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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 monographs on the French peasantry, the Parisian crowds, the Revolutionary Armies, and the sans culottes in the tense, decisive Year II of the French Revolution. At the same time, Cobban insists that while these historians have done valuable research, they have fallen victim to unexamined, or inadequately examined, assumptions: They have argued, all too easily, that the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution; and they have uncritically accepted the notion that the Revolution was generally a good thing, a great milestone on the road to progress. Cobban is not concerned to prove these assumptions false, he is concerned to prove them unproved.* To judge from the vociferous complaints which his little book has called forth, it seems that Cobban has once again hit a vulnerable target. Until The Social History of the French Revolution appeared two years ago, the study of the French Revolution was threatening to harden into a new orthodoxy of the Left; Cobban has kept the debate alive.

A historian who scatters his shots so widely is bound to have a few misses, and Cobban has not always been on target; he has been unduly harsh, for example, on R. R. Palmer’s important Age of the Democratic Revolution. Cobban, after all, admits that he finds Palmer’s general thesis fruitful and most of his conclusions convincing; like Palmer, Cobban can see the Western world of the second half of the eighteenth century in the grip of revolutionary sentiment against constituted authority, sentiment that issued in action decades before the revolution burst out in France. But for all these agreements, Cobban has rather impishly sniped at flaws of detail in Palmer’s work, giving rise to the suspicion that he finds destruction a little more congenial than construction. Still, Cobban has been much more than a brilliant gadfly, though he has been that as well: Much of his considerable output has been scholarly work based on patient, meticulous work in the archives. Yet polemicist or scholar, in all things Cobban has been his own man, and has spoken in a voice that is recognizable, uniquely, his.

IN A History of Modern France, Alfred Cobban appears in a new guise; he is neither polemicist nor scholar, though of course he inevitably draws on the results of his polemics and his scholarship. His book, which takes the history of France from the death of Louis XIV in 1715 to 1962, with the Fifth Republic in mid-career, is vigorous without being argumentative, informed without being technical. There are no footnotes, only valuable bibliographical essays. The style is the style we have come to expect from Cobban: The book achieves clarity and individuality but avoids vulgarity and eccentricity. In short, A History of Modern France (which, in its earlier incarnation, appeared as two Penguin volumes) perfectly fulfills the purpose for which it was designed: It is general history that the professional can read without feeling embarrassed, and the amateur can absorb without getting confused. Cobban’s general history, then, serene in its general view and masterly in its detail, confirms a point I have made before: If we are to have good popular history, the civilized specialist is the best man to write it.

This is true because the specialist controls his materials. It is striking to observe Cobban filling his rather conventional framework—political development—with significant material from all branches of history: from social, economic, religious, intellectual history. In such a history, Robespierre and De Gaulle inevitably take up much space, but Cobban finds room for Matisse and Valéry, Diderot and Chardin. Cobban writes with as much ease about the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Positivism, as he does about the Fall of the Bastille and the Paris Commune—he has not moved from political history to intellectual history to political theory for nothing. It is striking also to observe Cobban introducing leading characters with vivid characterizations without falling victim to gush, to lurid detail, or shallow great-man history: The duc de Bourbon at the time of the Regency is “ugly, blind in one eye, bandy-legged, and stupid”; Louis XVIII, “immensely fat,” walked “only with difficulty,” and occupied his throne “like an old idol, self-sufficient in divinely sanctioned egotism”—this is deft and, serving as it does the higher purposes of narrative and analysis, helpful. In addition to all else, Cobban is a superb craftsman, and his history is, I think, the best history of modern France we have.

I find it gratifying to write these lines, for historians these days are much given to lamenting the disappearance of giants, much as students of the novel lament the disappearance of Mann and Gide, Faulkner and Camus. Some fine historians, it is true, have died in the last thirty years: Elie Halévy and Marc Bloch, Friedrich Meinecke and Federico Chabod, Lewis Namier and Perry Miller. We are poorer without them, but, as the presence of Cobban reminds us, we are not poor.

  1. *

    I should add to Cobban’s strictures my criticism of the Marxists’ peculiarly narrow definition of historical psychology which is characterized above all by the contemptuous and, it seems to me, relatively ill-informed dismissal of psychoanalysis. But then, I suppose, Freud is regarded as objectively reactionary.

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