France’s Revolution: An Orgy Of Symbolism And Spectacle Reply

By Monica Showalter, Investor’s Business Daily, July 12, 2013

On Sunday, the people of France marked the 224th anniversary of freedom fighters’ storming the Bastille, the medieval fortress-prison in Paris that had served as the symbol of royal tyranny and the struggle against it.

In reality, the moldering old castle wasn’t what it was portrayed. It wasn’t much of a prison, for one thing. The few prisoners “liberated” by the mob were mostly noblemen put there by their families for misbehavior. Nor was it a source of power or iron rule for the French king, who was planning to tear the fort down. On the day the Bastille was taken down, he scribbled “nothing” in his diary.

But due largely to the art of propaganda, the Bastille was transformed into a symbol of the French Revolution — legitimizing it, institutionalizing it and making it part of the popular culture. Modern propaganda, as we know it, was essentially invented by the French during this era.

So what is propaganda? The word derives from “propaganda fides” — the propagation of the faith that the Catholic Church called its missionary work during the 17th century. Political propaganda, like that first developed in France, was the spread of a political faith intended to replace the religious and royal order in the minds of the masses.

Based on what we know now, the actual details of the French Revolution are repugnant. The revolution included regicide, show trials, mass murder, an attack of the family unit, the repression of religion, the cult of personality and the birth of modern dictatorship. Still, France’s revolution is still considered as a heroic and historic event worthy of celebration — because of propaganda.

As for the Bastille, the building itself and France’s first revolutionary symbol, it ended up literally dissolved into propaganda, dismantled by a contractor with 1,000 masons in his employ. Pieces of the fortress were chopped up and sold as tourist tchotchkes, according to a riveting account of the fort’s demise in Simon Schama’s “Citizens: A Chronicle of The French Revolution.” The contractor, Pierre-Francois Palloy, was a successful businessman with a better-mousetrap idea. But he also worked closely with authorities who wanted to provide “souvenirs” that would give everyone a stake in the revolution to display in their homes.

Souvenirs were just one method of institutionalizing the movement. The use of billboards and placards and slogans also took off during this time. Political clubs — proto-meet-ups, actually — were used as well, spreading the message of revolution across the country. And mass media were co-opted to distribute pamphlets even in small towns.

Most of all, the revolution understood the uses of pop culture. Playing cards were imprinted with revolutionary messages and tea cups were engraved with guillotines, all to make the revolution, as opposed to the royal regime, seem the norm. Propaganda also adopted a slogan — “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” — invented for the first time on a mass scale in a bid to get the word out and make the message as simple as possible.

Perhaps the most effective propaganda technique developed and utilized during this period was the mass spectacle — in which everyone participated as if the revolution was a religion. It began with the Bastille — where Palloy came up with the idea of creating an “altar” of cannon balls, chains and manacles taken from the old fortress.

“On the following day, after a religious ceremony at the Church of Saint-Louis, seven hundred workers all swore loyalty to the constitution, and through a mechanical contraption of great ingenuity, the punitive ironmongery self-destructed to reveal a huge array of flowers (artificial, given the season),” wrote Schama. “After this stage miracle, the seven hundred made their way in procession to the Hotel de Ville carrying a model of the Bastille that they had fashioned from its stones.”

Such ceremonies of mass spectacle and symbolism were repeated throughout the revolution that followed, culminating in Reign of Terror leader Maxmilien de Robespierre’s strange “Festival of the Supreme Being” intended to replace religion itself as a quasi-Roman worship of “reason” by 1793. At heart, historians say, the spectacles were a means of transforming one society into another. The aim was not merely to replace the new regime with the old, but to create a sense of brotherhood. With everyone participating in the same act of worship at the same time, fears dissipated and people were more willing to die in battle.

Such techniques have since been used the world over — sometimes to largely benign ends, as in France, but frequently for purposes far worse, as the events of the 20th century show.