Alice Gérard has written an interesting little book on the historiography of the French Revolution. The continuous controversies, she points out, to which the interpretations of the Revolution have given rise themselves have a history which deserves to be studied. Her own study of them, which has had to be adapted to the needs of a series, is very short, but it nevertheless displays a wide knowledge and sets out a body of evidence which students of history cannot fail to find disturbing. For she not only shows, what we already knew, that every generation wants to rewrite its history; she reveals the intimate connection which has always existed in France between historians’ attitudes toward the Revolution and the political moods of the moment.

The first famous historians of the Revolution, Mignet and Thiers, were inspired by dislike of the government of Charles X and appealed against it to the liberal principles of 1789. They were followed by Michelet, Louis Blanc, and Lamartine, who disliked the government of Louis Philippe and appealed against this to the social and democratic principles of 1793. The failures of the revolutionary movements in 1848 and 1871 temporarily discredited socialism, democracy, and the belief in revolution as a means of change. They provided Taine with his inspiration. Taine’s success was, however, transient. He was superseded by the radical Aulard and by the socialist Jaurès, whose concern with economic conditions and with the role played by the people in the great Revolution inspired the generation of Mathiez and Lefebvre.

Mathiez and Lefebvre were further influenced by the Russian Revolution and by the experiences of the 1914-18 war, from which Mathiez deduced a lesson—that wars cannot be waged in a free economy—which he applied in his study of the Terror. These two writers educated generations to believe that the great achievements of the Revolution were those of the Terror, to which the preceding events were merely a prelude and the ones that followed an anticlimax. Their conclusions were later modified by historians even further to the left, who pointed out that Robespierre and his colleagues were not altogether such angels of light as Mathiez had supposed, but that, on the contrary, they were inspired by petit-bourgeois ideas and that during the Terror began the suppression of the popular movements which the Thermidoreans afterward completed.

All the changes in interpretation which Alice Gérard chronicles have involved more than a mere reshuffling of accepted facts. The range of facts that have been taken into account has continually been extended. Moreover the methods of investigation which scholars employ have become increasingly professional and sophisticated, at least within the more or less narrow fields in which nowadays they serve the apprenticeship that qualifies them to write textbooks and works for the general public.

The passions and problems nevertheless persist and support Tocqueville’s judgment that the Revolution is a drama which is not yet concluded. Was the Revolution one revolution or several revolutions? Which achievements are the more significant: those of 1789-1791 or those of 1793-1794? Is the work of the Revolution over, or does it require a proletarian revolution to complete it? As Alice Gérard shows, all these questions were being debated over 100 years ago and the debates still go on.

For some time it has been possible to divide the protagonists into broadly two groups. On the one hand are those who see the Revolution primarily in moral and political terms and assess its achievements in much the same way as the British used to assess the achievements of 1688. Until recently the British in general believed that the principles in accordance with which government and society had been organized in their country in the seventeenth century would remain immutable. They supposed that the only changes that need occur would be in the application of the principles, and that by a process of continual compromise and adjustment the opportunities which had originally been the prerogative of the few would in the course of time be extended to everyone. There have been many French people, starting with the Thermidoreans, who have similarly concluded that, though revolution was necessary and respectable in 1789, it has not been so on any subsequent occasion.

On the other hand there are those who derive their inspiration from Marx and from the pre-Marxist French writers who provided Marx with many of his ideas, and who have dominated the field for the last half-century. They see the Revolution primarily as a matter of economics, and of struggles between classes defined by their relation to the means of production. To these people the Revolution was a revolt of the bourgeoisie against feudalism and is destined to be superseded by a revolt of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.

On the eve of the First World War the disputes between Aulard and Mathiez, typifying respectively these two points of view, reached such a pitch of violence that one Frenchman, quoted by Alice Gérard, predicted that should this state of affairs continue it would totally discredit French historians in the eyes of the world. The danger did not then materialize, for the disputes passed unnoticed in other countries where at this time the Revolution seemed a purely French phenomenon. It could, however, no longer seem so after 1917.


The Bolsheviks planned their revolution on the basis of a careful study of the French. One French historian whom Alice Gérard quotes observed that they knew more about the French Revolution than the French knew themselves. The French left was suitably impressed. The Robespierre Society sent a warm greeting to “the founders of Russian liberty.” Mathiez wrote that though the gap in time between the two revolutions accounted for the difference in their theories and programs, nevertheless they had the same origins, employed the same methods, and were directed to the same object: the transformation of world society. In these circumstances the French Revolution, though deprived of its monopoly, acquired an international significance which it had not enjoyed since the beginning of the nineteenth century and its historians became objects of international interest.

Until these developments it had been common to assume that each nation was best equipped to write its own history and that foreigners seeking to understand, say, the history of France should turn to the French for guidance. They did so for a long time in a docile spirit. In the end, however, they became suspicious.

This happened for reasons that could not be deduced from Alice Gérard’s work. She starts by saying that she assumes her readers know the facts about the Revolution. She also apparently assumes that her authors get their facts right. Neither assumption is, however, warranted. Admittedly there is a body of indisputable facts which all writers on the Revolution must take into account. It is, however, quite insufficient to fill a book. For the rest, the facts, or the supposed facts, that an author cites are those which he selects to serve his purpose; and if, as often happens in histories of the Revolution, he contradicts himself, or makes statements plainly contrary to common sense, even the uninitiated begin to suspect that he has got his facts wrong.

In the historical works on the French Revolution that academic historians in Europe write for the general public, accuracy and coherence are now at a discount, for while the range of knowledge and the complexity of the concepts continually increase, so also do the pressures to make money and a reputation by writing as many books as quickly as possible. Imprecise arguments and mistakes of fact, always more difficult to avoid than the layman supposes, become more common and egregious in these circumstances, and are particularly obvious in the versions of the class struggle that have been put about in France.

Even Tocqueville, whom it is now fashionable to praise as one of the first to see that such a struggle existed, was far from innocent in this respect. Alice Gérard describes his Ancien Régime et la Révolution as a model of analysis and synthesis. Notwithstanding its elegant style and its many brilliant ideas, it can hardly appear so to anyone who examines it critically. Tocqueville, for example, maintained that the nobility was becoming more and more of a caste, while asserting at the same time that titles had never been so easy to get. He said that the nobles had privileges but no power (which was obviously untrue, for they held all the important posts) and insisted particularly on their tax privileges (which he greatly exaggerated). He nevertheless maintained that the bourgeois, who being unprivileged presumably paid taxes, were continually getting richer and dispossessing the nobles of their wealth.

These remarks suggested that, at least in the upper reaches of society, the taxes fell on the rich and not on the poor, and yet did not prevent the wealth of the rich from increasing. It becomes difficult to see why, in such circumstances, the government should have gone bankrupt. No coherent explanation, in fact, of the relations between nobles and bourgeois, or of their respective responsibility for the Revolution, can be deduced from his account, and the Marxist historians who built on his foundations have only increased the confusion he created.

Admittedly, though Alice Gérard does not mention the point, this confusion is now becoming apparent even among the French themselves. Professor Mousnier, for example, has long been aware of it. In 1969 Professor Goubert, in his L’Ancien Régime, exposed the absurdity of trying to explain the Revolution in terms of “the triumph of an unidentifiable capitalist bourgeoisie over an unidentifiable feudal aristocracy.” If François Furet and Denis Richet are any guide, there is even a reaction in favor of the view that the Terror was an aberration, and that the essential revolution was one on behalf of the liberal ideas that were proclaimed in 1789 and reaffirmed after Thermidor.


For all this, however, there are parts of the Marxist thesis which it has proved impossible to jettison. Virtually all historians today admit that in some sense or other (and even if they cannot say precisely in what sense) the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. Virtually all see it as a major event in the transition to the new kind of society which came to prevail in most of Europe in the nineteenth century and which, equally, can only be described as bourgeois. Whether one calls the pre-revolutionary society “feudal,” or uses some other adjective, becomes in such circumstances merely a matter of terminology.

To this extent, at least, the Marxist categories are now accepted. The Marxist interpretation of the Revolution, as developed in France, remains nevertheless indefensible, though hitherto it has proved impossible to provide a substitute for it. It is this uncomfortable state of affairs, combined with the awareness that the French problems are also everyone’s, which has given the foreigners an itch to poke their fingers into the French pie.

Professor Palmer is one of the distinguished foreigners to yield to this temptation. In the book here under review, however, which for the greater part is a shortened version of his two-volume work entitled The Age of the Democratic Revolution, 1760-1800, he is not wholly or even, as he tells us, primarily concerned with France. His subject is the Revolution as an international event, for he believes that aspirations similar to those of the French revolutionaries were awakened by the French example, and even before the Revolution broke out had found independent expression in a number of countries. In his World of the French Revolution he sets out to consider the revolutionary disturbances in Europe and North America with a view to discovering the causes and significance of their success or failure.

This project has aroused much criticism, particularly in France, for legitimate and illegitimate reasons. As Alice Gérard points out in the section of her book entitled “Thémes des controverses actuelles,” Professor Palmer has considered movements of protest and revolt in so many countries, and in circumstances that differed so widely one from another, that only the most superficial generalizations can be deduced from his account.

It is impossible to refute this charge. On the other hand the French Revolution began as an attack on the ancien régime which it succeeded in destroying. When the French maintain, as some, notably Professor Goubert, do, that this regime was a purely French phenomenon, it is permissible to doubt them. Like the regimes in all countries at all times, it was of course sui generis. It is nevertheless a platitude that its social and political arrangements were in many respects similar to those elsewhere. Had this not been so, the ease with which, proverbially, people in the eighteenth century could make themselves at home in foreign countries would have been impossible.

When the Revolution destroyed the ancien régime in France it threatened the comparable regimes in other places. Like the Russian Revolution in the present century, because its ideas were infectious, because it evolved means of coping with social problems that appeared to have a general relevance, and because its military power was very great, and greatly increased by revolution, it succeeded in introducing new institutions and ways of life, temporarily or permanently, into large parts of Europe.

For these reasons Professor Palmer’s assumption that the revolutionary movements were interconnected is plausible. His belief that in Europe the Revolution was a watershed separating one form of society from another can hardly be disputed. His attempt to discover the significant differences between these two kinds of society and why it proved possible or impossible to move from one to the other would be valuable if the task could be achieved. It is, however, so large that, in the present state of knowledge, the chances of success must seem doubtful. They are moreover diminished by Professor Palmer’s method of approach.

He fits into Alice Gérard’s category of historians who believe that the French Revolution established principles that are eternally valid. Though he might be described as radical by virtue of his dislike of the ancien régime, of privilege and elitism, he is in this respect conservative. He is also conservative in the primacy he accords to questions of morals and politics, and because of his belief in the virtues of bourgeois ideology, which indeed he does not see as an ideology at all but as the only correct way of looking at things.

The Revolution remains for him the greatest event in modern history: “the symbol not only for France but for the world”; “the dawn of liberty and equality”; “the point of transition between the Old Order and Modern Society.” Though his book is one of a series entitled “Great Waves of Revolution,” and though he admits that the waves which started rolling in 1789 are rolling still, he does not think that their doing so will cause any disturbances in North America and Western Europe. There have been, he points out, no successful revolutions in these areas since the end of the eighteenth century; only the “idea or ideal” of revolution has persisted and this is an idea which he holds to be without substance.

In his final chapter, in which he discusses the myths to which the French Revolution gave rise, he notes the belief in the continuing or “permanent revolution”—a term which was first used by Marx and later adopted by Trotsky. He holds that this belief has no relevance for the West because the improvement in working-class conditions has made a proletarian revolution improbable.

These attitudes condition his approach to the events of his period. As Tocqueville once observed in a passage which Alice Gérard quotes: “Les grandes révolutions qui réussissent, faisant disparaitre les causes qui les avaient produites, deviennent ainsi incompréhensibles par leur succes même.” To Professor Palmer the French Revolution was a great revolution which succeeded. He is so much impressed by what he calls its “flaming words” that he finds it difficult to look at it in the only way that could make it fully intelligible—that is, as a struggle which was inevitably decided by the relative strength of the contending parties. In attempting to account for the collapse of the old regimes he focuses his attention on the grievances to which they gave rise, rather than on the other reasons which made them unstable, and without which the grievances would have been differently and less forcibly expressed.

The characteristics of the ancien régime that he stresses are principally those which set obstacles in the way of liberty and equality. He sees the French Revolution as the result of two causes: on the one hand the financial crisis which led to the summoning of the States General, and which he attributes to the tax immunities of the rich; on the other hand the revolt of the peasants, to which they were driven by misery, and which coincided with the revolt of the bourgeoisie.

The financial crisis, however, cannot be explained in such simple terms. Among other reasons, no government at that time possessed the machinery for enforcing an income tax, let alone a graduated income tax, capable of tapping the wealth of the rich. The French financial system differed from those in the more successful contemporary states not because of its inability to tax the rich but, as Professor Bosher’s recent work on French finance shows, because of its old-fashioned methods and its fathomless confusion and inefficiency, which were typical of much in the French administration in general. The peasant risings, as Lefebvre pointed out in his classic work on the subject, would have been put down by the army, as such risings always had been and were to continue to be in every country, had they not occurred when law and order had already collapsed.

Regimes do not in fact fall because of their vices, as Professor Palmer more often than not leads one to suppose. They fall because they are weak. They are commonly, like the ancien régime in France, less vicious at the time they are overthrown than they had been in their prime. The end comes for them, as it came in France in 1789, when they are unable either to placate or to suppress their opponents and so are forced to abdicate.

The abdication of Louis XVI (for the summoning of the States General amounted to this, as was pointed out at the time) and, even more significantly, of the Establishment in general, was not only an unprecedented event but one which had no parallel before 1917. To Arthur Young it seemed the most astonishing of the occurrences he observed in the course of his travels in revolutionary France. “It is curious to remark,” he wrote in July, 1789, at the time of the peasant risings,

that if the nobility of other provinces are hunted like those of Franche Comté, of which there is little reason to doubt, that whole order of men [will] undergo a proscription and suffer like sheep, without making the least effort to resist the attack. This appears marvellous with a body that have an army of 150,000 men in their hands, for though a part of those troops would certainly disobey their leaders, yet let it be remembered, that out of the 40,000, or possibly 100,000 noblesse of France, they might, if they had intelligence and union amongst themselves, fill half the ranks of more than half the regiments of the kingdom with men who have fellow-feelings and fellow-sufferings with themselves; but no meetings, no associations among them; no taking refuge in the ranks of regiments to defend or avenge their cause; fortunately for France they fall without a struggle, and die without a blow.

How is this phenomenon to be explained? Professor Palmer provides no clue. Nor is one to be discovered in the other revolts and revolutions he considers, for none was in this respect comparable. Might he however not find one by studying the conditions in those other major states where the Establishment did not abdicate, but where reforms comparable with those effected in France were nevertheless achieved?

The most successful states in the nineteenth century, judged by their economic growth and military power, were Great Britain and Prussia, and, after 1870, imperial Germany under Prussian leadership. These were, respectively, the greatest sea and land powers, and became so by virtue of an industrial development hitherto without parallel. Neither had a revolution in the eighteenth century.

Even as early as 1813 the Prussians produced the most remarkable war effort hitherto achieved by any nation, raising and equipping a much larger army, in relation to their population and resources, than had proved possible in France even at the time of the levée en masse. During the war and afterward, notwithstanding the government’s reactionary attitude toward many political questions, they succeeded in modernizing their army, their administration, their system of education, and even, in many important respects, their system of social relations.

They abolished a number (though by no means all) of the privileges of the nobility and of communities and corporate groups. For many purposes they created equality before the law, removing the legal barriers which had prevented a free market in land and free entry into the trades and professions. They redrew their provincial boundaries on rational principles, abolished their internal tolls and customs duties, thus laying the foundations of the Zollverein, and reorganized their system of central government and of taxation.

No hint of these developments appears in Professor Palmer’s account. And as for the British: all we hear about their government is the action it took to suppress the radicals. In general Britain is made to appear a reactionary country, and admittedly not without justice. But all the same, must Professor Palmer not have a strange idea of “modern society” if he can label the pioneers of the industrial revolution in this way? Is there not something lacking in his analysis of the “old order” since he can leave out of account the obstacles (and their different size in different states) that it placed in the way of economic development and the growth of military power?

The plain fact is that Professor Palmer is only superficially concerned with the economies of the countries he discusses, and not at all with the reasons why they progressed or stagnated and the connection between these matters and the stability of regimes. He described his two-volume work as a “political history of Europe and America,” and although in his World of the French Revolution he makes a number of concessions to more modern ways of looking at things, he remains essentially a political historian, even bound, for most purposes, by the dates (1789-1799) that for generations have figured as landmarks in political history. He has the merits which distinguished his school of thought in its prime. He attacks the large issues which are of general interest; he has a wide range of knowledge; he writes excellent clear English; he is sober, honest, and fair-minded. All these are now rare virtues. His critics are nevertheless justified when they point out that his method of approach will not yield the explanations he seeks.

This Issue

June 3, 1971