What Was the Greatest Failure of the Age of Revolution?

by Matt Bryan

The Age of Revolution saw a great deal of political and social change which set a precedent for our modern world;before, Europe had been stuck in the same situation of warring monarchies and barons since records had begun, and any rebellion against divine rule, like Cromwell's Commonwealth, had quickly lapsed back into the comfort of near-autocracy. With the emergence of radical new Enlightenment thinking, revolution against monarchy was to become more established and familiar across Europe and beyond; the execution of Louis XVI cemented a somewhat unrealistic desire never to return to this archaic system of rule. However, revolutions of this period, especially the French at the end of the eighteenth century, have one major failing in my eyes - and that is their illusion of change. 

Revolution in France broke out aiming to limit the power of the corrupt Ancien Regime. Many put the start of the ten long years of revolution down to long-term inequality and then the dramatic rise in food prices, but the revolution was fought for two distinct groups: those who sought an escape from poverty and those middle-class followers of the Enlightenment who strove to implement the perhaps rather bourgeois principles of equality and secularism. The Revolution may have lived by 'Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite' but most were more concerned with the principles of 'avoid du pain, de l'argent et de l'espoir', having bread, wealth and hope. 

A series of attempts were made to rule the new republic, but amidst the chaos of the so-called 'Reign of Terror' panicked leaders exercised 'egalite' by executing seemingly anyone and everyone. To many it seemed as if the state of chaotic limbo would be perpetual, that was until the rule of the Directory. It offered stability and hope but the committed participants of revolution found themselves under a five man rule of nobility, military and political backstabbers, hardly a government of the people. Following a series of crises, Napoleon Bonaparte launched a bloodless and almost welcome coup, forming the French Consulate. By this time, the French people had been drained of the revolutionary spirit that they had championed so greatly, and were now too fatigued to fight the obvious emergence of a new military dictatorship. A revolution in the sense of a wheel revolving back to its original position. 

To the ordinary specator, the Revolution had seen a great deal of change; the tyranny and lethargy of the French Monarchy had been ended permanently and replaced by a new government that temporarily had the support of its people. But in a few years Napoleon had essentially founded his own hereditary monarchy. France has experienced a deja vu of epic proportions in 15 short years; revolution had started strong but its chaos had allowed a relapse back to the ways of old. There is a great deal of irony present in their beliefs, too; the so-called egalite did not stretch to women, the revolutionaries still continued to fight the wars that had brought about the downfall of monarchy and still tried to maintain Empire and slavery in contradiction with their liberalism, perhaps undermining the thinking of the Enlightenment and, more importantly, highlighting the absence of change. 

Academics and Francophiles were so besotted with the birth of liberalism that they seemed to forget that France itself may as well have had no revolution, with a Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, back on the throne in 1815, the very thing it had sworn not to return to. The principles that revolutionaries had held in such high esteem were undermined the second they let one man take charge. As a revolution in ideology there is no doubt that it was a success, but a revolution that benefited the ordinary man and implemented long term change. It was not. Just as Russia faced the deadly succession of Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin and now Putin, the revolutionaries lapped up the personality cult before their weary eyes.

For me, the American Revolution sits in an awkward situation between change and the mere illusion of it. There is explicit change in the founding of the United States of America, a tangible country with its own constitution and a split with Britain that would 'end the age of empires' but in reality started it. The Founding Fathers had fought to achieve liberty but disagreement led to a new country where only landed, white men could vote, a country plagued by a need to expand like the European powers it resented and a country so reliant on racial slavery that a Civil War would break out over it. It is certainly a failure to forget the values that a revolution fought so hard to win and experience little change in ruling style. American ideals justified slavery and it was hardly the liberal paradise advertised.

Other revolutions of the period were far more successful in bringing about actual change. The Haitian Revolution humiliated the newly-empowered Napoleon and established a long-lasting and relatively independent nation. Not only was this successful in weakening European colonial power but it changed ideas towards slavery across the world and could be said to have influenced its wide abolition in the following decades. Social revolutions, like the Industrial Revolution, changed principles and set the world on its current technological and progress-country course. European industry went from agriculture to manufacture, as important a milestone as when hunter-gatherers began to farm. Industrialisation is what has allowed our current civilisation to progress much further than those of the ancient world, which is arguably a success and certainly not an illusion of change.

In all, many parts of the Age of Revolution failed to bring about real change in the short term, and the values that were held most dearly, although often discarded, continue to be more important in our lives than ever. Sure, the period's greatest failure was its illusion of change, but this failing inspired future generations to carve out the democracies and societies we cherish today.