Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914
There are two kinds of history. There is the history which is exclusively about the past, which describes what is dead, and aims to re-create people, issues, and crises in their own terms. There is also the history which is as much about the present as about the past, because it takes the controversies of today and tries to understand them with the help of past experience. The former kind has, until very recently, been more approved of, at least in academic circles. To be completely impartial seemed to be the necessary ideal for historians seeking professional respectability. But impartiality can easily verge into a narrow specialization, triviality, and detail for its own sake. It is good when historians are not too frightened to stick their necks out, to give answers to questions that their contemporaries really care about, and to do more than simply entertain them with anecdotes.
Eugen Weber’s excellent new book is one that has got something to say about some of the most important debates of our time, while also being a work of impeccable scholarship. His book is about France and about the years 1870-1914, but its implications are much broader. It is also a contribution to the better understanding of the notions of underdevelopment, of economic and cultural planning, and of national integration.
Until recently, the French approached the problems of underdevelopment with considerable uncertainty. There were many politicians and writers among them who long remained attracted by small-scale artisan production, who were unwilling to promote urban over rural values, who feared industrialization and who were scornful of following the example of England and America. The loss of prestige and power that this kind of hesitation brought, and particularly the collapse of 1940, cured them of these ideals. Today Frenchmen are committed to prosperity at (almost) any price. In theory, they sometimes have doubts, in that most dream of living in a small detached house surrounded by a garden, but in real life more and more of them inhabit apartments in high-rise suburban blocks. It is because of this wavering and this preoccupation with the indefinable “good life” that French history is so interesting about the human problems of economic development.
On the whole, for the past two centuries, progress for the French has meant eliminating the peasants. The word peasant has nearly everywhere been a term of opprobrium. In England, where the movement for the extinction of this species started and has been most successful, “peasant,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, can be used only of foreign countries. In the US, likewise, no one will admit to being a peasant. Most of the rest of the world, however, is full of them. In France, there are still some people who are proud to be peasants, and their history is instructive for the significance of the international crusade for abolishing peasants.
What French intellectuals and planners have reproached the peasant for was that his horizons were limited, his loyalties confined to his village …