• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Four French Revolutions

Le Coût de la Révolution francaise

by René Sédillot
Perrin, 285 pp., fr95

Festivals and the French Revolution

by Mona Ozouf, translated by Alan Sheridan
Harvard University Press, 378 pp., $37.50

Necker and the Revolution of 1789

by Robert D. Harris
University Press of America, 805 pp., $38.75

The People’s Armies

by Richard Cobb, translated by Marianne Elliott
Yale University Press, 776 pp., $17.95 (paper)

In 1989 historians throughout the world will be celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution. The Revolution itself was an immensely divisive experience, splitting Frenchmen into royalists and republicans, Catholics and anticlericals, in ways that have survived until the present day. It was the legacy of these revolutionary conflicts, more than the consequences of industrialization and urbanization, that made France a very difficult country to govern in the nineteenth century. Naturally enough, the history of a revolution that left such deep fissures in French society has reflected the divisions that it set out to explain. French historians saw themselves as crusaders for political causes in their own times that perpetuated the conflicts of the revolutionary period. Defending a particular point of view about the French Revolution was one way of legitimizing the monarchy before 1848, or the Republic in 1848 and again after 1870, or the Empire from 1851 to 1870.

The most dramatic example of the perennial relevance of the French Revolution came as late as 1940, when the Vichy government substituted Travail, Famille, Patrie for the republican Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Since 1945 France has changed its constitution twice more, but the successive regimes have all been republics. It was this that led the French historian François Furet, when he published Interpreting the French Revolution in 1978, to entitle his first chapter “The French Revolution Is Over.” What he meant was that universal acceptance of the democratic republic allowed French historians, for the first time, to become detached observers of the Revolution, rather than partisans committed to fighting its battles all over again.

Furet’s assertion always looked optimistic, and the bicentenary of the Revolution, instead of providing an occasion for universal celebration, has reopened old wounds. In Le Coût de la Révolution française, the popular French writer René Sédillot sees no good in anything that the revolutionaries did. His argument is that they wasted France’s resources in civil war and foreign conquest, while the British took advantage of the opportunity to press ahead with their industrial revolution and become the temporary masters of the world. There is some truth in this, but Sédillot inflates it into a general condemnation of everything that the revolutionaries achieved. His book is about the “cost” of the revolution in the sense that it is half of a balance sheet, recording all the losses and none of the profits. Consistency is not his strong point: for example, he includes in his reckoning of the human casualties all those who died in the Napoleonic Wars, although he endorses the old argument that Napoleon wanted nothing but peace and it was British belligerency and blockade that drove him to try to occupy the entire European coastline. When his armies ranged from Madrid to Moscow he was really on the defensive.

Sédillot’s purported assessment of the cost of the Revolution is actually a pretext for reviving the conservative arguments of French nationalists. When the revolutionaries did anything to which he cannot take exception—for example, introducing the metric system—the monarchy had already thought of it. Once the dog has been given a bad name, it does not take much evidence to hang him: the radical deputy and journalist Desmoulins is accused of corruption on the ground that he once borrowed three dollars from another deputy and allegedly squandered his wife’s dowry. When it comes to assessing the influence of the Revolution outside France, however, conservatism gives way to national pride. “The English owe it [the Revolution] their power, the Germans and Italians their unity, the Belgians and the peoples of Latin America their independence. The United States owes it Louisiana and the confirmation of its national identity.” In the end, it turns out to have been another episode in that civilizing mission that led France, throughout the ages, to sacrifice its own interests for the welfare of the rest of humanity. Sédillot’s book appears in a series called Vérités et Légendes and most of it belongs to the latter category.

Sédillot might be described as a man of letters rather than a professional historian. Where the latter are concerned, Furet’s dictum that the Revolution is over is generally true. This means not that its history has ceased to be a subject of controversy but that the nature of the argument is changing. For the best part of a generation after the Second World War there was a general tendency to assume that the French Revolution was connected, in one way or another, with the revolt of an industrial and commercial middle class against a theoretically autocratic monarchy and an aristocratic landed society. Many of the historians who took this view, such as Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul in France and Georges Rudé in England, saw themselves as Marxists, and their views as historians were inseparable from their political positions as citizens.

This interpretation of the Revolution, at least in its more sectarian and dogmatic attempts to link each group of revolutionary politicians with a specific economic interest, has been generally abandoned as simplistic. This is not to deny, of course, that economic conflicts existed within revolutionary France and that they had some influence on politics. One can see within the French Revolution a gulf between the “bourgeois” attitudes of the educated deputies within the various assemblies and the traditional attitudes and beliefs of the peasants, who made up the mass of the population.

This difference was particularly deadly where religion was concerned. For the deputies, whose tepid Catholicism often shaded into deism, what the country needed was “officers of morality,” paid by the state, who would preach the virtues of honesty, patriotism, and respect for the law. For many if not most of the peasants, religion was a matter of traditional practices and its object was not good citizenship but personal salvation. In the history of the Revolution an increasingly sterile controversy between rigorous economic determinists and their opponents has given way to a general recognition that class conflict and class incomprehension were one element within a much more complex confrontation of interest and principles. This makes, if not for consensus, at least for dialogue, since what is at issue is a question of emphasis that does not imply hurling anathemas at the unregenerate.

Of course this does not mean that the historians of the French Revolution are now singing in unison. This they never have done and they probably never will. Beneath the differences of interpretation one can detect a new polarization into what is sometimes called the “old” history and the “new.” Practitioners of the former believe that what matters is still, as it has always been, the discovery of why things happened as they did. They are convinced that this can only be revealed by investigating the motives of the participants, their perception of the situation in which they found themselves, and the consequences of their attempts to deal with it. The “new” historians, who often borrow their concepts and vocabulary from the social sciences, are more concerned with what the University of California Press recently defined as “innovative explorations of the symbolic constructions of reality.” Such explorations attempt to interpret the problems, aspirations, and conflicts of the men and women of the past as having symbolic meanings. History is not so much about events and policies as about the perceptions of our own times. With the help of sociological and psychoanalytical concepts that were not available to the people being studied, the historian can interpret their actions in ways meaningful to the present, of which the historical actors themselves may have been unaware. Each approach has its merits and its dangers.

The study of revolutionary festivals by the French historian Mona Ozouf is a good example of the “new” history. The revolutionary authorities, having abolished many of the traditional Catholic holidays and processions, instituted their own festivals, some of them solemn pageants recalling the events of the Revolution—the taking of the Bastille, for example. But Ozouf’s main concern is not with individual festivals as specific events, organized to commemorate a particular policy or triumph, but with the festival as an experience of a particular kind:

The astonishing continuity that we have discovered in the festivals of the French Revolution lead [sic] one to believe that, if the Revolution is an indissoluble whole, that certainly is reflected in its festivals. From now on let us speak not of the festivals but of the festival of the French Revolution.

Despite this apparent invitation to generalize, Ozouf is too careful a historian to treat all revolutionary festivals as essentially the same. She distinguishes between early celebrations of national unity, like the Fête de la Fédération of July 1790, the militant demonstrations of orthodoxy during the Terror, which excluded those who rejected the new revolutionary faith on religious or political grounds, and the attempts to unite all Frenchmen in a common allegiance after 1795. It is when she comes to deal with subjects like “The Festival and Space” and “The Festival and Time” that the more conventional historian will be likely to raise a skeptical eyebrow. A traditional historian would emphasize the difference in purpose between a festival to inaugurate the worship of Reason in 1793 and one to celebrate the overthrow of Robespierre a year later. Mona Ozouf is more interested in the identity of form that both exhibited:

The task of the festival is then seen to be that of redeeming the platitude of that psychosociology of the homogeneous, of saving the isolated individual from himself, and of reconstructing a new sacrality on the elementary elements thus revealed.

This may be true in the sense that people who found their everyday lives rather monotonous, and felt themselves to be at sea in a revolutionary world where old values had been turned upside down, could enjoy themselves and feel some sort of solidarity and common purpose when they took part in a festival. How much it tells us about why the people in a particular town chose to commemorate some event, or even about attitudes peculiar to the French revolutionaries that distinguished them from people in other places at other times, is a different matter.

The trouble with this kind of approach is that everything gets invested with symbolism. When the Parisians commemorated the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, in 1790, a Catholic mass was celebrated at an autel de la patrie that was erected on a square base whose four sides pointed toward the four corners of the world. But the altar of the fatherland had to have some sort of a base and if the revolutionaries had chosen a round or oval one it would have been symbolic too. Once a town or village had decided to hold a festival—perhaps because the local people felt short of popular entertainment now that religious processions had been discontinued—they had only a limited choice of possibilities: a procession, music, dancing, speeches, the swearing of an oath, or the erection of a maypole. The organizers were bound to be influenced by their memories of past celebrations and the program that emerged may have owed a good deal to accident, the availability of local talent, and the preferences of the people in charge.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print