Revolution has been around since the beginning of time. The first major one that reverberated across the world was the French Revolution. The French Revolution began the era of bourgeois democracy and capitalism and the beginning of the end of absolute monarchy. The French Revolution was also one built up by the people of France. The working people of France rose up but, this does not make it a people’s revolution. Whilst the people did bolster and die for it, it was spearheaded and started by the bourgeois intellectual class of the Enlightenment. While this may seem like a negative thing (to some extent it is) it was very necessary. Pre-revolutionary France was a feudal nation ruled by an absolute monarch. The average person in France did not have the means to access revolutionary ideas, the aristocracy and intellectuals did. These intellectuals formed clubs, the most famous being the Jacobins. These clubs acted as a forum for the elite to discuss ideas of the Enlightenment. Political clubs became the breeding ground for revolution. The growing Enlightenment and economic disarray led to the French Revolution. When Louis XVI called the Estates General and the Third Estate formed the National Assembly with the Tennis Court Oath, this was the beginning of the political revolution. The real revolution arguably began when the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, marked every year as Bastille Day in France. The revolution was followed by various governments, assemblies, massacres, and marches. The French people finally shook the royal yoke when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded by guillotine. This was a true victory as it showed that the people are stronger than the paper constructs of an aristocracy. The so-called “Reign of Terror” that followed is highly demonised for some good reason. However, Robespierre and his actions are fairly justified if you look at historical context. France was being invaded on all sides, royal collaborators existed in the Republican government, and the situation was dire. Robespierre did what he had too in order to protect France and the three principles: Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood.
So, what can we learn from the French Revolution? It is the most important revolution and arguably, the first modern revolution. This means many mistakes were made. The first obvious flaw to us as socialists is the role of the bourgeoisie in the revolution. This could not be helped, however. The general organisation, rather a lack of, led to the rise of opportunists like Napoleon to rise. The Revolution could not protect itself effectively. This is the flaw of many a revolution. This failure to defend is a symptom of a lack of vanguardism. Lenin looked at the French Revolution to support the need for a vanguard in a revolution. Conflicting groups of vastly different ideology cannot coexist. In the French Revolution, we had constitutional monarchists trying to work with revolutionaries which only led to disarray and a lack of unity in the government. This is not to say today that we cannot work with other leftists, we have and can, what this means is that unity with those that mean to keep capitalism is not going to work in a usual revolution. In the case of an anti-colonial struggle, the concept of New Democracy may apply but, that is a specific scenario we do not have to deal with in the imperial powers. The French Revolution teaches us the need for revolutionary discipline, ideological unity, and a need to protect the revolution at all costs against those who wish to destroy it. We must never rely on the leaders of the previous society to transition to a new one. We must remain strong, unified, independent, and powerful.
The French Revolution was a catalyst for revolutions across the globe. The most immediate was the Haitian Revolution. The Haitian Revolution was started by former slaves to free themselves from the French slave drivers and colonial rule. It was a people’s revolution started by the oppressed majority. This was not started by bourgeois forces, it was for the people and by the people. The revolutionaries were inspired by the anti-slavery message of the Enlightenment and French Revolution but, were not seeing that put into practice. They had decided that enough was enough and took up arms against their oppressors. On the 21st of August 1791, the slaves of Haiti rose up. They killed their masters and freed themselves. By 1792 the revolutionaries controlled one-third of the island and the French government attempted to appease them by granting rights to them and abolishing slavery. This was a victory under attack by British Imperialists. The British invaded Haiti attempting to restore slavery to protect their economic interests. The persuaded Haitians that fought for their rights to form their own army to repel the British in conjunction with the French. Haitian and French troops drove the British out but, the Haitian people wanted a nation of their own and refused to give back captured towns to the French. This sparked the main part of the revolution. This was the Haitian people fighting for their national liberation and self-determination. Toussaint L’Ouverture would lead the Haitian people to victory against the French and establish a truly anti-colonial state. The Haitian people unheld the true message of the French Revolution by fighting colonialism. It is the people of Haiti that inspired the Latin American revolutions in the years following. It would inspire Simon Bolivar in Venezuela and many other peoples fighting for their rights against colonial oppression.
While the Haitian Revolution is one of the most important events in the history of anti-colonial struggle but, the brutality cannot be ignored. This does not disavow violent action in revolution but, it teaches us that there is a limit to what we should do. The Haitian Revolutionaries killed slave owners all over Haiti in order to truly free themselves from their rule. This is a justified action as it is highly improbable that the slavers would have given up their land and control. The only solution was their elimination. What is not justified is the senseless murder of innocent and poor French people in Haiti. While they are colonists and part of the old system, they did not need to be killed. The killing of poorer settlers was a misguided attempt at decolonisation that only led to the demonisation of the revolution in the colonial powers. When dealing with colonisers, we must be patient. Decolonisation does not mean deporting or killing them, it means that the natives have control of their land and are allowed to determine their own destinies as a sovereign unit. In the case of the US, we see that white people have the benefit in society due to settler colonialism. Does this mean we deport all the white people? No. We simply give control of the land to those who deserve it, those who had their land stolen. This is generally the solution in any case of settler colonialism. The Haitian Revolution shows us how to avoid a humanitarian disaster and common mistakes in the process of decolonisation. The rules of decolonisation do vary from place to place as situations differ. The basic outline of how to decolonise is, of course, universal, it is specifics in how land and power is distributed that differs from the situation.
Socialist revolution is a generally new concept in world history. Socialism as we see it only arose in the mid-19th century with the writings of Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels. So, when looking for the first socialist revolution we can look to the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx considered the Paris Commune the first true dictatorship of the proletariat as the workers of Paris took control for themselves and defended their revolution against the bourgeoisie. The context of the uprising is the collapse of the Second French Empire and the establishment of the Third French Republic who went immediately to war with Prussia. During the war, Prussia laid siege to Paris and an armistice was signed disbanding the French Army but, not the highly political National Guard. The National Guard in Paris gave weapons to the workers and established the Communards to help found and protect the commune against the new national government. The national government was organising itself in Bordeaux and first attempted to take Paris via Montmartre. This failed and led to the National Guard keeping control of Paris. After the Guard had established themselves militarily, a democratic council was to be elected. This council consisted of 92 members elected by the people of Paris. The Commune and the Council ruled democratically for a period of around two months. During this period, the most progressive initiative Europe had seen was put into place. The Communards restored the original message of the French Revolution and promoted a fair and equitable society. Sadly, it all came to an end on the week of the 21st of May, known as “Bloody Week”. During the week the French Army went to Paris and fought the revolutionaries. The workers of Paris went boldly to the barricades to fight for their Commune. This fighting was immortalised in the book and musical ‘Les Miserables”. The people answered this call: “TO ARMS! That Paris be bristling with barricades, and that, behind these improvised ramparts, it will hurl again its cry of war, its cry of pride, its cry of defiance, but its cry of victory; because Paris, with its barricades, is undefeatable!”
The brave and illustrious example of the workers of Paris is the first example of socialist revolution. It began the great revolutionary tradition that we still carry out. The workers of Paris defended their commune with steadfast bravery and valour. When we look at them it proves to us that the workers can take control of their own destinies and defend it, even if for a short time and against the odds. The Commune taught us also the importance of revolutionary organisation and a strong leadership. This was seen in Paris but, what led to the fall was the overwhelming odds and the lack of military discipline and tactics. We see these errors corrected by future revolutionaries.