Man in The Middle

A History of Modern France

by Alfred Cobban
Braziller, 3 vols., 278, 234, 283 pp., $10.00

Some historians are born controversialists, others have controversy thrust upon them. Alfred Cobban belongs to the first group; in a lifetime of vigorous and witty polemicizing, he has aimed at a variety of targets with a fine disregard for political consequences that only a thoroughly committed historian could muster. In 1929, Cobban wrote a book on Burke and the political ideas of the Lake poets which annoyed the Left; in 1960, when he reissued it, he noted wrily that in the meantime Burke had become a “victim to the uncritical adulation of the right in America.” These “attempts to condemn or applaud the ideas or annex the name and reputation of Burke,” he wrote with superb disdain, “like any other attempt to exploit the past to the advantage of transient political interests, are not history. My own book is in this respect, I hope, equally unsatisfactory to writers of the left and of the right, since it was not written from the point of view, or for the political advantage, of either.” It is from this independent position, held more rarely than it should be, and all too rarely enunciated with such clarity, that Cobban has done his historical work. His Rousseau and the Modern State, first published in 1934, was among the first books in English to rescue Rousseau from a century of extravagant misinterpretation, and to defend him not merely against his detractors, but against his more wild-eyed supporters as well. His In Search of Humanity, published in 1960, offered a cogent defense of the Enlightenment from the standpoint of modern political theory, and did so not by being defensive, but by attacking those cultural critics who see the upheavals of the twentieth century as the dreadful logical consequence of the radical philosophy of the eighteenth; the book contains one of my favorite paragraphs in the literature of historical controversy:

Tracing a line of descent backwards is bound to produce positive results, and then by a simple process of reversion we can create the illusion of a necessary catena of cause and effect. Thus one could trace a train of influence leading from Stalin back through Lenin, Marx, Hegel, Kant, Rousseau, Locke and Hooker to Aquinas. Each link in the chain is valid, yet it must be confessed that, though there are common features and affinities in the ideas of Aquinas and Stalin, the whole has distinctly less value than the parts.

These sentences are typical of Cobban’s polemical procedure: Their logic is firm, their formulation amusing, and their conclusion devastating.

MORE RECENTLY, Cobban has taken on the Marxist historians of the French Revolution; his provocative series of lectures, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, is a rather disrespectful examination of the work done by Georges Lefebvre and his disciples: Albert Soboul, George Rudé, Richard Cobb. Shrewdly, and rightly, Cobban here acknowledges the great debt that he, and the entire historical profession, owe to these Marxists: he quotes freely and approvingly from their exhaustive…

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