The Great Revolution

The Age of Democratic Revolution (Volume II)

by R.R. Palmer
Princeton, 650 pp., $10.00

The French Revolution, mother of monsters—Robespierre, Marat, Fouquet, Napoleon; or a gorgon of iniquities, destructive of religion, of tradition, of the slowly accreted virtues of human society; or a breeder of evil that even in this century has spawned tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin; or was it rather the awkward, blood-stained dawn of all that is best in the modern world? Does the passionate hatred of injustice, of tyranny in all its forms, racial, colonial, religious, stem from these few dramatic years in Paris, when the age-old laws of subordination were irrevocably broken? Is it possible to eradicate all the subtle propaganda from the dashing Scarlet Pimpernels and heroic Sidney Cartons to the subtler denigrations of a Madelin or an Aulard? Can we ever forget the picture of the Terror in which fine-drawn aristocrats meet their death with stoic wit and unbearable dignity? Or readjust our ideas of Robespierre, Danton, Marat? Will Robespierre forever remain in the historic consciousness of the West as the epitome of cold-hearted, passionless, intellectual revolutionaries who love ideas but hate men? Will Marat always seem to be as full of evil as of pus? And Danton lionhearted but wrong-headed? Questions, indeed, that are far from rhetorical, for the French Revolution has been too valuable a parable for the conservative forces in Western Society for them to permit, without a struggle, novel and disinterested judgments.

For the conservatives the importance of the Revolution lies in its failure. In their hands it becomes an appalling demonstration of the folly of intellectuals prepared to use violence to achieve their ideals. The attempt to create a new society, to break with deeply rooted traditions, led merely, so they say, to wanton bloodshed, to corruption, to the triumph of sordid adventurers, and finally to aggressive tyranny. In their hands this becomes the pattern not for one, but for all, revolutions. Atheistical and rational societies, they hope, will get the short shrift that they deserve from historical destiny. But they go further than this. They argue that the Revolution bred in the French a contagious folly and their addiction to the idea and practice of revolution brought about the insecurity and the instability of nineteenth-century Europe as the virus spread east and south. And they particularly castigate the idea, first adumbrated in the French Revolution, that a band of dedicated intellectuals might capture and mould the forces of society to their own purpose. For this they feel has brought the present world, through its success in Russia and China, to the brink of ruin. How much wiser, they feel, would Europe and the world have been to have followed the methods of Britain and the precepts of Edmund Burke: to have put their trust in the slow, organic growth of society, for each nation to have found, cautiously and empirically, those institutions of government and social forms that were best suited to its nature and conformable to its history. True liberalism, they suggest, is to be found in the history of England and America and not in the over-exciteable, over-intellectual history of France. The revolutionary nature of America’s struggle with Britain is elided, becomes essentially conservative, reformatory, an affirmation of state and corporate rights, of freehold and liberty: indeed the restoration of those essentially British virtues which England had momentarily betrayed at the behest of a stupid King and corrupt Government. Nor is this all; the heroic defiance by Britain of Revolutionary and Napoleonic tyranny saved more than liberty, more than freedom, it also preserved the Christian foundations of Western society, American as well as European. For the Revolution was directed not only against Kings, and nobles, but also against God and the Church, Protestant as well as Catholic.

Such attitudes are unconsciously present in most of us and are to be found, at times blatantly, at others subtly, in scholarly as well as popular histories of the French Revolution, certainly of those that form the basis of our education. Professor Palmer has attempted to provide an antidote in a book that is as remarkable for the coolness of its judgment as the width of its scholarship. Unfortunately Professor Palmer is so level-headed that he becomes flat-footed: The Himalyan grandeurs of the Revolution are reduced by his remorseless prose to the monotony of a steppe. Perhaps he has deliberately turned his back on all forms of literary craftsmanship in order to strengthen the impact on the reader of his deliberate, purposeful, common-sense, scholarly-based judgments. If so, it is a pity. Professor Palmer is equipped as few other professional historians are, to produce an outstanding work of synthesis and one which could have played a vitally important role in the historiography of the French Revolution. There is an overwhelming need to make the work of continental scholars available to an English reading public and thereby to readjust our attitude towards the French Revolution, which is so misunderstood both in America and in England. Professor Palmer has missed a golden opportunity: Few Professors, let alone students or schoolteachers, will plod through the monotonous swamps of this splurging book, which at times reads like a string of ill-digested review articles; at others like a précis for the classroom of the works of outstanding European scholars—Soboul, Godechot, Cobb, Zagli, etc., etc. The construction of the book, too, leaves much to be desired. The theme, the French Revolution and Europe, presents great difficulties and probably no treatment would be entirely satisfactory. Also, it is part of Professor Palmer’s purpose to deal with the revolutionary movements in Hungary, in Holland, or in Naples etc., in their own context and not view them from a Parisian standpoint, nor in terms of the European War, nor indeed in the light of the famous, such as Napoleon or Nelson. The revolutionary movement is his preoccupation, no matter how distant or remote (even Bahia gets a mention). The result is a lack of balance and a failure of coherence. It is strange, for example, that the revolutionary movement in Austro-Hungary should have been given as much space as the Terror in Paris. Yet, in spite of these strictures, which to some may seem too severe, this is the most important book on the Europe of the French Revolution published in English for more than a generation.

It marks the turn of the tide, demonstrating as it does the hollowness of the current conservative interpretation of the Revolution and it will discredit for the future all sloppy generalizations about Jacobins, demagogues, and revolutionary mobs. Firstly, however, to Professor Palmer’s credentials. Work on the French Revolution is voluminous and multi-lingual and since the war output has been intensified. Professor Palmer has mastered this in five languages and where not linguistically equipped has gone to great trouble to secure personal translations and précis of important works. His knowledge of printed sources is exceptionally thorough, ancient as well as modern, and his judgment of what is good and reliable seems unerring. He accepts a great deal of the work of the young radical historians of France, particularly A. Soboul, who is a Marxist, but never uncritically. Rightly Palmer cannot conceive of understanding the French Revolution except in terms of class conflict. He would allow situations, ideas, or even sheer blind chance greater significance than Soboul and he is less ready to see the Communist content of Babouvism or the effectiveness of revolutionary élites, but he accepts Soboul’s analysis of the nature of the sans-culottes and the Jacobins, as indeed all scholars must.

Indeed here is the basic question that Palmer constantly asks and constantly answers. Who were the revolutionaries, not only in Paris, but also in Milan, Budapest, Warsaw, Frankfort, Basel, Rome, Naples, Geneva, or anywhere else that gave birth to Revolutionaries or supporters of the Revolution? Were they cranks, misfits, screwballs, secret society addicts, charlatans, or near lunatics such as Cagliostro or Poderatz, or sensible, well-integrated citizens with positive social ideals and reasonable political aims? Throughout his detailed analysis, Palmer discovers the same basic result, which varies naturally according to the different social circumstances of Eastern, Western, or Southern Europe, but remains in essence the same. The Revolutionaries, the Jacobins, were most frequently doctors, lawyers, professional men of all kinds, interlaced with bankers, merchants, bureaucrats, university professors, and occasional clerics; in places they were joined by members of the lower nobility; sometimes where national issues were acute, as in Poland or the Hapsburg Empire, members of the aristocracy also threw in their lot with the revolutionary forces. In the main, however, it was a solid middle-class movement that derived its major support not from the landless peasantry or the urban proletariat but from skilled craftsmen, shop-keepers, small backyard manufacturers, clerks, schoolmasters, and some minor clergy—from, indeed, the petty bourgeoisie who stood to gain most from a State freed from traditional privilege, feudal obligations, and oligarchial graft. And the ideals for which the Revolutionaries fought, and frequently died, were those which the twentieth century has come to regard as belonging to the party for humanity—for that party which feels that all men, high born or low born, shall be equal before the law, that there shall be no distinction of race, creed, or color, that education should be public, discussion and comment free, and that the laws of nations should be based on reason. Such men based their faith neither in tradition nor in Providence but in man and his capacities. And perhaps it is as well to remind American readers that the Jacobins wherever found, whether in the ruthless Committee of Public Safety or in the Senate of the Cisalpine Republic, had more beliefs in common with Sam Adams or Benjamin Franklin than they had in difference.

For English readers it is even more salutary to stress that their long war against France was a war not only in defense and in extension of their vast commercial Empire but also in support of the ramshackle monarchies and aristocracies of feudal Europe; that they fought not for liberty but for privilege, not for equality but for human subordination. The limit to what the British could tolerate is shown by their action in Corsica when it became a part of the British dominions. They set up a landowners democracy on the English model and when their efforts failed offered the island to Catherine of Russia. Perhaps there is no better comment on the British position than that displayed by Nelson himself. After the defeat of the Neapolitan revolution he wrote to his subordinate Foote, “Your news of the hanging of thirteen Jacobins gave us great pleasure; and the three priests I hope [will] dangle on the tree best adapted to the weight of their sins.” Better the Bourbons than the bourgeoisie. That is why so many forward-looking, intelligent, generous-hearted Englishmen bitterly opposed the war against Revolutionary France as they had that against Revolutionary America—a fact ignored by some but forgotten by most British historians.

Because there is an attitude of mind and heart that needs correcting, it is a pity that this wise book is not better presented. We live with history, it informs all our reactions to the world about us, and we need an understanding of the French Revolution in order to comprehend our own problems, hatreds, and jealousies. The distorted myths with which we have been fed have confounded and baffled the aims of the Enlightenment and the nature of Liberalism to our own loss. This last one-hundred-and-fifty years the bogey of revolution has too frequently led the United States and Britain to support murderous regimes of outmoded privilege in Latin America, in the Caribbean, in Africa, and in the Far East, and to their own cost and loss. The middle classes of the Western world have been taught to hate their own revolutionary origins. If only Garrett Mattingley had written this book, the bogeymen would be in danger. As it is, the tumbrils will still rattle over the stones, those dignified aristocrats, the epitome of human and Christian virtues, will still go nobly to their sacrifice amidst the bloodthirsty jeers and obscene revelings of the Parisian canaille. Someone soon, however, will write the book that will blow this garish nonsense away. For scholarship has done its task, and the world is both more understanding and more sympathetic to the causes for which the French revolutionary fought and died. When the book is written, it will owe an immeasurable debt to Professor Palmer, to his scholarship, to his stamina, and above all to the excellence of his judgment.