Happy Bastille Day

A reflection on the meaning of the storming of the Bastille

For the Old Mole Variety Hour, July 14, 2014. The fourteenth of July marks a key event of the French Revolution in 1789; and the French Revolution, in turn, is generally seen as a key turning point in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The storming of the prison was both a symbol and an instance of people collectively claiming freedom.

But although the Revolution entailed the repeal of the laws supporting feudalism in France, capital relations had already been developing, and those material changes had also made possible the enlightenment ideas of 18th century thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire and Thomas Paine--ideas that in turn also contributed toward the American war of independence and then the French revolution. Of course things did not proceed ideally after 1789, either: various factions fought with each other and sliced off quite a few heads over the next ten years, at which point most historians consider the revolution to have ended with Napoleon Bonaparte's 1799 coup. Further republican revolutions and restored monarchies continued to trade power, workers' revolutions alternating with bourgeois republics and dictatorships for the rest of the nineteenth century. That is, although the storming of the Bastille was a significant and enduringly symbolic event, the actual transition from feudalism to capitalism was a long, drawn-out, conflictual process, as the transition from capitalism to whatever comes next is likely to be.

Before the revolution, a few commoners in the cities had started to become wealthy merchants, or increasingly affluent workers--artisans, professionals, the bourgeoisie. But most of the Third Estate consisted of impoverished peasants, compelled to rent from nobles the land on which they subsisted, and obligated to turn over to those nobles and to the church much of what they produced. Meanwhile, the king and the court lived lavishly, and to the expenses of running the opulent court at Versailles Louis the 16th added the cost of expanding the military. The French government built up a powerful navy to support the war waged by the American colonies for independence from France's long-time rival Great Britain. In addition to these stark inequalities and military expenses, the country faced a crisis in resources and economy.

According to Ernest Belfort Bax, in his Short History of the French Revolution for Socialists,

Ten years of bad harvests . . . culminated with the summer of 1788. ... All kinds of agricultural crops failed miserably all over France, not alone wheat and grain generally, but vines, chestnuts, olives; in short; all the natural products of consumption and exportation. Even what was gathered in was so spoiled as to be almost unfit for use. From every province of France came the monotonous tale of ruin, famine, starvation....

[An English visitor to France at the time commented that ] “Such bread as is to be obtained tastes of mould, and often produces dysentery and other diseases. The larger towns present the same condition, as though they had undergone the extremities of a long siege, in some places the whole store of corn and barley has the stench of putrefaction, and is full of maggots.” To add to the horrors of the situation, upon the hot and dry summer follows a winter of unparalled severity. The new year of 1789 opens with the Seine frozen over from Paris to Havre.

As the spring advances the misery increases. The industrial crisis becomes acute in the towns, thousands of workmen are thrown out of employment. The riots and local disturbances which had for many years past been taking place sporadically in various districts, now became daily more frequent, so much so that from March onwards the whole peasantry of France may be said to have been in a state of open insurrection, three hundred separate risings in the provinces being counted for the four months preceding the taking of the Bastille.

Historian Peter Linebaugh notes,

The Bastille towered over [its neighborhood in Paris, which was home to artisans and laborers]. Its walls were one hundred feet high, ten feet thick at the top and thirty to forty feet thick at the base. The monstrous building functioned as an arsenal, a prison, and a fortress guarding the east of Paris from invasion from without and rebellion from within.

The symbolism of the Bastille derived from its long use as a prison, where, with a secret letter, the monarch could have anyone imprisoned without evidence, trial, or appeal. (Kind of like the power of the US president under the National Defense Authorization Act to detain anyone anywhere.) Voltaire was imprisoned there in the Bastille, and the Marquis de Sade; and many who escaped or were released described the horrors of its dungeons.

When protestors in the neighborhood demanded access to the weapons kept inside, the soldiers stationed there took only a few hours to surrender--just as, elsewhere in Paris, royal troops were colluding with other crowds protesting their need for bread.

While workers, artisans, and peasants were crowding into the streets and plazas (as people have often done in recent years, protesting austerity measures and oppressive or unresponsive governments), more privileged revolutionaries in the spring of 1789 were busy drafting a constitution for France. The Estates General began meeting in Versailles after Louis the 16th called a meeting of representatives of the first, second, and third estates--that is, the clergy, nobility, and everyone else--to try to resolve some of the country's problems. But they couldn't even resolve a fair structure for their meeting. The third estate balked at the idea that their group would have only one of three votes, when they represented 97 percent of the population. So they took the direct action of meeting separately, inviting members of the other estates to join them on an equitable basis. This group, the National Assembly, passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, affirming the principles of popular sovereignty and human equality--though unfortunately they failed to pass proposed resolutions ending colonial slavery and including women in the category of citizen.

Still, to the extent that despotism was overthrown and replaced by an aspiration toward human equality and the common good, it was accomplished not simply by a polite meeting of the estates general, but by the combined action of popular uprising and autonomous action of representatives of the third estate determined to write popular sovereignty into law. Neither the laborers with their pikes nor the lawyers with their pens could have accomplished alone what they did by their collective actions.

The next year, in 1790, after the Bastille had been dismantled stone by stone, the Marquis de Lafayette gave the key to the prison to his friend Tom Paine, to pass along to George Washington. The key is now on display ... at the first President’s slave plantation, Mount Vernon.

Let's remember that we have that key that opened the door of the despot's prison, and we can, by our collective actions, finish the promised work of human equality and the common good--the abolition of slavery, health care for all, open borders, the abolition of prisons.