• Email
  • Print

Marx and France

In response to:

The Two French Revolutions from the April 13, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

I appreciate Norman Hampson’s generally positive mention of my book, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge (Verso, 1987), in reviewing recent works by George Rudé and Simon Schama on the Revolution [NYR, April 13]. Yet, insofar as the point of this reference was a criticism of Professor Rudé, I feel I must set the record straight regarding both the extent of my “concessions” to recent revisionist history, and especially my view of Professor Rudé’s work.

Professor Hampson writes that I “cheerfully” concede “game, set, and match” to the revisionists, and then go off to find a better Marxist interpretation of my own. This is a curious depiction of my central premise, which is that although the revisionists have correctly noted that the Revolution cannot have been a class conflict between a backward (feudal) aristocracy and a progressive (capitalist) bourgeoisie, they have spectacularly failed to explain why the Revolution happened at all, and why it was so intense, purposeful, and protracted. Professor Hampson presents as the revisionist case that “the political attitudes of the revolutionaries were not dictated by their economic interests.” Yet, far from conceding game, set, and match to this view, my “better” Marxist opinion is precisely that in the context of the social relations that then prevailed, political struggles over possession of the state directly constituted struggles over the means of surplus appropriation—since the state was a primary “economic” resource for bourgeois and noble alike.

I argue that it is the idea of a specifically capitalist revolution that is wrong, not the principle of “social interpretation.” What has passed for Marxist orthodoxy on the subject reflects the more or less uncritical appropriation by Marx of the standard “bourgeois” histories of his day, works that apologized for the Revolution in terms of the bourgeoisie’s heroically progressive role in history. But Marx’s own distinctive approach, as it appears in his critique of political economy, provides the basis for a very different interpretation, rooted in the real social interests of the parties to the Revolution. In making this argument, I specifically refer to Professor Rudé’s work on the relationship between the people of Paris and the bourgeois revolutionaries as one area of analysis that stands unchallenged in rejecting the idea of capitalist class revolution (p. 111). What the revisionists have offered with respect to the crowds, by contrast, echoes with something very like Taine’s hoary description of the “mad” or “drunken mobs”—just the sort of thing Professor Rudé demolished decades ago.

Furthermore, Professor Rudé’s social interpretation follows that of Georges Lefebvre in refusing to reduce the social revolution simply to the terms of a bourgeois class revolution. He argues that the character of the Revolution depends very much upon the role played by the independent movements of the peasants and the urban common people, and recognizes that its short-term causes were not based upon economic differences between the bourgeoisie and nobility (The French Revolution, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988, pp. 162–163, 20–33). Only by greatly over-simplifying the complexity of the social interpretation offered by Rudé and Lefebvre—although not always others, it must be admitted—can it be reduced to a class revolution by capitalists. Yet this is the only point the revisionists have ever tried to score against the social interpretation. In recognizing the extent to which the immediate conflict of bourgeois and noble social interests was rooted in the state instead of “economic” property, one exhausts the grounds for concession to the revisionist view. The match, then, has barely begun.

George C. Comninel
University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario

Norman Hampson replies:

George Comninel has understandably misconstrued an ambiguous sentence in my review of George Rudé’s The French Revolution. When I ascribe to some historians—whom I would prefer not to describe as “revisionist” in case this seemed to imply that they were departing from some kind of orthodoxy—the view that “the political attitudes of the revolutionaries were not dictated by their economic interests.” I was referring to conflicts within the revolutionary leadership. I imagine that he shares my opinion that the antagonism between various kinds of royalists, constitutional monarchists, and mutually hostile republicans is not to be equated with the defense of specific class interests. In his own book, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge, he promises us a sequel in which he will explain his own interpretation of the French Revolution. We had better wait until he has had the time to set this out in detail before continuing the discussion.

  • Email
  • Print