A revolutionary tradition was created by the great French Revolution of 1789-95. Only thereafter did a class of professional revolutionaries emerge, devoting their whole existence not simply to critical thought but to analysing the revolutions of the past in order to bring about the revolutions of the future. The revolutionary tradition has expressed itself partly in revolutionary political theory, which forms the major part of this chapter. However, we will also examine the existence of revolutionary traditions of a different kind: traditions embedded in the sentiments and actions of the masses, whose dynamism and originality have usually taken the revolutionary intelligentsia by surprise and whose behaviour has been largely unscripted.
There have been theories of rebellion against established authority since time immemorial, drawing inspiration from either a particular reading of God’s will and its transgression or claims that authority was trampling upon traditional rights. Revolutions and revolutionaries of the nineteenth century were engaged in a different project: the attempt to create new worlds through a strategy, derived at least in part from the experience of past revolutions. Of course, thinkers had long imagined societies more just and less repressive than their own. In certain respects the Enlightenment paved the way for both the American and the French revolutions in its emphasis on man’s ability to transform the world according to the dictates of reason and in advocating his liberation from tradition and religious superstition; though the politics of the philosophes were often elitist and authoritarian. In more radical mode, Rousseau had realised that large inequalities in the distribution of goods constituted a major source of social corruption and a threat to the democratic polity. De Mably and Morelly, his contemporaries, took this critique of inequality further and advocated a form of primitive (albeit agrarian) communism. The principles of religious and political liberty, adumbrated in the historic Declaration of the Rights