The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny

By Ian Davidson  (Profile Books, 314 pp, £25)

It’s a hackneyed old joke, but still a good one: asked if he thought if the French revolution was a success, the Chinese Communist Premier Zhou En Lai replied, in 1972, that it was ‘too early to tell.’

Zhou En Lai’s point was presumably that, for such a society-altering phenomenon, its actual success would take a long time to assess, especially the question of whether it actually shifted power to the ordinary man or just created another more populist form of tyranny: an especially interesting dilemma for a Chinese Communist.

But it is also a challenge for revolutionaries today, particularly in the Middle East where the Arab Spring has become an Islamic Winter as revolutionaries cast off old-style despots only to see religious extremists take their place. It is a dilemma also posited by Ian Davidson, in this precise and gripping account of the French upheaval, and its consequences.

For Zhou En Lai and the Chinese, the French revolution may have seemed bourgeois and limited, but actually there are strong parallels with China and with the way in which an initial revolution descended into vengeful violence, with the Cultural Revolution, just like the Terror in France.

The French Revolution is one of the most influential events in human history and, along with the American Revolution, which preceded it by just over a decade, it is credited with giving us the ideals of equality and democracy.

However, having just read a long account by the broadcaster Alastair Cooke of the American revolt and its impact, I think there is no question that, in the long run, the enduring ideals of full democracy and individual liberty came from the US, with its potent and dramatic break with tradition, unfair taxation and an utter rejection of monarchy.

However, this was democracy in a new setting, whereas the French revolution was against an existing tyranny and involved the re-arranging of whole layers of society. It was the modernisation of an existing familiar system, not a fresh start in a ‘new’ land. But there was a commonality between the two revolutions and figures such as La Fayette and Benjamin Franklin were present in both events and Thomas Paine found refuge in Paris, after his ground-breaking Rights of Man document caused outrage in England.

France also had the more exportable revolution, whereas the US became isolationist until a sea change in 1918.  But the French model came in an imperial form, in the shape of Napoleon’s army. It is an interesting ‘what if’ to explore what would have happened if the French invasion of Ireland in 1798 had succeeded. Would it have caused centuries of destructive war in Ireland between Britain and France? Or would it have helped Ireland to become a more secular, more modern place? Hard to know.

The timeline to the French revolution is familiar. It didn’t all happen at once, but advanced in a series of power-shifting upheavals: the first in 1789, then again in 1792, twice in 1793, and then there was a series of coups until the Napoleon’s takeover in 1799 which turned French into an imperial menace.

Foreign visitors to Bonaparte’s tomb in Paris are often amazed by the near religious reverence with which he is still held, given that he brutally invaded and occupied so many countries.

But then, as we have seen with an exploration of France’s Vichy collaborationist period in 1940-45, the French do not embrace wholesale retrospection about their past.

In his compelling account, Ian Davidson sets out clearly the dynamics and personalities in this momentous European upheaval and moves the action along in a precise and economic fashion, as befits a seasoned journalist: Ian Davidson has covered foreign events for the Financial Times and has written a much praised book on the philosopher Voltaire.

He has a particular fascination for Robespierre, the pale faced ideologue whose dogmatism presaged the ruthless Terror, but who understandably shied away from the street, and the mob, himself.

The Revolution began, as almost all such revolts do, with a long-overdue push from the upper bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, who met in a self-appointed conclave outside Paris, in Versailles. They wanted an entirely new system of government, based on rights, equality and the rule of law and impressively, within months, they had drawn up a Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is the inspiration behind all such universal declarations thereafter.

However, the bourgeois radicals also unleashed more violent forces, and attracted angry mobs to their liberating ideals. And the monarchy was immediately under pressure. But the revolutionary confrontation with the Catholic Church, and even with Christianity itself, was a step too far, too quickly- and immediately alienated very many devout peasants, especially outside the capital.

Complications grew. And soon, foreign war seemed a useful distraction, both for the Revolutionaries, and for the Monarchy which wanted to save its own skin.

For all its faults and violence, the French Revolution remains as an inspirational and gratifying event which changed history. It was especially inspirational for Ireland, notwithstanding the stout statue of Dubliner Edmund Burke in College Green, who famously denounced the Paris events and preferred the American revolt.


Even the scary Robespierre remains impressive – and far seeing. Indeed, in his excellent account, Davidson has given us this brilliant Robespierre quote, about the folly of invading other countries to try to ‘improve’ them:

‘The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a politician is to believe that it is enough for a people to enter among a foreign people by force of arms to make them adopt its laws and its Constitution. Nobody loves armed missionaries; and the first advice that nature and prudence give is to reject them as enemies’.

Would that we had read this quote, before Vietnam was invaded, or Afghanistan, or Iraq (pictured, above) in 2003 ! Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.