Liberty, Equality and Fraternity? On the Legacy and Enduring Significance of the French Revolution

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

Whether a symbol of emancipatory progress or tyrannical terror, the French Revolution is synonymous with modernity – the final exit from the Middle Ages and the inauguration of a new dawn. For liberals on both the left and the right, the events of 1789 marked the historical unfolding of the Enlightenment promise – with reason, popular sovereignty and republican rule replacing blind faith, the divine right of kings and the unholy alliance of monarchical absolutism with ecclesial theocracy. All this is reflected in the tripartite motto liberté, egalité, fraternité that has not just defined France’s national identity since the 19th century but also inspired numerous revolutionaries around the world.

However, the French Revolution also invented and instituted the logic of the left vs. the right. This logic rests on rationalist, spatialised categories that are a-historical and seemingly perennial but in reality the result of entirely contingent and even arbitrary developments. As a result, left and right are neither necessary nor normative. In fact, they have polarised politics and redefined it along entirely horizontal lines, which denies any hierarchy of principles and values and elevates the empty formalism of negative freedom and equality into the new transcendental absolutes.

Crucially, left and right appear to represent a clear choice between the sovereign ‘one’ and the sovereign ‘many’ (and cognate concepts), but in reality the voluntarism of both leads to their convergence and even collusion at the expense of the ‘few’. The latter are not the privileged aristocracy of the despicable ancien régime but rather all the intermediary institutions that mediate between the individual and the collective – whether guilds, universities, city-states or the Church that has upheld the principle of free association, i.e. the ‘complex space’ that we nowadays call civil society. By sidelining civil society in favour of the state, the French Revolution has paradoxically championed the market and created a new plutocracy that is neither democratic nor virtuous.

1. From civil society to the central state and the free market

At the bicentenary celebrations of the French Revolution in Paris in 1989, one graffiti read as follows: in 1789 the subject becomes a citizen and in 1989 the citizen becomes a consumer. This only gets it half-right because the liberalism which emerged from the revolutionary regime promoted not only the central state but also the free market. How so? Well, the French Revolution abolished all the intermediary institutions of civil society and recreated them under the absolute authority of central state law. Indeed, the ‘Loi Le Chapelier’ of 1791 banned guilds and fraternities (or compagnonnage) defended by figures such as Montesquieu.

The law was followed by a decree of 18 August 1792, which dissolved all types of congregations, both of the clergy and of the laity – including universities, faculties and learned societies. Taken together, the law and the decree eliminated the right to strike and they instituted free enterprise as the fundamental mode of association or corporation. That is why the revolutionaries did not put an end to the power of privilege, whether in the form of patronal clubs or monopolistic arrangements that were in league with the central state.

Indeed, one key decision on the part of the new regime was to leave in place state monopolies in a number of key economic sectors. Later some of these monopolies would be handed over to wealthy industrialists. Linked to these monopolies was a policy of protectionism and mercantilism. Thus from the outset, the bureaucratic statism of the French Revolution was complicit with cartel capitalism.

As Michel Foucault showed in his lectures on the birth of ‘biopolitics’, liberalism triumphs with the invention of political economy in the 18th century which proposes the novel idea that governments can rule more by ruling less. Instead of trying to ‘police’ every aspect of their citizens’ lives, they can leave much to the operation of the market whose workings are seen as ‘natural’ (by contrast with the artifice of the social contract and the state). Through the apparently natural balancing of supply with demand, state and market can increase both populations and wealth, while the securing of peace and order seems to spontaneously. John Milbank puts this well:

The interests of a controlled and strong population, ready to fight wars, are achieved by stealth. It is for this reason that Foucault argued that we must understand liberalism to be the ‘biopolitical’. Apparently, and by its own lights, it releases the economic sphere as natural, as biological. In reality, however, it politically produces this sphere and tries through the educative and cultural processes of ‘civil society’ (in a new and specific sense) to create subjects who are negatively choosing and self-governing, relatively disembedded from family, locality, tradition, and artisanal formation (and so from civil society in an older more generic sense). [1]

In this manner, the French Revolution was not so much an attack on the monarchy as it was on the principle and practice of free association – upheld by the Church since her inception and reflected in the centrality of intermediary institutions from Antiquity to the late Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance (and indeed beyond).

The French political philosopher Pierre Manent is right to argue that the West has always revolved around an imperfect balance between three institutions – empire, church and city-state – until the onset of modernity and the age of revolution when they were replaced by the central, national state and the transnational, free market.

Here one can go further and suggest that the whole notion of Christendom in both East and West has tended to revolve around the link between the universal and the particular, i.e. the local level of community and polis and the global level of the empire and the Church – with nations and peoples providing different kinds of mediation.

By contrast, the modern Westphalian settlement of states and markets – which the French Revolution inherits and radicalises – subsumes the local and the global under the primacy of the national and the transnational. As such, it elevates general, formal values and categories – such as rights and contracts – over above universal principles embodied in particular practices, most of all the pursuit of virtue, the good life and the common good.

2. From interpersonal fraternity to anonymous solidarity

The shift from virtue to value is perhaps best illustrated by the change in the meaning of ‘fraternity’. Since the time of the French Revolution, the meaning of the term ‘fraternity’ has changed radically compared with late Antiquity or the Middle Ages. It is true that fraternity remains associated with more reciprocal and mutual notions: first, moral obligations rather than constitutional-legal rights; second, informal ties rather than formal rules; third, trust and gift-exchange rather than contract, central state ‘policing’ and enforcement; fourth, an overlapping network of corporate associations rather than the dialectical oscillation between the individual and the collective.

However, according to Mona Ozouf two main modern meanings can be distinguished: one that derives from liberty and equality and is ultimately subordinate to them. The other flows from Christian notions of brotherhood and reciprocity and thus provides a basis for both free societies and equal citizens. Thus, modernity encompasses at least two senses of fraternity: “one, that followed liberty and equality, was the object of a free pact; the other preceded liberty and equality as the mark on its work of the divine craftsman”. [2]

In part, this distinction underpins the difference between a more ‘atomistic’ and a more ‘organicist’ liberalism, with the former dominant in much of modern political and economic thought. Indeed, the ‘atomistic’ strand of liberalism has emphasised individual rights and contracts at the expense of mutual obligations and the shared pursuit of the common good.

Whether more state centric or more market-driven, the capitalism of the liberal left and the liberal right which emerged from the French Revolution has not pursued the common good but ‘the total good’. [3] That means the sum total of individual utilitarian happiness in the aggregate. People counted one by one, not in their real relationships.

But an abstract sum means a sum of numbers, the total wealth of a community, which may accrue to some more than to others, to a small minority rather than to the vast majority. National GDP is evidently not the common good of the people. Without interpersonal fraternity, solidarity means little more than anonymous redistribution – e.g. uniform state handouts that ignore the real needs and interests of individuals and their relational embedding in locality, community, profession or faith group.

It is true that atomistic liberalism can offer a certain political good by guarding against some of the worst intrusions on the liberty of some by the liberty of others and by promoting various forms of equality. But liberalism – like other political ideologies – tends to ignore the costs of its own benefits, such as forms of excessive atomisation and mutual suspicion that undermine the bonds of trust and cooperation on which both democracy and the market economy depend.

Crucially, the liberal tradition that grew out of the French Revolution tends to abolish itself because too much ‘negative liberty’ leads to un-freedom and too much equality promotion amounts to the imposition of sameness that denies the diversity of difference. Liberalism unwittingly brings about the very condition that was its own presupposition – whether the Hobbesian ‘war of all against’ or the  Lockean ‘possessive individualism’ or the Rousseauian loss of original freedom within the social contract or indeed their shared pessimism of human nature (whether individually or in association with others). In large part this pessimism explains why liberal fraternity abandons interpersonal relationships in favour of anonymous solidarity – whether in the form of uniform state handouts or contractual exchange in the marketplace.

3. From real relations to the nominalist-voluntarist poles of left vs. right

Perhaps most importantly of all, the French Revolution has bequeathed to us the politics of left vs. right. Far from being a natural ‘given’, the revolutionary regime codified the new opposition between republicans and the adherents of the ancien régime, with the former supporting a republic, democracy and secularism while the latter defended the monarchy, limited enfranchisement and state support for the Church.

What this does is redefine politics in terms of the binary logic between moderns and anti-moderns without allowing rival conceptions of modernity. Indeed, those who opposed the terror of the French Revolution were branded apologists of monarchical absolutism and ecclesial theocracy but neither characterisation captures the position of conservatives and ‘organicist’ liberal thinkers such as William Cobbett, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Constant or François Guizot.

Conceptually, the politics of left vs. right is in no way a reflection of a natural state of affairs – whatever social biologists and neuroscientists would have us believe. On the contrary, it is an invented artifice that was instituted and imposed by the French Revolution and its supporters worldwide. The logic of left and right equates politics with the horizontal poles of the sovereign ‘many’ and the sovereign ‘one’ at the expense of mediating ‘few’, as I have already indicated.

Since the voluntarism of individual and of collective volition converges and colludes, it follows that left and right are equally compatible either with ultra-liberalism or with statism – or indeed both at once. Indeed, the global ‘market-state’ that has gradually emerged since the Westphalian system and the age of revolution (1776/1789 – 1989) is but the latest illustration of this sinister settlement.

Crucially, the rationalist and spatialised categories of left vs. right bracket from politics the ‘rule of the middle’, i.e. the rule of human, interpersonal relationships that are more primary than the artifice of the will and the social contract. Today’s dominant forms of social-cultural and economic-political liberalism rest on this logic, which has subordinated the fraternal mode of mutual assistance and reciprocal rights to the primacy of freedom reduced to negative liberty and equality reduced to the imposition of sameness.

Today, we are seemingly stuck in an impasse whose origins we can trace to the French Revolution – between progressives who want to disembed society from the relational roots of family, locality, profession, faith and the natural world and conservatives who defend the indefensible status quo ante. The really radical politics is one that is more progressive than the left – by fostering a real economic egalitarianism – and more conservative than the right – by preserving decent traditions and substantive goods. All this requires the promotion of individual virtue and public honour.


The French Revolution has sought to monopolise modernity by suggesting that there is a single way of overcoming the despicable ancien régime – notably by championing individual freedom, collective equality and a kind of fraternity that is best described as anonymous solidarity. The politics of left vs. right represent merely two extremes – collective or individual will – that converge and secretly collude to produce a sinister combination of ultra-liberalism and statism. All this is at the expense of free associations and mediating institutions that constitute civil society in a more natural, ‘organic’ sense – in opposition to the artificial, atomistic strand of the liberal tradition.

By contrast with the legacy of the French Revolution, this essay suggests that there is a politics of the ‘radical middle’ that favours real, interpersonal relationships which are embedded in the ‘constraints’ of family, locality, profession, faith and the natural world. Far from advocating some lost Golden Age that never existed, this politics involves the promotion of individual virtue, public honour and the shared pursuit of the common good – in profound respect for diversity, difference and a genuine social, cultural and religious pluralism which liberalism most of all seeks to control and homogenise.
[1] John Milbank, ‘A Real Third Way: For a New Meta-Narrative of Capitalism and the Associationist Alternative’, in Adrian Pabst (ed.), The Crisis of Global Capitalism. Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical and the future of political economy (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), p. 25.
[2] Mona Ozouf, ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité stands for peace, country and war’, in Pierre Nora (ed.), Lieux de Mémoire (Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 1997), vol. 3, pp.4353-4389.
[3] Stefano Zamagni, ‘Catholic Social Teaching, Civil Economy, and the Spirit of Capitalism’, in Daniel K. Finn (ed.), The True Wealth of Nations. Catholic Social Thought and Economic Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 63-93.