Let's Celebrate the Overthrow of the French Monarchy and the Guillotine! A primer, by E.J. Hobsbawm


Well, today is September 21, the first day of fall, which sort of sucks. On the other hand, on September 21 1792 the French monarchy was abolished and about three weeks later Marie Antoinette “was convicted by the Revolutionary Tribunal of high treason and executed by guillotine on the Place de la Révolution.”

So today is a pretty good day for world history, even if it heralds the end of summer (which is a big, big negative.) I’ve been thinking a lot about the guillotine lately, because we so clearly need it back today, not necessarily to execute our Oligarch/Monarchs — though maybe a few, for purposes of deterrence and/or Exemplary Justice — as long as they willingly redistribute their wealth and in some cases, turn themselves in for prison time, i.e. Jeff Bezos and Tom Brady. (Other examples of possible candidates are noted in this piece I published a few days ago.)

Why the guillotine is such an important revolutionary tool was explained most cogently by E.J. Hobsbawn, the great Marxist historian, in his wonderful book, The Age of Revolution. (Hobsbawn, the author of many great works, died in 2012.) In a nutshell, parts of the French bourgeoisie and moderate social reformers sided with the Revolution and against the Monarchy. Then they got scared and some of them pulled back, but it was too late, and in the end a lot of them got their heads chopped off.

After that, having watched with muted alarm as their cohorts get their heads shaved, moderate bourgeoisies across Europe reflexively sided with monarchies and against revolutionaries, which is why toppling kings and queens became so hard to do. Of course, the real heroes of the story were the revolutionary leaders and the masses, who were the foot soldiers and often intellectual architects of what was truly progressive regime change and nation building (two terms I normally despise, sort of like “low fat” and “awesome”).

Anyway, I could never put it as elegantly as Hobsbawn, though I’ve provided the important context. Here’s a wonderful section from The Age of Revolution, that I found in this great blog post. I just wish I knew what was removed with the ellipses because I’m pretty sure the word guillotine features prominently. Anyway, here you go:

The main shape of French and all subsequent bourgeois revolutionary politics were by now clearly visible. This dramatic dialectical dance was to dominate the future generations. Time and again we shall see moderate middle-class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance – mass mobilization – shift to the left – split-among-moderates-and-shift-to-the-right – until either the bulk of the middle-class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution. In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed in the nineteenth-century we increasingly find … that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, preferring a compromise with king and aristocracy.

God, I just love that. So at some point today make sure to offer a toast to one of my personal heroes, the flawed but goodhearted Maximilien Robespierre, and especially to the Revolutionary Masses. Heads will roll!

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Politically eclectic DC-based investigative journalist and CEO, Chief Sleaze Purveyor (CSP) and Creator of WashingtonBabylon.com.