There are two kinds of history. There is the history which is exclusively about the past, which describes what is dead, and aims to re-create people, issues, and crises in their own terms. There is also the history which is as much about the present as about the past, because it takes the controversies of today and tries to understand them with the help of past experience. The former kind has, until very recently, been more approved of, at least in academic circles. To be completely impartial seemed to be the necessary ideal for historians seeking professional respectability. But impartiality can easily verge into a narrow specialization, triviality, and detail for its own sake. It is good when historians are not too frightened to stick their necks out, to give answers to questions that their contemporaries really care about, and to do more than simply entertain them with anecdotes.
Eugen Weber’s excellent new book is one that has got something to say about some of the most important debates of our time, while also being a work of impeccable scholarship. His book is about France and about the years 1870-1914, but its implications are much broader. It is also a contribution to the better understanding of the notions of underdevelopment, of economic and cultural planning, and of national integration.
Until recently, the French approached the problems of underdevelopment with considerable uncertainty. There were many politicians and writers among them who long remained attracted by small-scale artisan production, who were unwilling to promote urban over rural values, who feared industrialization and who were scornful of following the example of England and America. The loss of prestige and power that this kind of hesitation brought, and particularly the collapse of 1940, cured them of these ideals. Today Frenchmen are committed to prosperity at (almost) any price. In theory, they sometimes have doubts, in that most dream of living in a small detached house surrounded by a garden, but in real life more and more of them inhabit apartments in high-rise suburban blocks. It is because of this wavering and this preoccupation with the indefinable “good life” that French history is so interesting about the human problems of economic development.
On the whole, for the past two centuries, progress for the French has meant eliminating the peasants. The word peasant has nearly everywhere been a term of opprobrium. In England, where the movement for the extinction of this species started and has been most successful, “peasant,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, can be used only of foreign countries. In the US, likewise, no one will admit to being a peasant. Most of the rest of the world, however, is full of them. In France, there are still some people who are proud to be peasants, and their history is instructive for the significance of the international crusade for abolishing peasants.
What French intellectuals and planners have reproached the peasant for was that his horizons were limited, his loyalties confined to his village, his habitual attitude one of resignation and acceptance of his lot. Economically, they have criticized his low productivity, his preference for self-subsistence (his refusal therefore to produce what the towns demanded of him), and his tendency, when he did condescend to use money, to hoard it under his bed. Intellectually, they scorned his illiteracy, his disdain for originality, his inexhaustible appreciation of the same old stories, jokes, and proverbs, handed down from father to son.
Professor Weber describes the peasants of France as they were in 1870 with great vivacity, drawing his material from an extraordinarily wide range of sources—local government archives, obscure provincial periodicals, the writings of contemporary folklorists and teachers, in fact the records of every type of literate country-dweller. He examines the pressures placed upon peasants to change, and, in a final part, assesses the results. He looks at the old peasant way of life with sympathy, but he does not try to propagate any illusions about it. His conclusion is that the “narrow vision,” traditionalism, and hostility to deviance were the result of insecurity and poverty; that peasant culture was “a combination of discipline and reassurance designed to keep its occupants alive”; that the village had to stress family and community, because it was an association for mutual aid on a small scale.
He therefore rejects, so far as France is concerned, the arguments of anticolonialists like Frantz Fanon who have protested against the destruction of traditional civilizations. In France, says Weber, change was often emancipation and recognized as such. “Old ways died unlamented.” “New ways that had once seemed objectionable were now deliberately pursued and assimilated.” The change, he insists, was “neither good nor bad,” but his catalogue of the new opportunities open to the individual must make the reader feel that, on the whole, the change was popular. The men who modernized France—the Paris-based, Paris-trained politicians, government officials, and technocrats—were a minority but they succeeded because what they offered appealed to the masses.
The old peasant society, says Weber, was based on fear. But what is ours based on? He rightly shows that modernized Frenchmen eat better, live in better houses, move more freely, can choose their friends according to their taste, and are better informed when they do all this. But is the townsman less insecure than the peasant used to be? Has education, by making sensibilities more delicate, increased the capacity for suffering as well as that for pleasure? How does one balance the new opportunities against the new sources of frustration?
The favorite view of the peasant is that he had a marvelous defense mechanism in his habit of resignation and acceptance of his lot. This is a myth. One must not forget he was also constantly rebelling. He is still rebelling in France, still setting up barricades, and besieging government offices. Regional variations, differences in farm sizes, the vagaries of the climate are so diverse that no global agricultural policy can ever please him fully. To write the history of the peasant is to study not the end of traditional complacency, but rather transformations in endemic dissatisfaction. There is no way of measuring happiness, and that is why planners have to confine themselves to measuring only prosperity. Historians can try to do more when they check the sums afterward.
The question of how far people voluntarily chose to abandon their peasant traditions because they preferred the more complex, more prosperous, more open urban culture is complicated by the fact that this choice was made just when democracy was being introduced. The peasants voted for politicians who proceeded to allow agriculture to collapse and to concentrate the resources and benefits of the state in the towns. Were the peasants then duped? Did they, in their simple-mindedness, commit class suicide? The answer is that French democracy was not a very efficient instrument for giving expression to the wishes of the peasants. The choices were not clear, the peasants could not see what the future held. No one quite planned things the way they came about.
What is ironical is that the plans which the intellectuals and politicians did make for the peasants were frustrated in a peculiarly disappointing way. Professor Weber sums up the intellectual consequences of the modernization of the peasantry by saying that whereas in the eighteenth century the elite and the masses lived in different mental worlds, with only the former capable of using scientific ways of thinking—“rationalism for the few and magic for the many”—by 1914 the whole of the French nation was at last united in a single culture. On the surface, this is certainly true. But looked at microscopically, the rationalism of the new townsman was only skin deep. The townsman who replaced the peasant was as superstitious, avaricious, materialistic, and conformist as the village yokel had been, though in a different way. The belief that education would transform moral attitudes proved to be one of the great illusions of this period. The values of the intellectuals, when popularized for the benefit of the peasants, ended up as parodies and sometimes even antitheses of what the intellectuals were trying to propagate. Their ideals of delicate taste and dedication to truth were lost in dull textbooks and a rigid examination system that encouraged repetitive memorizing. Education became a way used by the peasants to earn higher wages and get safer jobs in the civil service, and very seldom was it a path to altruism or detachment from material concerns.
In the late nineteenth century, French travelers were dismayed to find that there were still parts of their country where the peasants could not understand French. “It is a painful feeling,” wrote one, “to find oneself a stranger in one’s own country.” Compulsory schooling quickly cured this. But do Frenchmen today understand each other so very much better than their peasant predecessors, even though they all speak the same language now? Each village is no longer, as it once was, an independent republic, with its very subtle gradations of hierarchy, its own patois, its own weights and measures, and its private feuds. However, the survival of traditional political divisions, which can be traced back to the terror and lynchings of the Revolution of the eighteenth century, shows that France is still composed of parties which are quite incapable of understanding each other, let alone sympathizing with a different point of view. The creation of a single political nation has not produced more harmony within France; on the contrary, there are now probably more disagreements, because people come into contact with more authorities and institutions; life is much more complex and contains more opportunities for disagreement.
Modernization contained a strange paradox. In the nineteenth century it was allied with an uncompromising nationalist propaganda. But the economic transformation brought about by modernization was more or less the same in every country. Nationalism, in retrospect, seems to have been a way of avoiding the admission that people were being forced to earn their livings in a universally uniform way, and that they were becoming increasingly interdependent across frontiers. French nationalism was not the recognition of a common cultural heritage, for the peasants of France certainly did not have a common culture, to distinguish them from Italian or German peasants. Rather, nationalism was a complication introduced into modernization, representing a search for identity—or differentiation—at a time when the peasants were disorientated by being transformed into factory workers, clerks, and civil servants. They did not realize till later that peasants all over Western Europe were having exactly the same done to them.
The time has not yet come to carry out an autopsy on French nationalism. It is too early to judge the benefits that were exchanged for the destruction of peasant folklore, of which Professor Weber gives a fascinating account. But it may be that this period of history will be looked on rather differently, say a hundred years from now, if European political union is achieved and the old provinces of France re-emerge as autonomous entities once more. The nation state, built up slowly over the centuries by the ambition of successive kings, was brought to the peak of its grandeur around 1914; but it then became powerless before wider economic forces revealed in the Great Depression. It may be that the transformation of peasants into citizens of a French nation will be a relatively short-lived episode in the history of the land.
There is another aspect to the gradual flight from agriculture. The peasant class has not been committing suicide, nor have politicians been deliberately murdering it. Its disappearance is, rather, a case of patricide or of family feud. The townsmen who have been victorious over it have, after all, always been mainly former peasants. One needs to understand why the townsmen turned against the peasants who were feeding them. This is partly a psychological problem. Towns tend to be studied in their moments of crisis, during revolutions, but their anthropology is less well documented than that of the villages. What can be discovered has recently been shown by research in religious sociology. The way towns have been influenced in their religious behavior by the traditions of the surrounding countryside is most curious. Towns have not, as many believe, always been for religious freedom and peasants for traditional ritual. There is a good book waiting to be written—when more research has been done—on the mentality, on the self-confidence, and on the torments of French towns. Professor Weber stops in 1914; his subject is how modernization was received. It would be interesting if one day he were to continue beyond this date and show up the hesitations and disillusionment of the modernizers.
The great strength of this book comes from the author’s quite exceptional knowledge of the villages and the regions of France, and his accumulation of a vast amount of detail about them. The reader who has not traveled extensively may find himself bewildered by the precise naming of places he has never heard of, but that will only reinforce in him the feeling that Weber is describing a world of great richness, which national histories normally never approach. Every village has its peculiarities and Weber has a story to tell about each which brings out its individuality. This is a book that will teach the French themselves, even expert French historians, a great deal about their own country. One could not ask for a more entertaining and good-humored book. There are no illustrations in it, but the text is itself a mosaic of striking and often weird pictures of rural life in all its variety.
A reviewer can easily say how he would have written the book otherwise, what else he would have brought in, or what he would have expanded, but, on its own terms, this book cannot be faulted. It is the work of a very skilled historian and writer, and it will enhance the already high reputation enjoyed by American specialists on France.
The general effect of this book is not to make me regret that I am alive in this century, and not a previous one. Life is undoubtedly more interesting now, even if it is probably, mentally or emotionally, more demanding. The old peasant civilization had elements of greed, brutality, and rigidity which outweighed its quaint charms. But its destruction was the result of not altogether dissimilar vices, as well as of idealism.
November 24, 1977