Storming the Bastille, and what makes an event revolutionary

Etching depicting the assault of the Bastille

Historian William Sewell makes a striking claim about how the taking of the Bastille, 226 years ago today, marked not just the key moment in the French revolution, but an originary point for the very concept of revolution in the Western world. “It was by this process,” Sewell claims, “that the modern concept of revolution definitively entered French political cuiture, effecting a hitherto undreamed of but henceforth enduring articulation of popular violence to popular sovereignty.” The argument takes up a whole chapter in his book Logics of History (2005), and it’s worth your time, but here are three excerpts on the Bastille and its place.

First, context matters; when official politics is deadlocked, movement from below has more room to take the initiative.

As I see it, the taking of the Bastille could only become the founding act of the French Revolution—and of the modern concept of revolution in general—because it took place at a time when political structures were massively dislocated. The National Assembly had declared the peoples will to be sovereign, but because it was engaged in an inconclusive struggle with the king, it had not yet definitively established its own claim to represent that will. It was because sovereignty was up for grabs that the taking of the Bastille could be interpreted as a direct and sublime expression of the nation’s will-that an act of popular violence could be articulated directly with sovereignty to form the new political category of revolution. (245)

Second, on how the Bastille linked direct action and political changes:

But simply identifying the attack on the Bastille as an expression of the will of the people did not amount to inventing the modern concept of revolution. A revolution is not just a forceful act that expresses the will of the people, but such an act that puts into place a new political regime. Only when it became clear that the taking of the Bastille had forced the king to yield effective power to the National Assembly could the acts of the Parisian people be viewed as a revolution in this new sense. The epoch-making cultural change – the invention of a new and enduring political category – could therefore only take place in tandem with practical changes in institutional and military power relations. It was in the National Assembly that the new concept of revolution was definitively and authoritatively articulated. As the members of the National Assembly came to realize that the people of Paris had assured them a great victory, They not only began to echo the Parisians’ view that the uprising was a blow for liberty against despotism and that it expressed the legitimate wishes of the people, but began to cast it as a decisive cat of popular sovereignty that rightfully determined the fate of the nation. (237-38)

Third, the inescapable way that the concept of revolution blurs forever the notion of political legitimacy:

But if the meaning of the taking of the Bastille was henceforth relatively fixed, the precise boundaries of the new concept of revolution remained very much in dispute-indeed, they have remained so up ro the present, The elaboration of the new concept of revolution and its definitive identification with the taking of Bastille occurred when the National Assembly was forced to delimit ever more strictly what forms of political violence might be deemed legitimate, Once an act of popular violence was recognized as the very foundation of political legitimacy, it became imperative to distinguish that one transcendent founding moment from other violent actions that might on the surface seem comparable; otherwise, the state would be forever vulnerable to the whim of any crowd that claimed to act on behalf of the people. But at the same time, as Buzor pointed our in his speech of July 20, future acts of legitimare revolution could nor be ruled out altogether. No one could guarantee that despotism might not be reborn, and should it return another revolution might be necessary. The problem of bringing the revolution to a close was thus posed at the very moment of its birth. Within the semantic and political field created by the concept of revolution, the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate popular violence, between revolution and rebellion, could never be definitively etched. (243-44)

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