We Owe the French Revolution a Debt of Gratitude

On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris rose up to take history into their own hands. Because of the power of the Jacobin idea, and because enough of them lived on to fight another day, the revolution changed the world. We are all its beneficiaries.

The Victors of the Bastille in Front of the Hôtel de Ville, by Paul Delaroche. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day, 234 years ago, the people of Paris rose up to take history into their own hands. The memory of the Bastille’s storming, and of similar moments of revolutionary élan — from the “August insurrection” three years later to the assault on the Winter Palace in Petrograd more than a century hence — have bequeathed the Left a series of thrilling tableaux of popular triumph, imprinted in the public mind through representations like the paintings of Jacques-Louis David or the films of Sergei Eisenstein. Those images are a precious legacy — but they can mislead us if we’re not careful.

The danger is especially acute at a moment like the present, when the Left’s political horizon feels like it has receded beyond view and the middle distance is looking bleak. In the United States, just three years ago, an insurgency led by Bernie Sanders raised the hopes of many — especially those too young to have a feel for the strange, syncopated tempo of radical politics — that a political revolution was at hand, one that would infuse public life with an ethos of solidarity and democratic equality. Now the odds are good that in a year’s time we’ll be staring down the barrel of a Joe Biden–Donald Trump rematch.

Comparable political insurgencies have been extinguished even more brutally elsewhere, from the purges and show trials of Keir Starmer’s UK Labour Party to Syriza’s post-capitulation collapse in Greece or the retreat of Podemos in Spain. Everywhere, increasingly, the political moment feels hostile, combining the ennui of a “return to normalcy” with the ambient menace of a Thermidor.

The natural response is to look back on the euphoric triumphs of, say, the sans-culottes in the streets of Paris, and despair at our comparative failure to puncture the political status quo. But to do so is to fall victim to one of those retrospective optical illusions with which history is constantly presenting us. For if the present moment feels like a Thermidor, it’s because the original Thermidor — the definitive end of the radical phase of the French Revolution, which was followed by years of repression, popular apathy and de-mobilization, the destruction of the revolutionary Republic itself, and eventually the restoration of the very Bourbon monarchy that the Paris crowds had brought down decades earlier — felt a lot like the present.

The execution of Robespierre in 1794 and the seizure of power by conservatives were events met largely with indifference by the Paris crowds — the same crowds that just a year earlier had pushed forward the revolution’s spiraling radicalization in the streets. Now the mood was dominated by concern over inflation, fear of political dysfunction, and rising impatience with the revolutionaries themselves and what the historian Isser Woloch called their “tendency to verbal exaggeration and self-righteousness.”

And yet the Jacobin clubs and newspapers survived the repression of Thermidor and kept alive the revolutionary spirit: of grassroots democracy, of commitment to social equality, of the zealous defense of revolutionary principles. This is what made it impossible for the reactionaries who ruled in the subsequent decades — both the liberals and the conservatives — to completely snuff out its achievements and reverse the course of history.

And what were those achievements? Everything. Almost everything that makes public life in the modern world worth living was decisively advanced by the revolution that Bastille Day commemorates. From the creation of the first modern citizen army to replace the traditional brigades of monarchist mercenaries; to the imposition of popular juries where the “justice” of local oligarchs once held sway; to the first national abolition of slavery; to the abstract principle of popular sovereignty and the concrete practice of universal suffrage.

The revolution’s achievements were immense, and can be measured, among other things, in millions of lives saved and extended. For it was only with the revolution that France’s mortality rates began their long modern decline, and it was only in France — not in any of its European neighbors — that they fell at such a pace: after decades of trendless fluctuation, death rates fell steadily from the 1790s onward, leaving average life expectancy a stunning 40 percent higher in 1820 than it had been at the time of the Bastille’s surrender.

Likewise, it was revolutionary France — along with the revolutionary United States — that launched the great “fertility transition” of the modern era. The widespread use of birth control, higher ages for women at first birth, lower overall rates of reproduction — a pattern that subsequently spread worldwide and has transformed the health and economic development prospects of billions of people — all began with the overthrow of the Bourbons.

The French Revolution ushered in these planetary turning points in countless ways: by raising the confidence of workers to demand higher wages (aided initially by tight wartime labor markets, of course); by emboldening women to challenge patriarchal authority in the home; by redistributing land to peasants. But probably the most important factor was simply the Jacobin idea: the idea that life can be made better by the collective action of the classes below against the illegitimate interests of the classes above.

The street-fighting veterans of the heady days of 1789 and 1792–93, looking back at their revolution from the vantage point of 1795, could — and in fact did — fear that it had proved a failure. But because of the power of the Jacobin idea, and because enough of them lived on to fight another day, the revolution changed the world. We are all its beneficiaries.