History 101: Praise or Curse The French Revolution: Source of Marx’s Ideas
Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels were not original in many of their ideas. The genesis of many of their ideas is to be found in the French Revolution several decades before they wrote their Communist Manifesto (1848). The idea that each worker would get an equal share of the product, or fruits, of the collective labor of the many, and the idea of a “commune” where the peasants live and work together as equals with no landlords, arose with the French Revolution.
The French Revolution of the 1790s was influenced heavily by mid-eighteenth century French social critics and philosophers such as Rousseau and Voltaire. The revolution was basically the brainchild of mostly Parisian intellectuals, many of whom were antagonistic to any authority whether it be the authority of the monarchy or the authority of the Church. The revolution was, to a larger degree than many now realize, foisted upon a largely rural, traditional, Catholic French populace (many of whom fought against the revolution).
At the end of the eighteenth century, two seminal experiments were initiated that have had major impacts on the entire world since. These 2 experiments represent two very different images of man. The French Revolution is one of these experiments. The rather bitter fruits of it are to be found in its progeny, namely, Marxism, communism, socialism, and fascism. Very large numbers of human beings lost their freedoms and/or their very lives in the attempts to make these unworkable systems succeed. (What an irony: that in the effort to arrive at a state of human society where no governmental authority would be necessary an overarching totalitarian form of government, so abusive of human rights, would be employed!) In all these Leftist revolutions across the globe in the past century, the outcome has been an extremely authoritarian, if not totalitarian regime. (This is true despite the propaganda of calling such a Leftist regime the “People’s Democratic Republic”, or claiming that the country has been “liberated”.) This has been the case from the (former) Soviet Union to Zimbabwe, and from China to Cuba.
The other seminal experiment was the American Revolution (war for independence from Britain) which began with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and ultimately led to the United States Constitution in the late 1780s just prior to the upheaval in France. The American experiment does not promise a Utopia. It seeks, through the US Constitution, to limit the powers of government and to specifically define citizens’ rights that government cannot violate. A strict adherence to the US Constitution would make an authoritarian regime basically impossible.
The (for lack of a better term at the moment) competition between these 2 models (and their variants) continues today throughout the world. I do not see the attempts at theocracy, in the Muslim nations, spreading outside of those nations.
The Left of today got its start with the French Revolution. In closing, here is a relevant factoid. The term “Left” referred to the side of the hall or theatre, where the Parisian revolutionaries held their National Assembly, in which sat the radicals. The radicals wanted to scrap the existing social structure of French society, eliminate the monarchy, greatly reduce the role of the Catholic Church, turn the land over to the peasants, etc. Whereas, those who sat on the right side of the hall wanted less radical changes to society, were more interested in land and tax reforms and in limiting the power of the monarchy, and did not desire the radical changes pushed by those on the left.