It seems to me that we're not supposed to like the French Revolution very much. My introduction to the subject was on an unemployed afternoon in the late 1970s, slouched in front of Blue Peter. I think it was Peter Purves who introduced an item on Marie Antoinette. She loved beautiful clothes, he said, and was admired for her exquisite taste in jewellery. As a result, she was loved by the people of France.
Then the mood changed, and we were told how "outside agitators" spread untrue stories about the queen's greedy habits. And we were shown a silhouette of a cloaked man on a horse throwing leaflets in a cobbled street; this, apparently, led to the revolution, depicted as a shadowy crowd with pikes, while five or six actors shouted, "Down with ze Queen!". I can't recall what followed, though presumably someone showed you how to make your own guillotine using a shoebox, an elastic band and a Stanley knife.
But Blue Peter was only following the generally accepted version of the event, that the French Revolution was a dreadful episode with no redeeming features. To most people in Britain, suggesting that there was anything positive about it must seem as peculiar as saying that there was a good side to the plague.
An honest appraisal of the revolution hasn't been helped by the majority of accounts in novels, documentaries and films, from Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities to the two most famous British films covering the period, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Carry on Don't Lose Your Head (of which the Carry On film is by far the more realistic). But many serious historians are scarcely less one-sided, explaining the affair by saying, in effect, that everyone just went mental.
Take, for example, the attitude towards Jean Paul Marat, one of the most prominent leaders of the revolution. In Paris in the Terror by Stanley Loomis, the author offers this synopsis: "Arms flailing about in all directions, he waded into the revolution with the reckless rage of a lunatic... He lived like a bat or owl, always hidden from the light of day. It's astonishing that any woman could have fallen in love with this man ... whose appearance was so repulsive that the wildest extremists of the left, and their minions from the gutter, were always careful to keep a distance of several benches between themselves and him."
To back up his point, Loomis quotes an unnamed contemporary as saying: "He is toadlike in shape, marked by bulging eyes and a flabby mouth." And another: "Marat had the burning, haggard eye of a hyena." And finally: "By his compulsive, brusque and jerky walk, one recognised him as an assassin." Is there any evidence, I wonder, that assassins walk more jerkily than non-assassins? Maybe this is more ammunition for conspiracy theorists - Lee Harvey Oswald walked as smoothly as you like, so it can't have been him.
This isn't confined to Loomis. Thomas Carlyle, who wrote one of the most celebrated histories of the revolution, describes Marat as "one squalidest horse-leech, redolent of soot". Hilaire Belloc declares: "Marat is easily judged. He was not sane." And Simon Schama, in Citizens, tells us that Marat "made an art form of confrontational ugliness", as "his eyes were not quite aligned". What none of these historians addresses is the problem that, of all the characters in the revolution, Marat was the most demonstrably popular. When he was acquitted following a trial, he was paraded through the streets by thousands. And his death was followed by almost Diana-style grief. So, how did an insane, unaligned-eyes soot man manage that?
The treatment of Marat is only one example of the prejudices about the revolution and its leaders. A book entitled The Permanent Revolution: The French Revolution and Its Legacy, 1789-1989, edited by Geoffrey Best, tells us in the introduction: "Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were themselves heirs of the French Revolution." If only the Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials had thought to say, "It wasn't our fault - Robespierre and the Jacobins made us do it".
In recent years, some historians have developed another angle on the revolution, alongside the blanket condemnation; that, while it was a tragic episode, it had few lasting effects. The leaders in this particular field appear to be those now in charge of the palace at Versailles. Throughout this vast monument to royal decadence, now a major tourist attraction, there are no clues whatsoever as to why the building ceased to be the home of the royal family after 1789. The 95-page guidebook that accompanies a visit makes two references to how the royals were "forced to leave" in that year. And the only allusion to the revolution is that, afterwards, the estate was left "with unkempt buildings and gardens". Gardens, bedchambers, salons and galleries are displayed in all their glory, with no hint as to how this came to an end. Some tourists must come away assuming that in 1789, the royals just decided to move somewhere else, perhaps because Versailles was going downhill as an area, or maybe the local schools weren't up to the standard they wanted for the prince.
Something shared by both theories is the prominence of the Terror as one of history's worst atrocities. But around 2,650 death sentences were passed in Paris during the 18 months of the Terror - gruesome, but not in the first division of historical bloodletting, even for the French. In the attack on the Paris Commune of 1871, around 25,000 died. In one day of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, there were more killed than in a whole year of the Terror.
In a historical corpse-count, next to the bombing of Vietnam, or the massacres in Indonesia or Armenia that are rarely mentioned, the Paris Terror can only look up in awe. Over the last 60 years, in many areas of the world, such a death toll would have merited but a brief mention on the main evening news.
None of this excuses the killing. If someone murdered their neighbours, it probably wouldn't stand up in court if their defence was, "There were only four of them, so why all the fuss? Don't forget, 60,000 died in one day at the Somme, Your Honour, so let's keep this in perspective". But it does raise the question of why this particular period is singled out for vilification, even on children's television - unless this is a trend I've missed, and references to the atrocities of the Ottoman Empire turn up occasionally on The Saturday Show and The Tweenies.
It's especially odd when you consider that, throughout the French Revolution, masses of human beings felt that they were taking part in the construction of a society based on values of fairness, equality and democracy; that the notion of what it meant to be a human being was transformed. The mass of the population, having previously been taught that their role was to serve, became capable of hope. Peasants, locksmiths and postmen, who must have assumed they played a similar role to that of a drone bee in a hive, found themselves shaping the way the world was run. If it was simply a carnival of unrestrained bloodlust, why would William Wordsworth have said of it at the time, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive"? How could it have been the inspiration for the careers of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Beethoven? Why would Eric Hobsbawm be able to include among its supporters, "Blake, Coleridge, Robert Burns, Southey, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Beethoven, Wilkinson the ironmaster, Telford the engineer, chemist Joseph Priestley and the Birmingham Lunar Society"?
If it was a spat caused by toad-like madmen, how could it transform for ever the basis of philosophy, of music, politics, poetry, economics and warfare? Why would Goethe comment that, "From this day, nothing will ever be the same"?
Incidentally, the guillotine was introduced as a liberal measure by Dr Guillotin, as it was considered more humane than the old methods, of which the most common involved strapping the victim to a water-wheel until his or her back broke. So, it's almost certain that when the guillotine was introduced, a French Ann Widdecombe will have complained, "Doesn't this show that the Jacobins are soft on crime? For if the burglar knows that if he's caught he will be merely beheaded instantly without hours of agony on a water-wheel, there is no deterrent whatsoever. Proving once again that Mr Robespierre is the burglar's friend".
For today's Establishment, the French Revolution is proof of the mayhem that reigns when those who talk of equality get their way. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest a CIA mole in the scriptwriting team at Blue Peter, but every reference to the revolution as nothing but carnage is a warning - leave things as they are, these people who ask you to protest about things might seem well-intentioned, but if they get their way it will be heads on pikes in the Arndale Centre.
The Establishment relies on passivity, the very opposite of revolution. For many reasons, most people most of the time choose not to confront the injustices on the planet. Even when they do, their suggestion is usually that a different president, or chairman of the World Bank, would possibly be fairer. The last group that anyone considers should run society is themselves. But for five years in France, that wasn't the case.
Whatever conclusions you draw from it, an episode that draws millions into activity that they never would have believed possible, as the French Revolution did, creates the most spectacular human stories, of hope, defiance, comedy and tragedy. The revolution created dozens of magnificent characters, but it destroyed nearly all of them, too. Hundreds of years of fame were bought for a price of youthful death. Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat, St-Just, Brissot, the Rolands, Babeuf, Le Bas, Couthon, almost every major player perished in the drama that they were writing. Even Tom Paine, who scraped his way back to America, died a pariah, penniless in Philadelphia. Almost the only significant character who seems to have made it through unscathed was Sanson, the chief guillotiner.
Maybe the reason that the leaders of the revolution are so despised here is that they did something so rare in our own times: having set their sights on a more just society, they did all they could to see it through. Instead of turning swiftly from radical spokesmen to respectably suited local politicians shaking hands with businessmen on regional television, they responded to every attack by resisting their enemies with the full force of an armed population.
For millions whose names we will never know, the grandest questions were united with the tiniest. The matter of how they could secure food for the next month was tied up with the question of how the world should be run, what rights we are born with, and whether there's a god. Those citizens prepared to lead their neighbours into occupying the stores to demand price reduction were the ones most likely to produce a pamphlet suggesting a programme for the rights of women. Those who stood firm at Valmy, or tried to calm their furiously pumping hearts as they approached Versailles to retrieve the royals, were the ones most likely to sit up all night discussing the role of astronomy, the most efficient method of farming, and whether there should be sport after the revolution.
And this is possibly the revolution's most enduring impact. To give one example, by the 1840s, the heroes of the revolution were becoming heroes of the early labour movement. A book about the history of Merthyr Tydfil, written in the 1860s, says: "A few who thought highly of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason assembled in secret places on the mountains and, taking the works from under a concealed boulder, read them with great unction." I wonder whether anyone has ever read anything by a modern British politician with any unction, let alone great unction. Can you imagine a group sneaking up a mountain with a torch, finding a boulder and going, "Hnnnnn, push, just a bit more, here we are, the speeches of John Prescott"?
Perhaps the most concise summary of the outlook of the mainstream politician of the early 21st century was given by Tony Blair, when an interviewer asked him what he dreamed about. He replied: "These days, I don't have much time for sleep, let alone dreams." As though it's a matter of pride to be unable to dream. Besides, this makes no sense - sleep doesn't take any longer if you dream. If you have a 10-minute dream, you don't wake up 10 minutes late shrieking, "Oh no, now I've missed my train because of that poxy dream!".
The French Revolution shaped millions of minds into looking in the opposite direction. It created a world of boundless possibilities. It allowed millions of people to see all matters, whether personal, political, grand or minute, as connected and depending on each other; it allowed every concept to be open to question. The imagination could rule, and the full potential of human creativity was unleashed. The French Revolution created that sense across continents, across the world of slavery, and into every corner that could receive the news. It was the polar opposite of a society ruled by those who have forgotten how to dream.
As anyone who has taken part in a strike or a demonstration will know, reports of events that challenge the established order can be distorted by the next morning, never mind 200 years later. And, as is the case with plenty of those modern events, once you remove the prejudice that anyone involved was fundamentally rotten, an entirely different picture emerges. The French Revolution becomes a story of people not very different from those we know today, but who found themselves participating in an extraordinary journey. It's a cracking tale in which every human emotion and experience, every quirk and eccentricity, every friendship, argument, love affair, every human frailty was at its most intense, as almost every idea assumed to be eternal was swept away.
Now, as a superpower stalks the world with apparent invincibility, it may be worth retelling a tale of a time when an apparently invincible dynasty was overturned by some washerwomen, some slaves, and a postman.
© Mark Steel 2003. Adapted from 'Vive la Révolution - a stand-up history of the French Revolution', by Mark Steel, published on 14 July (Scribner, £10.99). To order a copy for £8.99 (p&p free in mainland UK) tel: 0870 900 2050Reuse content