You Say You Want a Revolution?

The Bush crowd could learn a thing or two from French history.

By Lee Siegel
Lee Siegel is the television critic of the New Republic and book critic of the Nation. In 2002, he was the recipient of the National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.

Los Angeles Times

January 17, 2005

"Is it a revolt?" asked the blithely detached Louis XVI when a servant informed him that the Bastille had been stormed by a mob in Paris. "No, your majesty," the man replied. "It is a revolution."

It sure was. As the History Channel's documentary, "The French Revolution" — airing tonight — vividly relates, the violent overthrow of Louis' top-heavy ancien regime was the mother, and the model, of all revolutions. No wonder President Bush and his Jacobins have such a bee in their bonnets about the French. The Bush administration tried to have a revolution in Iraq, but nobody came.

American troops swept into Iraq to instigate a "regime change" from dictatorship to democracy. That sounds like an attempt at revolution if ever there was one. The problem is that revolutions have to be homegrown to be effective. As the French example proves, a revolution is really a long social and political evolution that finally explodes.

Many of the American theoreticians behind "regime change" thought they could succeed because they remembered the constitutions and new forms of government imposed by the United States on Germany and Japan after World War II. But that was different. In that case, the United States served, in effect, as midwife to the liberal, democratic forces that Adolf Hitler and Japan's militarists had repressed. And a very financially generous midwife at that.

In fact, there never has been a successful revolution in modern times that was conducted in a country by a foreign power. Calling a revolution "regime change," as if such a radical transformation of politics and society were a simple technical matter — like upgrading your software — isn't going to set a precedent.

France's historical upheaval had deep roots in decades of conflict between the king and his nobles and between the upper classes and the seething poor. The radical notions of the French Enlightenment were part of it too, but those ideas themselves had been developed much earlier by French thinkers like Montesquieu and Descartes. In 1789, what all the antagonists shared was the common context of a very old national identity. As a schoolboy, Robespierre — the revolution's principal architect — composed an homage to France and to the king that he personally recited to Louis (whom Robespierre would later order beheaded, along with 35,000 other French citizens). Rightly or wrongly, each party in the revolution identified its goals with the glory of la patrie.

In contrast, when Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis, secularists and Kurds — buffeted by centuries of colonization, partition and exploitation — think about Iraq, they are mostly thinking about a shelter, or a base, for their particular aspirations.

So why does the Bush crowd keep insisting on making a revolution from the outside, without the complicity of the people on whose behalf it's being made, in a place that lacks the historical conditions for a successful transformation? It's simple. American conservatives have a bad case of revolution-envy.

Let's face it, our revolution was nice, but it wasn't awesome. George III, thousands of miles away, was hardly a tyrant. His ministers were constantly trying to reform rule in the Colonies. We weren't being tortured in dungeons, allowed to starve, sent off to war.

On the contrary. American Colonists flourished and grew rich. And when the Colonists tired of liberal financial policy — i.e., high taxes — and declared independence from big government in London, the horrors of war were minor, historically speaking. It really was not so much a revolution as a revolt. The real embarrassment is that the most romantic figure of the whole affair was Lafayette. A Frenchman.

No wonder conservatives anoint their slightest political triumph a "revolution." There was the Reagan revolution, and then there was the Gingrich revolution. Some people even like to talk about the Bush revolution. ("Is it a regime change?" "No, Mr. President. That was your alarm clock.")

Given their envy of the French, Bush and his own Robespierre wannabe, Karl Rove, might well tune in to tonight's two-hour special. If they do, they'll discover an American indebtedness to the French that is sure to trouble them in more ways than one. For it was Louis XVI who bankrolled the American Revolution, thus impoverishing his government and opening the door to the events of 1789. Louis, you see, wanted to avenge his father's defeat by the British in the Seven Years' War.