The Lessons of the French Revolution Still Live : UCLA Bicentennial Program to Examine Historical Legacy


In a tiny crowded office on the third floor of UCLA’s Royce Hall, Robert M. Maniquis is plotting a revolution--of sorts.

Maniquis isn’t trying to overthrow any governments. Instead, as director of “1789-1989, the French Revolution: A UCLA Bicentennial Program,” he is prime mover behind an ambitious undertaking that is more than merely a remembrance of things past. In a three-year series of conferences, seminars, lectures, cultural events, exhibitions and films, the bicentennial program will examine how the events that began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and resulted in the downfall of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI continue to influence the world today.

“The American Revolution was clearly an important revolution, but the French Revolution, once it got going, had tremendous international effects of a kind that the American Revolution didn’t,” Maniquis said. “For a good part of the world, the French Revolution became the model for all subsequent revolutions. It proclaimed itself a universal revolution, saying that its ideas were true for all human beings at all times, and that they should be taken up by other countries.”


Maniquis has already been in business for two years, coordinating bicentennial activities from a wall-sized bulletin board-- tres patriotique in blue, white and red--in his office. Next year, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the signing of the American Constitution, a conference on Constitutionalism and the Western World is scheduled. A seminar exploring the pervasive influence of French revolutionary thinkers on Latin American revolutions is planned for 1989 under the sponsorship of the UCLA Center for Latin American Studies with the participation of the National University of Mexico and the University of Bordeaux, a sister city to Los Angeles.

Women’s Role

The little-known but important role of women in the French Revolution--a celebrated women’s march in 1792 brought Louis XVI from Versailles to Paris, and women took a prominent role in the political clubs of the period--will be commemorated in a conference sponsored by the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. Seminars on many other aspects of revolutionary culture from architecture to medicine are slated, most of them organized by UCLA departments. UCLA students are already taking courses chosen from a variety of offerings about the revolution and its effects.

The French Revolution meant more than a change of government, “it was a new way of conceiving the world,” Maniquis said. In the pursuit of rationality--the great revolutionary ideal--the metric system of weights and measures was developed, as was a new perpetual calendar that was used in France from 1792 through 1805. The calendar divided the year into 12 equal months of three 10-day “weeks,” called decades. Five holidays, dedicated to Virtue, Genius, Work, Opinion and Rewards, ended every year, and in leap years an extra holiday was dedicated “to the revolution.”

Other revolutionary advances, such as the invention of the guillotine, may seem less visionary today, but Maniquis said, smiling, “The guillotine was invented by the Academy of Surgeons as a humane method of execution. It was certainly a vast improvement over flaying, or drawing and quartering.”

The French government, represented by Los Angeles-based Embassy Cultural Attache Alexandre Tolstoi, is providing wholehearted support for the UCLA venture. Currently in the planning stages for fall, 1988, is an American first--an exhibition of French political caricatures from the revolutionary period, which will be curated by James Cuno of UCLA’s Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery with the cooperation of the prestigious Bibliotheque Nationale (the French equivalent of the Library of Congress) in Paris.

“Much of the French Revolution was fought in print. It was the moment of the power of the book and the pamphlet,” Maniquis said. “The political revolution had success and suffered failures to a great extent because of what we now call the media.” The French government will pay for Cuno’s visit to Paris next year to examine the caricatures of the Bibliotheque Nationale collection, and the UCLA exhibition will be shown at the library in 1989, “a great honor for us,” Maniquis said.


‘More New Ideas’

“We are playing both the role of an intermediary, a liaison with people in institutions in France, and the role of an active collaborator,” Tolstoi said. “This is only 1986 so we still have time to think about what we want to do. Robert Maniquis has lots of imagination. Every time we see him, we have more new ideas.”

“The French Revolution is the perfect subject to bring people together, because it’s so big that it can’t be studied through one discipline only,” Maniquis said. The UCLA music and theater departments, the Center for Performing Arts, and the Extension division are all expected to be involved in bicentennial events as well as other UC campuses. Maniquis is actively encouraging the participation of non-university organizations too, such as theater groups and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which will offer an exhibition of French Revolutionary costume.

Cinema ‘89, a support group for the UCLA Film, Television and Radio Archives and the Cinematheque Francaise (French Government Film Archives) that grew out of the bicentennial program, will be organizing a series of films that are set during the French Revolution.

Financial support for the program has come from UCLA and private corporate donors, but the final scope will depend on securing additional grants and donations. Thus, Maniquis finds himself spending increasing amounts of time on fund raising, a position the congenial associate professor of comparative literature obviously doesn’t relish. He was surprised recently when a corporate contact didn’t pay off--the top executive decided not to contribute because some of his ancestors died on the guillotine.

“The French are enormously flattered that we’re doing this project in Los Angeles,” Maniquis said, “because for them, Los Angeles symbolizes the 20th Century, no, the 21st Century. In France, the whole question of how to conduct the bicentennial has become a very complicated political argument. The revolution has been claimed by the Left, the Right, and the middle. It’s not that we’re going to avoid considering these issues, but we’re not involved in the same type of ideological battles that the French are. Here, you can talk about the subject with more elbow room.”

Emotional Political Issue

“In France, if someone says something bad about the French Revolution, they’re accused of being reactionary or worse,” observed Tolstoi. “Here, at the other end of the world, people are freer to examine the negative as well as the positive aspects of the revolution and its effects.”


“The whole program is not simply a cultural activity,” Maniquis added. “It’s not just a big party. These are subjects that concern the way we conceive of life on earth. It will be a lot of fun, but also very serious, seeing how a historical event of the past is inseparable from us today.”