The citizens of Paris awoke one morning in 1792 to find the statue of Louis XV toppled and destroyed, laying in pieces on the ground of its eponymic square. France had been undergoing the early stages of what had been called by the likes of Edmund Burke and many others “the most astonishing [revolution] that has hitherto happened in the world,” a movement in which ancient social and political truths were challenged. Oppressive institutions that had long masked themselves in benevolence were being re-examined and overturned. Accepted truths about status, religion, and power were rejected. And iconography which had long been a symbol of the greatness of France was smashed to the ground, for its true meaning exalted the elites of an oppressive regime. This was a revolution, and it would give its name to the now reclaimed square, the Place de la Révolution.
Despite Burke’s exaltations, however, the Revolution in France was neither the first of its kind — as was shown by the American Revolution in 1776 — nor the last. The familiar scenes described above, though changed in setting, have resurfaced in our lives and experiences today. We have found ourselves in what I would call a New Enlightenment. Much like the great thinkers of the age — Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, to name a few — we have gradually unearthed, with empirical evidence and the aid of reason, fundamental problems with the way racism and classism are embedded in our national institutions. Much like those before us, we have denounced a seemingly benevolent establishment for perpetuating a status quo that preserves these deplorable biases. In this New Enlightenment we find ourselves in the midst of this renewed revolutionary process, and like Burke, we have regarded it with both awe and criticism. However, there was an important consideration Burke ignored when he published his “Reflections” in 1790: what would happen next.
Our position today is no different — we are entering uncharted territory. As students, many of us have performed our historical duty as sources of activism and education on ideals that challenge the reigning orthodoxy. These processes are not pleasant, and they shouldn’t be. As leaders of this new movement, we can only effect meaningful change if we dare challenge those who oppose us directly. This involves recognizing our harmful, prejudiced views, and holding those in power accountable for their role in perpetuating oppressive and discriminatory systems. Once we are comfortable in this role, and exercise it frequently, we are at our most powerful, but also at our most vulnerable. We run the risk of succumbing to destructive factionalism.
And this is what happened after Burke’s reflections were published 1790. Two years after Burke’s pamphlet came out, the Reign of Terror descended upon France, when radical Jacobins executed many Girondins — once their allies — for not being revolutionary enough. The former King and Queen soon followed, along with thousands others who died upon the guillotine erected in place of the statue of Louis XV. Throughout France, tens of thousands more suffered their deaths during this unfortunate year, which ended with the demise of the same Jacobins who started it, consumed by the wildfire they had unleashed and tried to tame. The cobblestones of La Révolution were now stained with blood.
I do not mean to turn the French Revolution into some silly morality play, but to dispel the romanticism that has been built around it, and around the word “revolution.” We are at a turning point in which we have the potential to make so much change. The ideas we have conceived in this New Enlightenment — such as the need to acknowledge and actively combat systemic racism — have fueled impressive feats of activism and solidarity that have made it possible for progress to start. The work is not done, but the only way it will be fulfilled is by responsible, principled and peaceful activism. It is tempting to view caution and difference in approach as weakness. However, while caution might seem slow, brashness is outright destructive, not only endangering lives, but the integrity and credibility of our ideals.
Exercising caution does not mean we must stop the revolution. Arguably, revolutions cannot be stopped, and those who try often escalate the violence by doing so. Our sense of urgency, while fueling us, can make us derail the progress we carry in our actions. If we focus our energies on persecuting those who disagree with us on certain points — like those who are less comfortable with some stances of the more left-leaning candidates — we will descend upon unnecessary tangents that will delay, and eventually defeat the causes we fight for. The Jacobins’ feverish desire to divorce themselves from the Ancien Régime led them to not only reject religion, but to fabricate a “cult of reason” and even go so far as to re-invent calendars and units of time because of their historical origins within the church. We must work to find common ground despite our differences on issues such as who to vote for — or whether to vote at all — and the levels of reform needed for police forces. For a revolution is not truly equitable if all perspectives within it are not respected. Radicalism within factions can only lead to a deadly circular firing squad, which will surely leave no one left to advocate.
There is no single revolution that will better the world for good. While remarkable, the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries still did not address myriad issues that now are of paramount importance. Human history is a cycle of revolutionary renewal. With every generation, our light shines upon new ideas and measures that allow us to build a happier society. We are entering another of these great cycles, and privileged with the hindsight afforded to us by historiography, we must do all we can to use that knowledge to avoid repeating the blunders of the past. France’s mistake cost it its liberty and stability for the next century, as the country reverted to despotic monarchies at least five times after the Revolution.
This does not have to be us. With every step we take toward progress, we need to ask ourselves: will this help our cause? Most of the time, as many students and activists have shown — both in Princeton and beyond — the answer will be yes. But it is never excessive to be cautious, for caution is the best measure against excess. Momentum is a sacred flame that can die by gradual decay, but also by rapid, uncontrollable burning, in which case it can take all of us with it. It is our duty to keep that flame burning constantly, but at a level that does not consume everything we’ve built, and everything we are yet to build.
The French soon realized this. In the aftermath of the revolution, the old Place Louis XV — later Place de la Révolution — which had seen the advent of a world without autocrats, and borne the bloody sacrifice of revolutionaries, received a new name. The Place de la Concorde, “Square of Harmony,” exchanged its guillotine for a fine obelisk, a ray of light frozen in stone, that reminds us how in revolutions the path of harmony is the most enlightened.
Juan José López Haddad is a junior in the School of Public and International Affairs from Caracas, Venezuela. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.