The French Revolution was begun, allegedly, in the name of the people and in the name of freedom. Yet it was an authoritarian and dictatorial imposition on the people, not a freeing of them.
Why did this Revolution feature no meaningful election process? The few elections which took place were designed to give the appearance of voting, while shielding the Revolutionary government from any accountability to the voters.
A revolution might be a time and a place in which great freedom in speech arises, especially political speech. But the French Revolution imposed some of the harshest political censorship.
Freedom of religion, likewise a stated goal of the revolution, disappeared, and the leaders of the French Revolution executed people merely because they were followers of Jesus.
What went wrong? The leaders of the French Revolution tried to change, not only the political system, but society itself. The problems which triggered the revolution were political and economic, not social.
Maximilien Robespierre was perhaps one of the most influential figures in the Revolution. The names of the phases through which the Revolution progressed are telling: “The Great Fear,” “The Reign of Terror,” and “The White Fear.”
This escalating violence was the result of the effort, by Robespierre and others, to make people fit into their idea of a good system. The revolutionary leaders claimed to know what was best for the people, and did not give the people a chance to choose their own way.
On this logic, then, there was no need for elections. A few “show elections” gave the appearance of political engagement, but did not give the voters any meaningful input. As historian Jonah Goldberg writes:
Robespierre’s ideas were derived from his close study of Rousseau, whose theory of the general will formed the intellectual basis for all modern totalitarianisms. According to Rousseau, individuals who live in accordance with the general will are “free” and “virtuous” while those who defy it are criminals, fools, or heretics. These enemies of the common good must be forced to bend to the general will. This state-sanctioned coercion he described in Orwellian terms as the act of “forcing men to be free.” It was Rousseau who originally sanctified the sovereign will of the masses while dismissing the mechanisms of democracy as corrupting and profane. Such mechanics — voting in elections, representative bodies, and so forth — are “hardly ever necessary where the government is well-intentioned,” wrote Rousseau in a revealing turn of phrase. “For the rulers well know that the general will is always on the side which is most favorable to the public interest, that is to say, the most equitable; so that it is needful only to act justly to be certain of following the general will.”
Thus the revolution, begun in the name of the people, failed to actually establish a republic with freely-elected representatives. It was a dictatorship, one that changed its form several times during the course of the revolution, from 1789 to 1799.
The deaths inflicted, as the government sought to force people to conform to its system, were many. Public executions killed between 20,000 and 75,000 civilians, mainly by guillotine. The war started by the French Revolutionary government in April 1792 against Austria killed thousands more.
When the French Revolution imposed price controls on all food in September 1793, agricultural production collapsed, and thousands died in a famine.
The French Revolution was never an expression of individual political liberty. It was a violent attempt to make the population of a nation fit into an abstract governmental paradigm.
Instead of confining itself to changes in government and economics, the leaders of the Revolution sought to change human society, culture, and civilization. This doomed their efforts not only to failure, but to self-destruction.