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The Distance Between the French and American Revolutions

[I originally planned to post this on July 4th but then, partially because I didn't have the time or energy to finish it, decided that it would be better to post it on the date of Marat's execution by a reactionary agent.  And no, I do not think that Charlotte Corday was some "hero" for assassinating a revolutionary simply because she was a woman; there were far more women who were on the side of the French Revolution and Corday was a royalist.]

Despite the fact that the American and French Revolutions overlapped, and despite the fact that historians have attempted to draw parallels (particularly since Thomas Paine visited France at the height of its revolution), there is a significant theoretical distance between these two events.  The way this distance is charted by historians and popular culture is often quite telling in that it tends to reveal one's political commitments.

Just as a European historian's identity as a progressive or a reactionary is revealed in how they talk about the French Revolution (those who deride the Terrors and speak of it as "madness" are, like Burke, consummate reactionaries), so too does the way in which one privileges one revolution over another.  That is, there is a normative liberal discourse in which the French Revolution is derided and the American Revolution: the latter is treated, ahistorically, as some great moment of liberation; the former, due to the Terrors, is dismissed as a violent aberration.  An entire establishment narrative is built upon this comparative evaluation that finds its expression in novels, comics, popular histories, "common sense" understandings of reality, and even videogames.

Take, for example, the way in which the comparison of these revolutions is treated in Neil Gaiman's seminal Sandman comics where, in the issue entitled "Thermidor", there is a depiction of the French Revolution that presents Robespierre as a vicious autocrat and Thomas Paine, jailed by the Jacobins, as a progressive voice of reason who claims the French have "perverted the spirit of revolution." Or Kate Beaton's popular webcomic, Hark a Vagrant, where an American revolutionary tells a French revolutionary that the French revolution is "super creepy." Or the popular videogame series, Assassin's Creed, that places the forces of historical progress on the side of the American Revolution but, in another game in the series, these same forces of historical progress against the French Revolution.

A revolution that gets rid of murderous aristocrats and supports slave revolutions is apparently less "creepy" than a "revolution" that was based on prolonging slavery and slaughtering millions of Indigenous people.

Now I've argued elsewhere, way back, that the French Revolution was progressive insofar as it was a world historical revolution, and all attempts to dismiss it as nothing more than a violent orgy was out of step with what the most progressive elements of Europe would have thought at the time, or what later revolutionaries understood when they reflected on this event.  Even Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, most recently repopularized as a film, celebrated the French Revolution and defended the Terrors in its opening passages––something that failed to make it into the film.  Most committed progressives (that is, not the liberals who think they are progressive without much reflection) understand the significance of the French Revolution and its Terrors as well, as Sophie Wahnich demonstrated in 2012 with her book In Defense of the Terror.  But for liberals, and anyone whose political commitment is illiberal in a reactionary sense, the French Revolution is a horrendous event whereas the American Revolution is the height of liberty and emancipation.

Let's state some facts that anyone who is even marginally progressive past the liberal point of common sense normativity must recognize: i) the American "Revolution", though it began first, was not a world historical event but a dismal war of colonial secession––it provided no important historical truths, theoretical revelations, and did nothing really "new" aside from permit a novel situation in which a settler society delinked from its motherland so as to remain in the historical past; ii) the French Revolution was indeed a world historical revolution insofar as it produced a truth process that spilled beyond its initial boundaries, and the Terrors were part of this truth process; iii) anyone who privileges the American Revolution over the French Revolution is engaged, intentionally or unintentionally, in supporting colonial-capitalist ideology.

First of all the American War of Independence was essentially a counter-revolution.  Indeed, as Gerald Horne points out in The Counter-Revolution of 1776, this event was driven by the US slaveocracy's fear of slave uprisings and the fact that the British Empire was abolishing slavery. Since a major pillar of the US economy at the time was it reliance on slave labour, that whole "taxation without representation" thing was overdetermined by the desire of the US ruling class to keep the right to oppress its enslaved African population.  Hence, it was driven by a reactionary impulse to remain in the past, to resist even bourgeoisification when bourgeoisification was slightly progressive compared to a slave-based economy, and create a democracy of slave-owning oligarchs.  It was not at all a bourgeois revolution, as the French Revolution was, since its only resistance to feudalism was that the British Empire was taxing its ruling class, threatening its slave economy, and limiting its ability to push westward and annihilate those Indigenous nations whose boundaries were recognized by Britain.  As Samir Amin has argued at multiple points, the American "Revolution" was simply an event where a ruling class wanted to the write to colonize and exploit for itself.  The values it produced were values of secession and home rule, a settler-colonialism that wanted to remain colonial but without a distant motherland.  It produced nothing historically interesting, particularly since it was attempting to sustain slavery and colonialism in opposition to the changing Empire it was seceding from.  A racist and colonial revolution is indeed a counter-revolution; to celebrate July 4th means the celebration of these values and nothing more, regardless of the bullshit myths that have been connected to it after the fact.

The French Revolution, however, terrified the establishment regime throughout Europe.  This is partly because, unlike the American "Revolution", it attempted to annihilate its ruling class and secure a hegemony that would change the class contradiction of the mode of production––hell, it did more politically for even the development of capitalism than the US revolution could do, and the US ruling class would eventually have to take, though in a more puritan/conservative sense, note of this transformation in its own understanding of bourgeois rule.  But the French Revolution was world historical not only because it attempted to liquidate the ruling aristocratic class and, in doing so, unleashed the power of the popular classes so that they temporarily pushed beyond the boundaries established by the French bourgeoisie, but because of how it was influenced by slave revolutions.  We need to understand that the French Revolution was not simply limited to Europe but that a significant aspect of its status as a world revolution was because the first ever slave revolution (which was indeed world historical) in Haiti forced it to radicalize.  In The Black Jacobins CLR James conceptualizes the Slave Revolution under Toussaint Louverture as entering into the French Revolution and being a significant part of its history: the radical wing of the Jacobins were forced to recognize that the values they proclaimed applied to the slaves in revolt, the French Revolution recognized abolition, the popular masses in Paris came out in support of the revolting slaves in the colony of Saint-Domingue.  Apparently this world historical endorsement of slave revolution, if we are to believe the pop cultural narrative, "perverted the spirit of revolution" and was "super creepy."  The fact that American "Revolution", that was driven by the impulse to keep slavery, was seen as more progressive because it didn't possess the spectacle of the Terrors is quite ludicrous.  Only the violence visited on the ruling class is recognized; the everyday terror of a slave state is not perverse or creepy at all!

Hence, anyone who celebrates the American Counter-Revolution at the expense of the French Revolution, or just celebrates the former by itself, and uses the term "revolution" to talk about backwards colonial war of secession is celebrating conservative values.  There is nothing useful to be gained in the values that were trumpeted in the American Revolution because these values paled in comparison to even the bourgeois values of the French Revolution and were the values of a slave-owning class.  America's founding fathers would have been on friendly terms with today's white supremacists, and it is something of a joke that US "progressives" complain when US conservatives invoke the founding fathers as if this invocation is being done in bad faith.  It's not: the progressive attempt to claim these values is what is in actual bad faith.  Compared to this event, the French Revolution looms large: its Terrors of a class that deserved the guillotine (as Victor Hugo and even the American Mark Twain argued) is nothing compared to the Terrors post-"revolutionary" America unleashed upon its enslaved population and the Indigenous nations as it pushed westward––ruling class, historically backwards Terrors that are not "creepy" insofar as they didn't bother the ruling classes of America's former motherland.

The French Revolution, limited by its time and its class dimensions, still mobilized a sentiment that is entirely modern, entirely anti-systemic.  As Jean-Paul Marat (an intellectual representative of the popular masses whose memory was defiled by David's celebration of his assassination––and we should not forget that David was a Thermidorian, a Napoleonic propagandist) wrote, proving that the French Revolution unleashed sentiments that reach into the contemporary era:

“Don’t be deceived when they tell you things are better now. Even if there’s no poverty to be seen because the poverty’s been hidden. Even if you ever got more wages and could afford to buy more of these new and useless goods which industries foist on you and even if it seems to you that you never had so much, that is only the slogan of those who still have much more than you. Don’t be taken in when they paternally pat you on the shoulder and say that there’s no inequality worth speaking of and no more reason to fight because if you believe them they will be completely in charge in their marble homes and granite banks from which they rob the people of the world under the pretence of bringing them culture. Watch out, for as soon as it pleases them they’ll send you out to protect their gold in wars whose weapons, rapidly developed by servile scientists, will become more and more deadly until they can with a flick of the finger tear a million of you to pieces.”


  1. It seems very unlikely to me that David's Assassination of Marat was any more celebratory of Marat's death than a crucifix.

    I'm pretty sure that anyone discussing American Revolutions is artificially truncating the historical trajectory if they conflate the Revolution with the formation of the Constitution. That seems very like treating the Directory as the final achievement of the French Revolution. Further, I think any assessment of the Great French Revolution that refuses to look at how its work had to be redone in subsequent revolutions in effect falsifies the historical necessity. Similarly, any assessment of the American Revolution that neglects the Great American Revolution, aka the Civil War, does the same. But if your point is that the American Revolution and the Great French Revolution are not on the same scale, this is true. And the desire to portray the Civil War as unnecessary and an outbreak of ideological madness comes from the same ideological needs as the desire to slander the Great French Revolution, I think.

    As for the phrase "American Counter-Revolution," if it were truly the victory of counter-revolution, it is impossible to comprehend such consequences as the disestablishment of churches, spread of manhood suffrage and in many places emancipation of slaves. I'm afraid I don't understand how one could expect that a bourgeois revolution would bring an end to predatory wars against the native peoples. Yes, these were the consequences of the American Revolution. I think saying otherwise is very much like saying the consequence of the Great French Revolution was Napoleon's tyranny.

    Steven Johnson

  2. I know it's not really a meaningful addition to anything you're saying, but I really liked Mark Twain's bit on the two terrors. It definitely helped me realize that a lot of stuff I had taken for granted was wrong when I first ran into it as a teenager.

    "There were two 'Reigns of Terror', if we could but remember and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passions, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred million; but our shudders are all for the "horrors of the... momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief terror that we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror - that unspeakable bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves."

    1. Yep, I quoted this in an older post about the French Revolution that I believe I linked to above. Also, this Twain quote is kind of a riff on similar claims made by Victor Hugo at the beginning of Les Miserables: he too talks about the two terrors, but in a more prolonged manner in a dialogue between an old Jacobin and the Bishop of Digne, and I bet Twain got his more concise explanation from there.

  3. Well well, comrade Moufawad... quite an idealized vision of French revo but well, we'll say it's normal 5000 miles away ;)

    - To demand a more "offensive" attitude towards the Western indigenous nations has certainly been a very important cause of American revolution. But this perspective was 100% capitalist (conquer new lands to enhance them, widen the accumulation basis). So 100% bourgeois. So logical for a bourgeois revolution... The Enlightenment thought was absolutely NOT against conquering lands on "savages", and about 50-50 pro and contra Africans' slavery (or some were for a "progressive emancipation").

    - Abolitionism (about slavery) in a bourgeois perspective (inefficiency of slave labour force, higher efficiency of "free" one as factory workers or sharecroppers) did exist in American revolution. And actually, by 1800 all the Northern States had abolished and forbidden slavery in their Constitutions. Of course, that was easy because slaveowners weren't many nor powerful there. In the South they were numerous, economically very powerful and their votes weren't one man's... but one man's + 60% of his owned slaves : if you had "only" 10 slaves you had 1 + 6 = 7 votes. Let's imagine with 100... So a war has been needed to abolish slavery in the South. In the French metropolis there was no slaveowner. The slaveowners were in the colonies, weeks sailing away and had few power in Paris - moreover when they defected to the Brits or the Spaniards. So the abolitionnist short majority or strong minority could have an open way forwards. But even like this, humanist considerations weren't really principal, more important was "how to conserve the colonies" (so if the slaveowners had defected, remained the slaves...). The most in humanist considerations were the Société des Amis des Noirs ("Blacks' Friends Society"), and paradoxally they weren't many Jacobins but principally Girondins... many of them representants of the big slave-trade ports (Bordeaux, Nantes, La Rochelle, Le Havre etc.) !!! The Jacobin tendency resisted far more until deciding to abolish in the spring of 1794. And remember this abolition was a short-time one ! Napoleon take power in 1799 and with Joséphine de Beauharnais, the colonial lobby got directly the power's ear. By 1802 slavery is restored with tremendous atrocities (100.000+ killed in Haiti, even if the country finally wins its independence, 10 to 20k in Guadeloupe...). Definitive abolition is 1848.

    - The regime born in the French revolution, shortly questioned between 1815 and 1830 (but not many : quite all remains equal, actually the Restauration regime looks like the Thermidor one with a King), has never absolutely been different from the US one in terms of colonialism. Conquering Algeria between 1830 and 1860, Kanaky (New Caledonia) or Polynesia from the 1840's on, Africa or Indochina from the 1860's, it did absolutely the same than the US in the Middle and Far West. And no contradiction at all with being slavery-abolitionnist : remember the worst slaughterers of Indigenous Nations were Union generals, not Confederates. In France, the same republicans abolishing slavery (definitly) by 1848 decide in the same time to accelerate settlement of Algeria (or Kanaky). Napoleon III was in favour of a modus vivendi with the Arabs ("Arab Kingdom"). In reaction, the settlers were in majority strongly republicans (and celebrated his 1870 downfall).

  4. - French bourgeois revolution certainly unleashed strong (far stronger than in America) popular, "proto-proletarian" social forces. But these forces were nothing autonomous, even if some petty bourgeois as Babeuf or Jacques Roux could have a close-to-socialist vision. The Revolution remained a bourgeois one. Quickly appeared more progressive or conservative tendencies, "left" and "right" wing, for a republic or for a constitutional monarchy, but globally with a same vision of economy and property.
    But there was also another divide. Before being a colonialist metropolis, the French state (the Hexagone) had been "made" itself. "Made" by the Crown of Paris, allied with the BOURGEOISIE of this city and its region. Conquering countries and making them "provinces" ("pro vincia" = previously defeated, CONQUERED land), subjugating their elites (Paris bourgeoisie getting a pre-eminent position). But with a weakened monarchy, and the no monarchy at all... this social order was broken. The "provinces" had 14 times more representants than Paris region. These bourgeois representants had a federalist vision of the new state ("Girondins", this name was few used then, they were mainly called "Federalists"). So the Paris centralist bourgeoisie wanted to get its position back. And it did... using these popular social forces unleashed (especially in Paris), rising them against the Province bourgeoisie which was simply... bourgeois, more or less liberal or conservative.
    Robespierre's and other progressive bourgeois' sincerity isn't in question. They had a genuine progressive, close to social-democratic vision of society. But actually they served this plan. And the "job" done, they were simply guillotined and the WORST butchers of "province" (Fouché, Tallien, Barras, Fréron etc.), after suppressing the "province" federalist bourgeoisies and their popular supporters, became the FIRST ONES to guillotine Robespierre (who was sickened of their crimes) and the FIERCEST Thermidorians and "reactors".
    Another aspect was the lands of the emigrated aristocrats had been confiscated by the State... and then sold to bourgeois (rich enough to buy them). These bourgeois obviously didn't want the original owner back. But for the peasants, formerly "serves" and now small farmers or sharecroppers, what changed ? Actually not a lot... That was even WORST, because many lands and things of "common use" (woods, meadows, rivers etc.) under "custom" were progressively appropriated by the new owners, under the only law of bank account. From peasants paying their "due" to the local lord, capitalist ideology wanted (and actually achieved) to make "free" "little soldiers" of production and capitalist accumulation, with their worker's logbook.
    "Reactionnary" uprisings like the Brittany (Chouans) and Vendée one, but also lesser known like the Barbets ("Chouans" of the Nice region), shall be understood in this sense too - like the Carlists in "spanish" Basque Country or the Jacobites in Ireland and Scotland.

  5. The "Great Achiever" of French bourgeois revolution, meeting the "good" compromise among "left" and "right" wing, (modernist) monarchics and (moderate) republicans, clericals and anti-clericals, has been Napoleon Bonaparte. He's the "maker" of the French bourgeois new-type state, "by and for" the capitalist bourgeoisie. His institutions and legal order are still in force. He's not (and with reasons) really seen as a progressive... Some Marxist "tradition" see him as a "reactor". But he's not : he's the real and great achiever of French bourgeois revolution. Robespierre and the Terror had very good and progressive ideas but also completly idealistic, and too much ahead of their time. Objectively, they only served to help the Paris capital to get its pre-eminent position back and prevent it (this position) from federalism.


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