The French Revolution of 1789 and the Precondition

                                        for Effective Change


Law in general is human reason…the political and civil laws of each nation ought to be only the particular cases in which human reason is applied.

                                                                          Charles de Montesquieu

                                                                          “The Spirit of the Laws”











On a bright July 14th, Bastille Day, the Champs-Élysées is full of cavalry, their armor gleaming in the sun, astride elaborately groomed horses. That impressive scene reflects a difficult battle won, for the French took more than one hundred sixty years to restore political order after the Revolution of 1789. The French Revolution was the world’s first modernization crisis and, due to the nature of French society and thought, the prototype for later revolutions in the developing world.


Conventional wisdom holds that the ancien régime of Louis XVI was a dinosaur, shuffling off into the sunset, conservatism done in by the Reason of the Enlightenment and by the bourgeoisie at the barricades.1 The facts are otherwise. As Simon Schama describes in Citizens (1989), his luminous history of the Revolution, France’s traditional society was in a general crisis. A highly complex societal event, the French Revolution can be described from many perspectives. We focus on one perspective, the political: how the political system of the French monarchy evolved in the 18th century, why the Revolution of 1789 occurred, and finally what freedom and democracy require.



The French Monarchy in the 18th Century



Under the reign of Louis XIV (1638-1715) France had reached its zenith. Europe’s first and largest nation expanded its boundaries nearly to their natural limits, comprising the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the sea. The monarch’s military victories, however, were bought not only by the taxes paid by the people, but more crucially by the centralization of the French State, organized before in a nearly typical European fashion: an organic system of shared power 2 among the nobility, regional assemblies, the parlements (independent courts of law), and the king who acted as the supreme arbiter. In the reign of Louis XIV, the state became centered upon the person of the king and his counselors, with the regional assemblies ignored. This change in political organization had unfortunate consequences when the centralized state was left in the hands of Louis XVI, a king less skilled than his predecessors, to meet the challenges that were to come.



The Revolution



The baroque splendor of Versailles is generally taken to be the symbol of the monarchy before the Revolution; but as Daniel Roche, of the Collège de France, wrote in France in the Enlightenment (1998), France’s society before the Revolution was in the turmoil of modernization, undergoing large changes in economics and culture.


Limited local insurrections, provoked by hostility to taxation and food shortages, persisted. Above all, protest found a new target, moved to new territory, and adopted new means: it directed against local landlords, was prevalent in formerly unrebellious eastern France, and availed itself of official mechanisms and legal avenues before resorting to violence. Villages were politicized against an order in which the old solidarities (which had not always been effective in any case) no longer worked. Against a new order that was at once state-centered and economic, villages, cities, and corps invented new forms of political action. People mobilized against actions that revealed the new order of things: peasants rose up against seigneurial innovations, Parisian workers rose up against entrepreneurial innovations…Limited insurrection and restrained riot: this was what one had in 1750 in Paris… 3


(Cultural) change came in two primary areas. First the judgments and decisions of the public were no longer dictated solely by the norms of court society or filtered through monarchical intellectual institutions bound by privilege and monopoly. Second, a market developed in cultural goods and values (our note: like literacy and a free press), a market whose logic was based on principles of liberty and equality. 4
























Fundamental social change contributed largely to the French Revolution. By the reign of Louis XVI, as Schama writes:



The “old regime”…was not a society doddering its way to the grave. Far from appearing moribund, signs of dynamism and energy may be found wherever the historian looks. From the King downward, the elite were less obsessed with tradition than with novelty, and less preoccupied with feudalism than with science. In the great pile of the Louvre were housed not just the Académie Française and academies of painting and inscriptions and medals, but those of science and the latest royal foundation, the Academy of Medicine…Nor was this official enthusiasm for science purely a matter of speculative theory. Whenever possible, the crown and government endeavored to apply new data to practical purposes… 5












If France was modernizing, what then caused the Revolution? The crucial fact was that this modernization was uneven. The immediate problems were found by the inability of the French state to effect the reforms necessary to meet the heavy financial obligations incurred supporting the American Revolution of 1776 and a major continental army (a political culture issue) 6 and in the person of Louis XVI who was neither an administrator or a soldier (who could lead historical change).


Why was the French state unable to effect reform? On the eve of the French Revolution, the major groups in France were disaffected and therefore unable to attain the compromises necessary for a new social equilibrium . The local parlements were again in a struggle with the centralized monarchy over the power to veto royal edicts 7. A large part of the nobility was from the modernizing society. The king was usually indecisive. France was already locked in a power struggle, a battle between its past and its future, as Roche points out, fought within the orderly structures of the monarchy. 8


Two major issues: the question of local representation by parlement or by assembly, and the regime’s financial problems (no new taxation without representation), continually reinforced each other in each ministerial crisis. 9 However, “The vocabulary of protest unified all the opposition all the more easily because its key (ideological) terms were ambiguous: nation, fundamental rights…liberty/liberties.” 10 Prompted by the example of the American Revolution of 1776 and the writings of Rousseau, the aristocracy sought the natural state of freedom, but was unable to attain the necessary compromises for its growth. The aristocracy then led the Revolution that ultimately deconstructed the monarchy. 11


Why did France not become a stable constitutional monarchy, attained in England in 1688? Louis could not accept the idea, imposed upon him by the Assembly. Marie-Antoinette of Austria, the highly unpopular queen 12 and now his political advisor, openly opposed it. The king was thus unable to take the monarchy in the only direction that could have assured its survival. The attempted flight to Varennes and potential foreign Austrian intervention in 1791 effectively ended his life and the possibility of a constitutional monarchy.


The French Revolution of 1789 was an act of the French people, a popular revolution in the name of Freedom; but with the specific alternatives unspecified and unknown. The following chaos and bloodshed was the result of a revolution that sought Freedom through Reason, by a terrified citizenry who did not know how to attain it. 13


Contrast this with the American Revolution of 1776, a relatively ordered affair as revolutions go. The thirteen largely self-governed American colonies revolted against George III. The Declaration of Independence was, of course, just that; but it was also a bill of particulars, citing extensive abuses by the monarch. It was with obvious reluctance that the American colonists, as has often been noted, fighting for their traditional rights, declared their Lockean social contract with George III null and void. After the revolution, the Americans remained in their thirteen largely self-governed states, only to become a nation later with the Constitutional Convention of 1787. 



Freedom and Democracy



In The Nature of Man (1994), Michael Jensen of the Harvard Business School, discusses five models of human nature, the last four describing a specific social science: 14


1.      The resourceful, evaluative, maximizing (REM) model.


2.      The economic, money maximizing model.


3.      The psychological, or hierarachy of needs model.


4.      The sociological, conformist model.


5.      The political, perfect agent model.



The Jensen REM model is the most general, positing that rational people “respond creatively to the opportunities the environment presents, and they work to loosen constraints that prevent them from doing as they wish. They care about not only money but about almost everything – respect, honor, power, love, and the welfare of others…The REM (rational) individual is always willing to give up some sufficiently small amount of any particular good … for some sufficiently large quantity of other goods.”15 This model has the advantage that other models do not; it can account for rational change. It is, however, a more general sort of economic model that analyzes at the margin.


Collins (2001) points out that notable companies have distinct cultures that go beyond model 2. The REM model is incomplete, also requiring the sociological model to account for people living in their societies. The French Revolution of 1789 carries a lesson that has been ignored or forgotten 16; it is impossible for societies to be born again. This lesson was learned in the 20th century developing world, and has been too easily forgotten in the 21st.


To operate reasonably, Reason - due to a lack of knowledge, the inconsistencies of the human experiences, the differences among people - has to have a societal foundation to get everyone on the same page, not necessarily on the same paragraph.  In practical democratic politics, REM and the sociological models are the most relevant. Describing the nature of liberalism, Smith (2007) writes, “Liberalism promotes individual freedom, an ethic of toleration, a respect for personal choice and group diversity; governments based on the informed consent of the governed. It is a doctrine of reasoned analysis…”. 17











We cite this 6/20/07 interview with Michael Kirk, Producer of a PBS Frontline show on Iraq:


Question: I am dumfounded that our military and political leaders did not know that historically and religiously, the Sunnis and the Shiites never have gotten along. Did they just ignore this fact before invading Iraq? Why were there no plans to address this issue?


Answer: There was a lot of information available before the invasion. People we have talked to said a kind of orthodoxy of optimism prevailed among those at the highest levels…


This orthodoxy assumed from Rousseau and the Continental Enlightenment that men and societies are uniform, rational, and naturally self-ordering once the “…‘Gothic’ accretions of history –arbitrary divisions of custom, habit, and jurisdiction that were the products of ancient conquests” were removed (Schama, 1989, p. 475). Culture is the collective dimension of life that is not irrelevant – even for Adam Smith. To suggest a pragmatic platitude, a policy is rational if its consequences are as intended.




None of the proponents of the war, including the neo-conservatives and also no one in the institutes and think-tanks that provided the intellectual fodder for the war’s justification had the faintest idea of the country they were to occupy….It was not only the absence of any systematic analysis, based on the wealth of information and experience about the country that was the cause of this woeful condition. It was more a deliberate…debunking of whatever knowledge on Iraq existed.


                                               Ali A. Allawi

                                               Iraq’s Former Defense Minister and Oxford Professor

                                               The Occupation of Iraq (2007), p. 7.

















Why was the area expertise within the government disregarded? The film, No End In Sight (2007), investigates how the U.S. went to war in Iraq by interviewing people in the government departments. The decision to go to war was made in the White House, without the customary consultation and coordination. “There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action,” the 7/02 British Downing Street Memo related. The original war plan conveniently assumed that the U.S. would defeat Saddam militarily, but not administer the country beyond conducting a limited humanitarian operation. Since there were no plans to actually run Iraq and to fight a long war, U.S. actions since Jay Garner’s ORHA (Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs) have been a series of costly improvisations.






The current debate on what to do in Iraq is polarized: stay the course (or they’ll get us here), alternately leave (because things couldn’t possibly get worse and might get better). Our missteps have created a fragmented situation on the ground. In such a situation, the logically simple action would be the wrong one. The 7/30/07 issue of Time magazine suggests the best way to manage out of the pernicious kaleidoscope we helped create:


How do we leave in a way that maximizes the good that we can still achieve and minimizes the damage that will inevitably occur? The best strategic minds in both parties have argued for months that the answer is essentially to muddle our way out, cut our losses carefully and try to salvage what we can from a mission gone bad.







Such a loss avoidance strategy, combined with the Biden Plan that envisions a federal partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurd tribal areas makes sense, as it takes advantage of the social order that exists, and can potentially exist. Iraq is a complex challenge to U.S. policy. A successful disengagement will be long and very complicated, requiring a consensus between the legislative and executive branches, public support, and a minimum of rhetoric.





Will the darkness in Iraq never cease?


 A 9/2/07 article by Thomas Friedman in the NYT points to the society built by the Kurds of northern Iraq where, after the overthrow of Saddam, there is finally hope and economic growth. According to Allawi (2007), the Kurdish tribes, after enduring bloody persecution under Saddam, have managed to forge a common identity. The political cultures of the Sunnis and the Shi’as are different. The Sunnis have a centralized political culture, so did the predecessor Sunni Turkish Ottomans. The Shi’as, on the other hand, now have a decentralized political culture that is religiously based. In all cases, tribal loyalties are not irrelevant. Were a federal solution in Iraq possible, each region would probably have a different kind of government; not at all like the uniform, secular, democratic state the U.S. has been trying without success to impose.