The French Revolution & its Critics

The enormous significance of the French Revolution is beyond doubt, but there are few other points of consensus. Conservatives such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre considered it an unmitigated disaster, radicals called it a partial if incomplete success, and moderate reformers such as Thomas Paine criticised both sides. This was a new sort of revolution, partly because its course from the outset was substantially determined by the activities of the mob, led by a bourgeoisie who were never fully in control. The aims of the revolution became far more radical as it went on, such that a man with revolutionary views in one year could find himself declared an enemy of the revolution the next. The revolution was socially productive, and saw the permanent end to many aristocratic privileges. It was less productive politically, leading to decades of political chaos including two empires, restored absolutist monarchy and multiple republics.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke became one of the most famous critics of the French Revolution after predicting its future course with uncanny accuracy in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’. Burke supported the English system of constitutional monarchy rather than absolute monarchy and divine right to rule, and viewed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as a legitimate restoration of the English system. The French Revolution began as an attempt to implement constitutional monarchy, but by 1790 Burke had decided that it would become something outrageous, and its universalism made it a danger beyond its national boundaries. Revolutions threaten the common habits and beliefs that hold societies together, and there is always a great risk that those societies can’t be put back together again. Lockean revolutions (such as 1688) which aim to restore old habits are a lesser risk, but the French Revolution was a utopian project, a wholesale attempt at social reconstruction certain to end in catastrophe. Burke gave us the modern understanding of revolution as a protracted, violent and unpredictable transformation of social and political relationships encompassing the whole of society.

Burke drew on three types of argument against revolution. One was utilitarian – revolutions are extremely costly in terms of human happiness. More than that, the means of attaining happiness are idiosyncratic. The intellectual may look down on the peasant and feel an urge to liberate him from his hardship. The peasant may be looking up and wondering how anyone could bear to waste their time on meaningless pursuits, trapped indoors and producing nothing useful. The status-quo has an in-built advantage because we have all found ways to achieve happiness in what we are used to. Burke criticised the principle of universal rights of man on the basis that there is no such creature as ‘man’. To promote happiness, rights must be specific to the time and place in which they are instituted. Another argument was an appeal to natural law; when everyone does what is appropriate to their condition there is a natural harmony, with virtuous citizens who are happy as a result. Burke did believe that it was natural for those with talent (like himself) to rise to the top. He believed in a flexible order, not a rigid Platonic hierarchy. A third argument was religious. Societies based on religious conviction are less violent, smoother and produce citizens with strong morals more at ease with their lives. In contrast, the French Revolution was a blasphemous event where people had taken on the powers of social engineering that belonged to God alone.

Joseph de Maistre

While Burke was either liberal or moderate conservative, Joseph de Maistre was a reactionary conservative. He claimed that the revolution was an act of divine punishment for mankind’s general wickedness. The force of this argument is not intellectual. The authority of an absolute ruler supported by an infallible Pope must be feared, not debated by intellectuals, and must break our will to resist. Man is a creature of passion, and if this passion is unleashed, destruction is the natural consequence. Maistre started a thought that lasted into the 19th and 20th centuries; that revolution from the left can only be met with violence from the right.

Thomas Paine

The failure of the revolution to achieve one stable, uncontested outcome meant that French political institutions were widely seen as illegitimate for the next century and a half. However, its principles were never abandoned. The opportunity to be citizens and not subjects has proven irresistibly attractive. A study of Thomas Paine helps in understanding the enduring support for the principles of the revolution. Paine was a self-declared citizen of the world. He was British, but published a wildly successful pamphlet in America in 1776 in favour of the cause of independence. After returning to Britain he was chased out by Burke who threatened prosecution for libel. He became an important voice in the early French Revolution before narrowly avoiding the guillotine in the later stages. Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ contained his response to Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution. This response includes particular criticism of the British Government, which Paine calls wicked and a fabric of corruption and malfeasance, absurd and not to be tolerated. The absurdity starts with the role of heredity in the monarchy and aristocracy. The only rational way to choose a ruling elite was some form of electoral process. Representative government secures the reign of reason; hereditary monarchy and aristocracy are suited only to the ignorant. The Americans and French therefore were both right to overthrow their un-elected overlords. Paine often grouped the American and French revolutions together, whereas Burke focused on the differences between them.

In response to Burke’s criticism of the Parisian mob, Paine argues that the fault for their behaviour lies with the “ancien regime”. This regime had historically responded to any grievance in a murderous fashion and had caused daily life for the lower classes to be brutal. The behaviour of the mob should not be excused, but should be seen as the rebounding of the official brutality of the old regime upon its perpetrators. Paine also responds to Burke’s view that the securest form of government is by prescription, i.e. people should generally accept the form of government they are born into. Paine argues that all legitimate governments were once instituted by someone (e.g. by its citizens), and if someone once had the right to institute a government then that right should also exist in their heirs. The belief that anyone in the past had the right to institute a despotism upon generations yet unborn defies rational analysis. Paine therefore believed that every generation has the right to decide for itself what form of government to live under.

Paine subscribed to the view that humans are naturally sociable, and that politics is a necessary evil. Government should be restricted to the essentials: safeguarding commerce and industry, and providing for those who cannot provide for themselves. Paine also believed that free people must give up some of their natural rights when governments are setup, but said that rights which we can exercise by our own unaided efforts are never given up. Rights that we need the help of others to exercise are regulated and curtailed for the sake of our greater freedom. The reality of complex societies is that there is little that people can do entirely unaided, and many rights fall into a grey area.


Modern socialists would appreciate Paine’s program for the creation of an extensive welfare system, and his case for confiscatory levels of taxation on very high incomes to pay for it. Nevertheless, Paine was a liberal not a socialist. Saint-Simon on the other hand is best known as the founder of Saint-Simonianism, which became a quasi-religious utopian socialist sect. He was writing several years after the revolution as ”the social question” was first being discussed – must poverty always be a part of society, and could the poor play a non-destructive role in politics? It was becoming clear that authority could not rest solely on God or popular election but required a level of social integration. On Saint-Simon’s analysis, the revolution broke out in large part because the old political system had simply run out of authority. Its authority was medieval, with hereditary rule based on blood and supposed military prowess at a time when scientific intelligence, skill and productivity were more decisive. With echoes of Plato and Aristotle, Saint-Simon said that society functions happily only when its organisation matches human nature. A rational modern society would be run by managers and scientists, because people would understand that those people were the best qualified for the job. Saint-Simon invented the modern understanding of industrial society and its organisation. A person who did the right kind of work for his abilities and received proper recompense would be happy, and ready to follow the direction of properly appointed superiors.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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