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Long Live the Revolution?

Lessons from the French Revolution on Bastille Day. Also read: Just in time for Bastille Day, a new character emerges in the DSK drama, at the Tatler.

by
Adam Graham

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July 13, 2011 - 12:00 am
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July 14 is the day the French people celebrate the storming of the Bastille. This led to the dethroning and beheading of King Louis XVI and the establishment of the first French Republic, which promised “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

The rest of the story doesn’t go so well. Out of the French Revolution came the Reign of Terror, which saw 16,000-40,000 people guillotined. Within fifteen years, the Republic gave way to the French Empire and the Napoleonic Wars and its millions of deaths.

France is hardly alone in the list of nations with revolutions that failed to live up to their promise. The Bolsheviks in Russia, Chairman Mao in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia rose to power through revolution with great promises of equality and a better world and managed to bring mass murder instead.

American movies romanticize and celebrate revolutionaries, both the fictional and real ones. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker challenging the empire, or Rambo fighting on the side of the Taliban-like rebels in Rambo III, a revolutionary cause is always considered righteous.

Not only does American popular culture celebrate revolutionaries, we cite our history as proof revolutions are good. But such naïveté is as dangerous as it was in the 18th century. Thomas Paine went to France in support of the French Revolution and found himself imprisoned by the revolutionaries he’d come to help.

The truth is that revolutions rarely result in liberty. They often lead to a new tyranny — often, even worse than the old tyranny. The flaws in czarist Russia and nationalist China paled in comparison to the horrors of the governments that followed. In these revolutions and many more, ordinary people supported revolution for the improvement of their lives and their country. In the end, they wound up used by opportunistic men who aggrandized themselves and imposed their own radical ideas that led to less liberty and prosperity.

For American political leadership, Bastille Day should be a reminder of the need for caution. It is popular to present people with a false choice between isolationism and intervening everywhere in the world. “Regime change” is often bandied about with little thought as to what the new regime will look like or what the consequences will be. Before we try to change another regime, we should be careful to know what we’re changing the regime to and what horrors we may unleash.

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