply an incident in French history? It is because Revolution is seen as having its own intrinsic value.

What, then, it must be asked, is "Revolution"? Contemporary thought, especially perhaps in Europe, defines Revolution in a rather abstract, formal way as sudden and violent social and political change. If we accept this view, then the principal ;alternative to revolution is reform, that is to say, gradual, nonviolent change. Today, a humanitarian ethos, which fortunately is fairly widespread, encourages us to prefer the reformer to the revolutionary.

This point of view, however, and this interpretation of words, is quite recent. Throughout the nineteenth century at least, Revolution, in political terms, was defined above all by its content, its programme and its alms. And the alternative to Revolution was Counterrevolution. Revolution thus meant change for the better, change inspired by faith in the possibility of progress, greater rationality in the means used to achieve it and having, as its final objective, greater collective well-being. just as clearly, Counter-revolution meant resistance to change by, and possibly the restoration of, the former centres of power and former social groupings, based on the old values of authority, hierarchy and tradition, often founded in religion and often oppressive.

The repercussions that the events of 1789 had throughout the world were due not to the fact that the change they brought about was sudden, radical and complete, but because it appeared to be initiated in the name of positive values: Liberty, Equality, Happiness, justice. France leads the way

Did the France of 1789 deserve her reputation as an example to the world, which earned her both hatred and affection? At first sight this is debatable. We need go no further back than the eighteenth century to be reminded that the idea of applying reason to the government of states or of societies was due to enlightened despots such as Frederick 11 of Prussia, the Empress Catherine Il of Russia, Joseph II, Emperor of Germany, and Gustav IH, King of Sweden. …

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