In 1989 historians throughout the world will be celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution. The Revolution itself was an immensely divisive experience, splitting Frenchmen into royalists and republicans, Catholics and anticlericals, in ways that have survived until the present day. It was the legacy of these revolutionary conflicts, more than the consequences of industrialization and urbanization, that made France a very difficult country to govern in the nineteenth century. Naturally enough, the history of a revolution that left such deep fissures in French society has reflected the divisions that it set out to explain. French historians saw themselves as crusaders for political causes in their own times that perpetuated the conflicts of the revolutionary period. Defending a particular point of view about the French Revolution was one way of legitimizing the monarchy before 1848, or the Republic in 1848 and again after 1870, or the Empire from 1851 to 1870.

The most dramatic example of the perennial relevance of the French Revolution came as late as 1940, when the Vichy government substituted Travail, Famille, Patrie for the republican Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Since 1945 France has changed its constitution twice more, but the successive regimes have all been republics. It was this that led the French historian François Furet, when he published Interpreting the French Revolution in 1978, to entitle his first chapter “The French Revolution Is Over.” What he meant was that universal acceptance of the democratic republic allowed French historians, for the first time, to become detached observers of the Revolution, rather than partisans committed to fighting its battles all over again.

Furet’s assertion always looked optimistic, and the bicentenary of the Revolution, instead of providing an occasion for universal celebration, has reopened old wounds. In Le Coût de la Révolution française, the popular French writer René Sédillot sees no good in anything that the revolutionaries did. His argument is that they wasted France’s resources in civil war and foreign conquest, while the British took advantage of the opportunity to press ahead with their industrial revolution and become the temporary masters of the world. There is some truth in this, but Sédillot inflates it into a general condemnation of everything that the revolutionaries achieved. His book is about the “cost” of the revolution in the sense that it is half of a balance sheet, recording all the losses and none of the profits. Consistency is not his strong point: for example, he includes in his reckoning of the human casualties all those who died in the Napoleonic Wars, although he endorses the old argument that Napoleon wanted nothing but peace and it was British belligerency and blockade that drove him to try to occupy the entire European coastline. When his armies ranged from Madrid to Moscow he was really on the defensive.

Sédillot’s purported assessment of the cost of the Revolution is actually a pretext for reviving the conservative arguments of French nationalists. When the revolutionaries did anything to which he cannot take exception—for example, introducing the metric system—the monarchy had already thought of it. Once the dog has been given a bad name, it does not take much evidence to hang him: the radical deputy and journalist Desmoulins is accused of corruption on the ground that he once borrowed three dollars from another deputy and allegedly squandered his wife’s dowry. When it comes to assessing the influence of the Revolution outside France, however, conservatism gives way to national pride. “The English owe it [the Revolution] their power, the Germans and Italians their unity, the Belgians and the peoples of Latin America their independence. The United States owes it Louisiana and the confirmation of its national identity.” In the end, it turns out to have been another episode in that civilizing mission that led France, throughout the ages, to sacrifice its own interests for the welfare of the rest of humanity. Sédillot’s book appears in a series called Vérités et Légendes and most of it belongs to the latter category.

Sédillot might be described as a man of letters rather than a professional historian. Where the latter are concerned, Furet’s dictum that the Revolution is over is generally true. This means not that its history has ceased to be a subject of controversy but that the nature of the argument is changing. For the best part of a generation after the Second World War there was a general tendency to assume that the French Revolution was connected, in one way or another, with the revolt of an industrial and commercial middle class against a theoretically autocratic monarchy and an aristocratic landed society. Many of the historians who took this view, such as Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul in France and Georges Rudé in England, saw themselves as Marxists, and their views as historians were inseparable from their political positions as citizens.


This interpretation of the Revolution, at least in its more sectarian and dogmatic attempts to link each group of revolutionary politicians with a specific economic interest, has been generally abandoned as simplistic. This is not to deny, of course, that economic conflicts existed within revolutionary France and that they had some influence on politics. One can see within the French Revolution a gulf between the “bourgeois” attitudes of the educated deputies within the various assemblies and the traditional attitudes and beliefs of the peasants, who made up the mass of the population.

This difference was particularly deadly where religion was concerned. For the deputies, whose tepid Catholicism often shaded into deism, what the country needed was “officers of morality,” paid by the state, who would preach the virtues of honesty, patriotism, and respect for the law. For many if not most of the peasants, religion was a matter of traditional practices and its object was not good citizenship but personal salvation. In the history of the Revolution an increasingly sterile controversy between rigorous economic determinists and their opponents has given way to a general recognition that class conflict and class incomprehension were one element within a much more complex confrontation of interest and principles. This makes, if not for consensus, at least for dialogue, since what is at issue is a question of emphasis that does not imply hurling anathemas at the unregenerate.

Of course this does not mean that the historians of the French Revolution are now singing in unison. This they never have done and they probably never will. Beneath the differences of interpretation one can detect a new polarization into what is sometimes called the “old” history and the “new.” Practitioners of the former believe that what matters is still, as it has always been, the discovery of why things happened as they did. They are convinced that this can only be revealed by investigating the motives of the participants, their perception of the situation in which they found themselves, and the consequences of their attempts to deal with it. The “new” historians, who often borrow their concepts and vocabulary from the social sciences, are more concerned with what the University of California Press recently defined as “innovative explorations of the symbolic constructions of reality.” Such explorations attempt to interpret the problems, aspirations, and conflicts of the men and women of the past as having symbolic meanings. History is not so much about events and policies as about the perceptions of our own times. With the help of sociological and psychoanalytical concepts that were not available to the people being studied, the historian can interpret their actions in ways meaningful to the present, of which the historical actors themselves may have been unaware. Each approach has its merits and its dangers.

The study of revolutionary festivals by the French historian Mona Ozouf is a good example of the “new” history. The revolutionary authorities, having abolished many of the traditional Catholic holidays and processions, instituted their own festivals, some of them solemn pageants recalling the events of the Revolution—the taking of the Bastille, for example. But Ozouf’s main concern is not with individual festivals as specific events, organized to commemorate a particular policy or triumph, but with the festival as an experience of a particular kind:

The astonishing continuity that we have discovered in the festivals of the French Revolution lead [sic] one to believe that, if the Revolution is an indissoluble whole, that certainly is reflected in its festivals. From now on let us speak not of the festivals but of the festival of the French Revolution.

Despite this apparent invitation to generalize, Ozouf is too careful a historian to treat all revolutionary festivals as essentially the same. She distinguishes between early celebrations of national unity, like the Fête de la Fédération of July 1790, the militant demonstrations of orthodoxy during the Terror, which excluded those who rejected the new revolutionary faith on religious or political grounds, and the attempts to unite all Frenchmen in a common allegiance after 1795. It is when she comes to deal with subjects like “The Festival and Space” and “The Festival and Time” that the more conventional historian will be likely to raise a skeptical eyebrow. A traditional historian would emphasize the difference in purpose between a festival to inaugurate the worship of Reason in 1793 and one to celebrate the overthrow of Robespierre a year later. Mona Ozouf is more interested in the identity of form that both exhibited:

The task of the festival is then seen to be that of redeeming the platitude of that psychosociology of the homogeneous, of saving the isolated individual from himself, and of reconstructing a new sacrality on the elementary elements thus revealed.

This may be true in the sense that people who found their everyday lives rather monotonous, and felt themselves to be at sea in a revolutionary world where old values had been turned upside down, could enjoy themselves and feel some sort of solidarity and common purpose when they took part in a festival. How much it tells us about why the people in a particular town chose to commemorate some event, or even about attitudes peculiar to the French revolutionaries that distinguished them from people in other places at other times, is a different matter.


The trouble with this kind of approach is that everything gets invested with symbolism. When the Parisians commemorated the first anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, in 1790, a Catholic mass was celebrated at an autel de la patrie that was erected on a square base whose four sides pointed toward the four corners of the world. But the altar of the fatherland had to have some sort of a base and if the revolutionaries had chosen a round or oval one it would have been symbolic too. Once a town or village had decided to hold a festival—perhaps because the local people felt short of popular entertainment now that religious processions had been discontinued—they had only a limited choice of possibilities: a procession, music, dancing, speeches, the swearing of an oath, or the erection of a maypole. The organizers were bound to be influenced by their memories of past celebrations and the program that emerged may have owed a good deal to accident, the availability of local talent, and the preferences of the people in charge.

Ozouf tells us little about such local circumstances. It is risky to concentrate on what we perceive as the symbolism behind a festival, whether classical (altars, pyramids, triumphal arches, and free-standing columns) or rustic (maypoles and liberty trees), to the neglect of the intentions of those who decided to stage it. The old-fashioned historian would be more concerned about those intentions: Was a particular festival a joyous endorsement of the revolution or a prudent signal of orthodoxy for the benefit of the authorities? He might be tempted to ignore festivals altogether, as unworthy of the attention of a serious student, and fail to see the insight they offer into the collective experience of a generation. Where he is liable to miss opportunities, however, his psychosociological colleague is inclined to heap onto the evidence more significance than it can be made to bear. On the subject of rural disorders in southwestern France, Ozouf writes, “All the trouble in the département of the Lot was due to a stubborn refusal to distinguish” between insurrectionary and free maypoles. That may have been the symbolic form given to disagreement about something else, but it can scarcely have been the sole cause of the widespread rural insurrection that took place.

At the opposite end we have the University of Idaho historian Robert Harris, as committed a practitioner of the “old” history as one is ever likely to meet. His new book is a sequel to Necker, Reform Statesman of the Ancien Régime, which he published in 1979. In the earlier book he argued that the banker Jacques Necker, who took office as finance minister in 1777, left France with a balanced budget when he resigned four years later. By 1787 Necker’s successor, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, persuaded the king, Louis XVI, that the financial situation of the monarchy had become so desperate that the only way of avoiding bankruptcy was to introduce a new land tax and to curtail the fiscal immunities of the clergy and the nobility. It was this search for new sources of revenue that set the French Revolution in motion. Harris’s new book deals with the crisis that began in 1787 and not merely with Necker’s role when he returned to office in 1788.

Necker and the Revolution of 1789 is therefore an attempt to explain the origins of the French Revolution. If the country was solvent in 1781, as Harris argued in his earlier book, and it was virtually bankrupt by 1787, the fault presumably lay with Calonne’s reckless policy of trying to create financial confidence by conspicuous expenditure. The Revolution, in other words, was not the inevitable product of accumulating social tensions or the fossilization of an increasingly anachronistic royal bureaucracy, as so many historians have claimed. It was the result of the ineptitude of the man whom Louis XVI chose to succeed Necker. If the king had made a better choice, or retained Necker, the entire revolution, with its festivals, its symbolism, and its rhetoric, would never have happened.

Even despite Calonne, if we are to believe Harris, the summoning of the Estates General in 1789 would not have produced a revolution if it had not been for a succession of accidents and miscalculations. When the deputies of the clergy, the nobility, and the third estate made their way to the royal palace of Versailles they took with them cahiers or lists of grievances and proposed reforms, drafted by their constituents. Harris emphasizes the extent of the similarity between the demands of the three orders. All wanted a constitutional monarchy, along vaguely English lines, in which an elected assembly would control taxation while executive power would be left in the hands of the king. The so-called privileged orders were resigned to the loss of their fiscal immunities, and there was general agreement about such issues as freedom of the press and habeas corpus. It was taken for granted that a reformed Roman Catholic Church would remain an integral part of the state.

So much agreement ought to have provided a basis for consensus. When the Estates General met, however, it was paralyzed by the nobility’s rejection of the demand of the third estate that all voting should be in common. The resulting deadlock was only broken when the commoners defied both the nobility and the king by claiming to constitute the National Assembly. It was this that set off the revolutionary avalanche. Granted the similar objectives of the three orders, the presence of Necker as chief minister, and the king’s readiness to become a constitutional monarch, Harris therefore explains the Revolution as the product of inexperience, misunderstanding, suspicion, and the failure of political leadership.

There is more to this than the subjective judgment of a particular historian. Historians of the old empirical school such as Harris, who claim to start from the evidence without any preconceived notions about the laws that regulate historical change, are bound to see what happened in the past as one actual outcome among many possibilities. “Explanation” for them is a matter of tracing the consequences of avoidable choices. Each choice restricts the options that remain open. In the case of the French Revolution, once the king had picked Calonne there was going to be a financial crisis; if the third estate insisted on transacting all business in joint sessions there was bound to be a political deadlock. As with an avalanche, when events had acquired a certain momentum it became impossible to arrest what need never have happened in the first place, although, where historical events are concerned, all movements could always be deflected if only different choices had been made at different moments. A contrasting approach emphasizes those elements in what happened that were foreshadowed by what had gone before. By so doing it attributes to the past a kind of inevitability, in which ends are implicit in beginnings.

Each way of looking at things has a certain plausibility and neither can be proved or disproved. If revolutionary festivals had a kind of inner coherence, derived from the nature of the revolutionary experience as a whole, the course of the Revolution could not have depended simply on the day-to-day decisions of the participants. Various groups of revolutionaries and their opponents must have been, at least to some extent, the prisoners of attitudes of which they were not wholly aware. If, on the other hand, almost everything was possible, as Harris seems to think, it becomes very difficult to reconcile the extreme violence of the Revolution with the allegedly shared assumptions and beliefs of the men who were eventually to destroy one another.

In this predicament there is no help to be had from British historian Richard Cobb, whose book of the early 1960s, Les armées révolutionnaires, originally published in French, has now been translated. Always the individualist, Cobb is not much concerned about explaining anything. As he himself wrote, in his Reactions to the French Revolution, “The main subject of my book on the Armées révolutionnaires might be described as the ineffectiveness of government, even of the much-vaunted Revolutionary Government, in the face of well-organised local pressure groups.” A book about ineffectiveness is not going to offer much by way of explanation of why things happen. The “People’s Armies” who form the subject of Cobb’s book were not the fighting troops of revolutionary France but a militia raised for the purpose of intimidating internal opposition to the regime and extracting food from recalcitrant peasants. The revolutionary government, forced to accede to popular pressure to raise such a militia, feared that it might become a praetorian guard and took steps to suppress it. Previous historians have seen it in this light, as the military instrument of street politicians who aspired to replace the Committee of Public Safety as the government of revolutionary France. For them it was an integral part of the political feuding that led to the mutual extermination of the revolutionary leaders in 1794.

Cobb demonstrates that whatever the intentions of the men responsible for the creation of the People’s Armies what actually happened was more complex and anarchic. Unlike Ozouf and Harris he is not very interested in high politics and not interested at all in constructing symbolic models of how his sans-culottes envisaged the Revolution. What fascinates him is the way in which ordinary people reacted to extraordinary circumstances. Some working men saw the armées révolutionnaires as offering a well-paying job in a time of high unemployment. Local officials wanted to raise their own mini-armies in order to join in the competition to requisition food supplies before rival towns could get at them. Cobb revels in detail for its intrinsic interest, without feeling any obligation to organize it into patterns. The result is a kind of documentary film of what revolutionary France looked like, how different citizens behaved, what the attack on Catholicism meant in obscure villages, how food supplies were organized, and what revolutionary orthodoxy implied in the remoter provinces. As he puts it, “There is no need to read any programme into the empiricism of the practical revolutionary.”

All this is evoked in immense detail, the product of years of work in the French national and local archives, but it would miss the point altogether to see Cobb’s book merely as an accumulation of evidence. Part of his purpose is to expound historical truth as the living experience of the people who made things happen, often without any clear idea of what they were supposed to be doing. The Tolstoy of War and Peace would probably have found Cobb’s book more credible than either Harris’s or Ozouf’s. Cobb takes the lid off revolutionary France, and if the People’s Armies made a poor instrument of revolutionary administration, they provide excellent specimens for close examination. There is more to it than that. For Cobb, history has increasingly become a source of reassurance, a demonstration of the ability of human individuality to survive collective pressures. In his later work he was to find this reassurance in the compassionate neighborliness of ordinary people in times of violence and fanaticism. Such qualities were rather at a discount in the People’s Armies, but the book does demonstrate the ineffectiveness of revolutionary theorists when it came to “regenerating” humanity for its own good. Like Tolstoy’s Napoleon, they are reduced to puppets, gesticulating in the void and unaware of the actual nature of the forces that they believe themselves to be controlling.

Each of the historians under review is admirable in his or her own way, and Ozouf and Cobb have been well-served by their translators, Alan Sheridan and Marianne Elliott. All three writers are intelligent, honest, and formidably erudite. Yet their perspectives have almost nothing in common and no one hoping to understand the French Revolution can hope to construct a personal synthesis by selecting bits here and there, since the three historians are speaking different languages. For Harris, the Revolution was a political event; it was mainly the product of avoidable errors of judgment. For Ozouf it was a world of its own, with specific norms and values of which the participants were only partially aware. For Cobb it was a kind of change in the climate, to which particular citizens reacted as best they could, pursuing their essentially personal goals and adjusting themselves to the circumstances when they could not manipulate them to suit their own convenience.

If Ozouf is right, there was an inevitability about the whole business, which transformed the attitudes of all the participants. If we are to believe Cobb, the participants remained very much themselves and the Revolution was a kind of uniform to put on, alter, or discard as circumstances suggested. Harris insists that it need never have happened and, if we may legitimately extend to the entire revolutionary period what is implicit in his treatment of its origins, he would probably argue that those at the top could always have made events take a different course. If we cannot fuse these three metals into a single alloy, we cannot afford to dispense with any of them, for each has uniquely valuable things to say.

This, after all, is as it should be, and it would have been naive to expect things to have turned out differently. If history is to be true to life—and it is not much use if it is not—it has to be as multifaceted and mysterious as human experience. It may not make sense, if making sense means being reducible to some comparatively simple formula, but it would not be credible if it did, and we do not need Cobb to warn us of the cost of Procrustes’ way with things that did not fit. What we do need is recognition by historians of the necessity for more than tolerance of one another’s different perspectives, for acceptance of the fact that human experience can be evaluated in many ways, that no history can ever be definitive, and that whatever enhances our understanding of the past has no need for further justification.

This Issue

June 2, 1988