The French Revolution
A Second Identity
The Police and the People: French Popular Protest 1789-1820
The French Revolution was an event without parallel before 1917 and one of the most momentous events in European history. It destroyed a whole way of life and government in France and threatened the comparable regimes in other countries. The wars for which it was responsible changed the balance of power in Europe. The material and ideological upheavals which accompanied it can be compared only to those produced by the Russian Revolution, whose founding fathers, indeed, continually looked to it for guidance. It marked the beginning of an age—the age of the first industrial revolution and the liberal state—of which the generations now living are experiencing the collapse.
These facts alone must make it a subject of perennial interest. The growing volume of monograph studies devoted to it, and the new questions which it continually raises as its events assume a different significance in the light of current experience, must make its reappraisal a necessity. On the other hand, the main phases through which it passed, and the main events in the Revolutionary calendar, have long been known. There can be no point in recapitulating them again except as the basis for a new interpretation. Messrs. Furet and Richet claim to provide this, but with doubtful justification.
Since a Marxist interpretation of history was first adopted by French historians in the 1920s the high water mark of the Revolution’s achievements has been held to have been reached during the Terror. The attempts made between 1789 and 1791 to introduce a liberal regime are seen as the prelude to it, and the reversion to liberalism after its collapse as an anticlimax or “reaction.” The Terror, generations have been taught to believe, was the heroic period of the revolution—the period when revolt was put down at home, when the foreign invaders were driven back, when inflation and starvation were kept in check by the introduction of economic controls, and when “the people,” in the persons of the sans-culottes, played a dominant part, determining for a short time the policy of the Convention, and providing the force by which that policy was implemented.
The sans-culottes were not communists, or even in any modern sense of the term socialists. Being wholly uneducated they cannot be said to have subscribed to any political philosophy. Their motto, however, was l’égalité des jouissances. They stood for the rights of the poor against the rich, which they believed could only be enforced by confiscation of wealth and control of prices, backed by the guillotine. According to Marxist theory their defeat was inevitable since their aspirations were incompatible with the emergent bourgeois society. Marxism nevertheless taught that bourgeois society itself must ultimately collapse under attack from the proletariat, and the French Marxists have seen the sans-culottes as the heralds of this event. The sans-culottes have become the heroes of the Revolution, not only because they saved it from the forces of reaction, but because in their desire for vengeance against all who were superior …