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Everybody’s French Revolution

Revolutionary Europe, 1783-1815

by George Rudé
Harper & Row, 301 pp., $6.95

It has long been usual in France for the scholar to make his reputation by writing a learned monograph, but then to want to try his hand in some wider and more popular field. As the monographs multiply the need to keep the textbooks up-to-date becomes more pressing; as the university population grows the market for textbooks increases. These developments, now common in many European countries, have provided the scholar with his opportunity, and Professor Rudé is a case in point. He first became known to the academic world by a study of the crowd in the French Revolution and by comparable studies in the history of eighteenth-century England. Now he has produced a volume in a series of textbooks entitled “The History of Europe.” The series, in the traditional manner, is divided into chronological periods which in most cases begin and end with major international peace settlements. Professor Rudé’s period extends from the end of the war of American Independence to the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

The field which Professor Rudé has to cover is thus very large, and the literature on many parts of it is continually increasing. The huge volume of historical writing at the present time, and the new angles of approach to old problems, are making it increasingly difficult to meet the demands which the conventionally organized series of textbooks exists to satisfy.

The purpose of any textbook is to provide the beginner with a foundation for further reading and, as Professor Rudé says, to whet his appetite for more. It must therefore set out the essential facts, but it must also organize them around a theme or themes, since mere information, undirected to any general conclusions, destroys the appetite for knowledge rather than whetting it.

IN THE PURSUIT of this double objective the writer of the conventional textbook nowadays encounters many obstacles. He has to read more than any but the strongest minds can digest; he is mainly if not wholly dependent on the quality of the research done by other people, and he is helpless where those aspects of his subject have been explored only on old-fashioned principles, or not explored at all. He is continually tempted to resort to paste and scissors—to piece together facts and interpretations provided by modern scholarship in some fields, with facts and interpretations which, in other fields, have been sanctified by conventions that are now outmoded. If he yields to the temptation, his work will lack point and unity. The reader will become bewildered and lose interest.

Professor Rudé’s work is much less open to these objections than are many conventional textbooks. It is uniformly well written; it holds the reader’s interest over large stretches; it has several clear themes. It is also judicious in its treatment of controversial issues. It could not, however, be said to escape all the defects by which conventional textbooks are commonly disfigured.

Professor Rudé’s discussion falls into three parts. He begins with a description of pre-Revolutionary France and Europe; he proceeds to describe the course and the results of the Revolution, and the work of Napoleon, in France; finally, he is concerned with French conquests in Europe, materially and ideologically, and with the extent of their ultimate reversal and its causes.

The first part is the least satisfactory. Professor Rudé has to consider why the French Revolution broke out. Following Tocqueville who raised this question but was unable to provide a plausible answer, he also wants to explain why it broke out in France and not elsewhere (for he will not subscribe to the view recently popularized by Professors Palmer and Godechot that it had parallels in other countries). He concludes, plausibly, that a revolution on the French model was possible only where there was a large, educated middle class and where this class was prepared to ally itself with the peasants and sans-culottes. These conditions, he points out, existed nowhere except in France. All this, however, does not get him any nearer to explaining why the explosion in France occurred (as distinct from why it assumed the form, and achieved the results, it did). What he says on this subject amounts only to the old cliché that the privileged classes were unwilling to relinquish their privileges; but this tells us nothing except that there would be no quarrels, wars, or revolutions if there were no groups prepared to stand on their rights.

IT IS NOT, however, Professor Rudé’s fault that he is reduced to this platitude (though he surely need not have tried to bolster it up with the implausible assertion that the taxes and economies which Calonne proposed to introduce in 1787 would have wiped out the Government’s deficit—a claim which Calonne did not even make himself). Professor Rudé’s difficulties here are caused by the absence of any good analysis of the causes of the Revolution—a subject which no one has seriously attempted to tackle for over half a century. Similar difficulties beset him when he attempts to describe international relations in the last years of the ancien régime. Here he is reduced to reproducing the catalogue of wars and treaties which has long induced students to believe that this subject is meaningless.

It is when Professor Rudé reaches the Revolution that he becomes interesting. Here he has a field in which there is much good modern writing and where it is now possible to give a coherent explanation of what happened. He accepts the current French orthodoxy. He maintains that the Revolution was a bourgeois revolution (and, pace Professor Cobban, he can give a meaning to this phrase that is reasonable and illuminating); but he also maintains that the Revolution only succeeded because of the alliance between the bourgeoisie and the people “who though having aims and grievances of their own, shared [bourgeois] fears and suspicions of the aristocracy.” He shows that this alliance was an unstable one, and that Robespierre and his associates began the process of dissolving it. He concludes that by 1799, when Napoleon pronounced the Revolution to be ended—though the bourgeoisie can hardly be said to have been in control—since their divisions had resulted in a military dictatorship, bourgeois principles had triumphed, on the one hand over those of the aristocracy, and on the other, over those of the sans-culottes. The stage had been set for the growth of capitalist enterprise, which was incompatible with the social and political arrangements of the ancien régime, but equally so with those which the sans-culottes desired. Professor Rudé admits, however, that between setting the stage and putting on the play there was a long interval. It was the anti-Revolutionary British, he points out, not the Revolutionary French, who led the way in economic development in the first half of the nineteenth century. Admittedly there is nothing new in these opinions, and, as in any other argument that covers so much ground, it is possible to detect mistakes in the exposition. The present reviewer finds it strange, for example, that Professor Rudé should wish to assent on two occasions that by the end of the Revolution the French possessed a citizen army based on universal conscription. This was certainly not so. As Georges Lefebvre, Professor Rudé’s acknowledged master, once put it: The soldiers of the Directory who remained in the army when so many had deserted can be described in effect as volunteers. “They stayed because they liked war and its adventures or because, if they had left the regiment, they would have had no future. Gradually they became distinguished from the rest of the nation, and all the more so because since the Levée en masse [of 1793] no one had been called up.” The old type of professional army was in fact recreated between Thermidor and Brumaire.

There is room for argument about Professor Rudé’s emphasis. To the present reviewer it seems a pity that the passions engendered by the Revolution, and the cruelties to which they led (as well as their legacy of divisions and disillusionment) should get so little attention—indeed on occasions should apparently be overlooked altogether. “Unfortunate,” for example, hardly seems an appropriate adjective to apply to Billaud Varenne and Collot d’Herbois, the most bloodthirsty of Robespierre’s associates, when they were condemned to deportation after Thermidor. In the present age, however, when it is fashionable to discount the horrors of revolutions, on the grounds that it is not possible to make omelets without breaking eggs, these omissions may seem venial if not legitimate. In general, in any case, the objections which can be brought against this part of Professor Rudé’s work are of a kind that can be brought against any summary of a complicated and controversial subject. They do not detract from the merits of the exposition, which fulfills its purpose of providing the beginner with a clear, coherent, and stimulating account.

In the parts of the book which are devoted to Europe between 1789 and 1815 Professor Rudé follows up the themes which he elaborates in the chapters on revolutionary and Napoleonic France. He has many interesting things to say about the way in which the principles of the Revolution were exported at the point of the bayonet to other countries, and how far they took root there. Europe, however, between 1789 and 1815 contained a large number of states, and war and Revolution affected them differently. Like the modern travel agent, Professor Rudé hustles his readers from one place to another, sometimes on no clear principle, dragging them not only through Spain, Italy, and much of Germany, but also through Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, while allowing them barely a glimpse of Prussia. Of all Napoleon’s enemies, however, Prussia suffered the greatest sense of humiliation and the harshest treatment, yet proved capable, in the end, of the most remarkable war effort achieved by any nation in the period covered by this account. The peace settlement accorded her the largest rewards.

We hear virtually nothing of all this. Perhaps we should not complain, since much of necessity must be left out of the 300 pages which are all that Professor Rudé is allowed. But since the reasons for Napoleon’s defeat are an essential part of the story, we may legitimately complain that we are told nothing about the part played by sea power (though we are told that Napoleon said he would defeat the sea from the land and obviously failed to do so); we may also complain that we are told nothing about the economic foundations on which the victor’s strength rested. The British, we learn, paid out fifty-two million pounds in subsidies to their continental allies. But we do not learn when they paid it, or to whom, or what this figure means in accounting for the expenditure of the British or any other government. Nor do we learn how they paid it, though this is a reasonable question to ask in view of the primitiveness of the economies in the continental states that led the opposition to Napoleon, and the fact that two out, of three of these states had been bled white by French occupation before the wars of liberation started. Anyone to whom this question occurs could do worse than turn to those passages in the memoirs of Hermann von Boyen, in which he describes, with a meticulous accuracy that would delight any shipowner, the items in the cargoes of ship after ship that sailed from Britain to Prussia in 1813, carrying every kind of object from muskets to chamber pots. Mutatis mutandis here is an exact parallel to the shipments from the United States to Europe during Hitler’s war.

THE READERS of Professor Rudé’s book, in short, must proceed with discretion. They will find excellent bits in it, and many ideas that will be illuminating to the beginner. But in other places they will find a lack of balance and even occasionally of common sense. They will find much coherence, but some incoherence. They will find some sophisticated modern explanations, and some attempts at explanation (particularly of the reasons for victory and defeat in the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars) that are not nearly so good as those which our predecessors could provide at the beginning of the present century. They will be tempted to absolve the writer from blame because of the magnitude of his task, which requires so much knowledge, and so many different kinds of historical skill, that one person could hardly accomplish it except by decades of work. They will be grateful to the writer for the guidance he has provided. His talent in certain spheres is obvious. The appropriateness nowadays of the kind of textbook he has had to write is much less certain.

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