The French Revolution and Its Unstable Politics

1789: France’s Glorious Revolution Manqué

by Brendan Clifford

The French Revolution attempted for a number of years to reproduce the essential features of the English Revolution of 1688. From 1789 to 1792 it attempted to stabilise itself as a constitutional monarchy. And in 1792/1793 it attempted to be a well-behaved Republic such as a constitutional monarchy might be if the monarchical element simply evaporated from it leaving the orderly political process to continue out of habit.

The French Revolution, in the impression it has left on historical fancy, began in the chaos of 1793, when France left the orbit of English experience.

Many histories of the French revolution were published before the declaration of the Republic in 1792 – which, so far as the general idea of it is concerned, was before the revolution began. Among the first was John Talbot Dillon’s Historical And Critical Memoirs of the General Revolution In France In The Year 1789, which was published by The Times (in book form) in 1790.

Between 1789 and 1793 there were at least three possible points at which the Revolution might have stabilised into a functional state. Because it did not stabilise into a functional state these points are largely forgotten.

History is the region of accomplished fact. And despite all the pseudoscientific debunking of the past twenty years the history of England continues to be known in connection with the accomplishers of political facts – Henry II, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth etc.

If the French Revolution had crystallised into a state between 1789 and 1791 it would be forever associated with the name of Mirabeau. As it is Mirabeau, though a statesman of immense ability and imagination, is only a marker at a point at which something remarkable might have happened but didn’t.

The old order

The French Revolution – which was for four years a French Disintegration was launched by Louis XVI, an absolute monarch who, though not much of a politician, was a political reformer. He wanted to tax the aristocracy. If, like his great ancestor Louis XIV, he had been an administrator by vocation, he would have found a way of taxing the aristocracy without throwing the state into flux. But Louis XVI had no gift for either political manoeuvre or administration.

Under the old order in France the aristocracy had an institution, called a Parliament, whose function was to register laws. If the French aristocracy had been of a different social quality the Parliament of Paris might have developed on the lines of the English Parliament. (The role of Parliament in the political life of England was very restricted and uncertain until the Parliamentary assassination of the King’s deputy, Wentworth, in 1641 began the era of Parliamentary sovereignty.) But the Parliament of Paris confined itself to preserving aristocratic privileges and rejecting land taxes.

In 1640 Charles I assembled the first Parliament for eleven years, and this led to his downfall. In 1789 Louis XVI called the first general assembly of the three feudal Estates for 150 years: Clergy, Aristocracy and People (or Third Estate). He doubled the representation of the Third Estate to make it equal to the other two combined. His purpose was to mobilise popular force to overrule aristocratic privilege which was disturbing government.

The members of the Third Estate were known as roturiers. The word conveys the idea of people who were nondescript and miscellaneous. John Talbot Dillon explains:

“ROTURIERS is a contumelious expression, to denote a man not noble, let him be ever so rich. This body of men, hitherto with great contempt, are described by the word la roture. It is probable this word will no longer find a place in their dictionaries.” (Historical and Critical Memoirs Of The General Revolution In France, 1790.)

The First and Second Estates – the Clergy and Aristocracy had their allocated places in the Ancient Regime. But the Third Estate had no function in the official order of things. Between meetings of the Estates General the Third Estate existed in dispersion, like the dust of humanity waiting to be reassembled at the sound of the last trumpet. The people were assumed to be going about their particular bits of private business without public awareness while the King ruled, the Parliament vetoed, and the Convocations of the Clergy looked for Calvinists to pester.

But when the Estates were assembled in 1789 it was found that within the miscellany of roturiers there had developed the strongest corporate will in French society – that of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie had become an informal estate – and an estate more coherent in its social substance than any of the formal estates. But it saw itself not merely as an Estate but as the nucleus of the nation.

The fall of the Bastille

When the three Estates were assembling the intention was that they should meet separately, as Lords and Commons did in England, and that each should have its distinct relationship with the King. But the Third Estate refused to assemble as a distinct Estate. It called for a fusion of the three Estates in a National Assembly, and it subverted the other estates by attracting a considerable portion of the Clergy and a significant fraction of the Aristocracy to itself. While the King was hesitating about disbanding the Estates and recognising the National Assembly, the people of Paris – and the respectable people, it seems, rather than the sans culottes – assaulted the Bastille on July 14. The King was greatly impressed by the fall of the Bastille, and he recognised the National Assembly.

(The Bastille was demolished following its capture. And when the Revolution needed extensive prison space a few years later it had to use monasteries and convents.)

In the month following the fall of the Bastille the social order of feudalism collapsed. The peasantry all around the country got the idea that the aristocracy were mobilising a terrorist force to punish them for what had happened in Paris, and in the grip of the Great Fear the peasants of each locality besieged the local aristocrat and expropriated the documentation of the feudal order. The National Assembly hesitated for a while, but on August 4 it adopted a set of Decrees abolishing feudalism and providing for a legal establishment of contractual property relations in land.

The Estates General began to assemble in June. And by August the feudal order had collapsed and the country was being governed by the King and the National Assembly in a constitutional relationship. And John Talbot Dillon set about writing the history of the French Revolution as an accomplished fact.

Of course we know that when Dillon wrote his history of the French Revolution it had scarcely begun. All that had happened was the first stage of disintegration. But who knew in the first year of the Revolution that the revolution had scarcely begun? It would seem that only Edmund Burke suspected such a thing.

Dillon (one of those Irish gentlemen with strong Continental connections who were common in the 18th century but disappeared in the 19th century) wrote:

‘The Assembly met again on the evening of the 4th of August… when the articles of the famous Constitution of France were drawn up and passed by the Assembly. Every member seemed eager and impatient to contribute towards the erection of this superb edifice, this tower of adamant, which was to surprise mankind by its beauty and strength, and afford happiness by its perfection …

“In one night the whole kingdom underwent a total change; the whole order of things, which force had maintained, in opposition to the courage of so many generations, and the devastations of time, was now subverted.

‘The enormous and stately tree of feudality, whose extensive branches reached as it were to the skies, while its baneful shade covered all France, was torn up by the roots, and lay prostrate on the ground, to perish and decay.

“In one night, the citizen and the husbandman became free, and no longer subject to the oppression of the proud lord, who enjoyed the fruits of their labour and toil. The noble became truly so, by holding that station in civil society which belonged to him, according to the laws of reason and good sense, in lieu of those of feudal oppression. In one night, the Court of Rome has been obliged to yield the numerous usurpations so long complained of, and finally submit to the decrees of equity and moderation.

‘Thus, that Cerberus of despotism – that feudal, aristocratic and parliamentary monster, has been slain IT] one vigorous blow, and the kingdom. of France rescued by an exalted set of men, who had the spirit to raise a new empire of wisdom, justice and liberty” (Ibid., . pp.471-2).

An accomplished fact?

This was not the eccentric view of an Irish gentleman of cosmopolitan culture. It was pretty well the view of every right-thinking progressive between September 1789 and June 1791. It was the view of Richard Price DD in his famous address to the Revolution Society in the Meeting House at Old Jewry on November 4 1789. And it was the view of Tom Paine when he wrote the first part of The Rights of Man a year later. The French Revolution was seen as an accomplished fact – a fact accomplished almost by the stroke of a pen on the night of August 4, 1789.

The August Decrees of the Assembly legitimised the peasant rebellion of the preceding weeks and dismantled all the feudal restrictions on the freedom of the individual. There was now general freedom of expression, of assembly, and of trade. The people – almost all the people – had been freed from the system of feudalism which had caused them to behave unnaturally. And there was a place for all in the new system – a system of Reason which, being in accordance with Nature, was conducive to harmony. A few cantankerous aristocrats and a few bigoted priests might out of sheer distemper refuse to live in the new order but they would be incapable of disturbing it. Virtually all of the people whom the old system had diverted from the ways of Nature, oppressors as well as oppressed, would be restored to naturally harmonious conditions of humanity by the new system.

Only Edmund Burke disbelieved in this miracle. Burke was a very rare bird among politicians – a reformer without a Utopian ideal. His understanding told him that humanity was not a species with a fixed and. objective nature, needing only to be freed from distorting influences in order to become harmonious in its social behaviour. It was, by comparison with all that lived in nature, an artificial contrivance, and required complex conditions to sustain itself. Aristotle’s maxim, “Man is a political animal”, was true in the very fullest sense.

Aristotle did not mean simply that many humans are interested in politics: he meant that humanity is constituted by politics. Jn fact most people are not much interested in politics – but their social character is determined by the political framework of their existence whether they are interested in politics or not. What humanity is varies with the political environment Stable human societies of the most diverse kinds have existed throughout history and there has been no sign of any natural gravitation towards a general norm for humanity as a whole.

(The United Nations, which in very recent times has draped the facade of a general norm around the world, was not a product of human nature asserting itself within the diverse forms of human existence. It was established by the sheer power of modem capitalist imperialism, which in the course of the past hundred years interfered with all non-European forms of human existence and disrupted them.)

Burke’s closest political friends all believed in the French Revolution of 1 789. And Burke, for reasons of human sympathy as well as for reasons of political convenience, would have liked to believe in it. But he could not bring himself to set aside his understanding in order to believe. He knew that man was a political animal, and he could not see that the French Revolution of 1789 had made arrangements capable of sustaining human existence in a progressive form in a large European society.

Burke’s disbelief

On February 9, 1790, Burke forced himself to express to the Commons his disbelief in the French Revolution, knowing that in doing so he was isolating himself from the political associates of a generation.

“In the last century, Louis the Fourteenth had established a greater and better disciplined military force than ever had been seen in Europe, and with it a perfect despotism. Though that despotism was proudly arrayed in manners, gallantry, splendour, magnificence, and even covered over the imposing robes of science, literature and arts, it was, in government, nothing better than a painted and gilded tyranny; in religion, an hard stern intolerance, the fit companion and auxiliary to the despotic tyranny which prevailed in its government. The same character of despotism insinuated itself into every court of Europe – the same spirit of disproportioned magnificence – the same love of standing armies, above the ability of the people. In particular, our then Sovereigns, King Charles and King James, fell in love with the government of their neighbour … It were well that the infection had gone no farther than the Throne …

‘This day the evil is totally changed in France: but there is an evil. The disease is altered; but the vicinity of the two countries remains, and must remain; and the natural mental habits of mankind are such that the present distemper of France is far more likely to be contagious than the old one; for it is not quite easy to spread a passion for servitude among the people: but in all evils of the opposite kind our natural inclinations are flattered…

“In the last age we were in danger of being entangled by the example of France in the net of relentless despotism… Our present danger from the example of a people, whose character knows no medium, is, without regard to government, a danger from anarchy … On the side of religion, the danger is no longer from intolerance, but from Atheism …

“The French have made their way through the destruction of their country, to a bad constitution, when they were in possession of a good one. They were in possession of it the day the States met in separate orders. Their business, had they been either virtuous, or wise,… was to secure the stability and independence of the States, according to those orders, under the Monarch on the Throne. It was then their duty to redress their grievances.

“Instead of redressing grievances, and improving the fabric · of their state, to which they were called by their Monarch, and sent by their Country, they were made to take a very different course. They first destroyed all the balances and counterposes which serve to fix the state; and to give it a steady direction; and which furnish sure correctives to any violent spirit which may prevail in any of the orders …

“When they had done this, they instantly … laid the axe to the root of all property, and consequently of all national prosperity, by confiscating all the possessions of the church. They made and recorded a sort of institute and digest of anarchy, called the rights of man, in such a pedantic abuse of elementary principles as would have disgraced boys at school; but this declaration of rights was worse than trifling and pedantic in them; as by their name and authority they systematically destroyed every hold of authority by opinion, religious or civil, on the minds of the people. By this mad declaration they subverted the state …

“He felt some concern that this strange thing, called a Revolution in France, should be compared with the glorious event, commonly called the Revolution in England… In truth, the circumstances of our revolution ( as it is called) and that of France are just the reverse of each other in almost every particular, and in the whole spirit of the transaction” (Substance of the Speech of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke In The Debate On The Army Estimates. London 1790).

1688 and 1789

History is sometimes written as if Burke’s disbelief in the French Revolution of 1789 caused it to go astray. But Burke had no influence in France. His observation of French affairs was not in any degree an interference in French affairs. French affairs went on their way uninfluenced by Burke’s opinions. There was no Burkean party in the French Revolution. Andre Chenier, pamphleteer of the right wing party of the Revolution, the Feuillants, mentioned Burke’s views only to dismiss them.

Burke’s views were irrelevant to French politics. Nobody acting within the Revolution could have found them useful or enlightening. The condition of things which Burke described as a subversion of the state was the actual Constitution of France, and there was no possibility of going back to May 1789 and constituting the States General into counterparts of the Lords and Commons. The Estates had crumbled and could never be reconstituted.

Burke backed his political understanding against all current belief when he said that the French Constitution was a subversion of the French state. So far as France was concerned, this statement was in the nature of a detached observation. It was English opinion that it was intended to influence. And in England in February 1790 it seemed to Burke’s political colleagues of long standing who included Tom Paine – that his mind had given way. Paine later came to the conclusion that he had been bribed. But in February 1790 the Prime Minister, Pitt, was still very far from sharing Burke’s convictions about France.

Burke backed his own solitary understanding against all current belief. And if events in France during the following years had not confirmed his analysis his influence on English affairs would have been negligible, and he would have gone down in history as a worthy reformer who had collapsed into senility in 1790.

The French politicians of the 1789 Revolution looked to the English Revolution of 1688 as their pattern. In doing so they looked at a mirage.

Not that 1688 was not a real Revolution. It was the most successful revolution ever accomplished, in the sense that it was conducted by experienced politicians who set themselves a realisable objective and realised it, and that the political order of things established by the Revolution actually functioned on the principles proclaimed by the Revolution.

(John Locke had no reason to bay at the moon in misery when, on the point of death, he surveyed the Revolution thus far. But it seems that Lenin did end up baying at the moon in 1923 – he certainly had cause to – and he made simple-minded proposals for remedying all that he had constructed at the height of his abilities while he was in the possession of absolute power.)

But 1688 has the quality of a mirage if it is not seen as the culminating point of three generations of political turmoil. The English of the 17th century did not have one go at revolution and get it right. They had numerous goes at revolution and finally in 1688 they got it right. The ability to get it right was developed through having got it wrong a great many times. England had become so accustomed to revolution. and the various phases of politics since 1628 had been so thoroughly described and reflected upon by the people involved in them, that it was able to enact the 1688 Revolution at its ease – the ease of a virtuosity which is the outcome of intensive practice.

The 1688 Revolution was entirely successful in establishing a system of representative government which was capable of evolving in response to social development. It was aristocratic at the outset, and it evolved into a democracy.

The aristocrats of the late 17th century did not have a lineage stretching back to the Norman Conquest. Most of them were of recent creation. They are best considered as a class of professional revolutionaries of independent means, By 1688 they had acquired a stabilising party structure as Whigs and Tories, and they had become largely indifferent to the theological discussion of religion while being determined to preserve Christianity as sentiment. And they had an esprit de corps developed through sixty years of the conflict of Crown and Parliament a conflict which was sometimes military and sometimes intricately political.

The long English Revolution which preceded 1688 was the real cultural and political framework of the 1688 Revolution. The earnest French politicians of 1789 looked to 1688 as their model. They did not realise that 1688 was possible only because of a development which began with the Parliament of 1628, and which included such episodes as the Parliamentary scheme of Presbyterian theocracy, the execution of the King, the overthrow of Parliament by the Protector etc. And what good would it have done them if they had realised it? France was not going to ask to be governed by England, and England would in any case probably have made a mess of governing France. Revolutions are particular and specific events.

Burke jeered at the notion that 1789 was a repeat of 1688, and said it was a sort of reverse of 1688. And so it was.  But Burke did not explain the antecedent of 1688, though he undoubtedly knew what they were. He confined himself to making an analysis of 1789, and on the basis of that analysis declaring that the French Constitution of 1789 was an arrangement which ·would subvert the French state. A few years later, in 1793, Robespierre and St Just and Billaud, Varennes and Collot d’Herbois and Carnot applied themselves to the task of constituting a French state out of the chaos to which the 1789 arrangement had led.

Burke’s Reflections On The Revolution In France has no equal for sheer power of political analysis. It could do with being read at a moment when the English left has forgotten what thought is. In the Penguin edition it i5i unfortunately, accompanied by a Iona fatuous introduction by Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien, who manages to tum everything into dross. But there is an Anchor Books edition, which, with admirable American disregard for English tradition. combines Burke’s Reflections and Paine’s Rights of Man in one volume. As I tried to explain in my defence of Tom Paine against Michael Foot, Burke and Paine belong together.


This article appeared in July 1989, in Issue 12 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more, see

========== SEE ALSO ===========

Tom Paine Defended against Michael Foot
This looks at Paine and Burke. Why Robespierre almost had Paine executed. Why modern British politics could be considered to be based on a merger of Paine and Burke.

Belfast in the French Revolution by Brendan Clifford
Why Belfast more than any other city in the British Isles felt enthusiasm for the French Revolution and participated vicariously in it; how the Vatican thwarted Mirabeau, why the Girondins failed and how Robespierre and the Jacobins reconstituted the French state on an entirely new basis.

Both available from Athol Books,