The Two French Revolutions, 1789-1796
Guglielmo Ferrero was an Italian historian and journalist, born in 1871, who made his name by a five-volume work on the greatness and decline of Rome, in 1907. In the 1930s he was forced into exile in Switzerland, where he began to interest himself in the history of the French Revolution. In 1942 he published a trilogy on Europe after the Terror, and in the same year he delivered a course of lectures in Geneva intending to use them as an introduction to this work. He died, however, before he could turn the lectures into a book. The Two French Revolutions was written by his pupil, Luc Monnier, from his very full notes. First published in French in 1951, it has now been translated into English (not always happily), with a Foreword by Professor Crane Brinton.
Ferrero was a liberal preoccupied by problems of political morality throughout his life, who in old age became the victim of political persecution. In this work he is plainly obsessed with the horrors of revolutionary regimes. “France,” he says in one place, “having been the first to experiment with revolutionary government, knew better than any other country how frightful it was.” He felt himself to be living in an age to which the French revolution provided many parallels. His object was to explain the nature of revolutionary governments.
On pp. 149-50 he lists their characteristics under five headings: “a disruption of the former legal system”; “illegitimate power”; “a general state of fear”; “abuse of force”; “a morbid excess of energy.” He sees illegitimate power as following from a disruption of the former legal system and as giving rise to the other attributes of a state of revolution. Illegitimate power is the key concept of his work: “only sincere acceptance,” he says “whether active or passive, can make power legitimate.” He found all the governments of the Revolution illegitimate because they lacked such acceptance. The National Assembly rose out of the ruins of the ancien régime, which (as Ferrero seems to have supposed) had been passively accepted by virtue of prescriptive right. This Assembly saw itself as isolated in the midst of a general anarchy and without an army to defend it.
The discontent of the upper classes grew in proportion to the reforms that were passed. The court, the nobility, and the clergy feared the Assembly, which in turn feared them…the National Assembly also feared the restlessness of the masses in the larger cities, chiefly in Paris. These mobs were prey to a veritable delirium of persecution, attributing all their sufferings to plots on the part of the court and the higher clergy.
The National Assembly was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly which, to an even greater extent,
found itself isolated in the country. The principle of democratic legitimacy, which should have justified its right to govern, did not do so because this principle was not recognized by the majority of the nation. What were the consequences? The Legislative Assembly was…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.