In answering the question as to how the French revolutionaries succeeded and failed with their ambitions, it is important to address certain questions such as; what were the French revolutionary’s ambitions?, how did they succeed and fail those ambitions?, what was the real prepose for the revolution? And how did the old regime contrast with the revolution?
The French revolution left an enormous impact on politics, an impact that is seen even in today’s Western politics. The French revolution created the concept that enabled individuals as free and independent members of political communities to become involved in politics, it also created the concept that the government depends on its capacity to present itself successfully as based upon an agreement of the whole people, as people, to run their affairs in particular fashion.
The French Revolution was spread over the ten year period between 1789 and 1799. The primary cause of the revolution was the disputes over the peoples’ differing ideas of reform. Before the beginning of the Revolution, only moderate reforms were wanted by the people. An example of why they wanted this was because of king Louis XIV’s actions. At the end of the seventeenth century, King Louis XIV’s wars began decreasing the royal finances dramatically. This worsened during the eighteenth century. The use of the money by Louis XIV angered the people and they wanted a new system of government.
The revolutionaries said that not one official in power was corrupt, but that the whole system of government needed some change. Eventually, when the royal finances were expended in the 1780’s there began a time of greater criticism. This sparked the peasant’s notion of wanting change. Under the Old Regime in France, the king was the absolute monarch. Louis XIV had centralized power in the royal bureaucracy, the government departments which administered his policies. Together, Louis XIV and the bureaucracy worked to preserve royal authority and to maintain the social structure of the Old Regime.
Some historians believe that the revolution was made to destroy religion, however it is evident that it was essentially a social and political revolution, the intentions were not to perpetuate disorder or to make anarchy into a method but rather to increase the rights and power of political authority. It is believed by some historians that the only effect from the revolution was the abolishment of the feudal/political institutions and replaced them with a more consistent social and political order. Even though it was clearly a political and social revolution why did it act like a religious revolution? The French revolution must be compared to a religious revolution in order to understand it. The characteristic traits of a religious revolution are clearly seen in the French, not only was it a widespread revolution but it was also spread by preaching and propaganda.
Religious revolutions usually intend to regulate the relationship between man and God, and the general rights and duties of men towards each other. The French revolution operated in precisely the same manner that religious revolutions have acted, it considers the citizen in an abstract manner, outside of any particular society as does religion when it considers man in general, independently of time and place. It is possible that the revolution itself became a new kind of religion, it had no God, no ritual, no place of worship and no life after death but regardless of this it “flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles and martyrs.”
In order to understand how the Revolution came about and what the revolutionaries ambitions were it is necessary to understand the context of French society and politics over the preceding century. It is important to know that while the revolutionaries thought that they were turning the course of “French history on its head” it is possible to make a strong case on the fact that the revolution had followed and extended many trends of the previous hundred years as Tocqueville argues. Tocqueville points out that the old regime encompassed all the aspects of hierarchy, superstition and subordination of previous centuries, and that the role of Revolution was to sweep this away, and bring instead order of legal equality, philosophical modernity, and political freedom. This point is misleading as the era prior to the Revolution is one of steady modernisation and bureaucratisation of political rule in France, under the rubric of ‘absolute’ monarchical rule.
The system known to contemporaries as ‘absolutism’ was different from previous forms of monarchy primarily because monarch claimed absolute sovereign authority – this meant that the final political responsibility always rested with the monarch, rather than being divided among different bodies, or between monarch and nobility. One chief impulse behind this was religion: to avoid warfare between religionists, monarch would both impose a state religion upon the whole nation, and decree the terms upon which religious toleration extended towards minorities.
Tocqueville points out that the striking thing about half a century prior to 1789 was the emergence of this loose assemblage of intellectuals as a kind of unofficial political opposition. Absolute rulers monopolised political and public life, but on whole left ‘private’ debate and argument alone. This ‘private’ world of debate was not as private, but as the really important sphere of argument it outlined a vision of the world very different from the world-pictures articulated either out of the monarchical court. It articulated its view of the world as a broadly philosophical perspective on life, universe and everything the perspective we know as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment along with Romantic Movement can be associated with a main key element in our modern society, a belief in independent reasoning and thought by individuals as the basis of the development of nations and peoples in culture, intellectual life and politics.
In Francois Furet’s “An idea and its destiny – French Revolution – 1789: An Idea That Changed the World” he describes the process of the revolution which is fitting he explains that it began with an idea and its destiny, then the ambitions of the revolutionaries that were bordering on folly, the idea of equality: dream or reality, the rights of the citizen, the compromise, the emergence of the individual, the democratic dynamic and the price of freedom. Furet argues that the French Revolution was an attempt to legislate in the name of universality. Its aim was the emancipation not only of the French but of all mankind. To this extent it was an event that was not merely of national but also of international scope, not simply a political but also a philosophical revolution. One of the ambiguities of the revolutionaries’ ambition to emancipate humanity springs from the fact that their vision of the world was very Eurocentric. When the French spoke of the universal, they meant by that the bulk of Europe together with the European appendix consisting of the newly-independent former British colonies of America. This was the extent of their horizon. The whole of the nineteenth century continued to be marked by Euro centrism, even for men like Marx, who spoke of the universe whilst thinking of Europe. Between Britain, Germany and France everything was covered. Even within Europe it was better not to go too far south or too far east so as not to tarnish the concept of universality. There can, then, be no doubt about it, the French Revolution legislated in the name of European man.
There is, however, another sense in which the notion of the universal must be understood: its abstraction. There is nothing tangible about universality; it is an abstraction just as universal man is abstract man. The Revolution declared that man had no reason to enter into society unless that society guaranteed him the autonomy, the liberty and the rights which were his before he entered into the social contract. In other words, for the Revolution, the essence of man is his liberty, his autonomy and the fact of his acceptance only of laws imposed by himself. Society must guarantee to each individual all the rights that are his by virtue of his status as a man. This is an extraordinary ideal, completely general and therefore entirely abstract.
Thus these rights are formal, abstract and deduced as it were from the natural state of man. The ambitions of the Revolution, as we can see, bordered on folly, since they were in contradiction with the true state of society and of man. Therein, in large part, lies its tragedy: in the enormous contradiction between the universal rights it proclaimed as being inherent in the status of man and the actual state of society with its poor and its rich, its dominators and it’s dominated.
Were the ambitions of the French revolutionaries successful or did they fail? It is both, as it did achieve some success but also failed. In its immediate results it was a failure, because it led to several rapid changes of regime, culminating in military dictatorship, the Napoleonic Empire and the restoration of the monarchy. In the long term, and after further revolutions in 1830, 1848 and 1870, it led to the firm foundation of a French republic, but it took nearly a hundred years.