Friday, November 19, 2010

The Modern Consequences of the French Revolution and, its Roots in the Enlightenment

On the 14th of July 1789 the people of Paris stormed the Bastille prison and set in process a chain of inexorable events culminating in the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This symbolic event is celebrated ever year by the French in their Bastille Day Parades, and much discussion has taken place as to the significance of this event.

Henry Kissinger once queried the Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai for his views on the consequences of the French Revolution and, Zhou famously responded that, ‘it was too early to tell’. Is it too early to tell, or did something fundamental to the future of Europe and the World happen at the Bastille?
This article argues that it did. It throws light on manifestations of the Revolution on three different, but overlapping, entities.

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution was inspired by the ideas of The Enlightenment. This was a predominantly European affair which was characterised by men who forged their wills in an age of significant scientific progress. Given this progress, it was easy for someone to accept the idea that reason and science should play the preeminent role in guiding human affairs.

Thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau set the tone for the new age and, men of action like Robespierre and Napoleon, implemented them. It is this uniquely European adoption of this idea, that is partly the cause of the long trending divorce form Religion and Politics in Europe. It is also, partly, behind the great Secularist movement in Europe.

It is interesting to note that the American Revolution (only 20 years earlier) was also inspired by Enlightenment thinking. However, ideas do not acquire resonance unless they are accompanied by emotional experience. Although the founders of the US may well have been Enlightenment thinkers, it is unlikely that such ideas would carry much weight in the pioneer communities and local church movements that made America. However, in Paris, it was a different story.


God and the oppressive aristocracy were cast aside, in favour of a new, universal, society based on rules made by science and reason. The French Revolution was not just a revolution for France; it was a revolution for all mankind. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, was a universal attempt at creating a set of inalienable rights that would be eternally valid because, it was based on the natural law of man to have these rights. The Bastille was not stormed in order to protect the ‘God-given’ rights of the aristocracy!

The repercussions of this rupture in thinking are still evident in France today. France is a secularist country that still sees itself as having an international mission. Moreover France has adopted these ideals to the very heart of its political framework. For example, French law is based on rationality as opposed to the English Common Law, which is based on precedent and empirical experience.

If the French revolution created a universal, rational, secular approach to affairs then surely this should express in itself in France’s foreign policy?

France and the European Union

The driving force for the European Union (EU) is France and Germany. With France in the driving seat, the EU embodies many of the secular, rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment. The EU is based on ideas of two of the great European thinkers, namely Marx and Hegel.

Inspired by Marx the EU believes that man’s primary motive is an economic one, and that the struggle over capital is the primary question. According to this thinking, if the economic motive can be satiated, then man will be happy. Hence, the desire of the EU to include ever more diverse and disparate countries.

From Hegel, the EU believes that the ultimate reality of an individual can and, must be, subsumed by the State. Therefore, an ever powerful expanding EU will overcome parochial national interests once the benefits of political and economic union are apparent to each constituent country.

It is not hard to see the Enlightenment thinking behind these ideas. Not only are they based on rationalism but they are also avowedly secularist. There is no role for the primacy of nationalism or religion in such thinking. The echo of the French Revolution is clear!

France and North Africa

Here, again the repercussions of French Revolution can be seen, but in this instance, with its former colony countries. The French installed their secular or laic system of Government onto a largely Islamic population. The results are still being fought over today, with varying degrees of success.

Adoption of ideas inspired by the muscular French approach to secularism, were undoubtedly a source of creation of friction. This was most notably apparent being in the Algerian Civil War, between the Army and the Islamic Salvation Front. Whereas the Bastille rebels were jejune over separating religion form the states, the Islamic movements in Algeria certainly were not.

Whilst these ideas may cause tension, they also caused significant change and progress. In particular, Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia is widely seen as promulgating one of the most culturally (if not economically or politically) liberal regimes in North Africa. There is no doubt that the path of development within the former French colonies is significantly different to the rest of the Arabic World.


In conclusion, the French Revolution has far, and ruminating, consequences. It is hard imagine that the rabble storming the Bastille had this mind, but that should not underplay its significance. The interesting thing is that the French Revolutions consequence may well turn out to be more pervading than Zhou En Lai and Mao’s revolution , or is it too early to tell?


Beiser, Frederick "Hegel" Routledge, 2005
Corwin, Edward S. "French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778" Archon Books, 1962
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels "The Communist Manifesto" Penguin, 2004
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques "The Social Contract" Wordsworth, 2004
de Tocqueville,Alexis "Ancien Regime and the French Revolution" Penguin, 2008

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