After reading this article you will learn about the political ideas of French revolution.
In the far-flung field of political ideas the contribution of the French revolution is quite worthy. We, in this section, want to point out some of them. Let us first deal with human rights and liberty.
The French National Assembly declared certain rights which may rightly be called very important and fundamental rights:
(1) Every citizen is entitled to have liberty, property and security. No authority can deprive a citizen of these natural rights.
(2) French people are entitled to all those rights and privileges which are granted by all civilized societies.
(3) The state authority has no power to imprison or punish a French citizen illegally. That is, unlawful punishment in any form must be abolished.
(4) Only court of law has the power to convict a person. But before that everyone has the right to think himself innocent.
(5) According to the revolutionaries, man is born free and he is entitled to enjoy freedom throughout his life.
(6) Exchange of views, opinions and ideas is another basic right and must be granted to all citizens.
(7) Echoing Rousseau’s views, the revolutionaries said that law is the expression of general will and every citizen must be allowed to participate in the law-making process of the state.
(8) An important right found its place in the famous Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen and this right is when the government violates the rights or infringes them the citizens have the right to protest through insurrection. It is a sacred and very important right.
(9) People must have the right to protest and criticize the activities of government.
(10) In one way or other, the authors of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen gave utmost priority to the popular sovereignty or the direct participation of the people in all the affairs of state. This we call popular sovereignty or direct democracy.
The Declaration contains a very important aspect of modern political theory and it is separation of powers. There was clear and important influence of Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu upon the revolutionaries.
The revolutionaries believed that only through the application of separation of powers among the various branches of government the freedom and rights of the people could be protected.
The revolutionaries further said that, of all the three organs of the government, the legislature must enjoy supremacy. The revolutionaries clearly stated that no compromise is to be entertained regarding the separation of power. Subsequently this idea got a place in the French system of politics.
The secularization of politics is to be rightly called as contribution of the F. R. throughout the Middle Ages, European politics; particularly the politics of Western Europe had no special status.
It was controlled by the church and the Pope. Rather religion and politics were mingled together. A clear line or demarcation was drawn now between religion and politics. The separation of politics from religion allowed political authority to exercise power independently. That was the dawn of a new era of politics in France.
Emergence of classes and division of society into classes are still important contributions of the F. R. Rude, in his Revolutionary Europe, says that the revolution to a large extent consolidated the class structure of French society, particularly the bourgeoisie.
Although the common people took the active part in the revolution, after it the capitalist managed to strengthen its position and finally harvested the benefits in its own favour. Engels in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific writes – “The French Revolution ensured the political triumph of the bourgeoisie in France”.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the quantum of work force employed in industrial sector was really high. We quote here few statistics from Harman’s book; “According to a recent estimate the economy grew at 1.9 percent a year throughout the 18th century. Textile output grew 250 percent, coal output seven or eightfold, and iron output from 40,000 tons to 140,000 tons. By 1789 a fifth of France’s population was employed in industry or handicrafts”.
All these figures indicate that there was sizeable increase in the total work force in France. But at the same time their impoverishment also increased. Therefore, when in the eighties and nineties of the eighteenth century there was a general mass upsurge in France, the workers joined in that movement.
With the growth of rapid industrialisation in France a new moneyed class developed and gradually it began to gather strength. Simultaneously there arose a good number of monopolists. This situation, in normal course, aggravated the class relations.
The bourgeoisie and the nobility both were quite active to “purchase” the favour of the king because the objective of both was to strengthen hold over the society. Marx, Engels and subsequently Lenin repeatedly emphasized this aspect of political concept. They wanted to say that the chief purpose of the bourgeoisie was to capture state power chiefly to exploit and control the working class. We can say that this started on the eve of F. R. or before the revolution.
Abendroth in his A Short History of the European Working Class has said – “French Revolution had paved the way for the recognition of human rights and the realization of democratic ideals in Europe.”
We have already noted that the revolutionaries—through the charter of demand and in various ways—demanded certain basic rights. It is true that they got inspiration from the writings of Rousseau. To get freedom the revolutionaries revolted against the French monarch.
The French people and society were not quite prepared for a large scale mass upsurge but it arose at least in embryonic form before or immediately after the F. R. The rise of class, the class structure of society and the relations among the classes—all practically constituted the major part of the political ideas that dominated the active and passive political scene of Europe in the nineteenth century.
A very important contribution of the F. R. is it cleared the way of the full-fledged development of capitalism. Let us see what Rude, a noted interpreter of French Revolution, says.
“Declaration of Rights is remarkable in that it neatly balances a statement of universal principles and human rights with an evident concern for the interests of the bourgeoisie”.
A simple cursory glance of the Declaration of Rights reveals that the Declaration highly emphasizes the grievances of the Third Estate expressed in the Cahiers. These rights reflect the philosophy of the natural law school.
Outwardly viewed, these rights are quite innocent. But inwardly viewed these rights carry different meaning. The Declaration gives more emphasis on the political rights.
But our point is only the political rights cannot ensure the all round development of the common people. Declaration throws no light on the emancipation of people from the economic bondage.
The members of the Third Estate were poor people and they took active part in the revolution. The economic hardship was one of the immediate causes of the F. R. and the Declaration must have thrown light on this issue.
It is also said that the F. R. invited the domination of the bourgeois class. The economic equality did not receive special attention of the revolutionaries or the Declaration. The emancipation of the members of the Third Estate from the abject poverty and hardship might have occupied the top position of the Declaration.
That has not happened, on the contrary, the right to property is treated as an inviolable right and it is the sacred duty of the state to protect it. The critics claim that on this issue there is a clear influence of Locke over the framers of the Declaration.
Locke also made it clear that it is the first and foremost duty of the body politic to protect the property. Rude finally concludes that in the F. R. – The bourgeois class was given a freehand in all affairs of the post-revolutionary France. The feudal lords were uprooted.
The impediments to trade and commerce were removed. In various ways capitalists purchased the favour and support of the king or authority, the wings of the nobility were trimmed. The sale of sequestrated properties, the sweeping away of the old feudal enclaves and communities, the opening of careers to men of talents, the creation of a new class of civil servants, the liberation of internal market from restrictive tolls and guilds… all helped to promote the growth and raise the social status of the bourgeoisie.
An important contribution of the F. R. is that it considerably raised the level of consciousness of the ordinary people. It is a fact that they were not adequately rewarded by the revolution. But they realized that only through struggle something could be achieved. This lesson of the F. R. spread to various parts of Europe. People propagated liberty, equality and fraternity and even today these are catchwords and inspire millions in various parts of the world.