© 2020, by M. Keith Booker
The French Revolution was clearly the most important single event in the historical progress of modernity. And, given that many historians would argue that the sweeping hundreds-of-years-long process of capitalist modernization is the most important social and political transformation to have occurred in all of history, then it makes sense to argue that the French Revolution was the most important event in all of history. It was, however, an extremely complex event that has been viewed in many ways by many different observers over the centuries. It was essentially a bourgeois revolution in which the bourgeoisie seized power from the monarchy, the Church, and the aristocracy, though it had significant working-class support. Moreover, it was also not a simple and clean transformation that marked a sudden break in French history. Instead, it was a key marker on the long road to modernization of French society and one whose direct consequences remained strongly contested in France for nearly a century and whose ideals continue to exercise an influence in France (and around the world) today.
Historians generally date the French Revolution itself from 1789 to 1799. Pressures had built throughout the eighteenth century, as the French political system grew increasingly anachronistic and out-of-step with the times, while the French intellectual climate grew increasingly modern. Meanwhile, an growing financial crisis in the late 1780s finally boiled over into all-out revolution, the beginning of which can be marked by the storming of the Bastille (a Paris fortress being used as a state prison) on July 14, 1789. Attempts to respond to the crisis by establishing a constitutional monarchy and drafting a new constitution (far more radical and forward-looking than the new U.S. constitution) proved insufficient to quell the rising tide of revolutionary energies. By January 1793, King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine, ending the monarchy altogether. The aristocracy and Catholic Church were banned, ending the feudal period in France once and for all. The revolutionary government even adopted an entirely new calendar, beginning at year 1, to emphasize that they were attempting a radical break from history. Such breaks, of course, are difficult, and this one was impossible to attain, though France (and, ultimately, Europe) would never again be the same as a result of the revolution.
Postrevolutionary France soon found itself surrounded by enemies, as the other governments in Europe feared a spread of the revolution to their own realms. These pressures, along with ongoing instability within France itself led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte as a strong leader who stabilized France, even though his rise, eventually to the status of emperor, represented a turn away from many of the more democratic aspirations of the revolution, including its commitment to the core concepts of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Napoleon became First Consul of the Republic via a November 1799 coup that many historians see as the end of the French Revolution; he was crowned emperor in 1804. Subsequently, his armies marched across Europe, bringing modern ideas as they went, until they bogged down in the Russian winter of 1812–1813, leading to Napoleon’s eventual defeat and exile in 1814. He escaped from his island confinement and briefly returned, raising an army that led him to be defeated once and for all in 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo.
Attempts to restore the monarchy in France (with the support of France’s recent enemies) were unable to overcome the modernizing impulses that had driven the revolution. A restored Bourbon monarchy lasted from 1814 to 1830, when the reigning King Charles X was deposed in a bourgeois-driven July Revolution that led to the rule of King Louis-Philippe in a bourgeois-dominated limited monarchy from 1830 to 1848. In that year, a wave of working-class revolutions swept across Europe, but these revolutions were, one after another, put down by alliances of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, representing the first time the bourgeoisie has opposed revolutionary actions and indicating the recognition by the bourgeoisie that they were now the true ruling class in Europe, even where monarchs remained.
In France, the revolution of 1848 toppled the regime of Louis-Philippe, leading to the establishment of the Second French Republic, with Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, elected its president. Unfortunately, Louis Bonaparte was both less competent and more tyrannical than his illustrious uncle, and his reign came to be seen as the epitome of bourgeois conservatism, conformism, intolerance, and hypocrisy—perhaps as best expressed in the epic takedown of his regime in Karl Marx’s classic essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852). This essay, meanwhile, was triggered by the coup engineered by Louis Bonaparte that allowed him to assume dictatorial powers, after which he proceeded to attempt to build a new French Empire, styling himself as Emperor Louis Napoleon III.
Louis Bonaparte’s policies were ruinous to France, eventually leading to France’s disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and bringing a permanent end to France’s status as a rival for the status as the world’s leading power. As the war wound down, a workers’ rebellion took control of large parts of Paris, establishing the Paris Commune, which became the last great expression of the most radical impulses of the French Revolution. Bourgeois forces eventually put down this rebellion as well, establishing the Third French Republic, which has essentially remained the central political force in France to this day, though its progress was twice interrupted by world war in the twentieth century.
All of the political upheaval in France between 1789 and 1871 had a great impact on French culture of that period but also exercised a broad influence even outside of France. In the twentieth century, the French Revolution and its legacy became a point of great contention, as Marxist historians tended to represent it as a positive movement toward genuine democracy, while bourgeois historians (especially during the Cold War, when the French Revolution was often seen as the predecessor to the Russian Revolution) tended to depict it as a bloody outbreak of anarchy and mob rule, followed by postrevolutionary repression. In the nineteenth century, the French Revolution tended to be figured particularly negatively in Britain, partly because the French and British were bitter rivals in the battle for supremacy in Europe. In literature, for example, probably the best-known British work inspired by the French Revolution was Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which shows a profound horror of popular revolt in general and ultimately depicts the French Revolution as driven by insane mob violence.
Although French literature did not directly reflect the revolution as much as one might expect, all of the numerous novels of Honoré de Balzac respond in one way or another to the turmoil of French society between the revolution and Balzac’s death in 1850. Balzac was a great admirer of the Old Order (the Ancien Régime) in France and was horrified by what he saw as the vulgar and venal impulses of the new capitalist order that arose in the wake of the revolution. And yet, his novels reflect a sense of the historically inevitable victory of capitalism, despite his own sympathies. Other works were about later periods than the original revolution itself. One of the greatest of all nineteenth-century novels, Victor Hugo’s Romantic epic Les Misérables (1862), deals with a great deal of French history, especially events surrounding the July Revolution.
In this course, we will be reading Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), a novel that does not deal with dramatic historical events, but with the boredom and mediocrity of French life under the rule of Louis Bonaparte. Of course, Flaubert could not openly criticize the ruling regime without going to prison or worse. So, even though the society depicted in his novel is clearly the contemporary society ruled by Louis Bonaparte, Flaubert carefully inserted historical markers to make it appear as if the action of his novel all occurs before the reign of Louis Bonaparte (but after the reign of the original Napoleon Bonaparte). Thus, the earliest action we can date in the book is the birth of Charles Bovary in 1815, while the latest is his death in 1847. But it is very clear from the details provided in the book that the society being satirized in the book is really the contemporary one being presided over by Louis Bonaparte.
The French Revolution has continued to exercise an influence on literature since the nineteenth century, including a number of American novels that focus on aspects of the revolution that have perhaps received too little attention in historical accounts. These include Arna Bontemps’s Drums at Dusk (1939), which focuses on the overlap between the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution; Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine (1945), which focuses on points of contact between the American and French Revolutions; and Marge Piercy’s City of Darkness, City of Light (1996), which focuses on the role of women in the revolution. In Europe, the French Revolution has inspired such recognized literary classics as Peter Weiss’s 1964 German play Marat/Sade, adapted to film by Peter Brook under the same title in 1967.
Indeed, there have been many films based on the events of the French Revolution, including the French/Polish co-production Danton (1983) and the recent French film One Nation, One King (2018). There’s even a 2020 French language supernatural horror series set during the French Revolution, called La Révolution, available on Netflix. In addition, the revolution serves as background to Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), which is essentially a werewolf film. The revolution has also inspired American films ranging from such classics as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) to Sofia Coppola’s playful postmodern focus on the title character in Marie Antoinette (2006). There has even been a film noir based on the revolution in Anthony Mann’s The Black Book (1949).
Not surprisingly, the French Revolution has exercised an even stronger influence on global politics than on global literature. Its legacies are still visible in today’s French society, as in its fierce devotion to secularism, an attitude that has recently caused controversy because it has led to conflicts with Muslim elements within the society. And many aspects of the French Revolution have exercised an ongoing influence on progressive, egalitarian movements all over the world. At the same time, reactions against the French Revolution—most famously beginning with Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which provided an immediate (and horrified) reaction to the revolution—have been very prominent. Burke’s book contributed to the growth of anti-revolutionary fervor in an England where the Romantic poets initially greeted the revolution with enthusiasm but exercised a broader influene as well. Indeed, as Corey Robin has recently argued, reactions against the French Revolution (with Burke’s book leading the way) have formed the foundation of the entire conservative movement to this day, with the attitudes of American conservatives from Richard Nixon, to Ronald Reagan, to Donald Trump being directly traceable to Burke and other opponents of the revolution.
This dual legacy is reflected in historical accounts of the French Revolution as well. Among negative views, the Cold War vision of the French Revolution as an outbreak of bloody mob violence was first popularized by British historian Alfred Cobban, with his 1955 study, Myth of the French Revolution, which was then followed by the work of a number of American historians in the same vein. More recently, though, reassessments of the French Revolution have seen it more positively, as an important milestone on the road to modernization and democracy. These studies include George Rudé’s The French Revolution (1988), Eric Hobsbawm’s Echoes of the Marseillaise (1990), and Iser Woloch’s The New Regime (1994).
Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Cobban, Alfred. Myth of the French Revolution, 1955. Arden Library, 1978.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution. 1990. Rutgers University Press, 2019.
Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., Edited by Robert C. Tucker, W. W. Norton, 1978, pp. 594–617.
Robin, Corey. The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Rudé, George. The French Revolution: Its Causes, Its History and Its Legacy after 200 Years. Grove Press, 1994.
Woloch, Iser. The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789–1820s. W.W. Norton, 1994.
 Marx’s title refers to the fact that, on November 9, 1852 (the 18th day of the month of Brumaire under the new calendar adopted during the revolution), Louis Bonaparte was proclaimed the new emperor as Napoleon III. Tellingly, this was the anniversary of the day in 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power via a coup.
 Despite this cleverness, Flaubert still got into trouble over his novel, which was deemed to be obscene because it deals with adultery. He still managed to get off the hook, though, by pointing out that the novel certainly does not endorse adultery. His difficulties, of course, simply reinforce the point made in his novel about how stultifying this society really was.