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A Very Different French Revolution

Musée Carnavalet, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
‘The Tennis Court Oath, 1789’; oil sketch by Jacques-Louis David

Did a secret society bring about the French Revolution? In the classic fictional version of this widely believed conspiracy theory, Alexandre Dumas’s novel Joseph Balsamo, a Masonic society known as the Illuminati gather in a ruined castle in 1770 and plot the overthrow of the French monarchy. Their leader, called the “Great Copt,” speaks of the day when “the monarchy is dead…religious domination is despised…social inferiority is extinguished.”

Dumas would have found a great deal to appreciate in Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Ideas. Israel, a much-respected professor of history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, does not present the French Revolution of 1789 as the result of a literal conspiracy. But he repeatedly characterizes it as the work of a “small minority” or “unrepresentative fringe” of disaffected Frenchmen who, in his view, consciously and deliberately sought to bring about the greatest political upheaval the Western world had ever seen. Israel does not contend that they belonged to a secret society. But he does argue that they shared a common creed, which they acted deliberately to realize. It is very much the same creed outlined by the Great Copt, although Israel would add sexual and racial inequality to the list of injustices his heroes sought to overthrow.

Israel makes this case in one of the most unusual histories of the French Revolution ever written. He calls it an “intellectual history,” but by this he does not mean that he has restricted himself to one part of the subject, and left the political, social, economic, and cultural histories of the Revolution to others. He means that only ideas matter for understanding how the Revolution came about, and what course it took. A particular set of ideas was its “sole fundamental cause,” and conflicts over these ideas drove it forward.

As a result, despite its great length, Revolutionary Ideas has surprisingly little to say about the most famous revolutionary events. The fall of the Bastille in July 1789, to which writers like Jules Michelet and Thomas Carlyle devoted many brilliant pages, flies by in two terse paragraphs. The “October Days” of 1789, in which angry Parisian crowds, led by market women, marched on the royal palace of Versailles, invaded Queen Marie-Antoinette’s bedroom, and forced King Louis XVI and the royal family to return to Paris with them, gets the same. The dramatic execution in January 1793 of King Louis, who just four years earlier had claimed a divine right to rule over France as its absolute monarch, is dispatched in two sentences.

Personalities also get short shrift. Previous historians and biographers have speculated endlessly about the psychology of the prim, tightly coiled Maximilien Robespierre, the fanatical Jean-Paul Marat, or the erratic, vainglorious Georges Danton, going back over their childhoods, inquiring into their sex lives, combing their correspondence for intimate revelations. The troubled marriages of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and of Napoleon and Josephine, have come in for endless dissection. Even in seven hundred pages of text, Israel has no time for such matters, in general providing no more than an economical line or two of background for each of his dramatis personae (although there is also a helpful “Cast of Main Participants” in an appendix).

The vast majority of the French population fare particularly poorly in Revolutionary Ideas. As even readers of the most basic textbook know, the French Revolution began at a moment of economic crisis, in which spiraling prices for the population’s staple food—bread—had driven millions to the brink of indigence and starvation. They also know that the Revolution might easily have been strangled in its cradle, had not the common people risen up at a moment of political crisis, stormed the Bastille, and then asserted their power in cities and towns across the country.

Again and again, it was the actions of common people that broke political stalemates and drove the Revolution forward. In scarcely more than three years, from 1789 to 1792, a land of absolute monarchy transformed itself into a democratic republic that gave the right to vote to all adult men. Less than a year later it lurched into civil war and the horrific repression known as the Terror, in which many thousands of innocent people were executed as alleged “enemies of the Revolution,” even while France was simultaneously embarking on an extraordinary experiment in utopian social reform. None of this could have happened, for better and worse, without the participation of ordinary French men and women.

Jonathan Israel, in some remarkably cavalier passages, treats these popular actions almost with annoyance. He ignores several generations’ worth of historical inquiry into how ordinary French people of the revolutionary era lived and thought. Rising literacy rates, declining patterns of religious observance, and a consumer revolution that put books within the reach of millions do not concern him. He takes no interest in the common people’s culture, and never considers the possibility that they might have conceived and articulated revolutionary political ideas on their own. “Bread prices were high and the urban and rural population restless,” he writes. “But this was nothing new. Popular disaffection, experience suggested, could mostly be shepherded wherever the elites wished.”

On several occasions, he deplores the inability of “the most ignorant part of the population, the illiterate and semi-illiterate,” to appreciate what revolutionary ideologues had to offer. “Most ordinary folk did not read their books and would scarcely have understood had they tried.” The work of historians such as Robert Darnton, who have shown how the public read and responded to the ideas of thinkers like Rousseau, gets little attention here.

Israel’s approach may seem surprising to readers who have never encountered him before, but those who have followed his career will understand what is at stake. Although he made his name as an economic and political historian of early modern Latin America and the Netherlands, for the past thirteen years Israel has been engaged in an extraordinary intellectual project. In a series of lengthy volumes, he has produced the most comprehensive and possibly the most ambitious history of the Enlightenment ever undertaken by a serious scholar.

For all the project’s enormous dimensions, Israel’s thesis is shockingly simple. Starting in Radical Enlightenment (2001), he argued that in the seventeenth century, a daringly new intellectual movement took shape, centered in the Netherlands, and owing the most to the commanding figure of Benedict Spinoza. These thinkers espoused a materialist, “monist” philosophy that rejected any fundamental distinction between matter and spirit. From this intellectual leap, Israel argued, there followed a rejection of hierarchies of every sort. The proponents of the “radical Enlightenment” (a term he borrowed from the UCLA historian Margaret Jacob) were not only atheists, but also democrats, social egalitarians, feminists, advocates of complete religious toleration, and even, for the most adventurous among them, believers in sexual toleration. By the end of the seventeenth century they had expounded upon this “package” of ideas (Israel’s word) in clandestine books and pamphlets, mostly printed in the Netherlands, that subsequently reached a wide European audience.

In his next volume, Enlightenment Contested (2006), Israel traced the way these thinkers, and their intellectual heirs, continued to elaborate the same basic “package” throughout the eighteenth century. He also examined their supposed conflict with a “moderate Enlightenment” (another term earlier used by Margaret Jacob) that accepted some of the radicals’ premises but sought to reconcile Enlightenment with the existing social, political, and religious order. Most of the great figures we today associate with the Enlightenment—Voltaire, Montesquieu, Kant, Adam Smith—belonged, in Israel’s telling, to this second, moderate movement. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the single most popular and influential Enlightenment writer, largely did as well. Among the great philosophes, only Denis Diderot was located, for Israel, squarely in the “radical” camp.

In Democratic Enlightenment (2011), Israel then tried to show how the radical Enlightenment turned explicitly political, and brought about the French Revolution. Revolutionary Ideas, which examines the Revolution in far more detail, is the continuation of Israel’s argument about what the Enlightenment wrought once it burst out of studies and salons and printing houses and was, as the Great Copt promised his followers, “proclaimed aloud in the streets.”

Israel’s fellow scholars have not, for the most part, looked favorably on his enterprise. They did give Radical Enlightenment considerable credit for showing the importance of the Netherlands to early Enlightenment thought, and for highlighting its role as a center of radical publishing (although, again, this is a subject on which Margaret Jacob had already done important early work). They have expressed amazement at, and appreciation for, his Herculean energy, which puts much younger scholars to shame. Democratic Enlightenment, for example, covered a dauntingly vast geographical canvas, from Japan to Peru to France, and cited thousands of sources in at least seven languages.

But for the most part, the intellectual historians who reviewed these volumes rejected Israel’s claims about the radical “package” of ideas that had supposedly taken shape in Holland and then transmitted itself, more or less unchanged, across Europe for the next century until it lit the fuse of the French Revolution. The evidence was thin, they argued, for seeing Spinoza and the other early radicals as democratic, or egalitarian, or feminist, or for attributing to them such vast influence. “Spinozist,” it was noted, very early became a term of abuse, and not every book denounced as such actually had much relation to Spinoza’s thought. They charged Israel with arguing by assertion, characterizing works as “radical,” and then attributing influence to them, without sufficient evidence (I had my own hand in these debates). Israel, for his part, has responded with great vigor.*

Revolutionary Ideas shows that Israel has the courage of his convictions. He has accepted very few criticisms, and remains entirely committed to his original line of argument. Not only did the radical Enlightenment cause the French Revolution, in 1789 it was still essentially the same radical Enlightenment that he tracked in his earlier volumes. Its proponents were committed to the creed first taught, in his view, in seventeenth-century Holland: democracy, religious toleration, human rights, and social, racial, and sexual equality. Faced with an established order that ferociously opposed these ideas, they saw no path forward but radical and, if necessary, violent revolution. And while they did not achieve anything like full success, they still laid “the foundations of democratic modernity.” Again, the thesis is shockingly simple.

Of course, Israel recognizes that the actual events were considerably more complicated and that the French Revolution was a bloodily contentious movement, not a unified and coherent one. But he gets around this problem easily—too easily. The 1789 apostles of radical Enlightenment may not have been the whole Revolution, he explains, but they were the “authentic Revolution”—even the “real revolution.” He speaks of the Revolution’s “essential principles,” its “core principles,” its “veritable course,” its “soul.” Everything else was false, inauthentic, unsatisfactory, counterproductive, or worse. Robespierre, whom most historians take as the exemplar of French Revolutionary radicalism, was, for Israel, quite the reverse. He had an “approach…directly contrary to the Revolution’s core values” and was in fact the incarnation of “authoritarian populism prefiguring modern fascism.” As this language suggests, Israel is not in the least interested in taking an impartial view of his subject. Rather, he has taken sides, with gusto, and has decided to fight out the original battles once again, in the pages of his book.

  1. *

    See, most recently, the essays by four historians of eighteenth-century France and Israel’s reply in H-France Forum, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Winter 2014). My own contribution to these debates was “Where Do We Come From?,” The New Republic, February 8, 2012. 

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