• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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.

  1. *

    Verso, 1987.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print