Revolution sans Revolutionaries

Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution

by Lynn Hunt
University of California Press, 251 pp., $19.95

A half century has passed since the French banished events from history. During that period, which dates from the founding of the journal Annales in 1929, a succession of eminent French scholars taught the history profession to turn its back on politics and to contemplate the long-term ebb and flow of currents running deep beneath the frothy stuff of battles and elections.

In 1973, however, one of the most influential historians associated with the Annales school, Georges Duby, published a book about a battle—and this heretical work, Le Dimanche de Bouvines, 27 juillet 1214, appeared in a series whose title reads like a declaration of war against the Annales: “Thirty Days That Made France.” No sooner had the profession begun to recover from that scandal when the school published a declaration of its own, “Le Retour de l’événement” (“The Return of the Event”), an essay by Pierre Nora in an encyclopedia of Annales history entitled Faire de l’histoire (1974). Nora announced that it was permissible to study events after all, provided one could see through to the structural elements beneath them. Finally in 1978 a leading Annaliste, François Furet, produced a book, Penser la Révolution française, which called for a new look at the biggest event of all, the French Revolution. The Revolution was not merely événementielle, Furet claimed, but also political. Fifty years of depoliticized history had come to an end. Events were in again.

Nonetheless, French history had not come full cycle to the point where Charles Seignobos and other événementialistes had left it at the beginning of the century. Once reinstated, political events had to be reinterpreted. They no longer appeared as so many hard nuggets of reality, which the historian needed only to sift from the archives and arrange in chronological order. They could not be distinguished from perceptions, values, and surrounding phenomena of all kinds, especially the cultural. Furet proposed studying the French Revolution as a form of political culture, which shaped events throughout the nineteenth century. His colleagues Mona Ozouf and Maurice Agulhon worked variations on that theme. And now an American historian, Lynn Hunt from the University of California, Berkeley, has attempted to bring their work together, with some research of her own, in a new interpretation of revolutionary politics, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution.

Hunt begins by remarking that in the course of the recent polemics between Marxists and revisionists the political history of the Revolution has dropped out of sight. Debates about the long-term causes and consequences of the Revolution left little room for the study of politics between 1789 and 1799. Of course the old masters—Michelet, Aulard, Mathiez, and Lefebvre—wrote political narratives. But they did not consider the aspects of politics that Hunt finds most important, sociology and “poetics.”

The sociology occupies the second and more substantial half of Hunt’s book. In an earlier work, Revolution and Urban Politics in Provincial France: Troyes and Reims, 1786–1790 (1978), she demonstrated the importance of studying municipal elections and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.