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Bullets, fists, and bayonets

Where revolutions thrive, often liberty dies

A 1793 public execution in France. Artist unknown

Bullets, fists, and bayonets
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Next month the French will once again celebrate Bastille Day, July 14, which in 1789 was the starting point of the French Revolution, but Peter McPhee’s scholarly but lively Liberty or Death (Yale, 2016) shows why they should not. For example, from December 1793 to May 1794 in one southwestern part of France, revolutionaries killed 117,000 people, 15 percent of the population: All counterrevolutionaries of all ages and both sexes were to be bayoneted, and “all villages, farms, woods, heathlands, generally anything that will burn, will be set on fire.”

Revolutionaries turned churches into “temples of reason” and took control of media, so only 371 new books came out in 1794, compared with more than 1,000 every year before 1789. When a theater company in Bordeaux performed a classic play that included a sentence, “Long live our noble king,” revolutionaries arrested all 86 members of the troupe and guillotined the actor who delivered the line, even though he insisted, “It was in my part.”

Revolutionaries starting in 1792 guillotined thousands, including scientists like Antoine Lavoisier and many others who believed in revolutionary principles but did not want to wallow in blood: Maximilien Robespierre in 1794 declared that revolution requires “terror, without which virtue is impotent.” He and his allies passed on June 10, 1794, a law that said anyone who criticized the harshest revolutionaries would be guillotined—and during the next six weeks in Paris, 1,376 persons died that way. The killing spree only ended when the Revolution ate its own: On July 28 the heads of Robespierre and 21 of his closest associates fell into the guillotine’s basket.

The guillotiners of Paris had many 20th-century successors, including Josef Stalin, who murdered millions and was about to start a new round of purges, this one specifically aimed at Jews, when he mercifully died in 1953. Paul Goldberg’s The Yid (Picador, 2016), a clever novel (but with lots of bad language and violence), expertly brings alive that bizarre year in Moscow.

Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (New York Review Books, 2016) offers a thoughtful victim’s view of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary savagery as millions of Red Guards beat up innocent bystanders. That was also a page from the French Revolution’s playbook: In 1793 and 1794 30,000-40,000 Frenchmen formed roving bands that invaded churches, burned vestments and sacred books, pulled down up to 800 steeples, and beat up those who did not bow to the terrorist god.

Only one big revolution did not lead to massive executions—and that’s why the American Revolution was quasi-miraculous. Eric Metaxas spotlights our amazing exception in If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Viking, 2016). It would make a good gift for 20-somethings who voted for Bernie Sanders. Socialism may sound benign, but it cuts against human nature and thus requires more and more force to impose it: First “feel the Bern,” later—not from a Sanders but his successor—feel the bullet.


All fathers fail in some or many ways: Tim Bayly’s Daddy Tried: Overcoming the Failures of Fatherhood (Warhorn, 2016) brings honesty and hope. Vicki Alger’s Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children (Independent Institute, 2016) shows how both liberals and the Bush administration erred: A commitment to school choice would have meant fewer children left behind.

Karl Rove’s The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters (Simon & Schuster, 2015) inadvertently points to opportunity lost. Rove tells a good story, but in 2000 he saw Bush as a new McKinley who could build a Republican coalition that would last a generation. Liberty’s Nemesis, edited by Dean Reuter and John Yoo (Encounter, 2016), shows how we’ve overbuilt national government to the point where it threatens religious liberty, marriage, healthcare, homeowning, banking, and many other spheres. —M.O.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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