The real lasting accomplishment of the Russian Revolution is the thrall in which it holds college-age men, but I was never that much of a wiener. Now the French Revolution, there's a dustup worth venerating. I loved learning about that crazy-ass decade, a completely insane upheaval that also made too much sense. No wonder the rest of the continent was spooked enough to gin up some armies and stamp on those embers.
A passage of Les Misérables nicely sums up the period's complete nut-assery. Victor Hugo can be a windbag but it's still a beautiful story, starting 15 years after the revolution's end and climaxing during another fit of Republican fury, the June Rebellion. My favorite part comes early in the novel when a Bishop, who we're told is the noblest of dudes, heads out of town to administer last rites to a dying Republican. He's a patient man but it is a testy visit. You'd be too if your vocation was "priest" and your host recently retired from a distinguished career as "priest murderer."
A sample of the exchange:
Republican, speaking of the French Revolution: "Alas! The work was incomplete, I admit: we demolished the ancient regime in deeds; we were not able to suppress it entirely in ideas. To destroy abuses is not sufficient; customs must be modified. The mill is there no longer; the wind is still there."
Bishop: "You have demolished. It may be of use to demolish, but I distrust a demolition complicated with wrath."
Republican: "Right has its wrath, Bishop; and the wrath of right is an element of progress. In any case, and in spite of whatever may be said, the French Revolution is the most important step of the human race since the advent of Christ. Incomplete, it may be, but sublime. It set free all the unknown social quantities; it softened spirits, it calmed, appeased, enlightened; it caused the waves of civilization to flow over the earth. It was a good thing. The French Revolution is the consecration of humanity."
When the bandannas come off and the barricades come down, every revolutionary has to answer to the junta colonel if they're unlucky, the grandkid if they're lucky, or the journalist if they're lonely: was it worth it? To this Republican, a member of the Convention no less, of course it was. If the revolutionaries were to be blamed for anything, it was being too ahead of the curve. Which, after discounting the cruelty and bloodshed, seems fair. It really was a little too much a little too fast. The whole exercise was doomed from the first conversation in the Vendée, when the new state finally got around to telling the provinces about the complete inversion of the known order that had been going down:
Farmer: "What's up, guy? Nice sash."
Prefect: "Thanks. Listen up: the king is dead, your priest is in jail, we renamed all the months, women are holding muskets, and France is trying to repel like four separate invasions. As to that last bit, we're going to need your food for eating and your sons for fighting."
Farmer: "Wow. I'm not into any of that. Even one of those would super suck, so all of those things together are making me real mad."
Prefect: "Tant pis, hayseed. Now make with the vittles and the bodies or I'm coming back with a noose."
So of course it didn't stick. But it did uncork a whole mess of cool new ideas. All republics owe those fiery Frenchmen a debt of gratitude, not for their choppy-chop governance style but for laying the bloody foundations of pluralism and representative government. Now go read Twelve Who Ruled, I'll wait.