The ten years of the French Revolution, from 1789 to 1799, saw the morphing of that movement from one which sought liberty to one which inflicted atrocities on a previously unimagined scale.
Instead of finding freedom, thousands of innocent civilians died in public executions by means of the guillotine.
The murderous violence of the French Revolution arose from its effort to create, not a good government, but rather a perfect society.
Correcting the flaws of a government in order to create political liberty is, as the American Revolution shows, an achievable goal. The French Revolution attempted, however, to create a utopia.
The founding of a perfect society is such a high ideal that it justified, for the revolutionaries, the use of ‘any means necessary’ - including mass killings of men, women, and children.
The revolutionaries sought to impose a social plan. Because they believed that they could find the ideal pattern for society, they tolerated no individual dissent, skepticism, or variation from their blueprint.
The leaders of the French Revolution absolutized government. Ironically, they had started by overthrowing an absolute monarch. They saw no room for individual political liberty. As historian Jonah Goldberg writes:
But what truly makes the French Revolution the first fascist revolution was its effort to turn politics into a religion. (In this the revolutionaries were inspired by Rousseau, whose concept of the general will divinized the people while rendering the person an afterthought.) Accordingly, they declared war on Christianity, attempting to purge it from society and replace it with a “secular” faith whose tenets were synonymous with the Jacobin agenda. Hundreds of pagan-themed festivals were launched across the country celebrating Nation, Reason, Brotherhood, Liberty, and other abstractions in order to bathe the state and the general will in an aura of sanctity. As we shall see, the Nazis emulated the Jacobins in minute detail.
In terms of values, the French Revolution imposed the government as the highest value. Citizens were expected to do whatever the state might ask.
In such a system, there was no room for personal values: no loyalty to family or friends; no concept of duty or honor; no room for God.
The concepts of duty and honor were twisted into mere demands for unquestioning obedience to the government. By contrast, individual political liberty allows for the possibility of a conflict between duty and government, or a conflict between honor and government.
The French Revolution allowed for no limits on government and allowed for no questioning of the government’s decisions. When the government began to eliminate the very liberties it claimed to defend, there was no stopping it.