Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Lasting Legacy of the French Revolution

March 20, 1998

“The eighteenth century [was], in spite of all the battles won over Frenchmen by Germans and Englishmen, a preeminently French century, even before that crowning French Revolution, the result of which we outsiders, in England as well as in Germany, are still trying to acclimatize” (Engels 12). Engels certainly recognized the impact of the French Revolution, and the fact that it still affected him even in 1892, over a century after the storming of the Bastille. The events of the French Revolution influenced all the major thinkers of the nineteenth century, who freely admitted to the effect it had on them. The last legacy of the French Revolution can be traced from Edmund Burke’s conservatism to socialism, both the utopian of Flora Tristan and the scientific of Frederick Engels.

“Reflections on the French Revolution” by Edmund Burke is interesting because he wrote it in 1790, three years before the start of the Terror. Burke was less than pleased by what he saw in France, and his writing brings this out in full force. A major counter-revolutionary document, Burke’s “Reflection on the French Revolution” was very influential in Europe (Burke Introduction).

Burke was a conservative; he loved tradition. The French Revolution, which sought to completely break from the past, was repulsive to Burke. Burke’s idea of freedom differed from the revolutionaries in that he defined freedom only in order, in which the rights of the individual are subject to the state. Burke also romanticized the role of the aristocracy, and saw it as essential to the state.

Burke’s idea of community has similarities to socialism, which would later appear as a result of the French Revolution. Burke was no Karl Marx, but he did see the responsibility of the rich to care for the poor. Burke was also a strong believer in corporatism.

Despite Burke’s protest however, the revolution in France continued, and the impact it had on the coming generations was noticeable. Socialism, though its goals were in many ways different from that of the revolution, is a product of the French Revolution. It took the principle of equality, which was one of the major emphases of the French Revolution, and expanded it to refer to more than just equality under the law but economic equality as well.

Flora Tristan is an example of a utopian socialist. She wrote about forty years after the French Revolution but she obviously did not consider it an event in the distant past. Flora Tristan was both a citizen of France and a product of the French Revolution. Her mother had been a refugee from the Revolution who could not return to France until 1802 (Beik X). Tristan was proud of the French Revolution, but considered it unfinished. She wished not only to revive the democratic principles that had existed during the revolution, but also to make them international (Beik XX).

Tristan recognized that class struggle had not gone away with the overthrow of the aristocracy but rather had intensified. However, she did not preach violent revolution, as did the revolutionaries before her and Engels after her. Instead, Tristan wished to build on the achievements of the French Revolution. She encouraged the workers to claim their rights which the document, “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” established in 1791 (Tristan 108).

In “Worker’s Union”, Tristan saw the bourgeois class as having used the proletariat during the Revolution. She described the bourgeoisie as the head of the Revolution, the proletariat as its arms. Although the proletariat contributed the muscle, the bourgeoisie grabbed all the rights for themselves. In this way, the granting of rights to the proletariat through utopian socialism would be the continuation of what the French Revolution never finished. Tristan further emphasized the incompleteness of the French Revolution when at the end of “Worker’s Union” she made a plea for the equality and unity of all humanity. She ended by saying, “Sons of ’89, that is the work that your fathers have bequeathed to you!” (Tristan 122).

“The Tour of France” repeated many of the same themes. Tristan took the three themes of the Revolution of 1789, and corresponded each to a social concern in 1844: “(1)-Equality-the first right, to work, (2)-liberty-second right, to bread, (3)-fraternity-third right, to education” (Tristan 169).

Utopian socialists of the early nineteenth century gave way to scientific socialists, such as Engels and Marx. In contrast to the romanticism of utopian socialism, scientific socialists were materialists at heart. They rejected religion. Marx went as far as to call religion the opiate of the masses. This was in contrast to the radical religious ideals of the utopian socialists.

The belief of scientific socialists, that the only way to improve conditions for the proletariat would be a violent revolution, reflected the spirit of the radical stage of the French Revolution. The scientific socialists believed that history was progressive. Thus the French Revolution, in which the bourgeois class overthrew the aristocracy, was a necessary stepping stone to the eventual triumph of the proletariat.

Frederick Engels in his book “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” took a unique view on the French Revolution. He traced the beginnings of the bourgeoisie take over to the Reformation. According to Engels, the development of the bourgeoisie was incompatible with feudalism. Unfortunately, the center of feudalism was the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, all of the bourgeois struggles against feudalism prior to the French Revolution had to take on a religious disguise. However, it was science that Engels credits as starting the revolution. Since the bourgeoisie needed science for industrial production, they had no choice but to join in its rebellion again the church. Engels shared the view of Tristan, that the peasants helped the revolution but received nothing in return from the victorious bourgeois. Engels also declared that the Revolution was inevitable in order for the bourgeois to claim the fruits that were ripe for picking (Engels 18).

Engels saw the French Revolution as throwing off the religious cloak that had dominated the struggle until then. The bourgeoisie destroyed their opponents this time. The bourgeoisie took the opportunity to break from the past, including religion. Engels pointed out however that they have not been able to remain in control long, the monarch shortly afterwards returning to France. Engels claimed that America is the only nation where the bourgeoisie have been able to stay in control but only because it had no memory of feudalism to return to. The proletariat was ready to take over in both America and the continent (Engels 24-25). Only too late did the bourgeoisie realize the importance of religion. According to Engels, the bourgeoisie use religion to keep the proletariat in check. When the bourgeois rejected religion, they did not realize the ill they were doing to themselves, paving the way for the eventual proletariat revolution (Engels 28).

The ideals of the French Revolution also influenced Engels. The principles of equality, as well as his skepticism of religion, both have precedent in the revolution. Like Tristan, Engels also attributed materialism as a factor in the French Revolution, and was a materialist by his own admission. However, unlike Tristan, Engels regarded the French Revolution with scorn. While Tristan tended to think of the French Revolution as a good idea that did not go far enough, Engels saw it as a set back in the living conditions of the proletariat. “The society based upon reason had faired no better. The antagonism between rich and poor, instead of dissolving into general prosperity, had become intensified by the removal of the charitable institutions of the church” (Engels 34). In this respect, Engels can be seen as similar to Burke, who also maintained that conditions in France were worse as a result of the Revolution.

Instead of seeing the proletarian dominance as a completion of the Revolution, as Tristan did, Engels saw it as the solution of it. The proletarian revolution is a “solution of the contradictions” brought on by the French Revolution (Engels 74).

Although all three of these writers differed from the goals of the French Revolution, and from each other, it nevertheless had an impact on them. The French Republic might not have outlasted Napoleon, but the ideals produced by the Revolution had a tremendous affect on the intellectuals of the nineteenth century. These same ideas produced three very different responses, and yet all three can be traced back to the same event despite their differences with each other. The French Revolution had an impact that outlasted its immediate results.

Grade: A-/ B+

Professor’s Comments: Joel, this is a very fine paper. It is clear, well-organized, and you chose wonderful quotations to illustrate your point. You also integrate lecture material well. You not only suggest connections, you demonstrate them.
My biggest criticism is about language. You write well, but you can write even better. Some of you constructions are too wordy, or better put, not as direct as they could be. What you should do is to begin to edit out those phrases. I made a number of stylistic suggestions, just to give you an idea of what I mean. My purpose is not to be needlessly picky, but to encourage you to think about ways to improve your writing, because you have the ability to become an excellent writer.
Also, in the second half of the course, please contribute more to class discussions. You have good ideas; share them with the rest of us!
Good work.

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