Taken as a whole, the French Revolution, like any other historical event, may be understood in many ways. Excluding material or circumstantial causes, I see it as a sort of drama, each act of which is performed by characters—sometimes the same, sometimes different—who all, driven by some idea, strive to achieve a certain goal that gives meaning to their actions. I do not believe in the theory that men’s thoughts and actions determine their living conditions, for the very simple reason that no living condition is really unbearable to a man before he decides it is. There lies the difference between man and animal. Which is to say that the French Revolution and its course of events stem very simply from what men purported to do and persuaded others to do, even if, in the process, they fell victim to unforeseen consequences, including the logical outcome of their own ideas, to which they happened to be blind. The French Revolution is a rare example of ideas being put to work, forcing their own followers to fall prey to their inner and progressively revealed logic. Thus, the best historian of the French Revolution must also be a philosopher.
To put it in a nutshell, the French Revolution may be viewed as a lesson on the power of one of the most common of human vices: vanity, or the desire for social recognition—provided it is understood that lust for social standing is inversely proportionate to the love of those principles and ideas that are the true props of self-esteem. Men moved by vanity are vain and insecure, not proud.
First, there was the vanity of the upper-middle class, offended not to have achieved the recognition of the upper class: The former wished merely to join the club, to be gentlemen.
That triggered the vanity of the lower-middle class, a much greater mass of people, engaged in social change on an entirely different scale. These men wanted to be citizens, which meant members of the new sovereign. In other words, they wanted to be kings.
And, finally, the vanity of the lowest classes began to be heard, and particularly that of the misfits, who could not bear to have any class of men above them. In fact, they objected to the very existence of anyone who could be considered living proof that they were imperfect beings: They wanted to be gods.
Even though the Revolution was a rather bloody mess from the outset—people actually ate the still-warm heart of Monsieur de Launay, gouverneur de la Bastille, not-so-deftly carved out by an apprentice butcher—it was, nonetheless, imagined, in the minds of its first leaders, to be a “glorious revolution” in its own right, since, at that early stage, everything could be explained by the fact that a certain number of men felt excluded from the political processes and thought they deserved better. First among them was not so much the rising mass of people involved in the economic modernization of France that Marx will call the bourgeois but mostly people seeking social recognition and a share of political power: I mean the judiciary, Montesquieu being one of their prominent figures. Those people were not after money; they had plenty. They just thought that, within the fabric of French society, they had been dealt an unfair hand. They dreamt of a country in which, war being an absurd and vain policy, what was crucial was the law, the due process of law, the law state, and its guardians, rather than men bearing swords. They dreamt of a constitutional state in which the constitution and the laws derived from it would be the new gods, and the judges would be the new priests. They did not want to kill anyone—still less the king himself. They wished for a constitutional monarchy, and their wish was, at first, fulfilled. (It was to take 26 years for it to become a permanent reality.)
In order to create this state, they had to combat the sanctity of the previous monarchy and to unleash a spirit they secretly dreaded but had to enlist openly to win the day: the spirit of democracy, the claim that power belongs to the people at large. They needed it, for traditional society had no special political role for them. But they wanted to put it back in its bottle as soon as it had succeeded in jolting the powers of yesterday into allowing them to participate. They wanted to enter the restricted club, not to open its doors to anybody and everybody. Later, they received some reinforcement from all the people who had taken a good bite out of the biens nationaux and who would have been quite satisfied to let the Revolution rest at that. That is why they went so far as to invent two classes of citizens, dubbed, respectively, “active” and “passive”: Nobody but the propertied could vote or be elected. Such was, then, the first act of the play. It lasted as long as its leading character, its star, the moderate, managed to survive. Blood was shed, but on the backstage, so that the moderate could ignore this less-palatable ingredient of the proposed meal. For three years, until the summer of 1792, the moderate was the hero.
Alas for him, the king, a man redeemed by his death but not much else, got into his head the half-baked idea of fleeing. He managed it so clumsily that he not only lost whatever hold he still had on the situation, but, killing two birds with the same stone, he also deprived the moderate of any chance to persuade the spirit to return to its bottle (if ever there had been any chance it would). With the monarchy now disqualified, the spirit of democracy was once and for all set free. Thus began the second act of the play, in which the leading role was to be performed by Rousseau and his disciples.
What happened was something that I daresay is rather preposterous to any pragmatic, realistic mind not dedicated to abstract rationalism. What is democracy? asks Rousseau. His answer: The sovereign government of the people by the people. But how are the people to be sovereign? Rousseau responds with frightening and impeccable logic: The people are sovereign when each person declared qualified to be a member of the people is himself sovereign. And there is the rub. Logically, the sovereignty of every citizen must be compatible with the sovereignty of every other one. Now, there are not many ways to achieve that: The less every individual thinks of himself as different from others—as somebody with his own tastes, his own interests, his own attachments, his own home, his own family, and so forth—the more he will discard all that is irrelevant but incompatible with his duties as a citizen. The less he is tempted to put this sovereignty to his own use, the less the sovereignty of his own will shall conflict with the sovereignty of others and, therefore, the more everyone will act as a single will. Then, and only then, will all be sovereign together and at the same time. Then will democracy be real. In other words, to be a good citizen, you have to stop being what you are by nature, or, to use the catchword of the time, you have to be virtuous.
Hence, there exists a governing political principle, the grassroot of any particular policy you can conceive of, and, naturally, the one that should be implemented first and foremost, which runs something like this: Forget whatever makes you a particular individual; give up your own self; become selfless; learn to hate whatever pertains to your particular individuality. These are precisely the rules the disciples of Rousseau proceeded to enforce. In a most memorable and truly metaphysical speech at the Convention, Robespierre declared war on the “abjection du moi” (abjection of egoism) and proclaimed as patriots and true citizens only those who succeeded in caricaturing the age-old ideal of self-abnegation by becoming monks whose god was the Nation.
The process was bound to derail into sheer madness: Anybody yielding to his natural proclivities could be suspected of being a lukewarm patriot. Terror was the natural outcome of this unrelenting hunt for purity. And, it must be added, traditional French Christian culture contributed to this witch hunt. For centuries—it could be traced back to the Greek philosophers—it had been ignoble to deal with money, to be involved in banking or trade. Whatever the reasons (and some were quite respectable), it is quite clear those prejudices kindled animosity toward men engaged in lucrative activities, such as merchants and industrialists. How could they be anything but “accapareurs” (sharks), sheer “monopolistes” (monopolizers), prepared to starve the people to death to promote their own selfish interests to the detriment of the supreme, sacred glory of the country itself? Radical democracy turned against liberal democracy: Money, as Rousseau put it, was a “motd’esclave” (a slave’s language, that of a person willing to sell himself). And beyond hostility to entrepreneurs lurked the irresistible feeling that inequality was the worst enemy of democracy: No hierarchy of any kind was admissible among citizens. What a perfect opportunity for envy—this secular and all-too-human passion—to satisfy its boundless greed! Terror was needed to save the country, to save the Revolution, to save democracy. It had to be made law—and that is precisely what Robespierre did. Who could have denied its legitimacy, who could have stopped the fateful escalation? Whatever might be required in the way of self-sacrifice and elimination of traitors had to be just and good, because there was nothing in which you differed from your neighbor from which an undue love of yourself could not stem. And, to be a good citizen, you had to submit to this sacrifice, which, all in all, had to be of your own doing rather than that of any possible tyrant! Was it not the duty of a good citizen to seek out traitors and to start by investigating himself?
Nonetheless, whatever the terrorists of ’93 may have done—and they did resort to mass murder—their terror was of a different order from the terror brought on by our totalitarian 20th century, such as it is described, for instance, by Solzhenitsyn. The self-proclaimed patriots of ’93 were disciples of Rousseau. They wanted to engender a new man, the perfect citizen. To achieve that, each person had to purify himself of the new sin: his private interest. This was seemingly feasible: Was not Robes-pierre claiming to be incorruptible? And, of course, being only human, it was all too tempting for each of them, while trying to eradicate that sin from himself, to point his finger at the same sin in others, thereby begetting and abetting widespread terror. The extremes to which they carried this all-too-human policy, however, should not conceal a decisive fact: There was a reward for self-sacrifice, self-purification—a tremendous one. Indeed, by trying to be a good citizen, everyone was also (and, I think, mainly) trying to be what a good citizen deserves to be: a member of the body of citizens, a sovereign in his own right. And this did not exclude others from achieving the same status. Henceforth, even though every good citizen may have felt obligated to expose bad ones, he had no vital interest in doing so: He had attained his primary ambition, his revenge, which was to “become somebody” (as l’abbé de Sieyes so aptly put it as early as 1789). Henceforth, he no longer belonged to a subordinate, inferior class of society (the Third Estate or common people). The lowest dreg of society had now become a king in his own right, and, to be a king, he did not necessarily need everyone else to bow down to him (although, once again, lots and lots of unpatriotic heads had to fall before attaining that state of democratic bliss). The whole process triggered a civil war, but one for which you might anticipate a happy ending: a society of fraternal kings.
And that is why appearances are misleading: We merely seem to have reached ultimate perfection in tyranny, the first draft of a totalitarian society. Actually, the blood already shed should not blind us. There was more to come; there was another step to be taken before attaining our grandiose gulags; and it is only this latter step that begins to sound totalitarian.
The third act of the play was written by Gracchus Babeuf. It was not written in blood (except his own) but remained a sort of blueprint of things to come. As for the facts, the French obviously wearied of civil war, and, even though it continued more discreetly until the Consulat, its most spectacular momentum was spent when they beheaded Robespierre in July 1794. But Babeuf, somehow ahead of his time, picked up the trail left by Robespierre and went to work.
What were his inspirers really after? They were intent on making the perfect citizen, and, while thinking it could be done, they were still reasoning along the old line, the classical Greek and Christian one: There is an evil side to men, and, even though you could expose it in others, you could not help assuming you had your own (which was probably why you had to point it out in others before they indentified it in you). No matter how much you considered others evil (mauvais patriot), you still had to strive not to be evil yourself, you still had to work to erase your own evil streak (your own egoism). And you were, first and foremost, the one in whose heart evil and sin were embedded.
But these inspirers were not Christians. They hated Chris-tian philosophy. There was an inner and sinister momentum to their ideas, and it was unleashed by Babeuf. This is the way his mind worked. Being a man of the same mold as Anacharsis Cloots, who proclaimed himself “l’ennemi personnel de Dieu,” Babeuf could find no explanation for the presence of any kind of evil in man. In this way, he was even truer to Rousseau than Robespierre had ever been. The latter had adhered to Rousseau’s belief that, to engender a perfect society, you had to “renaturer l’homme” (recover the equivalent of what man was by nature)—with his own help, if possible. Babeuf, apparently a good father and a good husband, followed another of Rousseau’s suggestions: Why should I be evil? What sort of crime have I committed, being only what Nature tells me to be? Why could it not be society itself that makes man evil? As the famous saying goes: l’homme n’est pas mauvais, c’est la société qui l’a rendu tel? (Man is not bad, it is society that makes him so.) Babeuf had thus discovered a new clue: If I am perfect by nature (as Rousseau said), and yet my behavior is not perfect, or, even more important, if I am not happy, not pleased with what I am or the way life goes, there can be only one reason: Others are responsible, not me. Others must be responsible not only for my country’s plights but for mine, for my wife’s, for my children’s miseries. Therefore, others must be evil, not me, a total reversal of the traditional culture of Europe.
Now you had to answer the question: which others? Who are to be the evil ones? Again, simple logic prevailed. Since my sinlessness allows me to think however I please without ever feeling guilty, it is obvious that anybody who comes my way may be deemed evil. After all, had not Rousseau himself claimed that the most natural and, therefore, universal passion of mankind was for each individual to love himself first, and, of course, more than any other person? Was not Rousseau implying that nobody cares for me? Of course, we could argue that this feeling is entirely reversible, but what does that lead to, if not to the idea (back to the horrible Mr. Hobbes!) that society is nothing but a war of everyone against everyone else, or, conversely, that paradise for men was a place where each could live in perfect solitude? So the enemy could not remain only the rich, the powerful, the ones demanding obedience as men of God, etc. Everybody was a potential enemy, or could be suspected of being so, simply because nobody cared for anybody and everybody was different from anybody else.
And then comes the crowning element. The most immediately threatening people must obviously be the ones who had the ability to do anything better, faster, more effectively than you, or simply to do it, whereas you could not. What was to be done with these people? Babeuf is clear about implementing the final solution. “Si un bucheron,” he says, “peut abattre tout seul un arbre en cinq minutes, alors qu’il faut une demie-heure à cinq autres pour le faire, il faut poursuivre cet homme comme un fléau public et l’empêcher de nuire.” (“If a lumberjack can fell a tree single-handed in five minutes, while it takes five others half an hour to do so, this man must be pursued as a public danger and prevented from doing harm.”) From there, it was a short jump indeed to thinking there was nothing more intolerable to an individual than the most minute difference between himself and others. And it was an even shorter jump to considering that your self-esteem was directly proportionate to your ability to prevent anybody from being anything you yourself could not be. The final outcome can be safely guessed: You end up satisfied with what you are to the extent that you see nobody who is not so much superior as simply different from yourself. And that was the program of the “Conspiration des Egaux.”
What Babeuf had in mind was not implemented. People must have grown tired of living in constant terror of the outcome—particularly the mass of propertied people, longing for the restoration of law and order. Having attempted to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte, Babeuf was arrested and beheaded. Babeuf’s time, however, was to come—the time when everyone would fear everyone else and would try to suppress that fear by suppressing others, when you could survive only at the expense of someone else’s life, when your survival (a potato) could be bought only with the promise of starving someone else, when every man would become a wolf to every other, and the only pleasure to be derived from any social relationship would be that no one could feel safe enjoying anything you could not enjoy yourself. And that is what totalitarian democracy, communism, is about at its core.
For this society to come into being, for these feelings and this behavior to spread to masses of people, something else that did not fully exist at the time of Babeuf was required. For communism to sprout, a special relationship among men had to become absolutely standard, most common, most typical of the society in which they lived. This relationship is one into which a person is forced to enter and keep entering with someone else, even though he feels continually cheated by the other party, which means that party is totally indifferent to equity or fairness and that he ruthlessly uses whatever strengths he has to take advantage of whomever he is dealing with, while the latter is in a position of both weakness and inability to sever the relationship. If men in a given society maintain this relationship to one another, they will soon be divided into actively warring enemies. And the losers (or the ones considering themselves losers) will be convinced that the happiness of others is directly responsible for their own misery and, therefore, will be fiercely intent on shaking the hold of their exploiters, depriving them of any means to perform their unjust and hateful tricks, reducing them to such a state that they will be on the same footing as their victims, and eventually changing the fabric of society altogether.
This is exactly how Marx envisioned the society that was slowly emerging before his eyes from the ashes of the ancien régime: a society of division of labor, in which everyone depends on everyone else but in which some people have managed to force others to work in such a way that they have to do it on their exploiters’ terms. So he started considering a way to change the situation radically. The revolt of the proletarians against the bourgeois was supposed to achieve that goal and build a classless society. What Marx did not foresee were the inner dynamics of the idea. Once you start thinking that, for any exchange between men to take place on fair terms, they have to be on absolutely equal footing, you have stepped onto an extremely slippery slope. At the bottom, being faced with the possibility of gaining through the exchange with others, everybody prefers to get nothing—provided the others do not get anything either—rather than see anyone gaining more. This is exactly what happened when the classless society started to remain classless only because people were so poor that they had to fight one another all day, every day, just to survive, their only glimmer of hope being the thought that all the others were as miserable as they were. And that is true totalitarianism, a society in which everyone finds an interest in controlling everyone else.