For some ten years or more now the Sans-Culottes have been establishing their claim to a front place on the stage of history. Their sponsors have been historians of various nationalities, but principally French (Professor Soboul) or English (Professor George Rudé and Mr. Richard Cobb). These historians’ inspiration is Marxist and their acknowledged master Georges Lefebvre, who died in 1959. They more or less share a common language, literally as well as figuratively, since even the Englishmen sometimes write in French, and Mr. Cobb does so habitually.

Lefebvre believed, to quote his own words, that “the Revolution was…the culmination of a long social and economic development which…made the bourgeoisie the masters of the world.” His own specific contribution, however, was an analysis of the part played by the peasants. This part seemed to him a vital one—it was the peasant revolts in the spring and summer of 1789 that made a major social revolution possible—but he nevertheless insisted that the peasants and the bourgeoisie had different aims. The peasant movement, as he put it, “had an autonomy of its own in its origins, its development, its crises and its tendencies.” Professor Soboul found in Lefebvre’s researches an inspiration and a model for his own. The existing interpretation of the Revolution, even after it had been modified to incorporate Lefebvre’s conclusions, seemed to him incomplete and inexact because it failed to take account of the Sans-Culottes, whose contribution was at least as large as that of the peasants and whose attitudes and aims were no more “bourgeois” than theirs. Just as in Lefebvre’s analysis the peasants did not constitute a class in any Marxist sense of the term, so the Sans-Culottes in Professor Soboul’s analysis did not constitute one either. They were a phenomenon of the pre-industrial age—master-craftsmen and their “compagnons,” shopkeepers, domestic servants. They were not beggars, thieves or vagabonds but “les petits gens,” who did not believe in abolishing private property, provided it was only small, but who were hostile to the ideals of the capitalist bourgeoisie, of the time and later, even though, as Professor Soboul sees things, these were ideals which their actions, like those of the peasants, nevertheless promoted.

In describing the Sans-Culottes movement Professor Soboul became the founder of a school. Since the principal market for works of history is now provided by the academic world, a school may be said to have become established when the subject of its sponsors’ study is added to the syllabus in universities and attracts students in sufficient numbers to warrant the compilation of textbooks. The Sans-Culottes achieved this honor some time ago in France. In 1958 Professor Soboul published his doctoral thesis—Les Sans-Culottes Parisiens en l’An II—in 1168 pages. Since then he has been editing parts of it for publication almost every year, either to serve as chapters in textbooks on the Revolution or, as in the work here under review, as abbreviated versions of his magnum opus.

These efforts at popularization are now beginning to bear fruit on the other side of the channel. In 1964 portions of Professor Soboul’s thesis were translated into English and published under the title of the Parisian Sans-Culottes and the French Revolution. At that date the Library of the University of Cambridge did not possess a copy of Les Sans-Culottes Parisiens en l’An II and professed to see no reason for buying one. Even now the Editor of the Times Literary Supplement remains under the impression that a Sans-Culottes was a man who wore no trousers, whereas it was precisely trousers, as distinct from breeches, that he did wear. We are, nevertheless, progressing. The Sans-Culottes have now found a British editor willing to champion the rights of students to be instructed about them in one of a series of textbooks (The Foundations of Modern Europe). They have found a British professor prepared to undertake the instruction in a booklet with 114 pages of text, of which fifty-two are specifically devoted to them, and the remainder to their nearest British equivalents—the radical artisans of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Professor Williams writes with sympathy and insight on the British artisans and has some new and interesting things to say about them. His space, however, is too short, and his style too allusive, for a clear picture of their activities to emerge. His chapters on the Sans-Culottes are equally allusive and less original. Here his facts and his approach to them are derived from the French scholars and their British associates, to whom he makes handsome acknowledgments in his bibliography. He describes Professor Soboul’s Les Sans-Culottes Parisiens en l’An II as “a staggering book, virtually a total reconstruction of the world of the Sans-Culottes,” though he then adds: “rather clinical.” He gives Mr. Cobb’s Les Armées Révolutionnaires higher marks. He finds this “even more staggering; a brilliantly successful recreation of a world of experience…the reverse of clinical.”


In Professor Williams’s vocabulary, which is not always easy to follow, “clinical” does not seem to be a term of praise. What he evidently admires in the works of Professor Soboul, and still more in those of Mr. Cobb, is the ability to “recreate a world of experience.” What he appears to deprecate is the common French preoccupation with analysis and generalization. He himself provides no clear analysis of the role of the Sans-Culottes in the Revolution, but attempts to recapture “the world of experience.” His readers may find his enthusiasm infectious. Given his fifty-two pages he may have done as well as possible. His space, however, is inadequate for his task. Since he continually has recourse to French quotations, and to French terms many of which could easily have been translated into English, his book is plainly not intended for those who cannot read French. Students able to do this will learn more with less effort from Professor Soboul’s most recent summary of his own conclusions. Les Sans-Culottes admittedly contains 246 pages of text, but the table of contents gives a full summary of the argument in every chapter, and the writing is admirably clear.

In so far, in fact, as he deals with the Sans-Culottes, Professor Williams is interesting not because of what he has to say, all of which has been better said by other people, but because of his attitude of mind, which seems typical in two respects of a line of thinking now current in Britain, particularly in the newer universities. On the one hand professor Williams is an exponent of the British empirical tradition, which is not only hostile to philosophies of history but is indifferent to the need for coherent analysis; on the other hand he is inspired by the emotions, hitherto more common among the French than the British, which are aroused in those who contemplate in conjunction the miseries of the poor and the wickedness of the rich.

These emotions are very obvious in the work of Professor Soboul, notwithstanding the “clinical” approach which Professor Williams claims to find in it. The poor in the eighteenth century were undoubtedly miserable in every country, and by some standards, including Christian standards, the rich were wicked. If, however, Professor Soboul’s thinking were as clinical as Professor Williams supposes, he would not be concerned with wickedness or virtue, since these are matters of moral judgment and not of fact, but would confine himself to describing the Sans-Culottes’ conditions of life, their aims, their achievements, and their failures. It must be admitted that Professor Soboul devotes himself to these tasks and often discharges them admirably. They are not, however, his only interest, for he is a writer with a message.

Like Marx, Professor Soboul idealizes the people whose untutored ideas on social and political questions seem to him essentially just. His point of view is epitomized on the first page of his doctoral thesis, which is devoted to two quotations. The first (against which his work is directed) is from the liberal Vergniaud and runs: “equality for man in society is only an equality of rights.” The second expresses the aims of the Sans-Culottes and demands the abolition of “inequality of enjoyment” (l’inégalité des jouissances.) They demanded a controlled economy from which they hoped for the necessities of life at a price they could afford. They believed in direct democracy, that is, that the powers of justice and administration should rest in the hands of “the people” (in practice, during the period of the Sans-Culottes’ ascendancy they were wielded by small militant minorities) and that “the people” should exercise a continuous control over policy.

“Power on earth,” Saint-Just said, “belongs to the wretched. They have a right to speak as masters to the governments that neglect them.” The Sans-Culottes, as Professor Soboul shows, spoke as masters during the short period when the Jacobins (who in any case sympathized with many of their aspirations) were dependent on their support. Their policies were enforced by means of the guillotine, and when this proved incapable of killing fast enough, by such devices as the noiades in Nantes, where over 2,000 people were drowned in the Loire, and the mitraillades in Lyon where, with the aid of a Sans-Culottes militia, or armée révolutionnaire, the victims were lined up in front of trenches dug to serve as graves, and fired on by cannon, those who survived being finished off by hand.

Professor Soboul does not attempt to deny that the Sans-Culottes enjoyed these escapades, that they were driven by hate, and that their hatred was directed against many kinds of people without which no community can flourish. He says that they hated not only all aristocrats, all the rich, all the rentiers, all hoarders and speculators, and all large merchants, but also all well-to-do (tous ceux qui ont quelque chose) and all “citizens who were better educated and better dressed than themselves.” They frequently expressed the wish to kill everyone in these categories.


Professor Soboul finds these sentiments natural because he thinks they are attributable to the Sans-Culottes’ material misery and their consequent desire to be revenged on the beneficiaries of the ancien régime. He tells us that the Sans-Culottes were cruel only to their enemies and not to each other; that they strove to establish their right to human dignity and importance; and that their cause was that of humanity. Professor Williams appears to accept all this uncritically, but much of it is nevertheless implausible.

The savagery of the Sans-Culottes was unfortunately not peculiar to them or to the poverty-stricken societies of peasants and artisans characteristic of the eighteenth century. It was a phenomenon of a kind with which we should now be too familiar to be willing to attribute it simply to the vices of the ancien régime, vicious though this may have been. The bloodthirstiness which the Sans-Culottes exhibited does not seem to have been endemic in French society before the Revolution as it was, for example, endemic in eastern Europe. In eastern Europe, long before and after the Revolution, when the peasants rose in revolt they murdered the landlords. The French peasants, by contrast, when they burned the chateaux and the manorial records in the spring and summer of 1789, generally left the landlords unmolested. Throughout most of the eighteenth century, as Professor Williams points out, the English mobs were more violent than the French. Before 1789 France had no experience comparable to the Gordon riots, which are said to have destroyed more property in London than even the Revolution destroyed in Paris. The English artisans, however, for reasons which Professor Williams only considers superficially, were not bloodthirsty like the French. It seems plain that French bloodthirstiness must have had more complicated causes, including the revolutionary situation itself, than Professor Soboul suggests.

It must also have had more profound consequences. Since denunciation and murder were an integral part of the Sans-Culottes’ world of experience, Professor Soboul’s assertion that they were kind husbands and fathers is hard to believe. It is easier to believe Sartre when, in his Réflexions sur la Question Juive, he describes the mentality of the anti-Semite, whose hostility to the Jews he attributes to much the same attitudes as those which Soboul finds characteristic of the Sans-Culottes. May the anti-Semite, Sartre asks, not behave reasonably to his fellow-creatures, Jews apart?

I reply that it is impossible. Here is a fishmonger, who in 1942, exasperated by the competition of two Jewish fishmongers who have concealed their race, picks up his pen one fine day and denounces them. They assure me that he is otherwise kind and good-natured and the best son in the world. But I do not believe it. A man who finds it natural to denounce other men cannot have our conception of humanity. Even those whom he benefits he does not see with our eyes. His generosity and kindness are not like our generosity and kindness. One cannot localize passion.

To accept this argument is not to pronounce judgment on the Sans-Culottes (whatever may be said about their more educated leaders), since for the greater part they were ignorant, miserable, and brutalized by poverty. It is not to justify their treatment by the ancien régime or by the regimes which followed Thermidor. It is, however, to assert that their actions were neither good nor productive of good, that it is inappropriate to describe them as “engaging,” as Professor Williams does on one occasion, and that to defend ignorance and brutality in the name of humanity is the trahison des clercs.

Admittedly historians can be guilty of this offense and yet in certain circumstances write excellent history. Professor Soboul’s analysis of how the Sans-Culottes came to grief, of how, even before Thermidor, the Jacobins were forced to embark on the task of repressing them, and of how the Jacobins themselves fell victims to their own “contradictions” is admirably precise, objective, and cogent. He can, however, only show these qualities when he can accommodate the facts within his interpretation of history and this is not always possible.

In the concluding chapter, for example, of the work here under review, Professor Soboul claims that the Sans-Culottes were the instruments of progress because of the “decisive aid they gave to the bourgeois revolution.” This is plainly true in the sense that the Sans-Culottes enabled the Jacobin dictatorship to establish itself, and it was this dictatorship which defeated the attempts at invasion and counterrevolution. Professor Soboul, however, conceals the enormous price which they exacted for their services. They wrecked the centers of French wealth in Lyon, Nantes, Bourdeaux, and many other cities. To Professor Soboul this seems immaterial because before the Revolution the most prosperous French cities were Marseilles and the Atlantic ports, which owed their prosperity, wholly or largely, to the trades with the West Indies in sugar, coffee, and slaves. These trades had no future. The future, as Professor Soboul rightly says, lay with industry, and not with the exploitation of colonial products.

His argument nevertheless seems perverse. There can be no comparison between, say, Bordeaux after 1815 and Rotterdam after 1945 when, having been re-equipped with the help of American capital, it was in a better position to compete with its rivals than it had been before the Germans destroyed it. In the eighteenth century the French had lagged behind the British in economic development, but they did so to an even greater extent in the nineteenth century. Industrialization in France came late and slowly—much later than in Britain, much more slowly than in Germany. The growth in national income, which alone could facilitate progress toward légalité des jouissances was slow in proportion.

The Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen, who wrote his reminiscences in the 1850s and 1860s and who shared many of the Jacobins’ egalitarian ideas, insisted that to “dwell on the terror with love, to invoke it without necessity, is a bizarre blunder…. Operations are justified by success, but the Terror cannot boast even of that. With all its surgery it did not save the Republic.” This judgment contains at least as much truth as Professor Soboul’s, not only because the aristocrats and the Bourbons came back, but, more significantly, because, as Saint-Just himself admitted, the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity for which the Revolution had originally stood, had all perished in the carnage, even before Thermidor reestablished the rights of property and l’inégalité des jouissances.

The ideals, it is true, were later revived, but never with the same conviction or degree of support, and often, as it seemed to Herzen, as a form of play-acting. Herzen was in Paris during the revolution of 1848 and observed the attempts of the revolutionaries to resurrect the emotions aroused in 1792 by la Patrie en danger. With one or two honorable exceptions he found the actors in this repeat-performance ridiculous, and the result (the triumph of the Right) a disaster. “Ideas,” he said, “that have outlived their day may hobble about the world for years—may even, like Christ, appear after death once or twice to their devotees; but it is hard for them ever again to lead or dominate life.” Herzen’s judgment seems as applicable to Professor Soboul’s point of view as to that of the revolutionaries of 1848.

Professor Williams’s case is different. All the great issues are left out of his account. Enthralled as he is with the Sans-Culottes’ “world of experience” he ignores the consequences of their actions. He gives us French history inspired by French emotions. He divorces the emotions, however, from the ideology which justifies them in French eyes, and the facts from the analyses which endow them with meaning and coherence. It must seem doubtful whether this kind of Franglais has much to commend it.

This Issue

May 8, 1969