It was a splendid idea to compile a critical dictionary of the French Revolution, and the idea has been splendidly executed. Intellectually, the publication of this dictionary was the most significant event of the bicentenary year. In their preface, François Furet and Mona Ozouf define the nature of their enterprise:

This book is not an encyclopedia or even a dictionary in the ordinary sense of the word. The revolutionary text is vast, and we do not pretend to have spelled out its full alphabet. How could anyone even think of compressing an event as complex as the French Revolution, as extravagant, as often retold and as overburdened with interpretations and commentaries, into the 1200-odd pages of a dictionary? We have produced a “dictionary,” rather, in the sense made familiar by the Enlightenment. Its principle: a set of key words, which suggest not only the state of current scholarship but even more a shift in the nature of the questions posed. Its objective: to recover both the strangeness and the disruptive force of the founding event of modern French history. Its unity: the stress placed on the political event and its creative capacity.

An inventory will give some idea of the riches stored in this dictionary. There are five main headings or “parts” (chapîtres, in the French original), as follows: “Events,” “Actors,” “Institutions and Creations,” “Ideas,” and “Historians and Commentators.”

Under “Events” there are seventeen entries, as follows: Chouannerie, Coups d’Etat, De-Christianization, Elections, Estates General, Federalism, Federation, Great Fear, Italian Campaign, King’s Trial, Night of August 4, The Revolution and Europe, Revolutionary Journées, Terror, Treaties of Basel and The Hague, Varennes, and Vendée.

Under “Actors,” there is a division between “individuals” and “groups.” “Individuals” comprise Babeuf, Barnave, Carnot, Condorcet, Danton, Lafayette, Louis XVI, Marat, Marie Antoinette, Mirabeau, Napoleon Bonaparte, Necker, Robespierre, Sieyès. “Groups” comprise Emigrés, Enragés, Feuillants, Girondins, Hébertists, Monarchiens, Montagnards, Sans-culottes, Thermidorians.

Under “Institutions and Creations” there are entries for: Army, Assignats, Civil Code, Civil Constitution of the Clergy, Clubs and Popular Societies, Committee of Public Safety, Constitution, Département, Maximum, National Properties, Paris Commune, Revolutionary Assemblies, Revolutionary Calendar, Revolutionary Government, Revolutionary Religion, Suffrage, Taxes.

Under “Ideas” we find: American Revolution, Ancien Régime, Aristocracy, Centralization, Counterrevolution, Democracy, Enlightenment, Equality, Feudal System, Fraternity, Jacobinism, Liberty, Montesquieu, Nation, Natural Borders, Physiocrats, Public Spirit, Regeneration, Republic, Revolution, Rights of Man, Rousseau, Sovereignty, Vandalism, Voltaire.

Under “Historians and Commentators” are: Academic History of the Revolution, Blanc, Buchez, Burke, Constant, Fichte, Guizot, Hegel, Jaurès, Kant, Maistre, Marx, Michelet, Quinet, Stäel, Taine, Tocqueville.

As is fitting, the book is most handsomely produced, with a wealth of illustrations (mostly contemporary with the Revolution) divided among the five “parts” of the dictionary’s structure.

Among the entries, I find only one surprising omission: Saint-Just is not among the “individuals” listed under “Actors.” Not only as “actor” but also as ideologue and symbol, Saint-Just was surely more important than eight of the fourteen people listed. I suspect deadline delinquency on the part of a contributor, or contributors. I regret also the omission of Robespierre’s remarkable nineteenth-century biographer, Ernest Havel, from part 5, “Historians and Commentators.”

For the rest, while the history of the Revolution within France is exhaustively covered, the effects of the Revolution outside France get rather less attention than they deserve. There is a section on “natural frontiers,” but none on “sister republics,” which was the euphemism for the tributary European colonies of Revolutionary France. I should also like to have seen an entry under patriotes, which—in its European context—became a term of art. A patriote, in French revolutionary eyes, was a citizen of another country who put the interest of Revolutionary France first. In every country occupied by the French revolutionary armies, it was the local patriotes who set up the républiques soeurs (or, in the case of Belgium, incorporation with the French Republic) under French direction, and for the benefit of the French, through systematic looting.

In regretting that the “exterior” aspects are not as thoroughly explored as the internal ones, I do not at all mean to suggest that there is any tendency on the part of the editors or contributors to cover up or palliate the less edifying aspects of the French Revolution. There is no such tendency, either in general or in this particular aspect. In general, François Furet and Mona Ozouf are unlike previous generations of French historians in that they do not have an axe to grind. They are not trying to persuade the reader either that the Revolution was or was not a good thing, or that some particular actor in it embodied its essential nature. “Recent historiography,” as François Furet says, “is less impassioned than that of earlier times.”

Technically, the Critical Dictionary is well and unobtrusively, though not flawlessly, organized. Each entry carries, following the text, a list of “further reading” and of “related topics,” the latter consisting of cross-references to relevant entries in the dictionary itself. There is also a more elaborate system of cross-referencing in a name index and subject index to the dictionary as a whole. Most but not all of the entries in the two indexes are thoroughly descriptive, and are helpful to the user of the dictionary. Examples of satisfactory entries follow.


From the Name index:

Prieur of the Côte d’Or (Prieur-du-Vernois), Claude-Antoine Carnot, Committee of Public Safety, Coups d’Etat, Revolutionary Government

Prieur (of the Marne), Pierre-Louis Committee of Public Safety, Federalism, Revolutionary Government

From the Subject index:


American Revolution, Condorcet, Constant, Counterrevolution, Democracy, Elections, Estates General, Guizot, Necker, Public Spirit, Republic, Revolutionary Assemblies, Revolutionary Journées, Rights of Man, Robespierre, Rousseau, Sans-culottes, Sieyès, Sovereignty, Suffrage, Thermidorians, Varennes.

Unfortunately, some of the entries are of no assistance to the user of the dictionary since they consist merely of general references to one of the dictionary’s five parts (averaging 200 pages each). This may be pardonable when it is applied to very large concepts in the subject index, as in: “Liberty, See Part 4.” But the method is not pardonable when it is applied to individuals, as in: “Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712-1778), See Part 4.” Part 4 is devoted to “Ideas.” Robespierre gets a “See Part 2,” part 2 being devoted to “Actors.” The dictionary entry under the name of Rousseau is indeed in part 4, and that under Robespierre in part 2. But the light that the dictionary has to shed on these key figures is by no means confined to the parts to which the user of the dictionary is referred. Some of the most important statements about Rousseau, for example, are to be found in part 3 (“Institutions and Creations”) in the entry “Constitution,” by Keith M. Baker. And the most illuminating statements about Robespierre are to be found not in the entry devoted to him, but in the entry on Feuillants (the party that contained Robespierre’s earliest and most lucid enemies).

I suspect that these flaws, like the omission of Saint-Just, occurred because of the imperious pressure of that bicentenary deadline. There probably just wasn’t time to index the references to Robespierre and Rousseau in the thoroughgoing manner applied to such minor figures as the two Prieurs. Small flaws, in any case, but worth signaling, since there are bound to be further editions of this dictionary. And if the indexes are revised, it would be helpful to provide page references in the Anglo-Saxon manner, instead of just references to entries.

The Critical Dictionary is linked, in a curious way, to the celebrations that took place in Paris last July. Both the dictionary and celebration reflect, in their very different ways, the same phenomenon: the fact that the French Revolution is now over, even in France. The old rift between those “for” and those “against” the Revolution no longer sunders the French people as it did for most of the past two centuries.

In their important preface to the Critical Dictionary, François Furet and Mona Ozouf identify some of the changes in the French economy and society after the Second World War that caused “the beacon” of the French Republic to “vanish from the national horizon”:

The postwar period was a time of upheaval in the economy, growth in the national product unprecedented in the history of France, inclusion in the international economy, and influx of foreign goods and ideas. Today’s France bears little resemblance to the France of our childhoods, which until 1950 remained the France of the nineteenth century. There are no longer many peasants, and the middle class is much larger than it was. The exile of the working class, to which the communist party lent dignity, is ending before our eyes. The society is more modern, and the French people are much more similar to one another than they were a century ago. As a result, however, they have less need of the unity that teachers once tried to foster by keeping memories of the Revolution alive. Absorbed into a common culture, less dependent than in the past on outspoken and militant loyalists, the republican memory is fading as a consequence of its own success.

The editors also acknowledge the role of institutional change in the extinction of that beacon:

Finally, if habits have changed, so have laws and institutions. The end of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of a durable republic. The end of the twentieth century is witnessing the creation of a consensus around a new constitution at first disavowed by the republican tradition stemming from the legacy of the Revolution and the nineteenth century. Not only was the Fifth Republic born in 1958 in a kind of coup d’état; it also instituted, in 1962, the election of a president by universal suffrage. Both circumstances were reasons for its rejection by the heirs of the Revolution, from the radicals to the communists, followers of 1789 and 1793 alike. But public opinion took a different view: the 1962 provision for presidential elections completely erased the regime’s dubious origins. The right of the people to choose the chief executive by direct election came to be seen as a right neglected for far too long, and de Gaulle apparently hit on the key to creating a monarchical republic that after two hundred years has reconciled Ancien Régime and Revolution.

I would add that much of the credit for “ending the exile” of the French working class, and saving it from French and Russian revolutionary rhetoric is owed to François Mitterrand, now president of the French Republic. Mitterrand, as leader of the French Socialist party, was so astute as to be able to use, for the benefit of the Socialists, a series of tactical electoral alliances with the French Communists, alliances that both encouraged fraternization and formed bridges between the memberships of the two parties. The Communists expected this to work to their advantage. The reverse, as Mitterrand had foreseen, proved to be the case. Once the bridges were there, the traffic over them was in one direction only. French voters deserted the Communists to give their support to the Socialists. This was one of the first major developments in what we can now see clearly to be the general decline of communism during the last quarter of the twentieth century.


On July 14, 1989, Mitterrand conducted the celebration of the bicentenary in very much the same way as that in which he had managed to outmaneuver the Communists and lure their followers away from them. In both cases, an outward appearance of carefree fun and naiveté masked cool calculation and deft execution. And in both cases, what was achieved was a take-over. In the first case, what was taken over was the Communists’ working-class following (or enough of it to give the Socialists a commanding lead). In the second, it was the heritage of the French Revolution that was taken over for the benefit of the now middle-of-the-road Socialists, under a Socialist president. The Communists were bitter but then, under Mitterrand, even Communist bitterness has been turned into a political asset for the Socialists.

The annexation of the French Revolution by the French Socialists presented one difficult intellectual and political problem. The French Socialists are now a party of the center—indeed, the party of the center. So if they are the true heirs of the French Revolution, the Revolution must have been a phenomenon of the center, must it not? The Revolution seemed, at the time it was happening, savagely divisive, smashing the old center of society and not finding an adequate new one, until Napoleon superseded the Revolution with his own imperial system. So if the Revolution was the center of something, what on earth could it be at the center of?

The organizers of the bicentenary celebrations came up with a brilliant answer to that one. The answer is that the French Revolution is at the center of the history of liberty and human rights in the world. The theme of the spectacular parade that rolled down the Champs Elysées on the night of July 14, 1989, was essentially that of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s governing concept for his Statue of Liberty: La Liberté éclairant le monde.

Now this made a very satisfactory answer, both politically and as show biz. Politically, by deflecting attention away from the actual course of the Revolution into the idea of the Revolution, it cleared up the Revolution conceptually, and made it into an acceptable and domesticated heritage for the modern, centrist Socialist party. The actual course of the Revolution was bloody, divisive, disconcerting, and generally scary: associations which any modern French socialist wishes to keep well away from. But the idea of the French Revolution in the minds of foreign admirers can be as nice as you choose to make it. It would be hard to think of a more effective way of sanitizing a sanguinary political heritage.

As show biz it also worked very well. “Joy of Liberation” is a congenial theme for anything exuberant, in the line of songs, dances, and stunts. Those provided on the night of July 14 were abundant, and of excellent quality. Various foreign and ethnic contingents, often in national or ethnic costumes, acted out with fervor—and often with great professional skill and brio—the notion of their national or ethnic indebtedness to French Revolutionary ideas of liberty. All this was highly congenial to French national pride: an aspect of the celebration that is unlikely to have escaped the attention of President Mitterrand.

Intellectually, the notion of the French Revolution as a liberating force in the history of other nations does not have much to commend it. It is true that during the first two years up to and including the summer of 1791, many Europeans—especially European intellectuals—were enthralled by the news from France. After the National Assembly had issued its famous Declaration of Peace to the World (March 22, 1790) the poet Klopstock, in Hamburg, wrote an “Ode to the Divine Liberty of the Gauls” that could appropriately have been recited during the celebrations of last July 14. But less than two years later, after the same National Assembly had declared war on Austria-Hungary (April 20, 1792), the same Klopstock wrote a poem, “The War of Conquest,” in which he solemnly cursed the French Revolutionaries, who had abandoned their pacific principles, as “traitors to humanity.” The poet Wordsworth and many other intellectuals went through a similar evolution in the same period. The disillusion that set in was confirmed as Revolutionary France expanded.

Belgians, Dutch, Rhinelanders, Italians had their old masters displaced, indeed, as a result of the Revolution, but they were replaced by new, foreign ones, more rapacious even than the old. In the occupied, and putatively liberated, lands, the word patriote became synonymous with traitor. In view of that history, it may appear surprising that groups of artists from Belgium, the Netherlands, and other European countries so enthusiastically joined with the French last summer in the celebration of the Revolution. More recent occupations have presumably wiped out the memory of an occupation of centuries ago. Also European—and American—artists and other intellectuals are usually more Francophile than most of their compatriots. Finally, the Champs Elysées, for the night of July 14, 1989, provided a magnificent stage, watched by an audience of an estimated two million people. Offered such a stage and such an audience, together with an attractive theme to celebrate, what actor or other artist should bother his or her head about fidelity to historical reality?

Far from spreading liberty in the world, the French Revolutionary expansion strengthened reaction by ensuring that resistance to the French Revolution would be associated with nationalism in other countries, which were challenged by the violent strain of French nationalism released by the French Revolution. This was the response in England, Russia, Spain, as well as in the countries of early occupation. Thus French Revolutionary expansion, far from disseminating the ideas of the Enlightenment, actually hindered the progress of those ideas, by causing them to be associated with the belligerent chauvinism of one particular nation, calling itself la Grande Nation.

Knowing their business, the organizers of the agreeable version of pastoral enacted in Paris last July did not introduce the concepts of French Revolutionary expansion, or of la Grande Nation. Instead, the celebrations hinged on a sacred document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaimed by the National Assembly in April 1789. To this document, it was suggested, humanity everywhere owes such freedom as it has been able to achieve, and the hope of freedom in the places where freedom today has not yet been achieved. Various foreign intellectuals were there, on that magical July night in Paris, solemnly confirming over television the transcendent significance in universal history of the document which constituted the clou of François Mitterrand’s triumphant Version of Pastoral.

Margaret Thatcher was also in Paris that night, but in quite a different mood. She felt she had been brought to Paris on false pretenses, and had then had a false role thrust on her. Mitterrand, as well as being president of France, happened to be president of the European Community at the time, and he had called a European summit to coincide with the bicentenary celebration. By this masterly move, he co-opted the other European leaders into walk-on roles—in his Version of Pastoral. By attending a part of the celebrations—as common courtesy required them to do—they appeared to be giving mute confirmation to the governing concept of the bicentenary: that other nations owe their freedom to the French.

The other European leaders, with one exception, meekly accepted their roles as spear carriers in a Franco-centric pageant. Mrs. Thatcher, however, broke the spell. British freedom, she affirmed, owed nothing to a French document of the late eighteenth century. British freedom rested on ancient and native foundations. It went back to Magna Carta.

This was strongly felt to be in the worst of taste. But let us now look at the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with some assistance from the Critical Dictionary entry, “Rights of Man,” by Marcel Gauchet. The Declaration owes nothing directly to the Magna Carta. The authors of the Declaration would have been horrified at the very thought that it might. “The thirteenth century Ugh!” Yet the Declaration does owe a very great deal to the Anglo-Saxon (more properly here, Anglo-Norman) tradition of freedom, of which Magna Carta is a conspicuous part. That tradition in the early eighteenth century reached the French Enlightenment from England itself. (Voltaire was the most enthusiastic importer of English ideas of freedom.) By the late eighteenth century, however, it was from America that the French Revolution imported the Anglo-Saxon tradition. As Gauchet writes:

It is beyond doubt that the American example played a crucial role in the elaboration of the French Declaration. Quite symbolically, the first person to propose a declaration to the Assembly, as if he were the one man by nature qualified to do so, was Lafayette, the hero of American independence. He drafted his text under the scrutiny and with the advice of the author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who at that time happened to be serving as the United States’ ambassador in Paris. Others also sought out his insights. The Committee on the Constitution even requested an official consultation, which Jefferson’s duties obliged him to refuse. Patriots and monarchiens met at his home on the final day of debate on the Declaration, August 26, in order to submit to his authoritative judgment their difference of opinion concerning the place of royal authority in the future organization of the government. Other veterans of the Revolutionary War such as Comte Mathieu de Montmorency joined Lafayette among the most fervent and eloquent orators of the debate. The translator of the Constitutions of the Thirteen States of America, the duc de La Rochefoucauld d’Enville, was a member of the Assembly, where he took the floor to remind the deputies of the American lesson concerning freedom of the press. His anthology was in the hands of all who submitted proposals, as some candidly acknowledged. Among the deputies were several other experts on American affairs, including Démeunier, who played an active role in the debate, and Dupont de Nemours. In addition to these men, who played direct and major roles, one must recognize the influence of a publicist such as Condorcet, the author of a proposal that stimulated debate from outside and the man who drafted the cahier of the nobility of Mantes, a rigorous analyst of the great trans-Atlantic precedents in works ranging from De l’influence de la révolution de l’Amérique sur l’opinion et la législation de l’Europe to Idées sur le despotisme.

Primarily, then, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, far from being a unique product of the genius of France—as that Parisian Version of Pastoral would have it—is a document of American inspiration. But it is not a document of purely American inspiration. There was another powerful influence which, if still not purely French, was at least Francophone. This was the influence of Rousseau. And the influence of Rousseau worked in such a way as to nullify the Jeffersonian guarantees contained in the declaration.


The member of the National Assembly who injected Rousseau into the Declaration was Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, best known in history as the Abbé Sieyès. Sieyès had played an important part in bringing the National Assembly into being. It was Sieyès’s brilliant and seminal pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? that pointed the way to the fusion of the Orders (of the States-General) with the revolutionary National Assembly, under the domination of the Third Estate, which Sieyès first, and the National Assembly after, identified with the nation itself.

Sieyès was, in 1789, a fervent disciple of Rousseau: the Rousseau of the Contrat Social. All the revolutionaries—and all the ancien régime, for that matter—admired Rousseau. But it was Sieyès who harnessed a key concept of Rousseau’s—“the general will”—to the Revolutionary process, thereby speeding it up incalculably (to his own later regret). Sieyès’s contribution—a simple but immensely far-reaching one—was to incorporate Rousseau’s abstract and emotionally inert “general will” into the emotionally powerful concept of the nation. Rousseau asserted the omnipotence of the “general will,” and that left most people puzzled, rather than excited (the Rousseau most French people were excited by, up to the summer of 1789, was the weepy Rousseau of la Nouvelle Héloïse, not the spartan Rousseau of du Contrat Social):

In What is the Third Estate? Sieyès described “the nation” in the same type of terminology, and in the same style, as Rousseau had described “the general will.” “The nation exists before all, it is the origin of everything. Its will is always legal, it is the law itself.” This was heady stuff for the new National Assembly, and it was to remain so for the National Convention.

Sieyès was now determined (July 1789) to introduce this same heady stuff into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He found the early drafts, based on American models, to be quite inappropriate. As Gauchet writes (“The Rights of Man”):

The inspiration came from Sieyès. He was the source of the critiques of declarations of the American type and of the model for a better one. He presented his proposal to the Committee on the Constitution on July 20 and 21, provoking astonishment and perplexity in most deputies, enthusiasm in a resolute minority, and repugnance in a few. We knew from his papers what he criticized in the American declarations: namely, their having clung to an old image of power and its limitations, an image unacceptable to a “people resuming its full sovereignty.” With “that assumption, a Declaration of Rights ought to have a totally different spirit and nature. It ceases to be a concession, a transaction, a treaty condition, or a contract between two authorities. There is only one power, only one authority” (Archives nationales, 284 AP 5).

So “limitations of power” were out and “full sovereignty” was in. Under the influence of Sieyès and Rousseau, the Rights of Man were turning into the Rights of Leviathan.

In its final form the Declaration embodies a series of rights, American-style, but it goes on to nullify these by two Articles written in a completely different spirit:

Article 3: “The source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation: no group, no individual may exercise authority not emanating expressly therefrom.”

Article 6: “Law is the expression of the general will; all citizens have the right to concur [sic] personally, or through their representatives in its formation—it must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes….”

These propositions may appear innocuous on the printed page but, as applied in the course of the Revolution, what they meant was that “authority emanating expressly from the nation”—or understood so to emanate—was without limit of any kind, and that a person deemed to be in opposition to the general will was an outlaw: neither a citizen nor even a man, and so without rights of any kind. To set yourself outside the nation, and in opposition to the general will was to put yourself outside nature itself. Saint-Just and Robespierre deemed that Louis Capet (ci-devant Louis XVI) was hors nature, a monster; so that cutting off his head didn’t even amount to manslaughter.

The Terror was to turn Sieyès into a liberal, sickened with how “general will” theory had worked out in practice. After the fall of Robespierre, in July 1794, Sieyès said:

The sovereignty of the people is not unlimited, and many systems approved and honored, including the one to which people are today persuaded they owe the greatest obligations, will seem mere monkish conceptions, poor plans for re-total: [return to state power] rather than republic, equally disastrous for liberty, and ruinous for public as well as private affairs.

But Sieyès himself, five years before, had done more than anyone else (after Rousseau) to bring re-total—totalitarianism, as we would say—into being. As Keith M. Baker writes in the entry on Sieyès in the Critical Dictionary:

Sieyès himself, no less than others, had laid the basis for the subversion of principles of constitutionality in the name of the general will that was implied in the Terror.

Among the foreign intellectuals who celebrated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen on the night of July 14, 1989, were English-speakers who seemed to think that the parts of the Declaration that are of Anglophone inspiration were the unqualified substance of the document. When their attention was drawn to the two Rousseau-Sieyès Articles, they dismissed these, apparently as irrelevant flourishes.1

But as the Revolution developed between 1791 and 1794 it was the liberal, or “American” articles of the Declaration that became the irrelevant flourishes: the only substantial articles respected in practice were the Rousseau-Sieyès ones. These were the ones that legitimized the Terror. They meant that if any person was accused in the all-powerful name of “the nation” or “the general will” by persons claiming to represent those formidable entities, and having the material capacity to enforce that claim, then that person was already as good as dead. The National Assembly, under the influence of Sieyès and Rousseau, had drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in such a way as to deprive such a person of any rights whatsoever. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was in practice a mandate for Terror, as long as the French Revolution lasted.

It is important here to distinguish between Rousseau’s writings in themselves and Rousseau as interpreted by Sieyès. Rousseau’s writings are full of ambiguities, reservations, contradictions. Apologists for Rousseau, wishing to absolve him from any responsibility for the Terror, can find in his works plenty of statements that suit their case. How much the Revolution (including the Terror) actually does owe to Rousseau’s writings themselves may not be altogether clear, but the revolutionaries themselves all believed they owed a great deal to Rousseau.

The Critical Dictionary finds Rousseau’s influence on the Revolution to have been very great. In an important entry on the revolutionary theme of “Regeneration,” Mona Ozouf, the coeditor, writes that among the philosophes,

only Rousseau abandoned all consideration of what was possible, and that abandonment is one of the reasons why the Revolution was all his from the beginning.

In the entry on “Sovereignty” Keith M. Baker specifies the nature of Rousseau’s central contribution:

The Social Contract transferred the sovereignty elaborated by theorists of absolute monarchy—with all its attributes—from the natural person of the king to the abstract, collective person of the people.

Bernard Manin, the author of the entry on “Rousseau,” begins by considering some of the objections to the theory of Rousseau’s preponderant influence, but arrives at a central formulation which is a version of that theory:

He was not the inventor of the idea that sovereign power is indivisible. The whole tradition of the absolute monarchy in France, in both theory and practice, was dominated by the principle that there is a single supreme power, that of the king, to which all other powers are subordinate. It was the absolute monarchy that imposed on France the idea—and not only the idea but also the reality—that sovereign power resides in one place and one place only. Hence it was not the idea of indivisible sovereignty that Rousseau bequeathed to the Revolution. Rather, it was the idea that the people is one, that it is possessed, like an individual, of a single will. The idea is by no means self-evident. Other thinkers have seen the people as an unstructured multitude, divided by differences of opinion and interest. By insisting more than any other theorist on the idea that the people is one (or can be made one), and by defining it as a subject with a will of its own, Rousseau beyond any doubt laid the intellectual groundwork for the Revolution and prepared people to accept its single most characteristic act: that of installing those who expressed the will of the people in the place once occupied by the king.

Even if we accept—as the Critical Dictionary does not—that the Social Contract did not decisively influence the Revolution, there can be no doubt at all that, as interpreted by Sieyès, it did exert a decisive influence. That interpretation was present, and critically important, at the very beginning of the Revolution, in What is the Third Estate? That interpretation was accepted and endorsed by the National Assembly and later by the National Convention. And the Critical Dictionary suggests that Sieyès’s interpretation of Rousseau was reasonably faithful to the Master.

Nôtre volonté, c’est la volonté générale,” said Robespierre. He clearly meant that he and those for whom he spoke—his audience in the Jacobin Club—were meekly submissive to the general will, while their opponents were mere “factions,” refractory to the general will. Yet this was a humble statement which claimed an awesome authority, and carried within it a lethal menace. For if Robespierre’s opponents were indeed also the opponents of the general will, whose authority should be absolute, was it not Robespierre’s duty, as a humble servant of the general will, to mark out those impious people for physical destruction? Which Robespierre duly proceeded to do.

Robespierre’s relation to the general will is precisely that of Cromwell to God.

Once we note that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens carries within it the absolutist and lethal principle of the general will, then the Declaration cannot be the benign and liberatory document so splendidly celebrated in Paris last July.


It is argued however that, even though some regrettable things occurred in the actual course of the Revolution, the heritage of the Revolution itself is benign and liberating to all humanity, and proper to be celebrated. So let us look at that one, briefly.

Ideologically, the international heritage of the French Revolution can be divided into three parts: the contribution to bourgeois liberalism, the contribution to militant nationalism (including national socialism), and the contribution to communism. The contribution to bourgeois liberalism is almost negligible, if not negative. Bourgeois liberalism was well developed and well disseminated before the French Revolution. It had advanced and prospered through three successive and limited Anglo-Saxon revolutions: the two seventeenth-century ones in England and the American. Bourgeois liberalism contributed to the French Revolution far more than the French Revolution ever contributed to bourgeois liberalism. It is probable, indeed, that the French Revolution actually hindered the development of bourgeois liberalism in nineteenth-century Europe, because of the strength of the reaction against it.

Perhaps the most visible contribution of the Declaration to bourgeois liberalism has been its influence over subsequent documents: for example, the constitutions of many Latin American countries and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The liberal part of the French Declaration was the part that was of American origin (as the Critical Dictionary shows), so that those who imitated that part of the French Declaration were getting Jefferson in French dress. The specifically French part of the French Declaration was the absolutist “general will” part, and I don’t think that had any imitators among international liberals.

The French Revolution’s contribution to militant nationalism on the other hand is enormous—much the greatest contribution made by the Revolution to anything in the world. The contribution was made through example, through emulation, and through reaction. The example was one of exalting the idea of the nation to previously unheard-of heights as was done by Rousseau–Sieyès–Robespierre. The nation took the place of the Monarchy and God, and was absolute like the one and Almighty like the other. This was a heady idea and it caught on. “The State is the walk of God on earth,” said Hegel, translating Rousseau–Sieyès into philosophical terms. (Hegel believed himself to be an opponent of the French Revolution: he was actually a carrier of its most destructive values.)

The need to resist French expansion—and the experience of French occupation—stimulated other European nations to exalt themselves to the heights proposed by the French. The process, once set in motion, fed itself. By the end of the nineteenth century, German nationalism in particular had reached a pitch of arrogant intensity, preparing the way for Hitler and the culmination of nationalist absolutism. Hitler may never have read Rousseau, or known about Sieyès, but he didn’t need to. By the early twentieth century, the absolutist nationalism conjured up by Rousseau–Sieyès more than a hundred years before was in the air and set to music. Hitler may never have read the Social Contract, but he certainly knew the words to Deutschland über Alles.

The contribution of the French Revolution to communism is less than its contribution to nationalism, but much greater than its contribution to bourgeois liberalism. And the contributions to communism and to nationalism are curiously linked. Marx was obsessed by the French Revolution, and fashioned a heritage out of it in his own way. The French Revolution as he presented it was a sort of bourgeois John the Baptist preparing the way for the real Messiah: The Proletarian Revolution, the Revolution to end Revolutions, “the ultimate emancipation.” And it seems that in making this prediction Marx was moved by German nationalism and its desire for emulation. In the entry “Marx” of the Critical Dictionary François Furet writes: “Marx…restored a future to humiliated Germany, which he saw as the most likely place for this ultimate emancipation to occur.”2

The principal heritage of Marxism-Leninism from the French Revolution is the absolutist certitude that derives from the Rousseau–Sieyès–Robespierre way of thinking—or, rather, of imperious and menacing assertion. Rousseau’s “general will” became Marx’s “History.” Communists were people who knew the will of History and executed it.

Well, the Communists of Central and Eastern Europe certainly found out something about the will of History during the last three months of 1989. It seems fitting that communism should die in Europe in the year of the bicentenary of the Revolution that was supposed to be the precursor of the birth of communism.3 The absolutist virus inherited from the French Revolution has spent itself, at least as far as Europe is concerned.

In retrospect, we can see a prelude to the death of communism in Europe in the death of the French Revolution in France itself, through the cessation of its sway over the minds and hearts of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen. What the Critical Dictionary and the Paris Version of Pastoral have in common is that they both were responses to the death of the Revolution. Paris, on July 14, gave the Revolution a joyous and sumptuous wake, in the course of which “a politick, well-wrought veil” (Burke’s phrase) was cast over what the dear departed had actually been up to while he was still around. And in the Critical Dictionary the remains of the deceased were dissected and classified, in a calm and orderly way.


The Critical Dictionary is itself the culmination of a revolution in the historiography of the French Revolution. For most of the past century, the historiography of the Revolution was a near-monopoly of the left in France. From the 1880s to the 1950s this historiography was dominated by three scholars: Alphonse Aulard (1849–1928), Albert Mathiez (1874–1932), and Georges Lefebvre (1874–1959). All three saw themselves not only as historians of the Revolution but as its heirs and apologists. In other ways they differed sharply; between Aulard and Mathiez in particular there was a bitter quarrel.

Aulard, like Michelet before him, was an ecumenical devotee of the Revolution-as-a-whole, with, however, quite a strong partiality toward Danton (a partiality also shared with Michelet). Mathiez, on the other hand, was an out-and-out Robespierre man. He joined the French Communist party in 1920, equated the Jacobins with the Bolsheviks, and used the Jacobin Terror to legitimize the Bolshevik one (a terror which did not, however, during Mathiez’s lifetime, attain its plenitude).

Georges Lefebvre was also a left-wing partisan, but of a far less aggressive type than Mathiez. François Furet—the author of the entry “Academic History of the Revolution”—says that “in Lefebvre, the scientific spirit more fully tamed the political passion and narrow loyalties than in Mathiez.” Furet blames Lefebvre, however, for a lack of interest in, or understanding of, “the great questions” and for his replacement of these “either by scientistic pretensions or by his opinions.” Furet adds dryly: “Marxism, whatever its vintage, turned out to be a providential instrument for bestowing an appearance of unity on this confused mélange.”

The entry “Academic History” ends with the words:

Having worked alone and outside this narrow path for many years, Georges Lefebvre in the first decades of this century produced what remains the most original part of his work: a rural history of the Revolution. But when Mathiez’s death allowed him access to the supreme magistracy, he too lay down in the Procrustean bed of a methodology designed by his predecessor, and the political climate of the “liberation” did the rest, transforming this old-school positivist into a neophyte Marxist-Leninist. This transformation was the final chapter in the academic tradition of revolutionary historiography.

“The academic tradition of revolutionary historiography” here refers to the left-wing tradition, from Aulard to Lefebvre. But academic historiography itself did not come to an end. What happened was that the old tradition was replaced by a different approach, admirably and comprehensively illustrated by the present Critical Dictionary. The word “critical” is a key one. What differentiates this historiography from its predecessor is that it is permeated throughout by a spirit of critical inquiry.

The Revolution, when examined in that spirit, necessarily looks worse than it did while piously gazed at by its own partisans. But the object is not to make it look worse; there is no question, here, of replacing left-wing polemics with right-wing ones. The object is to enquire into how things really were. And “things” here include ideas. There is no place in the Critical Dictionary for the kind of philistine reductivism which, under the sign of Namierism, has blighted significant parts of Anglo-Saxon historiography (and which is spiritually akin to the work of Georges Lefebvre).

There is no question here of “cutting the French Revolution down to size.” Whatever else may be said about the French Revolution, its sheer size will always remain awe-inspiring. And the approach of the Critical Dictionary does not make the French Revolution any less interesting. On the contrary, it appears as far more fascinating than ever it could appear in the work of historiographers whose senses were dulled by partisanship. (I am referring here to the “academic historiography” people cited by Furet, not at all to Michelet. Michelet brought off the extraordinary feat of being passionately partisan and acutely perceptive at the same time; and he never wrote a dull page.) The contributors to the dictionary, while very far indeed from being “school of Michelet,” are properly respectful toward the man whose work remains, for all its faults, the greatest general history of the French Revolution.

François Furet and Mona Ozouf are not merely editors of the Critical Dictionary; they have themselves written nearly half of it. The dictionary contains ninety-nine entries, of which Furet and Ozouf each wrote twenty-one. In addition, most of the other contributors are colleagues of either Furet or Ozouf (or both). François Furet is a former president of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and is now director of the Institut Raymond Aron in Paris. Mona Ozouf is director of research at the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique. Of the twenty-four contributors, seven in addition to Furet and Ozouf are identified as connected with the Institut Raymond Aron, and between them these seven contributors—Massimo Boffa, Yann Fauchois, Luc Ferry, Marcel Gauchet, Patrice Gueniffey, Ran Halévi, and Pierre Nora are responsible for twenty-three entries. A further six contributors—in addition to Mona Ozouf—are identified either with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique or with Centre de Récherche Historiques, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales. These six—Louis Bergeron, Joseph Goy, Bernard Manin, Philippe Raynaud, Jacques Revel, and Denis Richet are between them responsible for a further seventeen entries.

It follows that a large majority of the entries—eighty-two out of ninety-nine—are either by the editors themselves or by persons working in academic institutions with which the editors are, or have been, connected. This makes the Critical Dictionary very much the product of a “school.” This might be either a good or bad thing. In this case, since the school is of excellent quality, the results are also excellent. The unity of general approach, combined with variations in individual emphasis, makes the different parts and entries of the Critical Dictionary work together exceedingly well.

What I have said so far about the contributors might give the impression of a kind of Parisian closed shop. This impression has to be corrected. The “new” French historiography of the Revolution—very unlike the “old” school—is receptive to outside scholarship. One of the editors—François Furet—teaches at the University of Chicago. In addition to Furet, six of the twenty-four contributors—responsible for twelve of the entries—work in institutions outside France. They are Bronislaw Baczko (Geneva), Keith M. Baker (University of Chicago), David D. Bien (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Gail Bossenga (University of Kansas, Lawrence), Alan Forrest (University of Manchester), Patrice Higonnet (Harvard University).

“Openness” to the outside world, notably the English-speaking world, also appears in other aspects of the Critical Dictionary. There is, for example, in part 5, “Historians and Commentators,” a respectful entry on Edward Burke by Gérard Gengembre. Gengembre calls Burke “this penetrating foreigner” and praises, among other things, his “rigorous analysis” of the French Revolution.

Such comment could not have been published in Paris under the reign of the old regime of Revolutionary history. For all the historiographical partisans of the Revolution—even before Aulard—Burke was necessarily anathema. Michelet never can refer to the Reflections on the Revolution in France without frothing at the mouth over ce livre infâme. With respect to Burke as in other respects, the changed approach reflected in the Critical Dictionary is to be welcomed. Space prevents me from giving an indication of the content and character of each entry, but I can testify that the entries are of uniformly high quality; they provide an enormous amount of instruction, much of it surprising, and quite a lot of entertainment. The Revolution had its “black farce” side which is not lost on some of the contributors.

Finally, a tribute to the translator is in order. I have compared Arthur Goldhammer’s translation at a number of points with the French original, and find that it stands up pretty well. The French of the “Ideas” part in particular is hard to render into intelligible English, but Mr. Goldhammer has mostly succeeded in a formidable task, requiring great stamina as well as discrimination. I found just one small error, inconsequential but amusing. Hébert’s journal Père Duchesne was a foul-mouthed journal of revolutionary extremists. It used the expletive foutre in every fourth or fifth line. This is translated as “damn it,” which is comically feeble. The error is all the odder because the text itself specifically refers to foutre as among Père Duchesne’s usage de jurons à connotations sexuelles, which hardly applies to the Wodehousian “damn it.” But this is a very tiny flaw in a fine translation of a great work.

This Issue

February 15, 1990