The French Revolution gave birth to the extremism we see today
Today is Bastille Day, celebrating the moment in 1789 when Paris’s notorious prison was stormed, marking the end of the Ancien Régime and the start of the revolution.
In that sense it also marks the start of politics; the subsequent pamphlet war between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke articulated the division between radicals and conservatives, while in Paris itself the positioning of various factions in the National Assembly gave rise to the notions of Left v Right wing.
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What followed became the template for subsequent revolutionary movements, driven by what we would now call a “purity spiral”, the competition to adopt purer political positions driving ever more extreme outcomes.
As with many revolutionary movements, the initial moderate reforms of 1789 were followed by a second, more extreme upheaval, with the 1792 September massacre foreshadowing the Terror of 1793, when over 15,000 were executed for being insufficiently revolutionary, including many of the leaders themselves.
Priests and nuns were especially targeted, and 20,000 were forced out of holy orders — it wasn’t so much that the revolutionaries disliked religion in that they wanted to replace it. Religious moments and masses were replaced by secular-religious events and churches became Temples of Reason. A Festival of Reason was held at Notre Dame, with soldiers parading around with busts of revolutionary “martyrs”.
Iconoclasm, once unleashed, proved almost impossible to contain, and vast amounts of France’s enviable cultural heritage was destroyed, including the tombs of the kings of France in the chapel of Saint-Denis. Paris’s theatres performed comedies mocking the now powerless Catholic Church, but when a play at the Comédie-Française offended a watching Jacobin with one line the entire cast were arrested.
With the birth of ideology – a new coinage – many religious pathologies were transferred to secular politics. Belief in a world of good and evil people, the idea that minority beliefs were potentially dangerous, and the competition to appear more righteous. One Parisian recalled that houses were decorated with inscriptions calling for ‘unity, liberty, equality, fraternity or death’ for it has become dangerous ‘to be considered less revolutionary than your neighbour’.
And although aristocrats and priests were targeted, much of the bloodletting was committed against other revolutionaries. The Girondin Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud is credited with the famous phrase: ‘It is to be feared that the Revolution, like Saturn, will end by devouring its own children’ – and it certainly turned out true in his case. Vergniaud initially supported a limited monarchy, but became increasingly extreme as the revolution went on, and more and more accepting of violence.
When republicans in Avignon lynched 60 suspected counter-revolutionaries in March 1792, he downplayed the seriousness of the crimes and called for an amnesty. Slowly but steadily tolerance for political violence became normalised — so long as it was for the right cause — with catastrophic results.
Inevitably in October 1793 Vergniaud and the other Girondists were sent to the guillotine, singing the revolutionary song Les Marseilles as they were consumed.
So, happy Bastille Day, and here’s to revolutionaries — cancelling people since 1789.