Despite obvious, physical damages and high death tolls, especially in the reign on Terror, the French Revolution is largely regarded as the starting point of the era of modern revolutions because of the way it has had domestic and international impact and continued to have repercussions and influences on society and thought right up to the present day. Instead of considering the French Revolution as a complete failure because it failed to achieve its goal of replacing the repressive Ancien Régime with a constitutional one based on democratic and republican principles but leading to far-worse despotism of Napoleon, the French Revolution was indeed a steppingstone towards eventual success — the birth of modernity. Two major developments of the French Revolution which have exerted immense influence on not only France but also the whole world. The first development is the assertion of universal human rights, while the second is the emergence of the modern state.
As an important landmark in the history of France, the Revolution resulted in a number of substantial changes to French society. Even though the Revolution did not establish a stable democratic politics — in the modern Western sense — for the French people, the French Revolution did give the French people their first taste of democracy by replacing the belief in the divine right of kings with the conviction that people are the origin of all sovereignty. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the vital role in that the Revolution played in establishing the precedents of such democratic institutions as suffrage and representative government. Also, the Revolution had great impact on nationalistic thought by supporting a form of modern society based on the principle of self-determination. The Revolution later set a precedent that only those states were legitimate in which a people of common culture ruled for themselves a common territory. Foreign rule, or rule by an alien elite, as in the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, was unnatural. Only nation-states were natural political entities; only they were legitimate. Through the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the principle of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ was spread over the French society, however briefly it lasted. Although the principle was initially not applied to Jews, blacks and women, and often suspended by different Assemblies to fulfil their own interests in authority; however, the French people did realise that they are born and remain equal in rights. Moreover, the peasants of rural France had made some progress. The old feudal rights of the lords had been abolished in 1789, and much of the church land that had been seized by the government and sold to investors eventually ended up in the hands of the peasants. The system of taxation had also been revised so the burden did not fall so heavily on the peasants and other members of the Third Estate. In terms of the governmental structure of France, a more centralised constitutional and representative government which ruled over a united country with no diversity in the implementation of laws and no discrimination in the imposition of taxes was established by the Revolution.
The French Revolution was also a world-historical event. The first enduring impact of the Revolution on the world was its re-definition of the word ‘revolution’. Before 1789, ‘revolution’ implied a return to the prior state of affairs in cyclical patterns. Only following the Revolution did the term take on its modern meaning — any unexpected, fundamental and innovative departure in a country’s society and politics. Indeed, this meaning remains today. Second, the Frecnh revolution set an exemplar for all modern revolutions, from the Russian revolutions of 1917 to the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011. The French revolution formulated modern revolutionary tradition — the struggle for democracy and human rights — sparked a series of revolutions which rallied behind the principle of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ and nationalism. The liberal and equal ideas endorsed by the French Revolution were so malleable and universal that they were no longer valid for the French but for all humankind, which still inspires the ongoing struggle for human rights in very different times and places across the world. Third, the revolution changed the way in which we think about, speak of and therefore conduct our politics. On the one hand, today’s world-system political ideologies, such as republicanism, liberalism and conservatism were generated by the first revolutionary assemblies; on the other hand, the roots of modern institutional concepts, such as the left and right, can be traced back to the seating arrangement of the National Convention of the Revolution.
Overall, while major historical interpretations of the French Revolution differ greatly, nearly all agree that it had an extraordinary influence on the making of the modern world. Instead of lambasting it as a failure for not achieving its goal and resulting violence and bloodshed, more weight should be put on its profound long-term impact — the birth of modernity and the establishment of modern revolutionary tradition — on not only France but the world.