The French Revolution: An Exchange

In response to:

A Very Different French Revolution from the July 10, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Please permit me to reply to the review of my Revolutionary Ideas by David Bell [NYR, July 10]. Without explaining my book’s central argument—that from the perspective of ideology and political ideas the French Revolution fragmented into three different “revolutions” embodying sharply divergent revolutionary programs and value systems—Bell judges my thesis “impossible to accept” because it “takes sides so completely with one group of its actors” and is “based so heavily on their own highly polemical writings.” He alleges that I have a “narrowly partisan point of view” and am seriously biased against the members of the Montagne faction, including Robespierre. He does so in the face of considerable evidence, drawn substantially from Jacobin sources, that Robespierre was never a sincere republican or democrat, and that the “incorruptible,” as he was called, was thoroughly corrupt politically. Robespierre’s choice of police chiefs, Paris mayors, and other key operators of the levers of power, all notorious for their ruthlessness (see pp. 294–295, 410, 420–426, 510–512, 580–581, 586–589 of my book), is just one among several cogent proofs.

Bell sees little to choose morally between the Montagnards—among them Robespierre, Marat, and Saint-Just—and their opponents, the Brissotins (or Girondists)—including Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Maximin Isnard, and the Marquis de Condorcet. On this matter, he claims a large consensus is on his side. But my project is to demonstrate that lack of attention to ideological differences has gravely distorted our view of the factional divisions, causing the modern consensus to be seriously flawed.

In the history of political conflicts, one side, here the Montagne, may be much more ruthless, repressive, and despotic than the other. It does not follow that, as he writes, I “enormously” admire the Brissotins (which—aside from Condorcet—I do not). Without exception, foreign democratic republican intellectuals who endorsed the Revolution condemned the Montagne at the time as a monstrous, horrific tyranny. This was the case with the Americans and British—Paine, Priestley, Jefferson, Barlow, Madison, Palmer, Wollstonecraft, and Godwin—and with the Germans, Dutch, and Italians. Thomas Thorild, the Swedish radical poet, was so fervently pro-Revolution that it hurt him exceedingly to have to admit that Robespierre was an “all-consuming crocodile” (p. 698). In fact, no prominent contemporary Enlightenment thinker supporting the Revolution agreed with Bell’s view.

Besides errors concerning key episodes (including the September 1792 prison massacres where Bell’s position has been refuted by Timothy Tackett, Frédéric Bluche, and others), the review contains astoundingly inaccurate reports of what I actually say. I repeatedly assert that Robespierre did not exercise a “personal dictatorship,” contending that the Terror stemmed from a group dictatorship (pp. 450–451, 463, 466, 469–470, 503–507, 574–577), which does not prevent Bell from scornfully berating me for holding a diametrically opposite view.

Flatly contrary to his claim that “the vast majority of the French population fare particularly poorly in Revolutionary Ideas,” I focus at great length on the role of the common people in breaking the political deadlock during the Revolution’s crucial moments (as well as on their economic distress), seeing their shifting relationship to the elites as pivotal, albeit portraying them as deeply divided, hesitant, and indecisive (pp. 60–64, 89–94, 204–207, 246–262, 423–448, 454–464). Bell alleges that I give the sansculottes “no credit for independent action” when I write that “the main body of hard-core sansculotte activists was far from being firmly behind the Montagne” and emphasize their “independent” action (pp. 310–315, 435–445, 467–470, 504–507).

Still more objectionable, Bell reduces my principal thesis that the only “big cause” of the Revolution, when viewed as a series of democratic and egalitarian enactments, was the Radical Enlightenment to my supposedly affirming that “only ideas matter for understanding how the Revolution came about, and what course it took”—yet again a gross distortion.

Misrepresentation similarly dominates Bell’s account of my category “Radical Enlightenment.” He deems the evidence “thin” for classifying Spinoza as a “democratic” philosopher, when Spinoza is unquestionably the first great modern democratic philosopher. He repeats that “not every book denounced” as “Spinozist” “had much relation to Spinoza’s thought.” As if I maintain that it did! “Among the great philosophes,” only Diderot, Bell asserts, is “located, for Israel, squarely in the ‘radical’ camp,” whereas I also classify Bayle, d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Condorcet among the major philosophes who, following Spinoza, Collins, and Toland—and with Lessing, Franklin, Paine, and Jefferson—strove for a fully secular politics eliminating religious authority and proclaiming a new social order based on equality, freedom of expression, and what, from the 1770s on, were conceived as universal human rights, an extremely complex process that Bell pronounces (twice) “shockingly simple.”

In answer to his complaint that I have “accepted very few criticisms” advanced by him or others in this quarrel, Bell may rest assured that I shall accept every criticism that is justified and based on cogent argument.

I hardly think the objective reader will have difficulty in deciding which of us is closer to concocting “conspiracy fiction.”

Jonathan Israel
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey

A longer version of this letter can be read on the History News Network (

David A. Bell replies:

Jonathan Israel is now trying, with somewhat comic indignation, to deny that he actually made several of the highly questionable claims that I criticized in my review. But the written record is perfectly clear.

Take the issue of Robespierre’s “dictatorship.” Israel now claims that Robespierre did not exercise a personal dictatorship, but was just part of a “group dictatorship.” But he himself defines this “group dictatorship” as follows: “By late 1793, Robespierre wielded increasingly dictatorial power assisted by close aides” (p. 503). Israel elsewhere characterizes these same “aides” as “Robespierre’s acolytes” (p. 451). The book frequently refers to Robespierre as “dictator” without qualification (e.g. pp. 572, 575, 587), and just as frequently uses the phrase “Robespierre’s dictatorship” or “Robespierriste dictatorship” (e.g. pp. 409–410, 550, 557). Indeed, an entire twelve-page-long section of the book (pp. 561–573) bears the title “Completing Robespierre’s Dictatorship” (!).

On the role of common people in the Revolution, Israel disputes my criticism that he gives popular sansculotte militants no credit for independent action. But Israel himself writes of the specific incident in question, the uprising of May–June 1793: “Robespierre directly instigated armed insurrection” (p. 442). He also speaks of Robespierre “dragooning…misinformed artisans” (p. 579). But in any case, my criticism was not that Israel denies the common people all capacity for independent action, but that he does not imagine them capable of formulating their own independent political ideas. Israel’s attitude comes through clearly in his cavalier references to “gangs of illiterate Parisians” (e.g. p. 291), despite the fact, well known to experts in the period, that nearly all adult male Parisians of the era could read.

Israel now calls “a gross distortion” my statement that in his interpretation of the Revolution’s origins and subsequent course, only ideas matter. I find this strange, since in the very same sentence, he repeats his point that the Radical Enlightenment was “the only ‘big cause’ of the Revolution.” Is this not saying that its origins were principally intellectual?

As for the subsequent events, I stand by my reading of the book. Unlike nearly every other history of this subject, Revolutionary Ideas does not simply stress the role of ideology in the French Revolution, but reduces the Revolution to a set of conflicts between what it presents as clearly defined ideological groupings. As I argued in my review, Israel can only establish these ideological oppositions in the first place by cherry-picking evidence from what, in reality, was a mass of complex, overlapping, and rapidly shifting positions.

Bizarrely, Israel now insists that he is not an admirer of the Brissotins. Perhaps I am naive, but calling them “the founders of the modern human rights tradition, black emancipation, women’s rights, and modern representative democracy” (p. 478) sounds a lot like admiration. Israel’s inability to see the Revolution as anything other than a morality play comes through in his assumption that, since I criticize his harsh treatment of Robespierre, I myself must be well disposed toward the man. But the purpose of my review was not to pass judgment on Robespierre, who indeed bore more responsibility for the Terror than any other individual (the recital of Robespierre’s crimes in Israel’s letter is therefore beside the point).

My argument was that responsible historians, however harshly they may judge Robespierre, still need to weigh the evidence impartially. Israel again and again simply accepts the word of Robespierre’s enemies, and therefore holds him guilty of crimes for which no serious evidence exists—not to mention calling his political ideas, absurdly, “an early form of modern fascism” (p. 221). On the specific case of the September Massacres of 1792, Israel asserts that Timothy Tackett and Frédéric Bluche have “refuted” my views. But I was criticizing Israel’s claim that the Montagne faction as a whole—including presumably Robespierre—was “complicit” in the massacres (p. 280). Bluche provides some evidence for the involvement of particular Montagnards (although not Robespierre), but doesn’t support this broader claim.

My discussion of Israel’s views on the Enlightenment referred not to the book under review, but to his previous work, which has been amply criticized elsewhere (see, for instance, Antoine Lilti’s January 2009 review essay in Annales). Israel is of course free to place whomever he wishes in the ranks of the “great philosophes,” but if he insists on placing d’Holbach and Helvétius on the same level as Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Kant, he will find few scholars to agree with him.

It is perhaps not surprising that Israel made so many unsustainable claims in his book. He wrote it at high speed (eight hundred pages long, it appeared just three years after his previous one). And while the French Revolution was far from his principal scholarly expertise, he nonetheless had sufficient confidence to pronounce nearly all existing work on the subject deeply flawed. If he now wishes to retract some of the claims that I criticized, all well and good. But he is hardly entitled to outrage at the fact that I accurately reported them.