Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.
This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 as it is of the United States today. Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious. The onset of the next Depression, a challenge akin to World War II, a national midlife crisis—these comparisons have been offered and many more. But few are calling our current moment a revolution, and some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic—coinciding as it has with the surge in Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and the decline of Bernie Sanders’s—marks the end of any such possibility. “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” declared the headline of a recent essay in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid, who argued that the COVID-19 crisis makes people crave “normalcy” over deep structural change. As a historian of 18th- and 19th-century France, I think claims like these are mistaken.
An urgent desire for stability—for a fast resolution to upheaval—is in fact absolutely characteristic of any revolutionary era. “I pray we will be finished by Christmas,” wrote one beleaguered member of the French Constituent Assembly to a good friend in October 1789. In reality, of course, the assembly took another two years to finish its tasks, after which another assembly was elected; a republic was declared; Louis XVI was put on trial and executed in January 1793; General Napoleon Bonaparte became “first consul” in 1799 and emperor in 1804; Europe found itself engulfed in wars from 1792 to 1815. In short, life never went back to how it had been before 1789.
The United States may not be having a revolution right now, but we are surely living in revolutionary times. If we do not perceive them as such, it is because news coverage and everyday conversations alike turn on nonhuman agents. Instead of visionary leaders or outraged crowds, viruses, markets, and climate change seem to shape events today. History feels like it is out of our hands.
People sometimes imagine yesterday’s revolutions as planned and carried out by self-conscious revolutionaries, but this has rarely, if ever, been the case. Instead, revolutions are periods in which social actors with different agendas (peasants stealing rabbits, city dwellers sacking tollbooths, lawmakers writing a constitution, anxious Parisians looking for weapons at the Bastille Fortress) become fused into a more or less stable constellation. The most timeless and emancipatory lesson of the French Revolution is that people make history. Likewise, the actions we take and the choices we make today will shape both what future we get and what we remember of the past.
More by Rebecca L. Spang
Analogies between the first months of the French Revolution and our current moment are easy to draw. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-diseases expert whom President Donald Trump often sidelines or ignores, is Jacques Necker, the popular finance minister to Louis XVI. Necker’s firing in early July 1789 was viewed widely as a calamity: “It was like losing your father,” the mathematician and astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly wrote in his memoirs. The recent spike in American gun and ammunition sales recalls the Parisians who stormed the Bastille Fortress in the hope of finding weapons and gunpowder. (They incidentally released a handful of individuals imprisoned there, but that was not the crowd’s original intent.) The conflict among city, state, and federal officials over coronavirus-related closures directly parallels 1789’s municipal revolutions, in which some cities had leaders who quickly proclaimed devotion to the new National Assembly, while the leaders of other cities remained loyal to the old structures of absolutist royal power and the mayors and aldermen of yet others were violently deposed.
That comparisons can so easily be made between the beginning of the French Revolution and the United States today does not mean that Americans are fated to see a Reign of Terror or that a military dictatorship like Napoleon’s looms large in our future. What it does mean is that everything is up for grabs. The United States of America can implode under external pressure and its own grave contradictions, or it can be reimagined and repurposed. Life will not go back to normal for us, either, because the norms of the past decades are simply no longer tenable for huge numbers of Americans. In a single week in March, 3.3 million American workers filed new unemployment claims. The following week, 6.6 million more did the same. Middle-class Americans who placed their retirement savings in the stock market have recently experienced huge losses. Even before the pandemic, black Americans on average had only 7 percent of the wealth of white ones (Native Americans, even less). Among non-Hispanic white Americans, deaths from drug abuse, suicide, and alcohol continue to rise. Nearly 2.5 million people are incarcerated. Trust in existing institutions (including the Electoral College and Congress) was already vanishingly small. Is it safe to go grocery shopping in a pandemic? Should we wear masks? Nobody knows who to believe.
Much like the past 40 years in the United States and Western Europe, the 1700s were a period of remarkable economic, social, and technological transformation. Comparatively cheap mass-manufactured goods from Britain and China sparked what historians call the 18th-century “consumer revolution.” In the 1780s, four-fifths of working-class Parisian households had more than 10 dishes in their cupboards, and more than half had a gold watch (in the 1720s, the figures were 20 percent and 5 percent). Whole new media forms emerged—the modern novel, easily reproduced prints, mass-market newspapers heavy on advertisements—as did new physical places (coffee shops, lending libraries, Freemason lodges) and virtual spaces (“the Republic of Letters” and “public opinion”) where those works were discussed and debated.
As sources of information proliferated, long-standing sources of authority (monarchy, aristocracy, and the established Church) feared losing power and turned reactionary. At the same time, the longer-term transformations on which these social and cultural innovations were built—the growth of European overseas empires and the emergence of settler colonialism, massive silver exports from South and Central America, the trans-Atlantic slave trade—continued, and in ever more brutal forms. More than 6 million Africans were sold into slavery in the 18th century—a time that some still call the “Age of Enlightenment.”
In the summer of 1789, as peasants attacked chateaus and revolutionaries vowed to “abolish privilege,” many members of the elite felt that their world had suddenly fallen apart. In truth, it had been disintegrating for decades. Today, as in the 1790s, an old order is ending in convulsions. Even before the coronavirus prompted flight cancellations and entry bans, climate activists were rightly telling us to change our modes and patterns of travel. Even before nonessential businesses were shut by government orders, online shopping and same-day deliveries were rapidly remaking retail commerce, while environmental concerns and anti-consumerism were revolutionizing the fashion industry. The pandemic and resulting public-health crisis have caused an abrupt and salutary revaluation in which cleaners, care workers, grocery-store stockers, and delivery drivers are gaining recognition for the essential work they have been doing all along. Taken together, these changes may not look like a revolution—but real revolutions are the ones that nobody sees coming.
The men and women who made the French Revolution—a revolution which, in a few short and hectic years, decriminalized heresy, blasphemy, and witchcraft; replaced one of the oldest European monarchies with a republic based on universal male suffrage; introduced no-fault divorce and easy adoption; embraced the ideal of formal equality before the law; and, for a short time at least, defined employment, education, and subsistence as basic human rights—had no model to follow, no plans, no platform agreed upon in advance. As the UCLA historian Lynn A. Hunt has argued, they made it up as they went along. Yet for more than two centuries, elements of their improvised politics have been revolution’s signature features: a declared sovereignty, devised symbols, an anthem, war. At the junction Americans face today, however, we need to imitate not the outcome of the French revolution but the energy, creativity, and optimism of the French revolutionaries.
Human beings are responsible both for much of what is wrong and for much of what could be right about the world today. But we have to take responsibility. In hindsight a revolution may look like a single event, but they are never experienced that way. Instead they are extended periods in which the routines of normal life are dislocated and existing rituals lose their meaning. They are deeply unsettling, but they are also periods of great creativity. As some Americans take shelter in their homes from a newly arrived threat and others put their health at risk to combat it, we can all mourn lost certainties, but we can also set about intentionally creating new possibilities. To claim this moment as a revolution is to claim it for human action.