The Two French Revolutions, 1789-1796
Guglielmo Ferrero was an Italian historian and journalist, born in 1871, who made his name by a five-volume work on the greatness and decline of Rome, in 1907. In the 1930s he was forced into exile in Switzerland, where he began to interest himself in the history of the French Revolution. In 1942 he published a trilogy on Europe after the Terror, and in the same year he delivered a course of lectures in Geneva intending to use them as an introduction to this work. He died, however, before he could turn the lectures into a book. The Two French Revolutions was written by his pupil, Luc Monnier, from his very full notes. First published in French in 1951, it has now been translated into English (not always happily), with a Foreword by Professor Crane Brinton.
Ferrero was a liberal preoccupied by problems of political morality throughout his life, who in old age became the victim of political persecution. In this work he is plainly obsessed with the horrors of revolutionary regimes. “France,” he says in one place, “having been the first to experiment with revolutionary government, knew better than any other country how frightful it was.” He felt himself to be living in an age to which the French revolution provided many parallels. His object was to explain the nature of revolutionary governments.
On pp. 149-50 he lists their characteristics under five headings: “a disruption of the former legal system”; “illegitimate power”; “a general state of fear”; “abuse of force”; “a morbid excess of energy.” He sees illegitimate power as following from a disruption of the former legal system and as giving rise to the other attributes of a state of revolution. Illegitimate power is the key concept of his work: “only sincere acceptance,” he says “whether active or passive, can make power legitimate.” He found all the governments of the Revolution illegitimate because they lacked such acceptance. The National Assembly rose out of the ruins of the ancien régime, which (as Ferrero seems to have supposed) had been passively accepted by virtue of prescriptive right. This Assembly saw itself as isolated in the midst of a general anarchy and without an army to defend it.
The discontent of the upper classes grew in proportion to the reforms that were passed. The court, the nobility, and the clergy feared the Assembly, which in turn feared them…the National Assembly also feared the restlessness of the masses in the larger cities, chiefly in Paris. These mobs were prey to a veritable delirium of persecution, attributing all their sufferings to plots on the part of the court and the higher clergy.
The National Assembly was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly which, to an even greater extent,
found itself isolated in the country. The principle of democratic legitimacy, which should have justified its right to govern, did not do so because this principle was not recognized by the majority of the nation. What were the consequences? The Legislative Assembly was seized by fear and did not know how to apply the principles of representative government with the energy and understanding necessary to make itself legitimate.
Its fears drove it into war. War, inflation, unemployment, and starvation faced it with overwhelming problems which it bequeathed to the Convention.
The Convention was elected under a system of universal manhood suffrage, but it lacked a basis in consent to an ever greater extent than did its two predecessors, because through fear or indifference most of the electors failed to vote. “The Convention was a revolutionary government overcome by fear. To understand its actions we must start from here.” So the story proceeds. To every question the answer is the same. Why did the revolutionary armies invade Belgium and the Rhineland in 1792? Why did the Jacobins inaugurate the Terror? Why were the Dantonistes and the Herbertistes proscribed? Why did the Thermidorean reaction fail to produce a stable regime? Because of fear. Each revolutionary government in turn, because it failed to win popular acceptance, was afraid, and fear leads its victims to resort to violence and terror.
SO BALD a summary may convey the impression that these lectures are the work of a crank. They are not. Admittedly so simple a formula can hardly explain the whole course of French history between 1789 and 1796, but it explains a great deal more than is commonly allowed. Since Ferrero wrote a quarter of a century ago, when he was over seventy, his knowledge, by contemporary standards, was often defective; he had his prejudices, of which the most extraordinary was his belief that it would have been possible to maintain a free economy in the midst of war and inflation. In general, however, he was neither prejudiced nor unfair. He felt no bitterness and launched no indictments. His judgments were dispassionate and inspired by the desire to understand “the inevitable necessity, stronger than the intelligence and will of men,” that drives revolutionaries into the “terrible contradictions” in which the French became entangled when they justified dictatorship and massacre in the name of liberty and the rights of man, and so “achieved results exactly the opposite of those intended.”
Ferrero believed that both the right-wing and the left-wing interpretations of the Revolution were wrong. His aim was to penetrate below these interpretations, each of which he found superficial, to the “true import of events.” Writing when he did, and as a very old man, he was unaware of any left-wing interpretation later than that of Mathiez. One cannot, however, suppose that he would have revised his opinion if he had lived to digest the works of Mathiez’s successors; for his object was to attack the idea, to which they too have subscribed, that the revolution can be explained by the “interests which it fostered and fought.” Since Ferrero believed that the revolutionary leaders acted primarily out of fear, he saw them as incapable of appraising situations rationally. He conveys the impression that, at least in the years covered by this work, the Revolution did not promote the interests of any class but was an unmitigated catastrophe.
This, as he himself admitted, was the view of the Right in the nineteenth century. He himself, however, had no sympathy with the defense which the right tried to put up for the ancien régime. On the contrary, he described this regime as an “Asiatic despotism,” thus exaggerating its abuses. His pre-occupation, nevertheless, with the brutality of the Revolution, prevented him from considering either the suffering which the ancien régime had caused, or the benefits which ultimately resulted from its destruction.
To judge these lectures by the standards of the current French orthodoxy would be pointless, since Ferrero and the upholders of the orthodoxy start from wholly different assumptions about what is important in history. Mathiez, Lefebvre, Soboul, and their apostles have seen all history as the history of class wars, just as historians of former ages saw it as the history of wars between princes or states. The escalation of violence characteristic of major social revolutions has seemed to them as inevitable, and as historically irrelevant, as the same phenomenon in their own field has until recently seemed to the military historians. Ferrero appears to have reacted to this point of view after the fashion of the pacifist. The means which the revolutionaries employed to achieve their ends, he concluded, made the realization of these ends impossible. To deny this seemed to him the result of a perverse refusal to examine the facts. He expressed his exasperation with it in a passage in which he quotes from the eulogy of Robespierre by Mathiez in a lecture entitled “Pourquoi nous sommes Robespierristes.” We love Robespierre, Mathiez had said, for many reasons: because “he wanted politics to be moral”; because he was the incarnation “of all that was most noble, generous and sincere”; because his name “summarises all the social iniquities we want to have disappear.” Ferrero did not hold Robespierre to be the monster depicted by the Right; he admitted that he had many of the qualities which Mathiez ascribed to him; to hold up as a model, however, this man who presided over and justified the Terror, seemed to him to show a “complete lack of any sense of historical reality.” Mathiez, he said, had no experience of revolutions and suffered from a defective imagination.
Ferrero, Professor Crane Brinton tells us, was always a moralizer. His moralizing in this instance, however, leads only to the conclusion that illegitimate power is bad. It does not provide any prescription for avoiding it; for Ferrero condemned the ancien régime in such strong terms that one cannot suppose he would have wished it to endure; but he also portrayed the revolution as inevitable. At the beginning of his lectures, and in one of his most arresting passages, he describes how the ancien régime collapsed of itself before the States General met, so that the deputies were faced with a revolutionary situation which they had not willed, nor even expected, and with which they had no means of coping. They appear here, as the helpless victims of a historical process which developed according to its own logic and with which they were powerless to interfere. Nevertheless, except in a few perfunctory pages, Ferrero makes no attempt to explain how such a state of affairs came about, but assumes that its origins are to be found in the reign of Louis XIV.
IT IS TEMPTING therefore to turn to Professor Wolf’s new life of Louis XIV for illumination on this matter. Professor Wolf’s interests are very different from Ferrero’s. Though he appears to share Ferrero’s disenchantment with the activities of his French colleagues, he does so for different reasons. He puts forward no claim to interpret events in such a way as to make their preoccupations seem superficial; he simply ignores these preoccupations when they do not coincide with his own.
In his choice of themes he has largely conformed to the old conventions established by diplomatic historians on the one hand, and the purveyors of court gossip on the other. Being a believer, as one must suppose, that history should be studied “for its own sake,” he does not, like Ferrero, derive his inspiration from current problems, but from the most obvious alternative source, the preoccupations of the Sun King himself. The matters with which Louis did not concern himself do not in general concern him either. Except incidentally, he does not discuss those financial, economic, demographic, or social problems to which even Lavisse, writing in 1901, devoted a large proportion of his work, and which have increasingly absorbed the attention of French scholars.
Louis was, however, much concerned with the exercise of power, and on this matter Professor Wolf has things of substance to say. He brings out convincingly enough the weakness of the monarchy at Louis’s accession and the need for greater central control. He notes the new instruments which Louis created to enforce his will, though he provides no analysis of the way they worked or of their effectiveness. How legitimate, in Ferrero’s sense, was the power which Louis exercised? To answer this question we must supplement Professor Wolf’s account with the works of French writers, and, particularly with the relevant chapters in Professor Goubert’s Louis XIV et vingt millions de Français.
Louis was essentially conservative in an age in which, in any case, the conception of revolution was unknown; yet he made revolutionary changes. The monarchy in his day (and indeed for long afterward) inspired a religious devotion which Professor Wolf well describes; yet Louis provoked far more widespread revolt than Professor Wolf would lead us to suppose. In life outside the court and the higher reaches of the bureaucracy (into which Professor Wolf does not penetrate), his rule, even by the standards of western Europe at the time, was one of violence and tyrannical oppression. Admittedly he left France less rebellious than she had been at his accession, and greatly increased her territory as well. As Professor Wolf stresses, he was the creator of the standing army and the bureaucratic state. Yet though his reign saw the end of organized rebellion, he found no remedy for the chronic disorders, provoked principally by famine or shortage, and by arbitrary and continually increasing taxes collected only too frequently by military force. His successors were not markedly more successful. Notwithstanding the mystique of royalty, it seems doubtful whether one could say that power was widely and “sincerely” accepted at any time between his accession and 1789.
Louis was the product of his age. The instruments of government at his disposal, and the beliefs in which he had been educated—particularly those which led him to seek glory in continuous war—set narrow limits to his power to innovate. He left most old institutions and most old privileges standing, and imposed his new despotism on medieval foundations, thus combining the abuses of arbitrary state power with those inherent in the social structure at his accession. Though it cannot be proved that this conjunction of affairs made the revolution inevitable, the point cannot be disproved either. In retrospect the vast upheavals of 1789-1796 do not look less inevitable at Louis’s death than they looked to Ferrero who began his account with 1789.
WHAT, may we then conclude, is the value of Ferrero’s analysis? Because (unlike the writers on the Left and the Right whom he criticized) he found no one to blame, he could not point to any course of action which would have averted the abuse of power which he deplored. Believing that the original objectives of the revolutionaries were essentially good and desirable, he concentrated on the psychological conditions that led to their complete perversion between 1789 and 1796. Hence the impression of the disastrous nature of the Revolution which he conveys.
If we may believe him, however, this is not the impression he wished to convey. In his first, introductory chapter he writes that the Revolution “was neither ‘an act of folly’ as the historians of the right say, nor ‘the liberation of humanity’ as the historians of the left say.” It was neither “a monster,” nor “a wonder,” but “in all its complications an event in the progress of man which is perfectly understandable and highly instructive. It shows us how easy it is to destroy and how difficult it is to rebuild.”
Ferrero established this point with skill and insight. His professed belief in the virtue of the Revolution, however, combined with his concentration on its evils, reveals an ambivalent attitude comparable to that of Turgenev toward Bazarov. Most readers of Fathers and Children concluded that Turgenev had meant to portray Bazarov as a monster. Turgenev, however, violently repudiated this idea. “I loved Bazarov,” he wrote to Prince Kropotkin. But did he? Did Ferrero really believe that the Revolution was on balance good? It seems likely that he was so divided between his hatred of violence and arbitrary power on the one hand, and his belief in the ideals of the Enlightenment on the other, that he could not make up his mind.
Professor Crane Brinton observes in his Foreword that “Ferrero still has something to say to this generation, as he had to his own,” and paraphrases his message in the following words: “A totalitarian democracy, a democracy ruled by force and torn by violence, a democracy without its own legitimacy—all these are not so much contradictions in terms as intolerable strains on human emotions. They are not signs of a long life to come for any such society.” This is beyond dispute. It is nevertheless also beyond dispute that revolutions may be the inescapable result of past misgovernment and events, as Ferrero said, in the “progress of man.” Like war, they are a means of settling by force conflicts which cannot be settled by discussion. To suppose that the resort to force “settles nothing,” and “benefits no one,” is historically as unjustifiable in the one case as in the other.
Moved by Ferrero January 2, 1969