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Revolution sans Revolutionaries

Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution

by Lynn Hunt
University of California Press, 251 pp., $19.95

A half century has passed since the French banished events from history. During that period, which dates from the founding of the journal Annales in 1929, a succession of eminent French scholars taught the history profession to turn its back on politics and to contemplate the long-term ebb and flow of currents running deep beneath the frothy stuff of battles and elections.

In 1973, however, one of the most influential historians associated with the Annales school, Georges Duby, published a book about a battle—and this heretical work, Le Dimanche de Bouvines, 27 juillet 1214, appeared in a series whose title reads like a declaration of war against the Annales: “Thirty Days That Made France.” No sooner had the profession begun to recover from that scandal when the school published a declaration of its own, “Le Retour de l’événement” (“The Return of the Event”), an essay by Pierre Nora in an encyclopedia of Annales history entitled Faire de l’histoire (1974). Nora announced that it was permissible to study events after all, provided one could see through to the structural elements beneath them. Finally in 1978 a leading Annaliste, François Furet, produced a book, Penser la Révolution française, which called for a new look at the biggest event of all, the French Revolution. The Revolution was not merely événementielle, Furet claimed, but also political. Fifty years of depoliticized history had come to an end. Events were in again.

Nonetheless, French history had not come full cycle to the point where Charles Seignobos and other événementialistes had left it at the beginning of the century. Once reinstated, political events had to be reinterpreted. They no longer appeared as so many hard nuggets of reality, which the historian needed only to sift from the archives and arrange in chronological order. They could not be distinguished from perceptions, values, and surrounding phenomena of all kinds, especially the cultural. Furet proposed studying the French Revolution as a form of political culture, which shaped events throughout the nineteenth century. His colleagues Mona Ozouf and Maurice Agulhon worked variations on that theme. And now an American historian, Lynn Hunt from the University of California, Berkeley, has attempted to bring their work together, with some research of her own, in a new interpretation of revolutionary politics, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution.

Hunt begins by remarking that in the course of the recent polemics between Marxists and revisionists the political history of the Revolution has dropped out of sight. Debates about the long-term causes and consequences of the Revolution left little room for the study of politics between 1789 and 1799. Of course the old masters—Michelet, Aulard, Mathiez, and Lefebvre—wrote political narratives. But they did not consider the aspects of politics that Hunt finds most important, sociology and “poetics.”

The sociology occupies the second and more substantial half of Hunt’s book. In an earlier work, Revolution and Urban Politics in Provincial France: Troyes and Reims, 1786–1790 (1978), she demonstrated the importance of studying municipal elections and political elites. In this one she sketches an overall “political geography” of elections during the Revolution and analyzes the composition of the “political class” that won them. She tries to follow the demarcation between the “right” and the “left” from the national assemblies in Paris through the departmental administrations and into the municipal councils of scattered cities and villages.

This procedure seems straightforward. It has become commonplace in modern electoral sociology. But to map elections that occurred two centuries ago, identifying the candidates and sorting them into social and ideological categories, requires a prodigious feat of research. Hunt makes it look easy. After studying her election map, her statistical tables, her “correlation matrix of selected political, economic, and demographic variables,” one cannot help but conjure up a picture of the historian as master technician in the great laboratory of social science, going about in a white coat, checking computer programs and correlation coefficients.

To be sure, the French Revolution is messy enough to give any computer indigestion, and it moves so fast that it swims out of focus as soon as you get it under your microscope. How can you distinguish “left” from “right” when the political spectrum shifted dramatically from month to month? Hunt relies on election results, but the four elections she studies took place under different rules and different circumstances. They don’t condense easily into a single map, dotted and striped according to varying shades of political conviction, because the voters often beat one another into silence while the officials cooked the books. Thus the Vendée appears in polka dots as a densely left-wing department on the map, although it was actually a bastion of the counterrevolution.

Hunt does not sweep this kind of difficulty under the rug. While compiling her statistics she criticizes them and does not make her map support weightier conclusions than it can bear. To her it merely suggests a pattern: the “left” entrenched itself in peripheral regions, especially the southwest, while the “right” dominated the central regions, especially the Parisian basin. We should hesitate before associating the Revolution with the leadership of Paris or even with the advance of capitalism, because the outlying regions tended to be relatively backward in their economic development. Hunt seems to have scored another blow against the Marxists.

But the Marxists could invoke the polka-dotted north (peripheral, industrial, and left) and the striped south (peripheral, backward, and right)—or refuse to see any pattern at all. Hunt provides enough statistics to support contradictory arguments. She backs away from dogmatic conclusions, steers clear of Marxist–revisionist polemics, negotiates around the dread Ecological Fallacy (the mistake of deriving causes from correlations of different factors in the same region), and moves from political geography to prosopography—an analysis of the social background of the officials.

Here, too, she picks her way nimbly through a field strewn with difficult data. She has nothing new to say about the characteristics of politicians at the national level and in the Jacobin clubs. So the reader in search of detail will have to turn to monographs like Alison Patrick’s study of the deputies to the Convention and Michael Kennedy’s work on the provincial Jacobins.1 But Hunt shows that the officials in four sample cities contained a surprisingly low proportion of men from the state apparatus of the old regime and a high percentage of new men—not merely lawyers and members of other professions, but merchants and shopkeepers. Seen at the middle and lower ranks of officialdom, the Revolution looks more bourgeois than the revisionists have maintained. So their armor, too, suffers some dents.

The revolutionaries who took charge of the municipal councils were often newcomers to their cities. They included some Protestants and Jews, who had been denied civil status under the old regime. Hunt sees them as “outsiders,” whose marginal positions made them receptive to revolutionary ideology and ready to act as “culture and power brokers.” Hunt reinforces this argument with a variety of “network analysis,” which suggests that the municipal politicians operated within webs of family and occupational relations in the center cities.

Central networks do not seem compatible with social marginality, however; so the argument undercuts itself in places. Still, Hunt has a remarkable talent for seeing patterns in large bodies of data, and she should be congratulated for drawing a sociological profile of the new “political class” that directed the Revolution at the municipal level.

She attempts to do much more. In her preface she explains that she originally meant to limit herself to an account of the Revolution in four provincial cities. But having begun to study politics as sociology, she ended by interpreting it as a kind of culture—the “poetics” discussed in the first half of her book. Apparently she fell under the spell of the new literary theories, anthropology, semiotics, and hermeneutics featured in Representations, the Berkeley journal that she helped to launch in 1983. Of course those methods have been pursued in many other places. It would be unfair to reduce Hunt’s ideas to her surroundings in Berkeley or to disparage them for trendiness. On the contrary, they represent the new political history at its best and provide an opportunity to see where it is headed. What will become of the historian when he sheds his white coat and plunges back into events?

By putting culture before sociology in her book, Hunt reverses the usual mode of exposition. Historians generally discuss social and economic conditions first, because they assume an order of priorities, which can often be detected in a penchant for vertical metaphors. A careful reader will frequently find historians observing that at bottom society rests on an economic order, that social structures are also fundamental, and that culture exists at a high level—among people at the top or as an element of a “superstructure” derived from the basic alignment of classes.

Hunt avoids talking about levels. Instead of assigning causal priority to society, culture, or politics, she treats them as mutually interpenetrating forces, which the historian separates for the convenience of analysis. In her view, politics involves symbolic expression as well as power. It is a way of ordering reality, not merely a struggle to seize control of the state. It spills over the confines of parties and parliaments into the everyday world of speech, dress, and manners.

The politicizing of daily life certainly went to extremes in France after 1789. When Frenchmen said “tu” instead of “vous,” wore trousers instead of knee breeches, measured time in ten-day décades instead of seven-day weeks, they established codes that constrained behavior more dramatically than the general categories of left and right, even though those categories, which derived from the seating partern of the National Assembly, shaped the understanding of politics for the next two centuries.

Hunt has a keen eye for the symbolic forms of power. Her evidence is not merely picturesque but also convincing, and her conclusion seems sound: whether or not the Revolution advanced capitalism as the Marxists maintain, or “modernity” as the modernization theorists would have it, or centralized state power as the Tocquevillians argue, it created a political culture which continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century and is still alive today.

That idea is admittedly not new. It stands out in books written long ago by Crane Brinton and Albert Mathiez, and it has been revived recently in La Révolution culturelle de l’An II (1982) by Serge Bianchi. The notion of political culture has spread widely among Anglo-American historians, thanks to the work of Bernard Bailyn and John Pocock. And French historians have covered most of the ground that Hunt surveys in her three chapters on culture: the first begins from François Furet’s discussion of revolutionary rhetoric; the second develops Mona Ozouf’s interpretation of civic festivals; and the third expands on Maurice Agulhon’s account of republican iconography.

Yet Hunt weaves these themes into an original argument. Unlike her predecessors, she pays little attention to the manifest content of revolutionary politics. She never mentions the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the August decrees for the abolition of feudalism, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the constitutions of 1791 and 1795, or any other major document from the Revolution. Instead she treats revolutionary rhetoric in general as a text, a single text, which somehow incorporated everything the revolutionaries said and transformed it into the direct exercise of power.

That proposition may not seem clear. Hunt’s argument clouds over in places, because it takes as its point of departure a particularly obscure section (pages 70 to 76) in François Furet’s Penser la Révolution française. When sovereignty ceased to be invested in the person of the king, Furet asked, what new form of sovereignty filled that vacant space? Answer: la parole. To put the Revolution into words was to seize power, because the person who spoke successfully in the name of the nation was deemed to give voice to the general will. Politics therefore became a struggle for mastery over words—a notion that may sound strange to the Anglo-Saxon ear but that makes sense on the Left Bank, where intellectuals still quote a slogan from May–June 1968: “On a saisi la parole comme on avait saisi la Bastille.” (“We seized the word as we had seized the Bastille.”)

In Hunt’s reformulation, this concept of language as power is colored by ideas derived from anthropology and literary theory. She argues that legitimacy under the old regime resembled legitimacy in the theater-state of ancient Bali as described by Clifford Geertz. The king occupied a “sacred center” at the heart of a popular cosmology or “cultural frame.” By challenging the king’s authority, the revolutionaries dislocated everything in the surrounding culture. They rushed in with words to fill the vacuum at the center. So words acquired “charisma,” and around them a new set of symbols replaced the shattered old frame. By constituting a new political community, the revolutionaries believed that they had begun history all over again.

They lived in a utopian moment, which Hunt characterizes as the “mythic present.” Taking civic oaths, marching in patriotic festivals, shedding blood in revolutionary journées, they stripped themselves of their ordinary social roles and saw one another face to face, in a state of “transparency” (an idea borrowed from Jean Starobinski). For government to continue, however, they had to elect representatives. Representation raised the danger of dissension, factions, interest groups, compromises, parliamentary maneuvering—all obstacles to transparency and the free expression of the general will. The Revolution therefore fell into “crises of representation,” which the revolutionaries saw as conspiracies. They were doomed to purge opponents and purify elections until Bonaparte captured the revolutionary rhetoric and emptied it of its substance.

The separate parts of Hunt’s argument fit together quite well: community, mythic present, charismatic language, transparency, conspiracy, and crises of representation. But when faced with such a formulation, the reader cannot help but rub his eyes in disbelief. Is this what the Revolution was all about? None of the revolutionaries would have recognized it, but then Hunt does not deal with culture at the conscious level. Rather than attempt to interpret the revolutionaries’ understanding of what they experienced, she turns to twentieth-century theoreticians. Thus what was understood at the time to be a struggle between revolution and counterrevolution becomes a succession of “generic plots” of the sort that Northrop Frye has found in literature. The “emplotment of revolutionary history” took the form of comedy from 1789 to 1790, romance from 1790 to 1792, and tragedy from 1792 to 1794. The Revolution as a whole becomes a “rite of passage” like those Victor Turner discovered in Africa. From 1789 until 1799, “the French seemed stuck in a ‘liminal’ phase”—some kind of equivalent, on a national scale, to the indeterminate status of adolescence undergoing initiation by tribal elders.

It sounds ingenious, but it does not ring true. No one can fault Hunt for insufficient mastery of the vast literature on the French Revolution or inadequate command of current cultural theory. Her book is a tour de force—all the more impressive in that it makes its case in 236 concise and well-written pages. But it conveys the campus culture of the 1980s rather than the political culture of the 1790s. It has something from everyone—not only Victor Turner, Northrop Frye, Jean Starobinski, and Clifford Geertz, but Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Kenneth Burke, and many others. Their names crowd the text, but Marat and Danton hardly get mentioned and Mirabeau and Lafayette do not appear at all. Hunt’s version of the Revolution lacks revolutionaries. It abounds in abstractions, but fails to communicate the sense of men struggling to create some meaningful order out of difficult, dangerous circumstances.

The failure is symptomatic of a problem facing all the humanistic disciplines today, for all of them are shifting from causal to textual modes of analysis. Like literary scholars and anthropologists, historians increasingly tend to define their task as one of interpretation. Instead of seeking causes, they try to understand meanings. They borrow techniques from rhetoric rather than statistics, and they identify the object of study as “discourse” rather than ideas. The new textualism has many advantages over the old social science, but it does not free historians from the constraints of evidence. Symbolic statements can be as difficult to interpret as election results. If we reject correlation coefficients in favor of “tropes” we do not acquire some supermodernistic liberty to do as we please with the past. On the contrary, we condemn ourselves to labor just as hard to discover the meanings people actually attributed to their experience as Ranke labored to determine what “actually happened.”

Hunt does not go as far as Hayden White’s Metahistory in reducing history to tropes.2 But she fails to make connections between rhetoric, as she understands it, and politics, as the revolutionaries experienced it. In a long discussion of symbolism, for example, she concentrates exclusively on the importance of male figures (the sovereign people represented as Hercules) relative to female figures (the Republic as a goddess). Her argument seems valid in itself, but did the sans-culottes worry over the gender element in iconography? Could they recognize the classical motifs, even when they paraded past the plaster-of-Paris statues constructed for the civic festivals? If they had an eye for abstractions, they saw the words liberty, equality, and fraternity carved over doorways, painted on churches, printed on posters, engraved on money, impersonated in festivals, and stamped on playing cards—in place of kings, queens, and jacks. Hunt has little to say about liberty, equality, and fraternity, perhaps because she tries to discover “implicit rhetorical assumptions” instead of studying the values articulated by the revolutionaries themselves. To make her argument stick, however, she should show how those assumptions shaped actual expression and behavior. As it is, she fails to relate the manifest to the latent elements of political culture or even to demonstrate the existence of latent characteristics such as the supposed “charisma” of language.

Finally, Hunt fails to connect the two halves of her book. She does not show that the political class sketched in Part 2 developed the political culture of Part 1. It may be that the merchants and lawyers of the provincial city councils lived in a mythic present and sought transparency, but the case needs proving. Split by incompatible arguments, the book pulls the reader in opposite directions—toward sociology on one side and hermeneutics on the other.

This tension runs like a fault line throughout the humanities and social sciences today. Lynn Hunt’s inability to resolve it does not detract from the value of her book. On the contrary, her failures are more instructive than her successes. They show one of the most intelligent historians of the younger generation grappling with a problem that grows bigger every day. If she cannot integrate the old ways of studying social structure with the new ways of interpreting culture, what will become of the revival of political history? Does the return to events lead through sociology, anthropology, philosophy, or poetics? Can all those disciplines converge in an original synthesis of the sciences humaines, or must we work eclectically, choosing whatever theoretical notion that seems to fit the problem at hand? The shifting ground of scholarship has produced more questions than answers. But they are important questions, and the French Revolution provides an ideal place to test them, even if in the end we may merely go back to Michelet with a fresh sense of awe.

  1. 1

    Alison Patrick’s The Men of the First French Republic: Political Alignments in the National Convention of 1792 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), and Michael Kennedy’s The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution: The First Years (Princeton University Press, 1982).

  2. 2

    See Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974) and Arnoldo Momigliano, “The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric: on Hayden White’s Tropes,” Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook, Vol. 3, E.S. Shaffer, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 259–268.

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