Two hundred years ago today a mob stormed the Bastille and freed its seven prisoners: four forgers, two lunatics and an aristocrat imprisoned at his family's request for "libertinism." It might have been eight had not the Marquis de Sade -- whose cell contained a desk, a wardrobe, a dressing table, tapestries, mattresses, velvet cushions, a collection of hats, three kinds of fragrances, night lamps and 133 books -- left a week earlier. When the battle was lost, the governor of the Bastille, a minor functionary named Bernard-Rene' de Launay, could have detonated a mountain of gunpowder, destroying himself, the mob, and much of the surrounding faubourg Saint-Antoine. He chose instead to surrender. His reward was to be paraded through the street and cut down with knives and pistol shots. A pastry cook named Desnot, declining a sword, sawed off his head with a pocket knife. For the French Revolution, it was downhill from there on. Now, after 200 years, the French themselves seem finally to be coming to terms with that reality. There is a tentativeness to this week's bicentennial celebration that suggests that French enthusiasm for the revolution has tempered. This circumspection stems from two decades of revisionist scholarship that stresses the reformist impulses of the ancien regime and the murderous impulses of the revolutionary regime that followed. Simon Schama's "Citizens" is but the culmination of this trend. But the receptivity to such revisionism stems from something deeper: the death of doctrinaire socialism, which in France had long claimed direct descent from the revolution. Disillusion at the savage failure of the revolutions in our time -- Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese -- has allowed reconsideration of the event that was father to them all. One might say that romance with revolution died with Solzhenitsyn. The line from the Bastille to the gulag is not straight, but the connection is unmistakable. Modern totalitarianism has its roots in 1789. "The spirit of the French Revolution has always been present in the social life of our country," said Gorbachev during his visit to France last week. Few attempts at ingratiation have been more true or more damning. Indeed, the French Revolution was such a model for future revolutions that it redefined the word. That is why 1776 has long been treated as a kind of pseudo-revolution, as Irving Kristol pointed out in a prescient essay written during America's confused and embarrassed bicentennial celebration of 1976. The American Revolution was utterly lacking in the messianic, bloody-minded idealism of the French. It rearranged the constitutional furniture. Its revolutionary leaders died in their own beds. What kind of revolution was that? Thirteen years later, Kristol's answer has become conventional wisdom: a successful revolution, perhaps the only successful revolution of our time. The French Revolution failed, argues Schama, because it tried to create the impossible: a regime both of liberty and of "patriotic" state power. The history of the revolution is proof that these goals are incompatible. The American Revolution succeeded because it chose one, liberty. The Russian Revolution became deranged when it chose the other, state power. The French Revolution, to its credit and sorrow, wanted both. Its great virtue was to have loosed the idea of liberty upon Europe. Its great vice was to have created the model, the monster, of the mobilized militarized state -- revolutionary France invented universal conscription, that scourge of the 20th century only now beginning to wither away. The French cannot be blamed for everything, alas, but their revolution, with its glamour and influence, did not only popularize, it deified revolution. There are large parts of the world where even today the worst brutality and arbitrariness are justified by the mere invocation of the word revolution -- without reference to any other human value. For the Chinese authorities to shoot a dissident in the back of the head, they have only to show that he is a "counterrevolutionary." In Cuba, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, erstwhile hero of the revolution, is condemned to death in a show trial and upon receiving his sentence confesses his sins and declares that at his execution his "last thought would be of Fidel and of the great revolution." The fate, then, of all messianic revolution -- revolution, that is, on the French model -- is that in the end it can justify itself and its crimes only by reference to itself. In Saint-Just's famous formulation: "The Republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it." This brutal circularity of logic is properly called not revolution but nihilism.