PARIS: The approach of the 40th anniversary of the "events" in Paris (and in Morningside Heights, Chicago, Berkeley and nearly everywhere else in the Western world) of 1968 are a reminder of how powerful the revolutionary idea, and even more, the revolutionary myth, has remained in the nearly two and a half centuries since the French Revolution.
France's revolution was, of course, The Revolution. It was the first ideological revolution, and it was the revolution that succeeded. Despite all of the futility, useless violence and the Terror that accompanied it, and the wars that followed it, the French Revolution was the event that changed the history of Western civilization.
It ended dynastic and hereditary rule in the West. It murdered the divine right of kings. After it, no one could "own" a nation. The revolutionary and Napoleonic wars transformed Europe by establishing the modern administrative and organizational methods of the rationalized Napoleonic state, and its legal and higher educational systems, in the European countries Napoleon overran.
His was the classless system of "careers open to talent." The empire paradoxically promoted liberal reform by leading people to believe in the possibilities of modern republican government, even when it was not being practiced in France. The revolution codified and proclaimed the rights of man, even while abusing them.
The French Revolution also introduced revolutionary ideology and revolutionary terror to the world, which also remain with us.
Napoleons' military successes rested on ruthless disregard of the limits and restraint of 18th century dynastic warfare, when war was indeed politics by other means. As the British military historian Michael Howard has said, war was "conducted by a precise diplomatic protocol according to clear principles of international law," seeking the political concessions that would follow an enemy's acknowledgment of defeat. The destruction, ruin and elimination of an enemy was not wanted.
Napoleon broke all the rules of 18th century war, fought ruthlessly, relied on speed and movement, and lived off the land. Revolutionary war was ideological, total and unscrupulous. By and large, it was the kind of war we have experienced ever since.