Chapter 4


Gorbachev on French and Russian revolutions. How Marxists view the French philosophers. Was their great contribution "universal human values"? Ruthless ideological struggle against the ancien régime. The socialist Utopians and Robert Owen. Early communist experiments and the intransigence of the bourgeoisie. The absorption of politics by economics (the "withering away of the state"): Saint-Simon vs. the Soviet reforms. The French revolution and Lafayette. Use of terror. Jacobins, Girondists and monarchists. Gorbachev's omission of Chinese, Cuban and other great revolutions.

It was only natural that Gorbachev, once he had established in his UN speech that the goal must be "universal human consensus," then turned to the philosophers of the Enlightenment period and the early Utopian socialists who followed on their heels.

The greatest philosophers sought to grasp the laws of social development and find an answer to the main question: How to make man's life happy, just and safe. Two great revolutions, the French revolution of 1789 and the Russian revolution of 1917, exerted a powerful impact on the very nature of history and radically changed the course of world developments.

Both of them, each in its own way, gave a tremendous impetus to mankind's progress. To a large extent, those two revolutions shaped the way of thinking that is still prevalent in social consciousness. It is a most precious spiritual heritage.1

Gorbachev must have been aware that he was raising the subject of the French revolution and its philosophers at a time when the French government was making extensive preparations to celebrate the 200th anniversary of this great event. It had already been announced that a number of books were scheduled for publication in time for the anniversary--July 14, 1989. Articles by historians and politicians were in preparation in many Western capitalist countries. The anniversary itself would be the occasion for a massive outpouring of all kinds of historical and theoretical treatises on the meaning of the French revolution. The bourgeoisie would be extremely partisan in how they presented it and would be sure to link it up with their contemporary class interests.

Gorbachev's problem in the midst of this tide of bourgeois ideology was how to present a Marxist, communist appreciation of the French revolution and its philosophers. Marxists don't hold the same view of the French revolution as do the bourgeoisie. And the bourgeoisie don't hold the same view of the Bolshevik revolution as do communists. Both revolutions are important, of course. But is it correct to refer to mere "social consciousness" and "precious spiritual heritage"?

The French revolution ushered in the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, which, the stronger it became, the more widespread was its exploitation of the working class. The Bolshevik revolution brought in the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. Each class draws different lessons from these revolutions.

Marxists understand that the great contribution of the French revolution was to cut down feudalism root and branch, to use Engels' words, and bring the bourgeoisie to power. The slogans of the bourgeoisie--liberty, equality and fraternity--turned out to be a sham and a fraud. By equality they meant not social equality, but equality before the law--rich and poor are punished equally for stealing a loaf of bread!2 By freedom they meant free trade.

The spark that set off the French revolution came when the king called in the Estates General, the legislative assembly composed of the clergy (first estate), the land-owning nobility (second estate), and the burghers and plebeian elements allied with them (third estate), for the purpose of consulting them to raise taxes. Instead of handing the king more taxes, the third estate demanded control and set up a virtual bourgeois parliament, the National Assembly. The landed aristocracy were cut down and their land distributed to the peasants. The further steps of the revolution are rich in historic examples--how the bourgeoisie tried to separate itself from the masses, the rural poor and the budding proletariat; how thereafter sharp class antagonisms were revealed between the bourgeoisie, which was concerned with securing, promoting and safeguarding its properties and its form of exploitation, and the rural and plebeian masses.

This in turn necessitated a further stage in the development of the revolution--the establishment of the Commune of Paris (1793) by the Jacobins, which proposed to safeguard the masses against the greed and avarice of the bourgeoisie, especially the merchants and the speculators. The history of how it attempted by revolutionary means to establish its own dictatorship but was defeated by reaction is rich in political lessons. As Marx and Engels showed, the French revolution had the historic task of catapulting the bourgeoisie to power. Despite the revolutionary intransigence of the Jacobins and the plebeian detachments, particularly in Paris, their struggle proved premature. The plebeians, the poor of the cities, villages and countryside, had not yet attained working-class consciousness because the class itself was still in embryo. They had only a vaguely populist, anti-royalist, anti-landlord ideological outlook. The objective factor of large-scale industry had not yet arrived, and the poor were far from having attained any class consciousness of their role in the historical process.

To safeguard the establishment of the bourgeois order, the French revolution had to go much further in the struggle against the old regime than the bourgeoisie wanted to go. The French revolution is such a significant chapter in world history precisely because it offers rich lessons in the class struggle, showing how each and every class reacted under the impetus of a tremendous social and political upheaval.

Irving Kristol, a one-time campus radical and later a rabid anti-communist writer for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary magazine, tried to compare the French and American revolutions on the occasion of the bicentennial in 1976. Our revolution, he said, is not celebrated all over the world like the French revolution. Why? Because it was really a conservative revolution. We fought for our independence. It had nothing of the violence and bloodshed that accompanied the French revolution. That is why, he went on, communists the world over always look to the French rather than the American revolution, which is steeped in democratic tradition (like the maintenance of chattel slavery?).

However, it is not bloodshed and violence as such that attract revolutionaries the world over to the study of the French revolution. It is the element of the class struggle, which was to emerge again and again in French history, especially in the celebrated Paris Commune of 1871.

To speak of all this as a "most precious spiritual heritage," as Gorbachev does, is to cloud the issue with bourgeois platitudes. Each class draws inspiration from the French revolution in order to serve its own needs.

Gorbachev referred to the great philosophers of that period. They were divided roughly into two groups. Preceding the revolution were Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot. After the revolution came Saint-Simon, Fourier and the British reformer, Owen.3 To merely say of these philosophers, as Gorbachev does, that they tried to grasp the laws of social development and find an answer to the question "how to make mankind's life happy, just and safe" is to pick out the most innocuous generalities in the ideas of the great Enlightenment thinkers for the sake of finding a common ground with the bourgeoisie today.

To seek a just and happy life for humankind--that is not their great contribution to history. That is not what they are known for. They are known and still read worldwide on five continents because, in the words of Engels, they were "extreme revolutionists." 4 It was their withering, incisive, penetrating exposure of the old social order, of the ancien r‚gime, that made them famous. Their brilliant intellectual writings became the ideological weapons that laid the theoretical and political basis for the overthrow of the oppressive rule of the nobility, the landlords, the clergy and the monarchy. Their devastating polemics cleared the minds of the people of feudal ideological rubbish and prepared them for the great revolutionary struggles that followed. As far as the search for human happiness, safety and so on, that was characteristic of philosophers two thousand years earlier, if not before.

There is, of course, their thesis of "universal human values"--their search for a society based upon reason. For that they were called rationalists. They had all sorts of panaceas for the forthcoming society which would replace the corrosive feudal order. One may well put them in the framework of universal human values and the triumph of the rights of man, of liberty, equality and fraternity. But this is where a Marxist explanation differs from that of the bourgeoisie, which is as factional and as biased as only an exploitative propertied class, possessing all the means of production, can be. Those great men writing at that time indulged in these generalities because the economic conditions which gave rise to the bourgeoisie were still so ill-developed that their outline could barely be seen, even by men of such keen intellectual capacities as Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and others. They could not foretell that their vision of the future would be shipwrecked with the emergence of the capitalist system. Their generalizations are understandable in the light of the fact that capitalist society had not matured.

But for a representative of the USSR, where Marxism is the state doctrine, to speak in terms of universal human values and universal consensus, and even attribute to these vague generalizations a primacy above everything else--that is absolutely incompatible with the doctrines on which the Soviet state was founded! To try to find a common denominator in this war-torn class society cannot but have the effect of putting a veil over the raging class struggle on a world scale between the oppressors and the oppressed, the exploiters and the exploited.

Of course, it is easy enough to obtain a consensus, and an overwhelming one at that, to sign a declaration on universal human rights. The bourgeoisie are famous for that. They have never let two imperialist world wars, dozens of interventions and counterrevolutionary forays, stop them. They are always ready and willing to go along with any universal generalization, any shallow, empty document. But put just one concrete word in there, like prohibition against genocide, or recognition of who is struggling against racism and apartheid, and there the consensus begins to wither and finally collapses altogether.

The first group of philosophers was persevering and indeed ruthless in the ideological struggle against every social, political and religious manifestation of the old order. Their vision of the future, however, could not but be blurred. It was much clearer to the second group of great philosophers, the socialist Utopians.

One who should be familiar to English-speaking readers throughout the world was Robert Owen. Here was a very rich man, a millionaire, who put his money where his mouth was. He was not only a philosopher who had absorbed the teachings of the early materialists, not only a philanthropist, but a man of great vision who saw the evils of the new capitalist system as it emerged in England in the early 19th century. It's interesting, as Engels pointed out, that "as long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honor and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and princes listened to him approvingly. But when he came out with his communist theories, that was quite another thing." 5 Then he faced a conspiracy of silence. He was outlawed and excommunicated from official society and lost his whole social position.

But what did he do that should be of so much interest to the present-day reformers in the Soviet Union? Owen was the founder of a communist colony at New Lanark in Scotland in 1800. This was no petit-bourgeois radical scheme for a few individuals to escape the horrors of the capitalist system, to insulate themselves from its devastating effects, like some communes today. It was an attempt to demonstrate to the world the feasibility of a just and humane social order on the basis of the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and its replacement by a planned socialist order.

But his great expectations, like those of the other Utopians, fell afoul of the hostility of the capitalist class. The New Lanark colony was forced to exist in the midst of a world capitalist environment and this doomed it from the start, for the ruling class was irreconcilably against any socialist solution to the problem.

Owen's New Lanark did prove, however, in its short-lived existence that you could take a small population of several hundred people and turn it into a model colony of 2,500 workers in which, according to Engels, "drunkenness, police, magistrates, lawsuits, poor laws, charity were unknown. And all this, simply by placing people in the conditions worthy of human beings." 6

Two hundred years ago the class divisions arising out of capitalist society had not yet made themselves manifest. It was not yet proven that the abolition of feudalism led to a more intense and widespread form of exploitation under the capitalist mode of production. Two hundred years ago the call for universal human values was understandable and had highly progressive, even revolutionary, significance. Merely recognizing the existence of the class struggle and espousing socialism, as did Robert Owen, was a great contribution.

Marx, in one of his famous letters,7 stated that it was not he who had discovered the existence of the class struggle; historians and philosophers had discovered it much earlier. What he did was to demonstrate that the class struggle was the result of a struggle over material interests, and that this class struggle necessarily and inevitably would be ended only through the dictatorship of the proletariat. That, said Marx, was what differentiated his doctrine from all forms of reformism and utopianism.

Is there just one among the thousands of officials, administrators and enterprise directors in the Gorbachev administration, one of the experimenters, innovators and new thinkers today, who dares to think that a communist establishment is possible, even if only on an experimental basis? Are they even thinking along the lines of the abolition of classes? Or is the new thinking and experimenting wholly on another track?

Owen was unable to convince the other capitalists of that consensus, of that universal human idea which would include workers and bosses. Despite his great skills in planning, which were shared with the members of the colony, his experiment finally came to grief. He ultimately turned away from trying to get a universal consensus and helped organize the very first trade union (the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of Great Britain and Ireland), whose aim was to take over the management of production and effect a complete transformation of the community by peaceful means. That it too failed was entirely due to resistance from the bourgeois state and bourgeois society in general.

Especially illuminating for the new Soviet reformers should be the vision of Saint-Simon, the first to recognize that the French revolution was not just a political struggle between groupings but a class war. Certainly, Saint-Simon was for seeking universal human values, but he first of all recognized and foresaw the emerging class struggle. Only because of the undeveloped state of capitalist relations at that time did he become a Utopian. What interested him most was the lot of the class that is the most numerous and the poorest ("la classe la plus nombreuse et la plus pauvre"). But what ought to interest our Soviet reformers is his extraordinarily keen insight into the relationship between politics and economics.

Our reformers in the USSR cannot or do not want to see or even write about the social process whereby politics is ultimately dissolved or absorbed by economics. That means the disappearance of bureaucracy. The ultimate objective of communism is the dissolution of politics, in other words, the organization of economic and social affairs without the intermediary of the state--the police, the military, the judiciary and the bureaucratic state apparatus. They gradually become superfluous and are dissolved the more the economic functions are developed under the influence of the growth of science and technology. When scarcity is replaced by abundance, the objective need for a distributor of the national income in the form of state officials becomes superfluous and indeed parasitic.

As soon as socialism begins to develop, it is economics that dominates politics and not the other way around. The more that economics becomes primary in the social order, the more politics withers away and becomes redundant. Politics is the organized expression of class antagonisms. As class antagonisms disintegrate and are abolished, politics thereby vanishes.

The reformers in the Soviet Union are for deepening and strengthening the political process. Yet in 1816, Saint-Simon could already see a socialist society in which there would be the gradual absorption of politics by economics. He saw, in the words of Engels, "the future conversion of political rule over men into an administration of things." 8 These thoughts of Saint-Simon, avowedly Utopian for their age, nevertheless were the embryonic form of the Marxist scientific doctrine of the withering away of the state, which Lenin took such great pains to explain in The State and Revolution. When, as Lenin put it, every cook could become an administrator, a participant in the management of production, this would completely obviate and make obsolete the political rule of a bureaucracy over people. Instead, there would only be the administration of things as a process in the development of production and in all phases of social life.

Are the Soviet reformers turning their thinking in that direction? What we hear are constant exhortations against administrative and command bureaucrats coming from those who stand on the same social ground from which bureaucracy is nourished: sharply increasing social and economic inequality and the retention of privilege.

Gorbachev is on even more hazardous ground when he begins to invoke the French revolution and attempts to place it side by side with the Russian revolution. Even leaving aside the fact that the former is a bourgeois revolution and the latter a proletarian revolution, it is particularly awkward for a communist to treat them as though they have equal significance for the 20th, let alone the 21st, century.

Certain periods and figures of the French revolution are today, when we are witnessing its bicentennial celebration, more than ever highly charged with the most venomous partisanship and bourgeois prejudice. Take, for example, the role of General Lafayette. He is virtually a folk hero of bourgeois historians, particularly in the United States, where he is regarded as a liberator who, out of humanitarian ideals of independence and freedom, came to aid the beleaguered colonies against an oppressive monarchy. But nothing is further from the truth. Lafayette was in fact a staunch monarchist who saw great advantage in helping the colonies weaken British rule, for that would strengthen French imperial ambitions in North America.

The Reign of Terror was a struggle between the core leaders of the revolution--Robespierre, Danton, Marat and others--and the more moderate compromisers, those who were inclined and indeed conspired to retain the monarchy, notwithstanding that to do so was contrary not only to the will of the people but in fact to the interests of the whole bourgeoisie. In bourgeois history books, Danton and Robespierre are considered terrorists.

What was the role of Lafayette? As vice president of the National Assembly, a leader of the Girondists, a sympathizer of the royalist bourgeoisie and commander of the royalist militia, he opened fire on July 17, 1791, on a huge peaceful demonstration of republicans in the Champs de Mars, killing and wounding many--for no other reason than that they had brought a petition to the very National Assembly of which he was vice president calling for the dethronement of the king. That was the use of terror, but is Lafayette known in bourgeois texts as a terrorist?

It is now more than 100 years since Engels and Marx analyzed the significance of the French revolution and tore apart the old, encrusted historiography that hid the class essence of the events behind glittering phrases like liberty, equality and fraternity. Great admirers of the French revolution, Marx and Engels showed that these phrases were merely the ideological cover for the victory of the bourgeoisie over its feudal opposition.9 The French bourgeoisie, once having conquered the feudal lords, was concerned not with liberty, equality and fraternity but with establishing its social, economic and political domination over the masses. For the weak and emerging proletariat, it meant the replacement of exploitation by the feudal lords with exploitation by the bourgeoisie.

One of the chief lessons of the French revolution was that the bourgeoisie, after a series of struggles among its various compromising factions, did "cut down root and branch" the feudal order of French society. But as Marx and Engels, and later Lenin, showed, this took several stages of the revolution. Each stage, down to and including what has been called the Reign of Terror and the establishment of the Committees for Public Safety, was precipitated by the need to counter royalist attempts at restoration.

The Girondists and the Jacobins represented different class groupings within the framework of a generally anti-feudal, anti-royalist coalition. The Girondists were moderates who tried to conciliate with the royalists and carry out modest reforms. The revolutionary Jacobin party was for cutting down the whole feudal order. Its most revolutionary and determined elements eventually failed. Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin, pointed out the basis for their failure: in French society in that particular epoch, the level of the productive forces could not go much further than sustain the establishment of the political power of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels also explained the significance of the reactionary period known as Thermidor and the lessons which working class parties could learn from it.

The different phases of the revolution finally reached full circle with the Napoleonic wars and the banishment of Napoleon himself. Each of these phases can be seen in historical perspective as the political consolidation of the power of the bourgeoisie.

In destroying feudalism, the French revolution had worldwide revolutionary significance. It awoke other strata in Germany as well as eastern Europe in the struggle against the feudal landlords and the monarchies. Nevertheless, while it was the greatest political revolution of its time and awoke millions of oppressed people, it was not the liberator of the oppressed when it came to retaining Haiti as a colony or extending France's influence in North America.

Unquestionably there is a vast and virtually unlimited area of social and political experience that is the common heritage of humanity. However, it is wholly inadequate, inappropriate and to a large extent downright misleading to, in the year 1988, put the French and Russian revolutions side by side as two great historic events and let it go at that. There's a vast difference--a class difference. One revolution represents the victory and the ideals of the bourgeoisie. The other was the first great successful socialist revolution. To sort of erase the differences between the two is misleading, all the more so since French history is studied throughout the whole world precisely because of its brilliant revolutionary class struggles.

For instance, the establishment of the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871 was the embryo of the future socialist revolution in Russia. The Communards of 1871 had assimilated the lessons of the Commune of Paris of 1793. It is interesting that the proletariat which was in mortal combat with the French bourgeoisie in 1870-71 drew on an organizational form which had originated in the last stages of the French bourgeois revolution.

It is also inadequate in the present historical context for a communist leader to refer only to the French and Russian revolutions. That would have been appropriate before 1949, but then came the Chinese revolution which was an event of great historical proportions. It withdrew half a billion people from the virtually total domination of imperialism. It also influenced the revolutions in Korea, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. China rightfully regards its revolution as a great event which changed the face of the earth and whose leaders learned, as did the Russians, from the French revolution.

There is also the enormous significance of the Cuban revolution, a revolution as young and vigorous as one could possibly expect under very difficult conditions. What other revolution in recent years has been able to dispatch a formidable and heroic corps of internationalist volunteers to support the anti-imperialist struggles in Angola, Ethiopia and Namibia?

One wonders how Gorbachev's foray into history strikes the leadership in both China and Cuba. It was precisely such omissions in the early 1950s which caused so many problems between China and the USSR.


1. Address by Mikhail Gorbachev at the Plenary Meeting of the 43rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, December 7, 1988, p. 4.

2. Of course, even then there is seldom equality. A rich person who steals bread is considered a "kleptomaniac" and treated as ill rather than criminal.

3. Baron Charles Louis de Montesquieu, 1689-1755; Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, 1694-1778; Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1712-78; Denis Diderot, 1713-84; Claude Henri Saint-Simon, 1760-1825; Charles Fourier, 1772-1837; Robert Owen, 1771-1858.

4. Frederick Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), Vol. III, p. 115.

5. Ibid., p. 125.

6. Ibid., pp. 123-24.

7. Marx to J. Weydemeyer in New York, March 5, 1852, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1969), p. 679.

8. Engels, p. 121.

9. See Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, and Karl Marx, The Class Struggle in France, 1848 to 1850.

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