The French Revolution was an event without parallel before 1917 and one of the most momentous events in European history. It destroyed a whole way of life and government in France and threatened the comparable regimes in other countries. The wars for which it was responsible changed the balance of power in Europe. The material and ideological upheavals which accompanied it can be compared only to those produced by the Russian Revolution, whose founding fathers, indeed, continually looked to it for guidance. It marked the beginning of an age—the age of the first industrial revolution and the liberal state—of which the generations now living are experiencing the collapse.

These facts alone must make it a subject of perennial interest. The growing volume of monograph studies devoted to it, and the new questions which it continually raises as its events assume a different significance in the light of current experience, must make its reappraisal a necessity. On the other hand, the main phases through which it passed, and the main events in the Revolutionary calendar, have long been known. There can be no point in recapitulating them again except as the basis for a new interpretation. Messrs. Furet and Richet claim to provide this, but with doubtful justification.

Since a Marxist interpretation of history was first adopted by French historians in the 1920s the high water mark of the Revolution’s achievements has been held to have been reached during the Terror. The attempts made between 1789 and 1791 to introduce a liberal regime are seen as the prelude to it, and the reversion to liberalism after its collapse as an anticlimax or “reaction.” The Terror, generations have been taught to believe, was the heroic period of the revolution—the period when revolt was put down at home, when the foreign invaders were driven back, when inflation and starvation were kept in check by the introduction of economic controls, and when “the people,” in the persons of the sans-culottes, played a dominant part, determining for a short time the policy of the Convention, and providing the force by which that policy was implemented.

The sans-culottes were not communists, or even in any modern sense of the term socialists. Being wholly uneducated they cannot be said to have subscribed to any political philosophy. Their motto, however, was l’égalité des jouissances. They stood for the rights of the poor against the rich, which they believed could only be enforced by confiscation of wealth and control of prices, backed by the guillotine. According to Marxist theory their defeat was inevitable since their aspirations were incompatible with the emergent bourgeois society. Marxism nevertheless taught that bourgeois society itself must ultimately collapse under attack from the proletariat, and the French Marxists have seen the sans-culottes as the heralds of this event. The sans-culottes have become the heroes of the Revolution, not only because they saved it from the forces of reaction, but because in their desire for vengeance against all who were superior to them, by right of birth, wealth, education, or talent, they typified the aspirations of the oppressed. The future in the long run was thought to be on their side, and in consequence it seemed natural to make their exploits the focal point of any history of the Revolution.

Messrs. Furet and Richet have no patience with any of this. Admittedly they accept that the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution but they reject the rest of the orthodoxy. The rise of the sans-culottes to power was not, they say, “the culmination of some inevitable process” but was, on the contrary, the result of “accidents.” “There was no real justification for the special place given to the Terror,” which, on the contrary, only blew the Revolution “further off the course which had been set by eighteenth-century thought.” To see the sans-culottes as prototypes of the future is to misunderstand the revolutionary scene, for they were not an industrial proletariat but principally artisans and shopkeepers. Their egalitarian ideals, which they combined with a belief in private property, and their insistence that the government should control prices, were relics of the Middle Ages. There was nothing democratic in their exercise of power, which during the period of their ascendancy was wielded dictatorially by small groups of militants. Their elimination from the political scene, for which Thermidor was responsible, did not constitute a reaction but a return to the principles of 1789.

Messrs. Furet and Richet plainly do not like the sans-culottes and it is not difficult to see why, for even their most devoted sympathizers, notably Professor Soboul and Mr. Cobb, have not succeeded in making them appear agreeable. Mr. Cobb, indeed, in his Police and the People refers in one place to their “ferocious cruelty,” and describes their behavior elsewhere as “intolerable,” “interfering,” “brutal,” and “ugly.” He notes that when they were enrolled in the French armies, “the comforts of occupation made them lazy as well as repressive, corrupt,” and “unfraternal.” He nevertheless retains the kind of sympathy for them that the victims of an oppressive social system, even when they are criminals, often nowadays excite. He quotes the late Sir Lewis Namier as having said to a Ph.D. candidate: “Why do you bother with these bandits?” and adds that no historian would utter such sentiments now.


But this is where he is wrong. Though more discreetly formulated, these are the sentiments of Messrs. Furet and Richet, and it is not surprising to find them reiterated. Sooner or later it was to be expected that, even among French academics, respectability would raise its voice in protest against the condoning of plunder, sadism, and murder, whatever the provocation of the perpetrators.

The Terror is an episode impossible to contemplate without political emotions of some sort. Though all the writers of the books here under discussion profess their intention of abstaining from moral judgments and, by implication, from the ideological commitments to which such judgments lead, none succeeds in doing so. Only very naïve readers could fail to see that commitments of this kind provide Messrs. Furet and Richet with their inspiration.

Their object is not to provide new information—all they tell us, for example, about the sans-culottes is based on facts set out by Professor Soboul and Mr. Cobb. They merely seek to give the facts a new interpretation. Their attempt to do this, however, consists to a large extent in juggling with words. They do not, for instance, dispute that the Terror was provoked by inflation, scarcity, counter-revolution, and war. They merely describe these disasters as “accidents,” putting the word accident into inverted commas to indicate, presumably, that they are using it, as indeed they are, in some unusual though unexplained way. When they say that Thermidor did not constitute a reaction they do not mean to dispute the accepted version of its consequences. They merely see that “reaction” is a pejorative term which they find as inappropriate when applied to the overthrow of Robespierre as it would be if applied, say, to the overthrow of Hitler.

People who want to upset accepted opinions commonly start by objecting to the current use of words. This may lead to fruitful results but does not do so in the present instance. Messrs. Furet and Richet set out their conclusions in sections written in italics at the beginning of every chapter. The judgments thus have the appearance of being superimposed on the facts, and like a cheap suit they do not fit in many places. Often the narrative has no logical sequence; there are key concepts which are not explained, statements which contradict each other, and vital questions which are not answered.

Messrs. Furet and Richet continually insist that the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, begun, continued, and ended by bourgeois for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. Statements more or less to this effect have been made so often, though so rarely with any attempt at coherent explanation, that to the layman, for whom this book is intended, they must by now seem meaningless. Messrs. Furet and Richet make no attempt to explain.

What distinguished the ways of life and government under the ancien régime from those which resulted from the Revolution? This is never clear. What are we meant to understand by the terms bourgeois and bourgeois society? At one point we learn that the Revolution produced a bourgeois intellectual elite, represented by the Feuillants, which went “into eclipse,” but we are told nothing about it. Elsewhere we learn that there was an “exclusive old bourgeoisie” which ceased to exist after Thermidor, but we are told nothing about that either. Further on we learn that the bourgeoisie was represented by the “gilded youth,” but the gilded youth is said to have consisted of “actors, singers and dancers.” On page 207 it is stated that “on the economic plain the bourgeoisie was well satisfied” by the Terror. If we happen to remember that the Terror destroyed the French colonial trades and ruined the rich merchants in Bordeaux and other great trading centers, we lose patience at this point. Messrs. Furet and Richet’s French Revolution hardly seems a book to take seriously.

This conclusion is indeed suggested by the italicized preface to the first chapter. Here, among other things, we are told that before the Revolution the French nobility did not pay the taille, regardless of the fact that their tenants did pay it and deducted it from their rent, and that the nobles themselves paid the equivalent of the English land tax. We are told that the French government went bankrupt because of the nobles’ tax immunities, although this assumption has been many times denied and is inherently improbable; for no government in Europe at this time could impose a graduated income tax, or tax directly any source of income except land. Thus in every country, Britain included, where there was neither bankruptcy nor revolution, the wealth of the rich landowners could not be significantly tapped, and commercial, industrial, and financial wealth could not be directly taxed at all.


We are told that the eighteenth century in France was a period of economic expansion, which saw the multiplication of commercial outlets and the growth of “vast numbers of private contractors” in the leading industries of building and textiles. In another passage, nevertheless, we learn that “the great landowners were the only persons to derive any increase in wealth” from all this activity. It would be an insult to the authors’ intelligence to suppose that they cannot see that these two statements are irreconcilable. The authors simply are not trying. They are not seriously concerned with providing an accurate and coherent narrative that will explain how and why things happened. Their object is to inculcate certain conclusions.

In this respect their work is typical of a great many textbooks written on French eighteenth-century history by scholars of all political persuasions. Any Ph.D. candidate wishing to investigate the collapse of bourgeois civilization could do worse than study the evolution in recent years of these general surveys, produced primarily for students, but increasingly adorned, like Messrs. Furet and Richet’s French Revolution, with illustrations designed to meet the requirements of the coffee table.

French scholars now devote their serious attention to economic and sociological problems which have no direct bearing, or none that they are concerned to establish, on the main events of French history. These events no longer seem sufficiently important, and the public for which the surveys are devised is held in too little esteem to justify the expenditure of time and intellectual effort that good academic work requires. The surveys are didactic and the vehicles of crude propaganda. They show an indifference to accuracy and logic. Even when the authors agree in their conclusions—as in their assertions about the bourgeois nature of the Revolution—they do so without explaining what they mean and on the basis of different and often contradictory evidence.

Mr. Cobb, who does not write textbooks, cannot be tarred with this brush. On the contrary, he is in revolt against a number of the present trends in historical scholarship as well as against many other things besides. Although he disclaims any wish to make “incursions into autobiography,” we meet him in the opening pages of the first essay of the collection entitled A Second Identity in revolt against his bourgeois background. He went to a famous English public school, which found him troublesome. His mother played bridge several times a week in Tunbridge Wells. He partner’s daughter Philippa spent a year in Paris, learned excellent French and came back “to all intents and appearances much as she had left.” Tunbridge Wells, bridge, Philippa—this was evidently the destiny from which he escaped into bohemian life in Paris.

By his own account he developed then, and has retained, a dislike for the conventional, for the successful, for the worldly minded, for the calculating, the selfish, and the rich. He also dislikes the Germans, and were his aversion from them not such as to prevent him, one must assume, from ever opening their works, he would find the epitome of all he most detests in Buddenbrooks. His sympathies are with the poor, with the underdogs, and with eccentrics of all kinds, particularly if they are violent, though he professes to dislike violence. He is too much of a frondeur, he tells us, to belong to any school, but the one which most attracts him is that represented by Robert Mandrou’s Histoire des mentalités. History, he believes, is “a form of involvement,” and for him it involves understanding what people think and feel, or, more accurately, understanding the thoughts and feelings of the types that appeal to him, for he does not usually find it necessary to understand the others.

He is a writer of great natural talent which shows at its best in A Second Identity, a series of essays, mainly reviews written for The Times Literary Supplement, which give scope for his wit and his skill in bringing people and situations to life. As a piece of writing it would be hard to beat his picture of the famous French historian, George Lefebvre, that old curmudgeon, as he portrays him, austere, silent, “rather heartless,” a misogynist, without generosity, incapable of human affection, with “a narrow, rigid, unimaginative petit bourgeois nationalism,” and the petit bourgeois’s total indifference to grace, elegance, and beauty, but a dedicated socialist and a scholar of the greatest acuteness, integrity, and learning.

Mr. Cobb excels at the vivid description of a wide variety of French types in the present and the past. He does so by virtue of a facility for writing and many years of living as a Frenchman and working in French archives. It may be right, as he insists, that the best history can be written only with this kind of commitment to a people and its documents. On the other hand the commitment in itself is no guarantee for good writing of any sort.

There are documents and documents and those that are only to be found in archives are not in all circumstances the best guides. In his Police and the People, for example, Mr. Cobb damns the Physiocrats, Turgot included, for their indifference to the people’s needs. How many of the documents printed in the 30,000 or so pages of Turgot’s collected works, or in the thousand pages of Quesnay’s, had he read before he reached this judgment? Quite possibly, it seems, none at all.

Since there are so many, and so many different kinds of original documents (not to mention the secondary authorities) that no single person can get his eyes over more than a minute fraction of them, is the scholar to rely solely on his untutored common sense, and his “involvement,” for their selection and interpretation? This is what Mr. Cobb believes. He tells us that he “totally rejects sociology and quantification.” He is so much preoccupied by the uniqueness of every individual and historical situation that generalizations, even though of course he cannot avoid them, seem to him a sin against the truth. He does not seem to have a high regard for accuracy, nor, as he openly admits, does he aim at fairness. He writes, as he says, with “love” (which often involves him in passionate dislikes) about the subjects which catch his fancy.

In The Police and the People these subjects number fifty-six, apart from subdivisions, and each of them gets on an average about six pages, though some of them—for example “Government and the problem of dearth” to which he devotes nine pages—could easily fill a book. Naturally in these circumstances there is little scope for argument or analysis. His defense is that “my subject is chaotic and I may well have written about it chaotically.” He certainly has.

To have done so, however, is in accordance with his principles. In one passage, for example, in The Police and the People, he expresses a dislike, as indeed he has done before in other works, for Professor Soboul’s conclusions on the French Revolution which he thinks do violence to the facts. He does not, however, hold Professor Soboul to blame for this since he believes that it is in the nature of all generalizations. He does not want to judge Professor Soboul by his conclusions, which in the longer works, he points out, only obtrude themselves at the beginnings and ends of chapters. Professor Soboul, he thinks, should be judged by his “massive middle” passages, which look like “the real thing” and reveal a scene full of “passion, confusion, credulity, myth, anarchy, noise.”

It is these which appeal to Mr. Cobb, who, it is plain, has certain affinities with the sans-culottes. No doubt he chose to write on them for this reason and his relationship with them is of long standing. Like them he is inspired by radical emotions and like theirs the means by which he seeks to give expression to them are conservative, not to say reactionary. His faith in the study of archives as the sole key to understanding, his dislike of generalizations, his rejection of all the modern aids to the interpretation of historical data look like the relics of an age when the archives of every country still remained to be explored, and when the principal subjects of historical study were politics and diplomacy, divorced from their social and economic background and with the emphasis on individuals.

He himself is plainly a little embarrassed by his “chaotic” methods, but he nevertheless defends them truculently. He is typical of the mood of irrational revolt which inspires many of the young, and not so young, today, just as Messrs. Furet and Richet are typical of the kind of cynicism, also unfortunately not uncommon, which hands out slick generalizations with a cocksure air.

This Issue

March 25, 1971