Tolerating the Terror

Les Sans-Culottes

by Albert Soboul
Editions du Seuil, 256 pp., 6.50 F.

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…

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