I am not a gamer, and I will not use a computer, so video games usually do not come to my attention. But an article in the November 21 New York Times about a game called “Assassin’s Creed Unity,” a collection of nouns in search of a verb, did catch my eye. The reason it did so is that the game apparently offers a more balanced and realistic narrative of the French Revolution than that provided by the usual Whig interpretation of history
According to the Times, “Critics on the left say the game undercuts a cherished narrative of the French Revolution–the miserable masses rising up against an indulged nobility.” Worse, it portrays King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette sympathetically and Robespierre as a monster.
Hurrah! Some real history seems to have intruded on the left’s myth of the “heroic” French Revolution. Almost everything in the official myth is wrong.
The Revolution was not made by starving peasants but by prosperous members of the French bourgeoisie. What brought it about was not a tyrannical king but France’s over-extension in the Great Power game, over-extension capped by France’s intervention against England in the American Revolution. (Americans would do well to remember that they owe their independence to King Lois XVI.) France attained her objective of getting revenge on Britain for her defeat in the Seven Years’ War, but at the cost of financial ruin. When paying the interest on the national debt required more than half the revenues of the state, the French government decided it had to levy new taxes. But France’s “tyrant” could not do that. As in Britain, new taxes had to be approved by parliament, which in France was called the Estates General. So the Estates General were called into session, for the first time since the early 17th century. A chance for prudent, conservative reform, which France did need, was lost when the Third Estate, the equivalent of Britain’s House of Commons, violated France’s ancient constitution and seized power for itself.
Both King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette were decent, well-intentioned people. The queen never told starving peasants to eat cake. On the contrary, she was known for her generosity. Had a starving peasant approached her and asked for help, she would probably have given him all her jewels. It was precisely the king’s good intentions that made him an easy mark for the radicals in the Third Estate. Had he been a tyrant, he would have strangled the Revolution in its cradle.
In contrast, Robespierre, along with most of the rest of the Jacobins, was a monster. They became terrorists, in a Terror directed against the rest of France. They were the first-born ideological fanatics, a type that, in the 20th century, would butcher millions of people, mostly their own.
The history of the French Revolution remains important because that revolution is still underway. Ideologues of many stripes continue what the Jacobins launched, an endless war against normal, workable social institutions waged on behalf of unattainable abstracts such as democracy and, the worst of the lot, equality. If there is one thing people obviously are not, it is equal. We vary endlessly in our abilities and disabilities, and seldom can one person substitute successfully for another. But the answer of the ongoing revolution to facts is always the same: send that man to the gulag, or the concentration camp, or the guillotine!
If what little remains of the West is to regain its footing, the revolution must end. Ideologues must make room for realists, and social institutions must once again grow naturally over time. If that is to happen, a historically accurate understanding of the French Revolution, one of the two catastrophes of Western culture in the modern period (the other was World War I), must displace the “starving peasants fighting for freedom” myth. That isn’t what happened. If a video game can cut through the baloney and introduce people to some real history, that’s a good thing.