The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution
Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century
The question won’t go away. After two centuries of debate, you would think it had been worried to death, but it keeps reviving and now looks livelier than ever: What was the connection between the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—or, to put it more broadly, how did the cultural system of the Old Regime contribute to the political explosion of 1789?
The latest revival of this problem, which appears in two books published recently by Roger Chartier and Keith Baker, belongs to a shift away from social history, and toward intellectual history in current research. It also confirms the decline of Marxism as a means of understanding early modern history. A generation ago, Marxists (e.g., Albert Soboul in France) and anti-Marxists (e.g., Alfred Cobban in England) argued about the connection, or lack of it, between social structure on the one hand and ideology and politics on the other. Their successors argue about “discourse” and “conceptual space.”
For Chartier, the leading post-Soboulian in France, the Revolution is the culmination of a centuries-long process of de-Christianization and of the creation of a “public sphere” outside the authority of the state. For Baker, the best of the neo-Cobbanites in the Anglo-Saxon world, the Revolution is the expression of heterodox “political languages” developed during the reign of Louis XV. Neither historian has anything to say about economics or any tolerance for attempts to reduce ideologies to the interests of social classes. Neither can be considered a Marxist or an anti-Marxist. They belong to a generation that has abandoned the quarrels of its predecessors and that is rethinking old problems in new ways.
The result is a refreshing sense of rediscovery and a great deal of confusion. Gone are the old certainties about the rising bourgeoisie, the importance of Voltaire and Rousseau, and the terms of the problems themselves. Yet the question about the intellectual origins of the Revolution has returned, dressed up more fashionably in queries about discourse, and the point of departure for discussing it remains the same: Daniel Mornet’s imposing treatise of 1933, Les Origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française.
Uninhibited by epistemological doubts, Mornet traced the Revolution’s origins to the Enlightenment, or the development of a “critical spirit” derived from the works of the philosophes. He argued that Voltaire and the Encyclopedists began to conquer public opinion in the middle of the eighteenth century and that their ideas, increasingly radical and widespread, determined the climate of opinion during the 1770s and 1780s. Mornet allowed for complex combinations of causes, both social and political, in explaining the Revolution, but within the intellectual realm he envisaged a straightforward process of idea diffusion—from the texts of the philosophes to the actions of the revolutionaries.
That will not do for Chartier and Baker. They insist that ideas do not translate directly into actions; that intellectual origins cannot be understood as a one-way, trickle-down diffusion process; and that a great deal besides the Enlightenment went into the creation of …
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