The Fourteenth of July, popularly known as Bastille Day, marks one of the most single important events in human history: the French Revolution. This is not an exaggeration mind you; many historians, most historians, agree that the French Revolution was a watershed moment in human history. Wikipedia, of all places, states it quite well: “The modern era has unfolded in the shadow of the French Revolution”. The French Revolution marked a radical, unprecedented break in the structure of human society not just in France but across the entire world.
Now, as an American, I frequently here other Americans state “Our Revolution was first, it was more important!” This, quite simply, is not true. As proud of America as I am, I must state that the American Revolution was a revolution in name only. The American Revolution created little new, except unleashing the Herculean might of a new nation. The United States was not the first representative democracy, nor the first republic. It did not lead to the genesis of much new political theory and philosophy; instead it much more represented the practical application of prior (i.e. Enlightenment) political innovations. Most Americans after the American Revolution lived much as they did prior to the revolution. The American Revolution is important mostly because the United States is important. The American Revolution itself as an event pales in comparison to what the United States as a country has achieved. The French Revolution, on the other hand, is important in and of itself regardless of the achievements of France either prior or subsequent to the Revolution.
Nearly every modern political ideology, all the –isms we are bombarded with, have their origins in the French Revolution. From socialism to fascism to libertarianism to feminism to anarchism and everything in between, the ideas and ideals that shape our world and way of thinking are rooted in the barricades and salons of revolutionary Paris. Our political ideologies are what give direction and shape to our visions and expectations of a free and just society. Without ideology, without something to believe in, we do not have a goal to strive towards. The French Revolution gave us many different visions of the future, and we are still today debating which vision we wish to see. The Fourteenth of July gave the world much to debate and discuss, and as well it gave all people a right to participate in that discussion.
The First French Republic, the first revolutionary government of France, was the first government to grant universal male suffrage regardless of property, education, or birth. It was the women of France who lead the march on Versailles and the masses on the streets and the barricades who brought down the monarchy. Feudalism was brought to an end, with the nobility and peasants consigned to the same status. This was a revolution in which all had a right to participate. This is the great achievement of the French Revolution: the emancipation of the individual. For the first time in human history, society was shaped with the input of all those who were a part of it. For the first time, the individual had a voice based solely on his status as a human being. For the first time, society was governed by ideals and visions of the future and not by distant kings and warlords or aristocrats and oligarchs. Politics was no longer a zero-sum game in which the powerful accumulated ever more power, but something in which all could participate and benefit from.
Oh that fateful day in midsummer, the July heat bearing down on the barricades. Did they know what the impact of their actions would be? Were they aware of what that moment would come to mean? I would think not. Indeed, this is another lesson from the French Revolution. Any moment, any time we take a stand for something we believe in, can inspire change. Any one of us can spark a revolution. This is the legacy of the barricades. We all have a right to take a stand. We all have a voice that deserves to be heard. Every Fourteenth of July, we should all take a moment to think of the great responsibility laid upon us by those original revolutionaries. Thanks to the French Revolution, we now live in an age of the individual. With the power to effect change comes a responsibility to fight for the change we wish to see. Where shall you build your barricade? What vision of the future do you see from its heights?