According to Carl von Clausewitz, a military witness to the French Revolution from the age of 13, the French Revolution stemmed wholly from the “views of the philosophers.” 1 It was the French philosophes “who wanted to base everything on the rights of man…as a force opposed to the absolute monarch…setting…limits on [its] power…[but] [o]nce the colossal breach occurred in France, it was inevitable that the rest of Europe would be affected by it” 2 (emphasis added).
The French Revolution demonstrated that states could fuse ideology with society so that, as Goethe observed, “[e]very thing” could be “firmly directed to one single purpose.” 3 Once the “masses…counted for nothing,” Clausewitz recalled. But when the demands of the dispossessed came to be accepted by the middle class, then their combined weight was “four or five hundred times” larger than the old ruling elites (emphasis added). Their very enormity constituted an “essential” and “irresistible” claim to power. 4
The “elemental fury” of the newly enfranchised, “untrammeled by any conventional restraints,” haunted Clausewitz, for the war the new masses waged was wholly free “from…ancient diplomatic and economic bonds.” 5 “The…French had attacked the traditional ways of warfare like acid,” Clausewitz recalled. “To their own surprise and everyone else’s,” explained Clausewitz, “the French learned that a state’s natural power and a great simple cause were far stronger than the artificial structure of international relations by which other states were ruled.” 6
Even much later, as keen an observer as Alexis de Tocqueville was not able to wholly fathom the Revolution’s passion. “[T]here is something