The Two French Revolutions

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

by Simon Schama
Knopf, 948 pp., $29.95

The French Revolution

by George Rudé
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 224 pp., $19.95

In one respect at least the very different books by Simon Schama and George Rudé have something in common: each is based on the reinterpretation of old evidence rather than on new discoveries. They incorporate a kind of tribute to their authors’ student days. In Rudé’s case this implies very heavy dependence on the French Marxist historian Georges Lefebvre: “I have followed fairly closely the arguments of G. Lefebvre”; he is “greatly indebted” to Lefebvre’s “masterly portrayal” of Napoleon; “the best work on the outbreak of the Revolution is still G. Lefebvre’s”; for the social and economic history of the Revolution one should consult “above all,…the work of Georges Lefebvre.” What influences Simon Schama is not so much a man as a syllabus. As one reads his book one hears the roll call of the old Oxford University “special subject,” in which the student has to read, among other books, the memoirs of the Marquis de Ferrières, the correspondence between Mirabeau and the Comte de La Marck, the letters exchanged between Barnave and Queen Marie Antoinette, Morse Stephens’s selections from the French revolutionary orators.

There is nothing in the least reprehensible about this. Lefebvre was an excellent historian and primary sources have a perennial value. But anyone writing in 1989 needs to take account of more recent research. Both authors are rather hit-and-miss about this. Rudé’s bibliography is better on old books than on those published within the past twenty years. Schama is more familiar with recent work, but he seems to have read very selectively. When Rudé mentions a book that contradicts his argument—which is not often—he is invariably courteous to its author even if he does not always seem to have understood his message. Schama acknowledges his debt to the authors of recent studies on matters of detail, but he is rather fond of admonishing unnamed “historians” for distorting the evidence to fit their preconceived conclusions.

Neither writer has anything substantial to say about Jacobin ideology as a force inclining the Revolution toward totalitarianism, and they fail to see that peasant society was largely motivated by a conception of the world that had little in common with the enlightened abstractions of the revolutionary legislators. These are things that have come to appear in a new light as a result of the work of historians such as François Furet, Robert Darnton, Donald Sutherland, Colin Lucas, and Peter Jones. If Rudé and Schama are aware of such work, they do not pay much attention to its conclusions.

In all other respects their books are as different as one could imagine. Rudé writes as an old professional who has been on active service in the field since the publication in 1959 of his book on revolutionary crowds. Schama is certainly not an apprentice historian, but this is his first venture on the embattled terrain of the French Revolution. Rudé’s book is somewhat austere and very short: he hustles us through the Revolution and Napoleon and well into the nineteenth century in a mere 182 pages. After three hundred lavishly illustrated pages of his own, Schama has barely reached 1789, and he never goes beyond 1794. Rudé is mainly concerned with analyzing the political behavior of social classes; Schama spends much of his time on personalities, and in his account of events it is people that makes them happen. Whereas Rudé sees men essentially as cognitive animals Schama is more aware of the role of emotion and the power of symbols.

When it comes to the basic question of what the Revolution achieved and why it evolved in the way it did, the two men flatly contradict each other. For Rudé, despite all its blemishes and frustrations, the Revolution left behind a glorious message of social progress that was to inspire future generations. The liberal revolution of 1789 was only consolidated with the help of urban artisans or sansculottes, which meant that it already looked forward to a socialist future. Schama sees the Revolution as a total disaster, in which the violence and chauvinism of a reactionary mob put an end to an ancien régime that was already liberal in essence and fully committed to technological progress. With the best will in the world it is difficult to see how they can both be right, and the reader is faced with the question of what to make of the situation when two serious professional historians study the same events and arrive at such incompatible conclusions. This calls for a careful examination of each book in turn.

Rudé’s interpretation passed for orthodoxy—Marxist orthodoxy—a generation ago. The French Revolution was seen as the inevitable moment of adjustment when the seismic pressures generated by social and economic change became uncontrollable. A rising industrial and commercial middle class refused any longer to accept its subordinate status within a society and state whose values and policies reflected the obsolete demands of a decayed “feudal” order. When the French nobility took advantage of the impending bankruptcy of the crown to provoke a political crisis, in the hope of winning a conservative constitution like that of Great Britain, the middle class took charge of the movement and converted it into a social revolution. The resistance of the old order was so tenacious, however, that the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” could never have established a society based on legal equality, the sanctity of private property, and the freedom of the market if it had not enlisted the support of the sansculottes, whose own objective was social democracy rather than liberalism. The alliance between these two divergent forces could never have been more than temporary. When it broke down France became ungovernable by processes involving mutual consent, and Napoleon eventually restored the authority of the state, at the price of endorsing the social change brought about by the Revolution.

In accordance with this somewhat hoary traditional view, Rudé blames the failure to establish a constitutional monarchy in 1789–1791 on the “desertion and treachery” of the king and queen and the refusal of most of the nobility to accept their defeat. He concedes that most of the nobles neither revolted nor fled the country. Nevertheless their “sullen resentment and suspicion” “provoked the revolutionary authorities to take ever harsher measures to restrain their liberties.” We seem to have heard that argument in other settings. It was one way of looking at things, and Rudé does not seem to realize that there could be any other. If what the men concerned like to describe as “the Revolution” was always right, then its more oppressive actions must have been provoked by the vice or folly of those who became their victims. In the same vein we read of a “devout and socially backward peasantry” (the one term presumably implying the other) that opposed the Revolution, in contrast to the “revolutionary peasantry” and the sans-culottes who knew what was good for them. If the Revolution was so demonstrably a good thing, it could only have been resisted by the selfishness of those who had profited from the old order or the ignorance and superstition of their dupes.

Understandably enough, since this was a bourgeois revolution, the future antagonists of the bourgeoisie, the urban wage earners, proved unreliable allies. Rudé is rather evasive about the reasons for the breakdown of the “alliance” between the two classes. He has not much time. He devotes eighty pages to the moderate phase of the Revolution, disposes of 1792–1794 in thirty-four, and allows only fourteen for the next five years. Traveling through the landscape at such a speed one should not be surprised if the scenery becomes a little blurred. One thing at least is clear: the only man who could have saved the situation was Robespierre, the revolutionary statesman who is the great, indeed the only, hero in this version of events. “Virtually alone” he tried to avert war in 1792; he played a “leading part” in the insurrection of August 10 that overthrew the monarchy; his speech proposing that the king be summarily executed without trial was “famous.” Rudé omits to mention that the argument of the speech was borrowed from an even more famous one by Saint-Just, who is described elsewhere as Robespierre’s “devoted supporter and lieutenant.” That would probably have surprised both of them.

To be fair to Rudé, even as he retells the familiar story he has his doubts. He concedes that the rival political groups in 1792–1793, the Girondins and Montagnards, belonged to the same social class. He is obviously uneasy about the fact that a “bourgeois” revolution should have had such an unfortunate effect on the progress of French industrialization and the development of capitalism. But he does not confront the impact of these developments on his theory. He makes minor tactical concessions to the work of recent historians, but he does not seem to see that they have demolished the basis of his argument by showing that political attitudes of the revolutionaries were not dictated by their economic interests. He is worrying about the distribution of the cargo when the ship that was torpedoed by historians like Alfred Cobban and William Doyle in England and George Taylor in America is at the bottom of the sea.

To argue in this way is not to engage in any sort of polemic about Marxism. George C. Comninel, writing as a Marxist in Rethinking the French Revolution, cheerfully admits that “it must now be accepted that the long-standing claims to historical validity of the [traditional] Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution have been exploded.’* Comninel, in other words, concedes the game, set, and match to the “revisionists” who have demonstrated that Rudé’s version of events is not true, and he goes off to discover a better Marxist interpretation of his own. It is typical of Rudé’s generosity that he has provided Comninel with an introduction, in which he says that his arguments “deserve to be carefully examined and widely read.”

On the whole, it would not be unreasonably dismissive to describe Rudé’s interpretation of the French Revolution as a recapitulation of old ideas that are no longer credible in the light of recent research. It no longer fits the facts as they are perceived today.

Simon Schama does not seem quite sure how he wants us to take his book. He calls it a “chronicle,” which suggests a narration of events that takes their causal relationship largely for granted. In his preface he suggests that the dogmatic certainties of the positivists and the Marxists have given way to a view of the Revolution as “a thing of contingencies and unforeseen consequences.”

Along with the revival of place as a conditioner have come people. For as the imperatives of “structure” have weakened, those of individual agency, and especially of revolutionary utterance have become correspondingly more important. Citizens is an attempt to synthesize much of this reappraisal and to push the argument a stage further.

What we are to expect, therefore, is not so much a chronicle as an argument. Schama promises that his book will develop three themes: “the problematic relationship between patriotism and liberty,” “the belief that citizenship is the public expression of an idealized family,” and “the painful problem of revolutionary violence.” Rather surprisingly, he then goes on to say that if he has chosen to present his argument in the form of a narrative, “it differs from the pre-Tocquevillian narratives in being offered more as witness than as judgment.”

This suggests a certain confusion of targets that may not make for accurate gunnery. Witnesses are expected to describe what they saw, rather than to push arguments a stage further, and, as we shall see, Schama’s disavowal of any intention to judge is not always reflected in what he writes. Any narrative implies some sort of judgment about the connection between events, but he goes much further than that and never shows any hesitation about reaching for the moral thunderbolts.

Most of the chapters of his book follow a roughly consistent pattern. He begins by evoking a scene, usually one that has little direct relationship to the subject. “One morning in August 1776, a rather shabbily dressed, stout gentleman stood on the dockside at Rotterdam….” “In July 1789 Mme La Tour du Pin went to the spa at Forges-les-Eaux in Normandy….” “On October 23, 1789, the National Assembly met the oldest man in the world….” This is a journalistic device for seizing the attention of the reader and giving him the impression that he himself is witnessing what happens. It is none the worse for that and Schama uses it very well—but it is not the best way of conducting an argument. It is not even a very good way of investigating in depth how a particular man conceived of a situation and why he acted in the way that he did. It is more effective in the early part of the book, which deals with the state of French society before 1789, than with the maelstrom of events when the Revolution was in full flow.

After a few descriptive pages of this kind Schama switches to narrative. Once he is past 1789 this becomes a rapid summary of events that offers few surprises to the expert and will raise more questions than it answers in the mind of anyone who is not already familiar with the story. We are shown what happens, but we do not learn much about why. Schama’s argument—his three themes and his more general conclusion that the Revolution was a bloody and violent retreat from reason and orderly progress—tends to get tacked on to this narrative, rather than to emerge as its organizing principle.

His technique may best be illustrated by an example. Chapter 18 is called “The Politics of Turpitude,” which seems to savor more of judgment than of witness. It begins with a lively description of life in a revolutionary jail, as experienced especially by Marie Antoinette; the wife of a Girondin politician, Mme Roland; and Louix XV’s old mistress, Mme Du Barry. The rest of the chapter consists of a rapid review of revolutionary politics in the winter of 1793 and the spring of 1794. Schama’s thesis is that the government was looking for pretexts to exterminate any political group that might appear to be challenging its authority. In actual fact things were a good deal more complicated. When the radical members of the Cordelier Club, including their leader Jacques René Hébert, played with the idea of starting an insurrection, the first reaction of the revolutionary government was to try to talk them out of it. Only when this attempt at conciliation failed did they resort to repression.

For Schama, “The killing of the Hébertists [or Cordeliers] had always of course implied the end of the Indulgents [Danton’s friends].” Schama evidently thinks the fate of Danton and his friends was tied to that of the Cordeliers. This was not the impression of Robespierre’s ally Couthon, who hinted to his constituents that the Indulgents could be frightened into silence. Nor does it explain why Robespierre, when the arrest of Danton was first proposed, denounced it as an attempt to destroy the best revolutionaries. We still do not know why the government suddenly decided to turn the trial of some of Danton’s swindling friends into a major political crisis by pretending that Danton was one of them. Even if one cannot arrive at a positive conclusion, the question calls for detailed argument and an admission that other explanations are possible. Schama rushes ahead as though the explanation were known and all that the historian has to do is decide in how much detail to describe it.

There is also some evidence of hasty writing in Schama’s book. One gets the impression, especially in the later chapters, that he was racing the clock and his writing becomes wilder: “Bagging whole ancien régime families was coming to be a matter of honour for the revolutionary committees and tribunals.” That probably relieved his feelings, but it does not help us to elucidate the policy of the government, which, incidentally, had rejected the concept of honor in favor of that of patriotism.

The importance of Schama’s message is not necessarily invalidated by the impressionistic way in which he treats his evidence, and it deserves careful examination. In the first part of the book he argues that what is usually regarded as the legacy of the Revolution was already to be found in the highest levels of French society before 1789. He thinks this was especially true of French economic development, in which “the great period of change was not the revolution but the eighteenth century.” There is much truth in this, but, as Schama himself more or less admits in his preface, he overdoes it. “New enterprises involving mechanisation,” he writes, “seemed to spring up almost every month in the 1780s.” There are times when his France begins to look like nineteenth-century Lancashire.

Standing Rudé on his head, he also argues that “the revolution drew its power from the…attempt to arrest rather than hasten the process of modernisation.” Agriculture as well as industry showed “the unmistakeable pattern of rapid growth and modernisation in almost all sectors, disastrously disrupted by the revolution.” This is much less plausible. It was certainly not the view of the English writer Arthur Young, who was both a contemporary and an expert observer of agricultural developments. Schama also asserts that French society was becoming more mobile and that noble status was easily available to the successful. He could be right here, but many distinguished historians have suggested the contrary, and the case needs proving rather than asserting. On the strength of one or two examples, he affirms that a new concept of patriotism, involving the cult of French rather than Greek or Roman heroes, had spread among the nobility well before 1789. The government is said to have been active in pursuit of innovation for the public good.

All this seems to add up to a convincing explanation of why the Revolution did not happen, and it leaves Schama with something of a problem: if everything was working to the general satisfaction, where did the Revolution come from? The Revolution’s immediate cause was actually the insolvency of the monarchy, about which he is rather vague. If, as he suggests at one point, those with privileges were reluctant to pay their fair share of taxation, this seems to imply that the upper ranks of society were rather less forward-looking than he would like us to believe. In fact, their representatives accepted their fiscal obligations; what they wanted was to trade their willingness to pay taxes for the kind of political representation that their peers enjoyed in Great Britain. Schama, who cannot very well pretend that ancien régime France had a modern constitution, ignores altogether the demand for representative institutions and civil rights which provided the Revolution with its initial impetus. The only motive that he can find for discontent is impatience with the vacillation of the government, which looks rather feeble. His long account of prerevolutionary government and society is not so much wrong as unbalanced, exaggerating its dynamic aspects and tending to ignore its tensions and weaknesses.

When the States-General met in 1789 and transformed themselves into a constituent assembly, they were dominated, Schama thinks, by the kind of enlightened nobles who had been responsible for France’s progress under the ancien régime. For reasons that he never satisfactorily explains, these people came into conflict with a royal government that had been pursuing virtually the same objectives. This forced the reformers to turn to working people for support. He replaces the “popular movement” beloved of “progressive” historians with the old-fashioned mob, whose leaders, he insists, were not working men but déclassé bourgeois, presumably out for their own power. He is emphatic that the sansculottes—and presumably the peasantry—besides being men of violence, were resolutely backward-looking and the enemies of economic progress.

The French declaration of war in April 1792 generated a flood of patriotic emotion that reinforced these atavistic and emotive forces. This seems a little odd if patriotism had originally been the monopoly of the nobility. The panic created when it looked as though allied armies might threaten Paris in September 1792 led to the massacre of more than a thousand unfortunates in the jails of the capital, who were suspected of plotting to break out of jail and hold the city until the invading troops arrived. The way in which these massacres have sometimes been glossed over in history books offers Schama another chance to indulge in some lofty condemnations of his fellow historians. “The Anglophone tradition in this century…has a particularly egregious record of silent embarrassment.” Has it? M.J. Sydenham, in The French Revolution, wrote of “butchery,” “bestiality,” “atrocities,” and “horrors,” which suggests rather more than mild disapproval. The present reviewer, twenty-five years ago, made no attempt to excuse the “dreadful work” and the “horrible business.” Schama, as usual, is in too big a hurry to make qualifications of the generalizations he proposes and too sure of his own judgment.

From 1792 onward Schama’s explanation of events becomes very confused. The forces of popular unreason become more strident, but he insists that their leaders could only mobilize them when they had the support of the gentlemanly revolutionaries in the Jacobin Club. It is never clear what has happened to the enlightened reformers of 1789 or what we should make of their Jacobin successors. The latter were educated men who did not share the ignorance and blood lust of the mob, but we learn that they were “anti-capitalist.” If that was the case they should according to Schama’s own argument have gotten on well with the sansculottes. In order to win the war the revolutionary government, he writes, “put an end to politics,” and enforced its despotic rule all over the country.

The contradictions multiply. If the government was in complete control, why did it not put a stop to popular violence? When revolts occurred in some provincial towns, why were moderates able to enlist against Jacobin extremists the poor who were baying for blood in Paris? By now Schama seems to have abandoned his theme of educated modernizers fighting ignorant reactionaries, in favor of the argument that the government was intent on the invention of “a new kind of prodigious warrior state.” At the same time he suggests that Carnot, who was responsible for the deployment of the warriors, was less keen on the Terror than people like Robespierre—who was uneasy about the extension of the war.

All this is not very helpful. If one excludes the ideology of the revolutionaries, as Schama does, and makes no sustained attempt to unravel their politics, all that remains is evocative tableaux and a narrative of events. In his epilogue he poses the question of why the Revolution was so extraordinarily violent—one of the main themes of the bicentenary article by Robert Darnton in The New York Review of Books of January 19—but he offers no explanation. He is an intelligent historian and a perceptive observer. He raises some interesting questions, and his determined pursuit of originality leads him to ideas that are worth examining in more depth than he has time to do. He does well what can be done quickly. His description of people and situations restores some of the color that used to make history compulsive reading for nonhistorians. Anyone who wants to know what the French Revolution looked like and felt like will enjoy the first sections of his chapters.

There are times when this sort of evidence is an integral part of the explanation, as when he brings to life the fear created by the political mobs. More often the narrative is merely picturesque. What he has not succeeded in doing is to construct a systematic or credible explanation of why things happened in the way that they did. In default of this, his “chronicle” is episodic. One thing may seem to lead to another, but the narrative does not add up to a coherent story. He begins by defining his three themes—patriotism, citizenship, and violence—but the first two appear only intermittently and he does not seem to know what to make of the third.

What Schama has achieved is to convey a vivid impression of the French Revolution as pageant. That was worth doing; it is an important part of history that tends to be neglected by the more analytical historians, and it should make his handsomely produced book attractive to the general reader. What Schama has not succeeded in doing is to offer a convincing explanation of why the Revolution occurred and why it went the way that it did.


Marx and France June 15, 1989

  1. *

    Verso, 1987.