French Revolution

640px Prise de la Bastille

There are few episodes in the history of the class struggle so inspiring and so rich in lessons as the Great French Revolution of 1789-93. In just a few years the downtrodden masses of France toppled centuries of absolutism, carried out a complete transformation of society from top to bottom, and inscribed in flaming letters across the body of Europe: “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”.

Marx and Engels studied the Revolution carefully, and with good reason, as in these earth-shattering events the anatomy of revolution and counter-revolution are laid bare with almost surgical precision.

In the ascending phase of the revolution, the power of the masses was unstoppable. Against them neither impregnable Bastille, nor hallowed pulpit could make resistance. Overnight, the last vestiges of feudal oppression were torn up and tossed into the fire. King Louis XVI, the personification of the Ancien Régime, stood trial before the revolution, and was condemned.

At every turn, the masses carefully selected their leaders. All who prevaricated were swept aside. At the revolution’s peak we saw the Jacobin “Mountain”, the most determined party of the radical sans culottes, rise to the head of the nation. Not for nothing did Lenin consider the Russian Bolsheviks to be “modern Jacobins”.

With the arrest of Robespierre in 1793, the revolution entered its descending phase. But even this period of Thermidorean and later Bonapartist reaction provides us with important lessons. It was by careful analogy with this period that Trotsky was able to develop his masterful analysis of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution in his classic, The Revolution Betrayed.

That the greatest minds of our movement placed so much importance on understanding the French Revolution is no accident. Today, more than ever, a conscientious study of the Revolution is essential for anyone who seeks to change the world.

This article by Alan Woods was originally written in 1989 to commemorate 200 years of the Great French Revolution, with a new introduction by the author. Alan Woods explains the internal dynamics of the revolution and above all the role played by the masses.

In this in depth article Alan Woods looks at the specific historical role of Napoleon Bonaparte. He looks into the characteristics of this man that fitted the needs of the reactionary bourgeoisie as it attempted to consolidate its grip on French society and sweep to one side the most revolutionary elements who had played a key role in guaranteeing the victory of the revolution.

This article by Alan Woods looks at how the French Revolution affected British poets. It struck Britain like a thunderbolt affecting all layers of society and this was reflected in its artists and writers.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered by many as the greatest musician of all time. He was revolutionary in more senses than one. One of his main achievements was in the field of opera. Before Mozart, opera was seen as an art form exclusively for the upper classes. This was true not only of those who went to see it, but also of its dramatis personae - the characters who were shown on the stage, and especially the protagonists. With The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro in its original Italian title), all this changes. This is the story of a servant who stands up to his boss and outwits his master.

Despite his confused politics, Lenin had a great respect for the Russian anarchist Kropotkin, particularly as the author of the book about the Great French Revolution. He pointed out that Kropotkin had been the first to look at the French Revolution through the eyes of a researcher, to focus the attention on the plebeian masses, and to continually underline the role and meaning of the craftsmen, the workers and other representatives of the working people during the French Revolution.

Josh Holroyd reviews Nelson at Naples by Jonathan North, which exposes the atrocities committed by Horatio Nelson during his part in crushing the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799. The tragic events North describes, which reveal the unbridled barbarism of a reactionary old order fighting for its life, are rich with lessons for revolutionaries today.

The Battle of Waterloo - 200 years ago, on 18th June 1815 - was the last great event that marked the end of that great historical process that was begun in 1789 by the Great French Revolution. With the defeat of Napoleon, the last flickering embers of the fires lit by revolutionary France were extinguished. A long, grey period settled down on Europe like a thick coat of suffocating dust. The forces of triumphant reaction seemed firmly in the saddle.

Today is the 200th anniversary of the battle that is associated with the name of one man, Horatio Nelson. He was considered a national hero, both in his own lifetime and in the Victorian period following his death. But should the working class celebrate the life of this man? We will examine his exploits and show them in a light that is not exactly what the present patriotic hullabaloo is designed to do.

This work represents Marx's analysis of Napoleon III's coup d'etat of December 1851, which provides him with an opportunity for a meticulous examination of the ebb and flow of political forces and social classes in the period preceding Napoleon's seizure of power. Marx digs beneath the surfaces of political rhetoric and the manoeuvring for power by political personalities, and reveals the social forces and mechanisms at work during the political crisis. Its value, then, is as a class analysis of a political crisis.

"This work was Marx's first attempt, with the aid of his materialist conception, to explain a section of contemporary history from the given economic situation. Here the question was to demonstrate the inner causal connection in the course of a development which extended over some years, a development as critical, for the whole of Europe, as it was typical; that is, in accordance with the conception of the author, to trace political events back to the effects of what are, in the last resort, economic causes." (introduction by Engels)