The French Revolution versus the October Revolution

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The French Revolution versus the October Revolution

Gendarme shooting at Robespierre (9 Thermidor) © Ken Welsh/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire)

Peaceful development is good for the citizens but bad for historians because it is rather dull. Obviously, it is more interesting to write about a juicy revolution than about everyday life of everyday people. If there were no major changes in the affairs of men there would be no need for historians. One historian went so far as to claim that the end of the Cold War spelt the end of conflict, the end of history. He was wrong.

Revolutions may differ drastically from each other. It would be difficult to find any common features between the English “Glorious” Revolution of 1688 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Some other revolutions bear strong resemblances to each other. For a thorough analysis, see Crane Brinton’s classic, The Anatomy of Revolutions. My aim in this note is to discuss the similarities and some of the differences between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Let me enumerate a few of the common features;

  • Both sets of revolutionaries were greatly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.
  • There was an inept ruling class before the revolution.
  • Most of the ruling class lived on agricultural rents.
  • Land was confiscated by the revolutionaries.
  • There were Revolutionary Tribunals dispensing quick justice.
  • The Revolution devoured its own children.
  • Vile language was used in denouncing the enemies of the revolution.

Next, let us see a few parallels: institutions and people who played similar roles in the two revolutions.

  • The equivalent of the Jacobin Club was the Bolshevik Party.
  • The influence of Marx upon the Russian Social Democrats was as strong as that of Voltaire on the Third Estate in France.
  • Some parts of the country were staunchly counter-revolutionary, like Vendée in France and the Caucasus in Russia.
  • Some high-ranking people, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, e.g. Duffriche-Valaze (member of the Legislative Assembly), and Tomskii (member of the Politburo), committed  suicide.
  • Some brave women like Charlotte Corday in France and Fanny Kaplan in Russia attempted to assassinate leading revolutionaries (Marat died, Lenin survived).
  • Abbé Sieyès (a leading ideologue of the French Revolution), when asked in the 1820s what he did during those  years, he replied: “J’ai surveçu.” The best equivalent in Russia was Lazar Kaganovich (although he did not boast about it). While most of his colleagues and friends perished, he survived to live to the age of 97. Sieyès died at 88.
  • The French stormed the Bastille; the Russians stormed the Winter Palace. 
  • Fouché, responsible for the massacres of Lyon and Nantes, was well matched by Dzerzhinski as the Head of the GPU.
  • Both revolutions reached their Thermidor.
  • Both revolutions ended in a one-man rule.

The two lists above shows the basic relationships, but a few of them need further discussion:

Storming. There is no doubt that the Bastille was stormed. The main evidence for storming the Winter Palace comes from Eisenstein’s film produced 10 years later. It has been said, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that more people died in making the film than  on the actual day, in action. Also, the only eyewitness account we have (that of John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, banned in the Soviet Union) mentions no storming, only some sneaking in at an open back entrance.

Thermidor is a month in the French revolutionary calendar. The 9th of the month is well known. On that day Robespierre, with two of his lieutenants, was sent to the guillotine, signalling the end of Terror. Since then historians mean by Thermidor the time when moderates took over the government. In the Soviet context, one might call the so-called New Economic Policy of 1921 as thermidorian because it was a sharp reversal of policy, allowing a certain measure of private enterprise. Alternatively, one could maintain that Thermidor in the Soviet Union came only after the defeat of the anti-Gorbachev coup in 1991.

Devouring children. The original quotation is from Vergniaud who said that “La revolution, comme Saturn, devore ses infants.” A sample of those devoured are Brissot, Danton, Desmoulins (both man and wife), Hebert, Robespierre, Ronsin, Vergniaud and Vincent in France, and Antonov-Ovseyenko, Bukharin, Kamenev, Piatakov, Radek, Rykov, Sokolnikov, Tukhachevskii and Zinoviev in the Soviet Union.

Finish with one man at the top. It happened in both countries. In France it was Napoleon Bonaparte, after his coup d’etat of the 18 Brumaire. Stalin had no coup d’etat. He did not need one. His grip on power was gradually tightened, starting with the job of Secretary of the Bolshevik Party. He was given the most boring job and he did it with enthusiasm. One might argue that he reached perfect control by the end of the 17th Congress of the Bolshevik Party in 1934. When the leadership was elected Kirov happened to receive more votes than Stalin. That sealed Kirov’s fate. In addition, of the 1966 members of the Congress, 1108 were sent to the Gulag, as Nikita Khruschev revealed in his report to the 20th Congress in 1956. Nobody knows how many people were liquidated during Stalin’s rule. Estimates vary from five million to 20 million. 

What made possible such disregard of human life? There was a new ethics, best described by Rubashev’s Diary in Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon:

“We were the first to replace the nineteenth century’s liberal ethics of ‘fair play’ by the revolutionary ethics of the twentieth century. In that we were right. A revolution conducted according to the rules of cricket is an absurdity. Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history: at its critical turning points there is no other rule possible, than the old one: the end justifies the means.”

Napoleon ruled on his own, conquered umpteen countries, but there the comparison with Stalin stops. In England he was known somewhat derogatively as Boney; that is not surprising, considering that Britain was his main adversary, ultimately his nemesis. He fared much better on the Continent, even among the people he conquered. In the French satellite, the Duchy of Warsaw, he introduced a new legal system that liberated the serfs and made everybody equal before the law. 

His score on judicial assassination is much better than Stalin’s. He was responsible for one single execution, that of the Duke of Enghien. He also brought a degree of freedom to the people of the Rhineland. See the very emotional poem celebrating the Emperor by Heinrich Heine, a Rhinelander, entitled “Zwei Grenadiere” (“Two Grenadiers”). These are the last two lines:

Dann steig’ ich gewaffnet hervor aus dem Grab, –

Den Kaiser, den Kaiser zu schützen.

(I shall then rise from my grave fully armed, the Emperor to protect.)

Heine was not an exception. Goethe and Napoleon are known to have mutually admired each other. True, Stalin also met stars of the Soviet literary establishment. Some (like Ilya Ehrenburg) survived; others (like Isaac Babel), did not.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 80%
  • Interesting points: 92%
  • Agree with arguments: 79%
14 ratings - view all

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