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.
Bloggers and journalists often see people standing up to repressive governments in Iran and Egypt and feel euphoria. Responsible leaders and activists must temper their enthusiasm with the realization that, however sincere the sentiments of people in the street, the future of any revolution is determined by the people that end up ruling the country and the principles they follow.
Those who seek freedom and opportunity should learn the lessons of history. Every successful revolution draws ambitious and dangerous people whose interests run counter to that of their fellow citizens. Their support for the revolution may be grounded in the idea they can’t become dictator as long as someone else is holding the position. It matters a great deal whether the leaders of a revolution are like Washington, who refused a crown, or Napoleon, who sought an empire.
Today, Marxist and Islamist ideologues take advantage of the legitimate grievances of the people to put forward their own radical agendas. If revolutionaries are unaware of the dangers, they will find that their sacrifices made their country worse rather than better.
Bastille Day teaches us a revolution can be founded on high-sounding rhetoric and good intentions and go horribly wrong. If we can learn that lesson and become more prudent, perhaps the 21st century will be a little less bloody than the two that preceded it.
Also read Just in time for Bastille Day, a new character emerges in the DSK drama, at the Tatler.
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