Today is the French national holiday, Bastille Day. In France today, there is a massive military parade. It’s a tradition. It’s not clear why.
The actual 14th of July 1789 was not fun. It’s not absurd to think of it as the birth date of modern totalitarianism.
The French monarchy was “absolutist” in the sense that it tried like hell to gather all the levers of command in the King’s hands. There were very few levers of command to gather, however, and precious little command. The monarchs never came close to succeeding even with those few levers because local particularisms, local liberties embodied by tradition were too numerous and too diverse to tackle. The kings mostly did not succeed in raising taxes. The best proof is that when the monarchy came under violent attack, it had hardly any armed forces to defend itself. That’s one of the reasons it succumbed so quickly.
The Bastille was an old fortress in the heart of Paris where the king imprisoned whoever he thought needed thinking time, including the Marquis de Sade (inventor of sadism, as a literary genre). It’s true that there was no due process involved. In July 1789, there were fewer than 30 prisoners in the Bastille. The place was guarded by handicapped war veterans. They were receiving a kind of dignified retirement pension under the form of a salary for what looked like an easy and safe job.
The price of bread had been going up and some wages in Paris, specifically, had not kept up. As is logical under absolutism, people who were affected blamed the central authority at the Court, in Versailles: When the government appears to be everything, everything is blamed on the government. The courtiers, headed by the pretty queen Marie-Antoinette were not helping because they were giving party after party.
A bunch of the Paris rabble, including no doubt probably some honest workers, and headed by market women, came up with the crazy idea of capturing the huge fortress close to the middle of Paris. They succeeded against all expectations because it was not defended. The Governor of the Bastille promptly opened the doors and the mob surged in. The only bloodletting was the massacre of most of the guards and of the governor himself. The mob carried his head through the streets on a lance.
Bastille Day was followed by the elaboration of representative democratic government French style (with some guidance from Thomas Jefferson, I believe but that’s another story.) This elaboration was accompanied by many more brutal excesses, including the serial killings of thousands of political enemies within a short time, all in the name of a greater ideal, of course. Some of the political enemies were early revolutionaries. The Revolution ate its own children. Others were executed because of who they were, because they belonged to the wrong social class. Many of those assassinated during the Terror were known to be individuals of enlightened and progressive ideas; you might say they were the “liberals” of their day.
For several years following Bastille Day, there were also mass executions of tens of thousands of ordinary people in the provinces. Those were simply people who did not want to have anything to do with the Revolutionary government, people who liked it the old way. All this massacring was accomplished in the name of the same greater ideal.
All in all, the Revolution killed several times more people in ten years than all the Kings of France together had killed in centuries but, it was for a good cause.
In less than 15 years, the Revolution was captured and reversed by Napoleon who established an absolutist state the kings would not have dared dream of.
It took about eighty years and much additional bloodshed for democracy (as we understand it in this country) to become well established in France. In the interim, the French example inspired political movements based on the simple idea that the end justifies the means. Most of those sounded as if their program had been a kind of fucking for chastity.
PS I am not a monarchist but there is much to learn from the old monarchies. Read up on them.