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.

It was so in France. The French-speaking advocates of counterrevolution were naturally but also significantly all émigrés; that is, they had experienced the Revolution at firsthand. Even those among them who had supported it at the start turned heretics or renegades and fled from it in the end. Though they shared many of their ideas with the counterrevolutionaries of other nations, they had better cause to doubt the natural goodness of man and the possibility of reforming him by sudden, wholesale change.

To the French counterrevolutionaries whom Professor Godechot considers, belief in this possibility seemed proof of the arrogance which, they supposed, had characterized eighteenth-century thinking, and of the shallowness of its assumption that men were capable of understanding the workings of society and, in consequence, of manipulating them. The Revolution seemed to them a retribution for this attitude of mind with its contempt for revealed religion, its unwillingness to recognize the limits of human understanding, and its materialism which had corrupted the aristocratic and military virtues by the love of money and luxury.

As is now generally admitted, the counterrevolutionaries painted a distorted picture of the thinking of the great writers of the Enlightenment. What they said was at best only true of the vulgarized version of the enlightened ideas professed by revolutionaries such as Sieyès. Nevertheless, however inadequate their explanation of the revolutionary disasters, they made many cogent points about the nature of the disasters themselves.

As early as 1796, for example, de Maistre had discovered the classic answer to those who believe in regeneration through destruction. The learned men, he wrote, who advocated revolution admitted that it would be impossible without suffering. Why, they asked, should we bother about 100,000 deaths if they lead to freedom?

These same philosophes, however, de Maistre continued, perished in the Revolution and had only themselves to thank for it; for the Revolution unleashed the forces of evil. It devoured its own children and established not freedom but despotism. The brutalities and corruption which de Maistre stressed, with their widespread and persistent effects, and the cynicism and belief in the natural wickedness of man that they bred in him and many others, were as demonstrably the consequences of the Revolution as the benefits it conferred by abolishing legal privilege and an outmoded machinery of government.

In revulsion against the rationalism of the eighteenth century, the French counterrevolutionaries and the Germans, particularly after 1815, placed faith above reason as a guide to living. They repudiated the Enlightenment’s preoccupation with the discovery of general laws that should explain the development of society, and stressed the importance of the particular and the unique. They saw in individual histories of the separate nations a better guide to action than a priori propositions about the nature and needs of men in general. These assumptions formed the basis of the German historical school with its emphasis on the study of documents and its rejection of what Professor Chill describes as the “philosophical or conjectural history” in vogue in the eighteenth century.

Since, however, historical facts do not speak for themselves, and history cannot be written without a priori assumptions of some kind, whether or not the writer is aware of them, when it came to explaining the causes of the Revolution the counterrevolutionaries were at a great disadvantage. Their preoccupation with the past and their belief that revolution was evil deprived them of a sense of the direction in which things were moving. They could only attribute the Revolution either to the mistakes of the people in power or to the general wickedness of society (the “abuses” of the ancien régime on which they continually harped) which called down divine vengeance.

None of this could compare in cogency with the explanation, whatever its faults, that the revolutionary Barnave evolved in the light of his education in eighteenth-century principles. Barnave was a member of the States General in 1789 and became president of the National Assembly and one of its most eloquent orators. He was noted as a man of action long before he became so as a thinker. His Introduction à la révolution française was until recently only available in the very rare edition which Bérenger de la Drôme published in 1843. In 1960, however, Fernand Rude brought out an improved text which was printed in the Cahiers des Annales. This has now become available as a paperback at the same time as Professor Chill has provided us with a (not altogether skillful) English translation, prefaced by a seventy-four-page Introduction.

In the kind of government and society he wished to see established Barnave did not differ significantly from the more moderate counterrevolutionaries, including some of the émigrés, notably Mallet du Pan. Indeed it was not the nature of his political opinions but the kind of conviction that inspired them that kept him from becoming an émigré himself. For he wanted a constitutional monarchy, in which power should be divided between the king and the “people” (by which he meant the property-owning bourgeoisie) but which would nevertheless leave room for an aristocracy shorn of its legal privileges. In the hope of converting Marie Antoinette to these views he entered into a secret correspondence with her after the flight to Varennes, and his connection with the court formed the basis of the indictment against him at his trial.

By January, 1792, when he left Paris and political life and returned to his native Dauphiné, the tide was running strongly to the left and many of his friends had already emigrated. He himself was imprisoned seven months later and executed in November, 1793, at the age of thirty-two. Though Professor Chill does not give us any information on this point it would appear that he must have foreseen the fate that was in store for him and preferred it to renouncing his belief in the Revolution.

This belief was based on the conviction that by the beginning of the last quarter of the eighteenth century some kind of a revolution in France was necessary and inevitable because of social and economic changes which had been in progress for a long time but to which institutions and the attitudes of the ruling classes had increasingly failed to adapt themselves. Historians, Barnave said, commonly commit the mistake of attributing almost everything to accidents, whereas “though it is true that these are all powerful at any given moment or, if you like, in fixing the time when revolutions break out, they change practically nothing in the long run or in the important results.”

Barnave saw the history of mankind as divided into three periods of which the third—the period of settled agriculture when private property was finally established—was the one that principally concerned him. In this period he distinguished between three forms of government which he nevertheless did not suppose necessarily need exist, or in the past had always existed, as pure types. The first of these forms of government was aristocracy in which power was based on land; the second was monarchy in which power was based on “la force publique,” that is, on a standing army which presupposed the growth of towns and trade or, in other words, the beginnings of a money economy without which it would have been impossible to raise the taxes which paying for the army demanded. The third was “democracy,” that is, the rule of a property-owning bourgeoisie, in which power was based on “la richesse mobilaire,” or movable wealth.

Barnave described movable wealth as a form of property derived from the labor of what he called the active, working section of the population. He saw its development as having been principally responsible for the changes that had occurred in Europe in the four or five centuries before his day; for it had enabled the “industrious poor” (by which he did not mean either peasants or unskilled workers, that is the really poor, but the more successful bourgeois) to acquire first comfort, then education, and finally that fierté, or sense of their own dignity, which education brings. To Barnave, who at this point appears to have borrowed his argument from Adam Smith, the most significant development in European history was the erosion of the power of the landed aristocrats, whom the bourgeois had persuaded to dispossess themselves of their land, and thus of the power over men which it gave them, in return for the products of commerce and industry which ministered to their pleasures and vanity.

Barnave held the age of feudalism to have been the most miserable in human history. Unlike many of his contemporaries he had no illusions about what life was like in primitive agricultural communities. He contrasted the period of aristocratic or feudal oppression with the enlightened liberty which he believed was characteristic of trading communities. He maintained, however, that the natural transition from the first of these societies to the second was impeded by the persistence of institutions and attitudes of mind which the aristocrats, who had evolved them during their period of supremacy, were unwilling to abandon.

As he put it in one passage: the elements or substance of the body politic of a nation consist in its population, its wealth, its customs, and its intelligence. Law and government are, so to speak, only the enveloping skin. If the skin is capable of expanding, the body politic can develop without any violent commotions, but otherwise it will burst the skin apart. In his penultimate chapter, and in an argument that in its broad outlines could hardly be bettered even today, he described the fortuitous combination of circumstances that had led to this result in 1789.

In the present century Barnave’s thesis was adopted by all the academic historians in France who wrote on the French Revolution between the days of Mathiez and Georges Lefebvre, and by many even later, though how far these authors derived their opinions directly from him is, so far as can be judged at present, impossible to assess, since his work is of a kind that prevents modern scholars from citing his conclusions as evidence. It can hardly be doubted, however, that his influence has been very great and it is therefore unfortunate that Professor Chill hardly discusses it.

Professor Chill is a historian of political thought understood in the orthodox sense as the thought of the famous writers. He has many interesting things to tell us about the pedigree of Barnave’s ideas. He says nothing, however, about Barnave’s place in the historiography of the Revolution, apart from noting that Jaurés read him though Marx, surprisingly, did not; and he makes no attempt to assess how far Barnave’s explanation of the Revolution is plausible. “This,” he says, “is not the place to explore…the objective validity of Barnave’s historical generalizations.” Why not? Of all the questions that the Introduction à la révolution française raises this is surely the one that the university student (for whom Professor Chill’s translation is presumably devised) will want to ask first.

Barnave is obviously open to the charge that having formed an idea of how and why things happened he took the supporting evidence for granted. The kind of conjectural history which served him as a means for expressing his ideas, and which was fashionable in his day, is now no longer accepted; for as the body of knowledge increases and the means of investigation are improved, much that was once necessarily a matter of conjecture can now be proved or disproved. The worth of Barnave’s enterprise, in consequence, like the worth of a novel, turns on the penetration of his vision.

In view of the date when he wrote, his vision may be said to have penetrated a remarkable distance. Though he was guilty of many misapprehensions, some of which his modern disciples have magnified, they were less important than the things he saw correctly. In the significance he attached to long-term causes, while allowing a place for accidents, and, particularly, in the type of causes he saw as significant, this representative of the eighteenth century set up a model which still seems valid today, even though it is easily capable of being misapplied.

To judge from many of the things he says, it seems unlikely that Professor Fox ever read the Introduction à la révolution française. There are nevertheless some striking resemblances between his point of view and Barnave’s: both believe that the whole of history, from the beginning to the end, can be explained by a single idea; both find their clues in the facts, or supposed facts, of economic history and geography; on occasions, both even express themselves in almost the same words.

Professor Fox’s idea is a refinement of Barnave’s. It is that historians, in concentrating on the importance of the growth of towns and trade, have failed to distinguish between the market towns, which served as a center for the interchange of local commodities and which were concerned with “trade,” and the towns, particularly the ports, which exchanged commodities over long distances and were concerned with “commerce.” By means of an argument similar to Barnave’s, Professor Fox maintains that the growth of market towns made possible the rise of absolutism. He adds that the absolute monarchs powerfully fostered these market centers and incorporated them into their bureaucratic system, thus making of them “the points of contact between local economic units and a country-wide military-governmental structure.”

The commercial towns, on the other hand, he maintains, whose contacts were with foreign countries, and particularly with countries overseas, developed traditions alien to those of their agricultural hinterland. They evolved ways of conducting business unknown outside their boundaries. Their form of government was not despotic but oligarchic. They proceeded by discussion and compromise and never subscribed to the principle of unquestioning obedience which the military monarchies instilled.

There is obviously much truth in this thesis, though a good deal to the same effect has been said before. What makes the comparison with Barnave merely superficial, however, is that whatever purposes Professor Fox’s idea may be capable of serving, it rarely succeeds in fulfilling the tasks he demands of it. He supposes that within the space of 183 pages he can use it to explain the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of feudalism, the growth of absolute monarchy, the outbreak and course of the French Revolution, the results of the Napoleonic regime in France, the reasons for the Restoration and indeed for all the other major events in French history up to the present.

The consequences of such an attempt are predictable. Even when Professor Fox does not become confused in his argument he gets caught out by the facts. To take only one example out of many possible ones: he maintains that the liberal program which was put forward in the early days of the Revolution was doomed to failure because its advocates, the Girondins, were deputies of the ports and, as such, necessarily an unrepresentative minority. In fact, however (apart from the other objections to this argument), the first and most dedicated liberals were not the Girondins, or the deputies of any other port area, but, like Barnave, came from the Dauphiné.

Professor Fox, one suspects, is less happy in the twentieth century than he would have been in the eighteenth, which would have looked on his ambitious projects with a more favorable eye and—because the span of history to be covered was much shorter and the scientific collection of facts had hardly started—would have placed fewer obstacles in his path. His work, however, is testimony to the enduring nature of the problems that were raised in Barnave’s day by the experience of revolution and change and that, now as then, are incapable of definitive answers.