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Counter Revolutionaries

Power, Property and History

by Joseph Barnave, translated and edited by Emanuel Chill
Harper & Row, 156 pp., $2.45 (paper)

History in Geographic Perspective: The Other France

by E.W. Fox
Norton, 190 pp., $6.95

All three books under review are about revolution and change, though the first is concerned with only fifteen years at the turn of the eighteenth century, while the last two deal with the subject in a general way.

The theme of Professor Godechot’s book, which was first published in French in 1961 and now appears in an (unfortunately very careless) English translation, is the counterrevolution in thought and action between the meeting of the States General in 1789 and the end of the Consulate in 1804. Professor Godechot points out that this is a subject to which French academic historians, most of whom are on the left, have rarely felt attracted. Its appeal has been principally to amateurs with right-wing sympathies who have lacked the historical techniques for dealing with it. Professor Godechot himself gives no reasons for choosing it except the desire to fill a gap. The years that he covers were, he says, dictated to him by the needs of candidates for the Agrégation for whose benefit his book was originally written in the form of lectures.

Apart from the light they throw on the nature of the societies in which they occurred, revolts that failed are only interesting if their cause triumphed later, or if they stood for principles, however impracticable, that command our allegiance. The revolts that Professor Godechot describes do not come into either category. As he says, they were the unplanned and uncoordinated protests of people most of whom were driven desperate by material hardship or by the massacres of the Terror, which inevitably bred a desire for revenge. Those who participated in them were mainly peasants. Even among the 150,000 émigrés, peasants accounted for 20 percent and composed, after the priests, the second largest category. For, contrary to what is often popularly supposed, it is by no means necessarily the beneficiaries of the previous regime who suffer most in a revolution.

As an illustration of what happens when law and order break down in primitive communities, for the greater part violent and brutal at the best of times, these counterrevolutionary protests are an interesting source of study. In eighteenth-century France the counterrevolutionaries provided as cogent a proof as the revolutionaries of Riva-rol’s maxim: “Malheur à ceux qui remuent le fond d’une nation.” It is nevertheless hardly surprising that historians who have been concerned with the main course of European or even of French history should not have interested themselves in detail in the series of melancholy failures, incurred on behalf of a hopeless and undeserving cause, which is all that the counterrevolution amounted to in the years covered by Professor Godechot’s account.

The revolts that failed between 1789 and 1804, however, are not Professor Godechot’s only interest. The first section of his book is devoted to the thinkers of the counterrevolution and their precursors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Fénélon, Boulain-villiers, Montesquieu, and others. But this incursion into intellectual history, as he himself admits, has very little connection with the political narratives that fill the second and larger part of his book; for the movements of protest that occurred in his period were not, as he makes plain, inspired by any ideology. Their object was merely to crush the Revolution without regard to what should be done afterward.

The intellectuals of the counterrevolution, moreover, took no interest in them. The most distinguished of the French counterrevolutionary writers, Joseph de Maistre, whose Considérations sur la France was written in 1796, maintained that no attempt should be made to overturn the revolutionary regime, on the grounds, among others, that it should be left to destroy itself. Summing up the events of Thermidor in the sentence “quelques scélérats firent périr quelques scélérats,” he assumed that this process should be allowed to work itself out.

If, in fact, Professor Godechot were to fulfill his apparent purpose of considering thought and action in conjunction, he would have to choose different dates. Just as there was a time lag between the Revolution, which was opposed by no rival ideology at the time it broke out, and the formulation of the doctrines in whose name it was condemned, so these doctrines themselves took time to translate into action. On the continent of Europe counterrevolutionary thought and action may first be said to have begun to move in harmony in 1807, when the Prussian reformers started to build the foundations of the German resistance to Napoleon. As Professor Godechot himself concedes: the counterrevolution is commonly and reasonably held to have achieved its period of triumph between 1815 and 1830 in France, and between 1815 and 1848 in central Europe, although parts of the ideology on which it was based were elaborated, and came to influence action, in the second half of the nineteenth and in the twentieth centuries. For since 1789, revolution and counterrevolution have been alternating themes in the history not only of Europe but of other continents.

Professor Godechot maintains that between 1789 and 1804 the ideology of counterrevolution should not be thought of as reactionary since none of its apologists desired a complete return to the past. After upheavals as great, however, as those that had occurred in France, and in many parts of Europe even as early as 1804, a complete return to the past was not conceivable to any reflecting person. From this, nevertheless, it does not follow that no such thing as a reactionary ideology is possible, or that none of the counterrevolutionaries at the turn of the eighteenth century professed one.

Professor Godechot provides us with a long list of counterrevolutionary thinkers most of whom were Frenchmen. Since, however, it is part of his thesis that the counterrevolution, like the Revolution itself, was not merely a French but also a European phenomenon, he includes among his representative intellectuals one Englishman—Burke—and a number of somewhat arbitrarily selected Germans, including Brandes and Rehberg, with whom the future leader of the Prussian reform movement—Freiherr vom Stein—spent much time in discussion when he was a student at Göttingen.

All these counterrevolutionaries, by the mere fact of being so, drew their inspiration to a greater or less extent from the past, and often, particularly in Germany, from some idealized vision of a remote past assumed to have existed before the rise of absolutism. Further, all the counterrevolutionaries, however much they might otherwise differ, wished to some extent to restore (or to preserve in the places where they had survived) institutions that the Revolution had abolished. All, for example, were in favor of hereditary monarchy, and of aristocracy in some shape or form, and all wished to reanimate religious faith and re-establish the power of the churches.

All of them, too, and again by the mere fact of being counterrevolutionaries, denied to a greater or less extent the principles to which the revolutionaries had appealed, and the ideas of the Enlightenment from which they assumed that these principles had been derived. Many, particularly in Germany after 1815, repudiated completely all the various visions of a regenerated society which had inspired the second half of the eighteenth century, and, like Friedrich von der Marwitz, famous for his opposition to the reforms of Stein and Hardenberg, saw in the aspirations of the revolutionaries only the claims “of the propertyless against property, of industry against agriculture, of change against stability, of crass materialism against the divinely ordained order of things…of the individual against the family…of learning and so-called talent against virtue and an honourable character.”

To deny, in fact, that the counterrevolution contained strongly reactionary elements is to go against all the evidence and the common usage of words. Professor Godechot is nevertheless justified in saying that the counterrevolutionary thinkers were revolutionaries after their fashion (in most parts of Europe they could hardly have been otherwise, given the ignominious collapse of so many anciens régimes) and in insisting on the wide divergencies of opinion between them, or, in other words, on the fact that some were a great deal more reactionary than others.

It is unfortunate, however, that Professor Godechot’s preoccupation with the counterrevolution as a European movement should have led him to emphasize only the differences between individuals and not the differences between nations. Belief in the counterrevolution often led to cynical and pessimistic conclusions about human nature and society, but it could sometimes lead to fruitful visions of the future. These differences can be explained partly as the result of individual temperament and circumstances, but partly they must be attributed to different national experiences.

In Germany, and particularly in Prussia, the French Revolution came to inspire a profound sense of horror. Between 1806 and 1815, however, this did not preclude the belief that some of the tasks that it had accomplished were necessary and beneficial. The desire to learn from the Revolution in order to defeat it and its impersonator Napoleon led to a remarkable program of reform; and notwithstanding the notorious departures from it and their sinister consequences, the reformers had great achievements to their credit. In many spheres, and particularly in the military, as Professor Paret has shown in his admirable monograph Yorck and the Era of Prussian Reform, they accomplished a task of modernization greater than that achieved in France.

Their enterprise was inspired by an idealism as strong as any shown by the revolutionaries, and was typified in Stein, whose enormous memoranda, and those of his supporters, with their continual references to first principles, provide much better evidence of this type of counterrevolutionary thinking than the works of Brandes and Rehberg. Stein’s head was filled with romantic notions which he derived from an idealized picture of the Middle Ages. As one of his early collaborators, Theodor von Schön, noted for denigrating him, once observed (in a little essay which he wrote during the period of repression and disillusionment that followed the wars of liberation): Stein dreamed of a rejuvenated nobility “in God knows what kind of a modern form,” and failed to see that aristocracies always, and by their very nature, stood for exclusiveness and a caste spirit.

Schön nevertheless declared that Stein at the time of his greatness had shown more energy, and more insight into the needs of his time, than any other contemporary statesman, and that by virtue of these qualities and of his lofty political ideals, his total lack of self-seeking, his respect for law and justice, and his unshakable courage in the face of danger, he was of a stature that was unequaled in the generations that succeeded him.

There was no one in the counterrevolutionary movement in France of whom his friends, let alone his critics, could have spoken in these terms. For the French had had a revolution while the Germans had not, and the French Revolution was a disillusioning experience to most of those who lived through it. Revolutions are in this respect like wars: those who find them inspiring generally do so only from a safe distance. With rare exceptions, an intimate acquaintance with them produces nothing but horror and revulsion.

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