La Révolution Française: Mythes et Interprétations 1789-1970
The World of the French Revolution
Alice Gérard has written an interesting little book on the historiography of the French Revolution. The continuous controversies, she points out, to which the interpretations of the Revolution have given rise themselves have a history which deserves to be studied. Her own study of them, which has had to be adapted to the needs of a series, is very short, but it nevertheless displays a wide knowledge and sets out a body of evidence which students of history cannot fail to find disturbing. For she not only shows, what we already knew, that every generation wants to rewrite its history; she reveals the intimate connection which has always existed in France between historians’ attitudes toward the Revolution and the political moods of the moment.
The first famous historians of the Revolution, Mignet and Thiers, were inspired by dislike of the government of Charles X and appealed against it to the liberal principles of 1789. They were followed by Michelet, Louis Blanc, and Lamartine, who disliked the government of Louis Philippe and appealed against this to the social and democratic principles of 1793. The failures of the revolutionary movements in 1848 and 1871 temporarily discredited socialism, democracy, and the belief in revolution as a means of change. They provided Taine with his inspiration. Taine’s success was, however, transient. He was superseded by the radical Aulard and by the socialist Jaurès, whose concern with economic conditions and with the role played by the people in the great Revolution inspired the generation of Mathiez and Lefebvre.
Mathiez and Lefebvre were further influenced by the Russian Revolution and by the experiences of the 1914-18 war, from which Mathiez deduced a lesson—that wars cannot be waged in a free economy—which he applied in his study of the Terror. These two writers educated generations to believe that the great achievements of the Revolution were those of the Terror, to which the preceding events were merely a prelude and the ones that followed an anticlimax. Their conclusions were later modified by historians even further to the left, who pointed out that Robespierre and his colleagues were not altogether such angels of light as Mathiez had supposed, but that, on the contrary, they were inspired by petit-bourgeois ideas and that during the Terror began the suppression of the popular movements which the Thermidoreans afterward completed.
All the changes in interpretation which Alice Gérard chronicles have involved more than a mere reshuffling of accepted facts. The range of facts that have been taken into account has continually been extended. Moreover the methods of investigation which scholars employ have become increasingly professional and sophisticated, at least within the more or less narrow fields in which nowadays they serve the apprenticeship that qualifies them to write textbooks and works for the general public.
The passions and problems nevertheless persist and support Tocqueville’s judgment that the Revolution is a drama which is not yet concluded. Was the Revolution one revolution or several revolutions? Which achievements are the more …
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Defending Tocqueville November 4, 1971