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Revolution à la Mode

La Révolution Française: Mythes et Interprétations 1789-1970

by Alice Gérard
Flammarion, 140 pp., $1.50

The World of the French Revolution

by R. R. Palmer
Harper & Row, 282 pp., $8.50

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 He was superseded by the radical Aulard and by the socialist Jaurès, whose concern with economic conditions and with the role played by the people in the great Revolution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 significant: those of 1789-1791 or those of 1793-1794? Is the work of the Revolution over, or does it require a proletarian revolution to complete it? As Alice Gérard shows, all these questions were being debated over 100 years ago and the debates still go on.

For some time it has been possible to divide the protagonists into broadly two groups. On the one hand are those who see the Revolution primarily in moral and political terms and assess its achievements in much the same way as the British used to assess the achievements of 1688. Until recently the British in general believed that the principles in accordance with which government and society had been organized in their country in the seventeenth century would remain immutable. They supposed that the only changes that need occur would be in the application of the principles, and that by a process of continual compromise and adjustment the opportunities which had originally been the prerogative of the few would in the course of time be extended to everyone. There have been many French people, starting with the Thermidoreans, who have similarly concluded that, though revolution was necessary and respectable in 1789, it has not been so on any subsequent occasion.

On the other hand there are those who derive their inspiration from Marx and from the pre-Marxist French writers who provided Marx with many of his ideas, and who have dominated the field for the last half-century. They see the Revolution primarily as a matter of economics, and of struggles between classes defined by their relation to the means of production. To these people the Revolution was a revolt of the bourgeoisie against feudalism and is destined to be superseded by a revolt of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.

On the eve of the First World War the disputes between Aulard and Mathiez, typifying respectively these two points of view, reached such a pitch of violence that one Frenchman, quoted by Alice Gérard, predicted that should this state of affairs continue it would totally discredit French historians in the eyes of the world. The danger did not then materialize, for the disputes passed unnoticed in other countries where at this time the Revolution seemed a purely French phenomenon. It could, however, no longer seem so after 1917.

The Bolsheviks planned their revolution on the basis of a careful study of the French. One French historian whom Alice Gérard quotes observed that they knew more about the French Revolution than the French knew themselves. The French left was suitably impressed. The Robespierre Society sent a warm greeting to “the founders of Russian liberty.” Mathiez wrote that though the gap in time between the two revolutions accounted for the difference in their theories and programs, nevertheless they had the same origins, employed the same methods, and were directed to the same object: the transformation of world society. In these circumstances the French Revolution, though deprived of its monopoly, acquired an international significance which it had not enjoyed since the beginning of the nineteenth century and its historians became objects of international interest.

Until these developments it had been common to assume that each nation was best equipped to write its own history and that foreigners seeking to understand, say, the history of France should turn to the French for guidance. They did so for a long time in a docile spirit. In the end, however, they became suspicious.

This happened for reasons that could not be deduced from Alice Gérard’s work. She starts by saying that she assumes her readers know the facts about the Revolution. She also apparently assumes that her authors get their facts right. Neither assumption is, however, warranted. Admittedly there is a body of indisputable facts which all writers on the Revolution must take into account. It is, however, quite insufficient to fill a book. For the rest, the facts, or the supposed facts, that an author cites are those which he selects to serve his purpose; and if, as often happens in histories of the Revolution, he contradicts himself, or makes statements plainly contrary to common sense, even the uninitiated begin to suspect that he has got his facts wrong.

In the historical works on the French Revolution that academic historians in Europe write for the general public, accuracy and coherence are now at a discount, for while the range of knowledge and the complexity of the concepts continually increase, so also do the pressures to make money and a reputation by writing as many books as quickly as possible. Imprecise arguments and mistakes of fact, always more difficult to avoid than the layman supposes, become more common and egregious in these circumstances, and are particularly obvious in the versions of the class struggle that have been put about in France.

Even Tocqueville, whom it is now fashionable to praise as one of the first to see that such a struggle existed, was far from innocent in this respect. Alice Gérard describes his Ancien Régime et la Révolution as a model of analysis and synthesis. Notwithstanding its elegant style and its many brilliant ideas, it can hardly appear so to anyone who examines it critically. Tocqueville, for example, maintained that the nobility was becoming more and more of a caste, while asserting at the same time that titles had never been so easy to get. He said that the nobles had privileges but no power (which was obviously untrue, for they held all the important posts) and insisted particularly on their tax privileges (which he greatly exaggerated). He nevertheless maintained that the bourgeois, who being unprivileged presumably paid taxes, were continually getting richer and dispossessing the nobles of their wealth.

These remarks suggested that, at least in the upper reaches of society, the taxes fell on the rich and not on the poor, and yet did not prevent the wealth of the rich from increasing. It becomes difficult to see why, in such circumstances, the government should have gone bankrupt. No coherent explanation, in fact, of the relations between nobles and bourgeois, or of their respective responsibility for the Revolution, can be deduced from his account, and the Marxist historians who built on his foundations have only increased the confusion he created.

Admittedly, though Alice Gérard does not mention the point, this confusion is now becoming apparent even among the French themselves. Professor Mousnier, for example, has long been aware of it. In 1969 Professor Goubert, in his L’Ancien Régime, exposed the absurdity of trying to explain the Revolution in terms of “the triumph of an unidentifiable capitalist bourgeoisie over an unidentifiable feudal aristocracy.” If François Furet and Denis Richet are any guide, there is even a reaction in favor of the view that the Terror was an aberration, and that the essential revolution was one on behalf of the liberal ideas that were proclaimed in 1789 and reaffirmed after Thermidor.

For all this, however, there are parts of the Marxist thesis which it has proved impossible to jettison. Virtually all historians today admit that in some sense or other (and even if they cannot say precisely in what sense) the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. Virtually all see it as a major event in the transition to the new kind of society which came to prevail in most of Europe in the nineteenth century and which, equally, can only be described as bourgeois. Whether one calls the pre-revolutionary society “feudal,” or uses some other adjective, becomes in such circumstances merely a matter of terminology.

To this extent, at least, the Marxist categories are now accepted. The Marxist interpretation of the Revolution, as developed in France, remains nevertheless indefensible, though hitherto it has proved impossible to provide a substitute for it. It is this uncomfortable state of affairs, combined with the awareness that the French problems are also everyone’s, which has given the foreigners an itch to poke their fingers into the French pie.

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