It is now thirty years since, in Penser la Révolution française,1 the late François Furet offered a revisionist explanation of the French Revolution; but, if I am not mistaken, it is still the reigning orthodoxy. Which it well deserves to be. For it is simple but profound and is, before anything else, a theory not so much about the Revolution as about what a historian should be doing when writing about that infinitely significant event. His duty, above all else, Furet argues, is to keep his distance: to cling, as a working assumption, to the old adage that “men make history but do not know the history they are making.” For the historians have, for very understandable human reasons, come to treat 1789 as a sort of “zero” date, presenting it in their books and syllabuses as the key to what, historically speaking, lies both upstream and downstream.

But this, of course, is exactly how revolutionaries thought or spoke about it themselves—as, that is to say, the date of the founding of a new world. Thus in adopting this convention, historians have already surrendered their intellectual independence. They are accepting something that the revolutionaries said at its face value—a fatal first step, which leads them to fight the battles of the Revolution over again in the terms in which they were fought originally. This explains why historians of the Revolution have tended to stamp themselves as royalists or liberals or modern-day Jacobins or anarchists. It also explains, so Furet argues, why their histories are methodologically confused, an incoherent mixture of analysis (of the supposed “causes” of the Revolution) and narrative, in which happenings are taken at their face value and presented as true stories.

Furet’s own grand theory of the Revolution thus breaks altogether with the grand and “committed”tradition of Michelet and Taine, Mathiez and Soboul. It asserts that the hoary debate over the causes of the Revolution does not cope with the revolutionary phenomenon itself: that, in the dizzying sequence of events from 1789 to 1794, this phenomenon had a life of its own, in many ways independent of what led up to it.

Any theory that attempts to explain the short- or long-term “causes” of the Revolution has, after all, to take into account conflicting interests in French society. But what flourished during those five revolutionary years was a political theory that denied the existence of such conflicting interests: a politics based on the concept of a unitary “people” and of the “general will”—a seamless aggregate of “right” wills. Admittedly, according to the revolutionaries, the “people” had its enemies, who conspired against it in secret; but they, by definition, were not themselves part of the “people.” As an interpretation of the Revolution this is, of course, of the highest significance to the historian. But it is so only—so Furet would argue—to the degree that he does not let it influence his own scrutiny of events or creep into his own outlook even by the back door.

The name of this form of politics is “Jacobinism” and, as Furet points out, it requires a special kind of leadership. The leader is there not to represent the “people” but to embody it—as under the ancien régime the nation was, in theory, embodied in the King—and his primary role must be vigilance, a hyperdeveloped alertness to treason and plots. He must also have a very special relationship to language. For power, once embodied in the monarchy and now, by a reconsecration, incarnated in the people, lived through “opinion,”of which language is the vehicle. Language—the “right” language, transparent to public opinion—becomes the chosen instrument of power, “the sole guarantee that power would belong only to the people, that is, to nobody.” The Revolution, says Furet, “ushered in a world where mental representations of power governed all actions, and where a network of signs completely dominated political life.”

The Revolution, according to Furet, thus took the particular course that it did in large part precisely because of this empowering of language. The revolutionary phenomenon had a dynamic of its own, which led quite naturally to the Terror. It fed on circumstances; and the events of the revolutionary period which may appear so decisive—the royal family’s flight to Varennes, the declaration of war, etc.—were, in a sense, of its own making.

This brings us to Tocqueville. For the weakness in Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, according to Furet, is that Tocqueville did not understand this revolutionary dynamic. It was, however, Furet thought, more or less the only important weakness in that work, which is for him “the most important book of the entire historiography of the French Revolution.” Tocqueville—more or less alone among historians—had “escaped the tyranny of the historical actors’ own conception of their experience and the myth of origins.” Furet’s own book is in considerable part a meditation on Tocqueville.


Nor is his admiration misplaced. The Old Regime and the Revolution, now published in a new translation and amplified by Tocqueville’s own important notes, is a most remarkable book—exploratory, longsighted, on occasion brilliantly witty, and quite the equal in weight to his Democracy in America. But what is unfortunate is that the present translation contains some serious misrenderings—a fact pointed out to us by Professor Jon Elster of Columbia University, who lists some sixty such errors.2

Tocqueville was the descendant, on both sides, of ancient noble families. His father, Hervé, was an ardent Legitimist and author of books about the Bourbon monarchs, while his mother was the granddaughter of that appealing and heroic figure, Lamoignon de Malesherbes, a good friend to the Encyclopédistes and freethinkers but loyalest of servants to Louis XVI. Tocqueville, moreover, was by no means a renegade from his caste, though bitterly conscious of the ignominy it had fallen into before the Revolution. He was given a freedom and detachment from his origins, however, by his ruling passion, which was for analysis—analysis leading to generalization. It was said of him, rather unfairly, that he had begun to think before he had begun to learn, but certainly it is striking—for instance in his Memoirs3—how any description of an event or a person (he is masterly at character-drawing) is instantly capped or prefaced by a generalization, newly minted for the occasion. Here he is on his political colleague Lammenais:

It is above all defrocked priests one needs to study if one wants to form a proper idea of the indestructible, and as it were infinite, power that clerical habits exercise on those who have once contracted them. It was in vain for Lammenais to wear white stockings, a yellow waistcoat, a gaudy striped cravat and a green redingote; he remained no less a priest, in character and even in appearance. He moved with discreet, hurried little steps, without ever turning to look at people—gliding through the crowd with a gauche and modest demeanor, as if just leaving a sacristy, but with pride enough all the same to trample on the heads of kings and outstare God.4

Tocqueville trained as a barrister, but the July Revolution of Louis Philippe ended his hopes of advancement in the law, and in 1831 he went to America, to study—as a historian—the spectacle of democracy in action. The resulting book, Democracy in America (1835),5 was an immense success. It had a great impact in England as well as France and gained him invitations from J.S. Mill and Nassau Senior to write for English liberal journals. He was in fact an Anglophile, marrying an English woman and taking to heart the fact that in England, unlike the France of the ancien régime, the nobility actually wielded power. It was rather in the spirit of English politics that, in 1839, he accepted nomination to the French Chamber of Deputies, where he served as an opposition member for nine years.

Tocqueville foresaw and warned his friends of the Revolution of 1848 and was closely involved in the bloody “June days” which followed. He was frank enough to say, publicly, that he had not wished for a republic, but that he was prepared to give it his full loyalty now that it had arrived. As a known “moderate,” he was appointed to the committee charged with drawing up a new constitution. There followed an appointment as minister for foreign affairs. It was his one taste of power, and he enjoyed it, experiencing a “tranquillity of spirit and a singular calm.”6 (It was, he found, much easier to make large decisions than small ones.) The appointment lasted, however, only five months. Fresh from (rather successfully, in his own view) settling a dangerous dispute between Austria and Piedmont and another between the Tsar and the Sultan, he, with the rest of the Cabinet, found himself dismissed. Louis Napoleon, the President, had decided (as he said ominously) to appoint new men “who understand the need for an undivided and strong rule and…will be as deeply conscious of my responsibility as of their own.”7

It was now that Tocqueville wrote his political Memoirs, and meanwhile he meditated on a book that would extend the insight he had arrived at in Democracy in America: that as “society had changed shape, humanity had changed its circumstances,” and that the future lay with democracy. For this, he decided, he needed a large historical canvas, no less than the story of the Revolution and what led up to it.

The tentative way in which his book developed is altogether impressive. In 1852 he was still saying he did not know whether he had a subject, though he was “searching for it with desperate energy.” Then, in the following year, chance intervened. He had fallen ill and been sent, for the sake of the mild climate, to a village near Tours; and searching in the local archives he made what seemed to him a startling and quite fundamental discovery. It was that France’s rigidly centralized system of administration, which he had always assumed derived from Napoleon, was actually the creation of the ancien régime. The traditional system of government in France by great lords and hereditary magistrates, among others, had effectively been bypassed: by the institution in the mid-seventeenth century of the Intendant (or provincial administrator), directly responsible to Versailles; by the acquisition of new powers by the conseil du roi (royal council), a body so powerful “that it affected everything, and at the same time so obscure that history has barely noticed it”; and finally by the large and increasing influence of the controller-general, who became responsible not only for finance but also for commerce and public works. By the eighteenth century the country had two separate governments: an ornamental one, involving innumerable grand titles and ennobling offices (the sale of offices being a rich source of income to the State); and a real and working one, firmly centered in the capital.


The implications of this, as he saw, ran out in every direction. It seemed to mean, for one thing, that, in a certain respect, the French Revolution did not change anything. This of course had practical consequences for his book. He had planned, originally, to devote only some thirty pages or so to the ancien régime, but now it would appear to be his major subject, or at least the immediately demanding one. (He was never in fact to complete his second volume, on the Revolution itself.8 )

Then, if it was true that, in a certain sense, the Revolution changed nothing, it would require writing about in a special and novel way. For the French certainly did not believe that it changed nothing; indeed they thought they then “made the greatest effort ever undertaken by any people to disassociate themselves from their past.” Thus what they said they were doing, or sincerely thought they were doing, would have to be treated with great detachment, as one significant area of evidence, but not the only one or by any means the most important.

It became obvious to Tocqueville, at all events, that various received ideas about the ancien régime were misleading: for instance, that the issue between privileged and unprivileged in the later eighteenth century was a power struggle. On the contrary, so he came to think, what made the privileges of the nobility so vital to them, and so galling to the unprivileged, was that privileges were all the nobles had. Had they possessed power as well as privileges, as they had done in the feudal era, the injustice would have seemed less flagrant and less incomprehensible.

Then again, contrary to accepted ideas, about thirty or forty years before the Revolution the ancien régime entered a period of prosperity, the greatest it had ever enjoyed. Indeed, by 1780 the fact seemed to have become public knowledge, and people were saying there were no longer any limits on the country’s progress. The significance of this, Tocqueville argues, was not quite what might have been expected.

It is not always in going from bad to worse that one falls into revolution. It more often happens that a people who have borne without complaint, as if they did not feel them, the most burdensome laws, reject them violently once their weight is lightened. The regime that a revolution destroys is almost always better than the one that immediately preceded it.

Further, though France was as much ruled by a centralized bureaucracy in 1780 as it had been in 1740, the nature of this rule had changed, owing to the development of something called “public opinion.” In 1740 the bureaucrats’ chief concerns were the down-to-earth ones of maintaining order, raising troops, and, above all, bringing in taxes. Forty years later, their heads were filled with public and philanthropic projects:roads, canals, manufactures, charity organizations, and agronomy. “There were circulars from the controller-general that more resembled treatises on the art of agriculture than business letters.” What is more, the language of directives sent out in the King’s name would express radical-sounding sentiments. It was declared that “the right to work is the most sacred of all properties” and “any law which diminishes it violates natural law”; or that, as a result of putting tax collection on a more rational basis, “the rich…will be doing no more than bearing the burden that they should long have shared more equally.” This was perilous language to be used by an absolute monarchy, especially if later the directives had to be reversed.

In speaking of “public opinion,” Tocqueville had in mind the writings of intellectuals and philosophes. The fact that, in the later eighteenth century, they should have become a power in the land seemed to him easy to understand, though they were to exercise an “extraordinary and terrible influence.”These writers, he says, observing such bizarre anomalies in society, and so many ancient institutions which had lost their virtue, very naturally came to the idea that, in place of traditions and customs, it would be best to opt for simple and basic abstract principles, derived from reason and natural law. The misfortune, according to Tocqueville, was that, since they lived at an “almost infinite distance from practice,”nothing warned them of the obstacles reality might place before even the most desirable reforms. They lacked the elementary education they might have derived from observing a free society. But on the other hand the rest of the nation was just as ignorant and gave them flattering attention. It was thus that they managed to imbue the men who made the Revolution, not only with their ideas, but with their own temperament. Accordingly, when the nation had finally to act, it “brought all the habits of literature into politics.”

Tocqueville’s attitude toward the philosophes, as toward most things, is not fundamentally rancorous or malevolent. It is worth noting, moreover, that Diderot—one of the authors Tocqueville stigmatizes, actually anticipated him in one aspect of his verdict. In his friend the abbé Galiani’s Dialogues on the Corn-Trade (1770), Diderot was struck by a remark by Galiani’s leading character, the “Chevalier de Zanobi.””Believe me,” says Zanobi, “do not fear the rascally or the wicked; sooner or later they are unmasked. Fear the deluded man of good will; he is on good terms with his own conscience, he desires the good, and everyone trusts him…. But unfortunately he is mistaken as to the means of procuring it for us.” In an Apologia for the Abbé Galiani (1770) Diderot picks this up. “You do not agree with this view of Galiani’s?”he asks his interlocutor. “Upon my word I, if anyone, ought not to. And yet I go along with him here. For let us ask ourselves, with our hand on our heart, whether our natural ardor, plus a conviction of desiring the good of mankind, has not caused us to make many blunders—ones we would not have committed had we possessed more enlightenment, no less honor and a cooler head.”

Tocqueville’s book is a lament over the loss of an aristocracy. The French, he says, once had an aristocracy, but it hardened into a caste; and “of all forms of society, the one where aristocracy does not and cannot exist is just the one which will have the most difficulty escaping absolute government for long.” On the other hand, and typically, he regarded it as absurd to hope to see this trend reversed; for an “unknown force” was, sometimes gently, sometimes violently, pushing humankind in that direction, and sanity and right reason lay in accepting the fact. Democracy might all too easily, but did not inevitably have to, degenerate into absolutism.

It is impossible not to be impressed by so much perceptive and original thinking. Of course one has some objections to Tocqueville. Indeed I have quite a few, but I will mention only two. It was a cherished theme of his that, as democracy advanced, the French grew more and more alike, indeed “almost identical.” There might be some superficial differences, but at bottom “everyone above the masses resembled one another; they had the same ideas, the same habits, the same tastes, were inclined to the same pleasures, read the same books, spoke the same language.” This idea of Tocqueville’s has been taken up by other writers (recently by Mona Ozouf9 ), but I am inclined to think it a pure fantasy. One reflects that for everyone to be reading the same books, if enough books are involved, cannot but be healthy and is part of what is meant by “civilization.”

Secondly, when invoking “the nobility” or “the bourgeoisie,” Tocqueville treats them as the slippery and protean abstractions that they are, but the same is not true when he is talking about “the peasant.” He personifies “the Peasant,” draws a kind of typological portrait of him and his ways (“he was submissive, he was even merry”) and insists on how extremely isolated “he” was—“perhaps more isolated than anyone has ever been anywhere else.” It strikes me, and not just in reading Tocqueville, that “the peasant,” as a category, needs a skeptical looking-at. It is a lesson one learns from Richard Cobb10 that when those of humble birth (if not necessarily “peasants”) take to crime or terrorism, and consequently—that is the important point—figure in written (police) records, they turn out to have wildly varied and improbable careers and to suffer not at all from isolation.


As François Furet and Françoise Mélonio rightly say, in their introduction to The Old Regime, the issue that Tocqueville was grappling with was “not the why but the how.” In other words—and it follows from his central discovery—he was not, or not primarily, offering to explain the “causes” of the Revolution. The point calls for a digression. For it is noticeable that historians tend to fall below their own level, they become quite unscientific, when they start discussing the “causes” of events. The fact is glaringly obvious with (that most barren of topics) the “causes of the First World War,” and not much less so with the French Revolution. (One of the reasons why Michel Foucault’s “archaeological” approach to history 11 is so attractive is that it bypasses causal theories and treats particular periods as quite distinct from one another.)

But the reason why this should be so is, after all, not too difficult to explain. Let us suppose that X was run down and killed by a lorry while crossing a London street at a dangerous corner. It may be said that the cause of this was that it was a dangerous corner; or that X was shortsighted; or that he was a dreamer inclined to jaywalking; or that it was a foggy evening and the driver did not see him. These are all perfectly proper uses of the word “cause,” and they could moreover all have been true in this case. But the point is, there is no known or possible way in which these “causes” can be logically combined, whether by addition or hierarchization or any other kind of arrangement.

Thus I would not want to say, as scholars and others were once so inclined to do, that Rousseau, the theorist of the “General Will,” caused the French Revolution; indeed it may be true that Sièyes and Mirabeau had not even read him, though Robespierre certainly had. On the other hand, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, read carefully, explains something of great importance about Jacobinism. For Rousseau insisted that there could be no place for representation in a democracy (“The moment a people provides itself with representatives, it is no longer free”12 ). Now, this was a deliberate paradox, of the kind he had a passion for, for it really meant that democracy (democracy as envisaged by him) was actually impossible. Indeed he said as much in Book III, Chapter 4 (“Of Democracy”): “In a strict sense, there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be one. It is against the natural order of things that the many govern and the few are governed…. If there were a people of gods, it would govern itself democratically, but so perfect a government is not for men.” Thus, though he can imagine citizens doing some abstract legislating under the oak tree, he expects them to be governed autocratically by all-powerful magistrates.13

The truth of what Rousseau is saying comes home to one when reading Goodness Beyond Virtue, Patrice Higonnet’s study of the Jacobins. For Higonnet holds that Jacobinism “can still be a model for modern democrats” and that Jacobinism’s vision puts to shame “our own inactive allegiance to socially inert and pluralistic democracy.” This, one feels, can hardly be right. For the Jacobins followed Rousseau in holding that in a “pure” democracy there is no place for representation; but they failed to register Rousseau’s paradoxical rider to this, that in a society of any considerable size “pure” democracy is impossible. But how, we may ask, can an impossible system be regarded as a model, for us or for anyone? The trouble with the Jacobins, you might say, is not that they read Rousseau but that they misread him—as many have done since.

The revolutionaries known as “Jacobins” originally called themselves the “Society of Friends of the Constitution,” acquiring their nickname from the fact that their club met on the onetime premises of the Dominican (or Jacobin) monks. They were not, at first, clearly distinguishable in their doctrines from other groups, such as the Girondins. (Moreover, a “sans-culotte” might equally well be a Jacobin or a Girondin.) In 1793, however, there was a power struggle between Jacobins and Girondins, from which the former emerged victorious; and the Terror of 1793-1794 was a strictly Jacobin affair.

Higonnet’s book is thus a defense of the Jacobins and an attempt to salvage their reputation. It asks us to see their eventual decline into terrorism as an altogether unforeseeable catastrophe, a story “like a tragedy,” exhibiting the “instinctive and self-destructive desire of the noble-minded to resolve by force the consequences of contradictory desire and flawed ambition.” It will be seen at once that Higonnet, though he makes acknowledgment to Furet, rejects a leading element in Furet’s theory as I have expounded it: that historians should eschew all “psychological” history based on the actors’ conscious intentions. He holds, on the contrary, that the Jacobins’ intentions and world view have a lot to offer us, and that we have a duty, as for any group of humans, to study their “yearnings and emotions,” their personal passions and fears. He is ready to point out their “mistakes” (of which one seems to be the “Civil Constitution” of the clergy14 ), and, as he calls them, their “successes” (Jacobinism, he writes, was “a great success” in the administration of Marseilles; the Jacobins had a “happy relationship to the peasantry”). He notes how they were very often “surprised”—even surprised at discovering their own ruthlessness. They were human, all too human, but they are our models and companions, and we are their heirs.

Higonnet’s is a serious and generous enterprise, with an underlying and fervent purpose, to dissociate the French from the Russian Revolution. Nor would I want to disagree—any more than Tocqueville or, I suppose, Furet would have done—that 1789 was “a great and inspiring moment of world history.” But I cannot honestly feel that his project is convincing.

There is something perplexing about it from the very start. Higonnet repeatedly insists in his introduction that Jacobinism was a “divided ideology,” a “dualistic” world view, being at once “individualistic” and “communitarian,” “privatist” and “universalist,” and that this dualism made it inherently unstable. He cites the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen) as a “revolutionary defense of individual rights” and as symptomatic of the inherent contradiction in the Jacobin position; for, unlike the American Bill of Rights, it was not attached to a larger, and limiting, constitutional document, asserting the rights of the community. But, after all, does not the Déclaration, in its very title, assert the rights not just of the “man” but of the “citizen”? Does it not say, further (Article 3), that “the principle of all sovereignty is vested in the nation,” and (Article 6) that “the law is the expression of the general will” (my translation)? The epithets “privatist” and “individualistic” hardly seem to fit here. (Moreover, Higonnet seems to be forgetting the American Declaration of Independence, which was not attached to any constitution.)

Then he argues that the rock that Jacobin “universalism,” otherwise a promising and inspiring doctrine, ran upon was “class.” When—as happened in 1793 in Lyon, which had a tradition of politically organized labor, and again in Paris in early 1794—it came up against “class” (defined by him as “the modern consciousness of belonging to a social grouping that has particular economic and cultural strategies”), Jacobinism “faltered.” This seems to imply that the Jacobins did not, originally, realize that there was such a thing as “class,” or indeed that, except very embryonically, it did not exist. That would be the natural interpretation of his remark that “the ‘bourgeoisie’ did not make the French Revolution, but the Revolution did make a bourgeoisie.” But on the other hand he writes that the Jacobins “wanted to…deny divisive lines of class not just for France in their own time but for the entire world and forever”—which seems to be saying that they knew all about “class” and defied it. Ignorance, or blind over-confidence? We need to know which Higonnet is imputing, especially since the “faltering” led to mass executions in Lyon and the razing of the city.

But far odder is another of Higonnet’s lines of argument, about the Jacobins’ relationship to the ancien régime. He theorizes that the Jacobins were nostalgic for the earlier or mid-eighteenth century—and rightly so, for, as “we” ourselves acknowledge in our plays and films and operas, it was “a kind of golden cultural and social time.” (Marie-Antoinette is, with Napoleon, “the most famous figure in the entire length and breadth of French history.”) In the mid-eighteenth century, “French society delicately balanced many (pleasing) contrasts.” The Church was “a vigorous, reasonably harmonious, widely accepted, and ideologically dominant institution,” and even Voltaire paid tribute to the reign of Louis XIV. Well might Talleyrand sigh that those who had not lived in the Old Regime did not know the douceur de vivre (ease of living).

Talleyrand, Marie-Antoinette, Louis XIV: hardly mid-eighteenth-century figures. Something has gone astray with the dates here. More to the point, what seems to be implied is that the Jacobins were longing for a time before Montesquieu, Rousseau, and the Encyclopédie had begun to make nuisances of themselves. This would certainly be a highly revisionist theory.

But it ties in with another argument, producing an even stranger effect. For it is part of Higonnet’s apologia for the Jacobins that when they swerved into terrorism it was not because of anything in their conscious doctrines, it was the result of atavistic instinct—a psychic legacy from the days of absolute monarchy. They were “reenacting a past of persecution,” a punitive habit of mind “derived from long habits of absolutist politics and intolerant religion.” Their obsession with punishment may also, in some degree, have been inherited from the Jansenists. “It is tempting to suppose that without this judgemental reflex, derived in part from Jansenist instincts, the application of Jacobin principles, however contradictory, would hardly have been as tyrannical as it was.” It is a puzzle why the bloodstream of the Jacobins should have been the carrier of such century-old infections. But the meaning is clear: the blame for the Jacobin Terror is to be placed on the ancien régime, that same harmonious and “delicately balanced” regime they were yearning to restore.

From a logical point of view, I don’t think Higonnet’s book can be said to stand up. Where it has more to offer, and indeed is sometimes gripping, is in its picture of Jacobin manners. As Higonnet rightly says, the Jacobins were obsessed with signs and symbols. The length of hair for club members was a matter for concern and regulation: at Bénévent the rule was no longer than eight inches. Polyphonic music was frowned on, as suggestive of social disharmony. The clubs would festoon their meeting halls with icons—busts of votive figures, models of the Bastille, flags, portraits, honor rolls, allegories of virtue, and revolutionary mottoes. “Jacobins,” writes Higonnet, “believed in the close fit between fact and symbol and fetishistically inverted them in terms of cause and effect. Destroying the sign would help somehow to solve the problem expressed in the sign.” Thus the “traitorous” General Dumouriez was many times burnt in effigy; at Marseilles, the bust of Mirabeau, exposed as a crypto-royalist, was veiled; and at Chartres the bust of Petion was decapitated. A republic, he quotes Saint-Just as saying, is constituted by the “complete destruction of its opposite.”

Higonnet writes that the Jacobins were “keen students of human nature” and were “trained to read the actions, the motives, and the faces of every individual friend and foe, and of themselves as well”—comments that read rather chillingly. They had on the other hand little interest in “the psychological arcana of sexual relations and the intricacies of social stratification” (they were, as one might say, not predestined readers of Jane Austen and Flaubert). They distrusted jokes, as a threat to fraternity; and as time went on their rhetoric ossified, politically correct circumlocutions becoming ever more numerous. (All the same, my heart warms to them for referring to bishops as “mitrophoric bipeds.”)

What one tends to forget, says Higonnet, with some truth, is that there was another and quite different aspect to the Jacobins. They were, or became, busy and down-to-earth administrators, dealing with innumerable local problems and taking over the erstwhile duties of the Intendant. “Our image of the Jacobins would be quite different if we were able to focus less on the speeches they made for national or public consumption and more on their answers to the pleas of the weak and the destitute in their hometowns.” Higonnet draws up a sort of balance sheet, wanting to make us see in the Jacobins, both in their achievements and in their efforts, our brothers under the skin. If their “religion” was incoherent and did not answer humankind’s deepest anxieties, he says, this may have had a silver lining. “If Jacobinism had merely been a modern version of traditionalist religion, it would now be less relevant to our own modern or postmodern lives. Jacobinism continues to hold our attention because its aim was to mold citizens, not angels.” But wasn’t it the other way round? The Catholic Church, after all, did not hope to produce angels; only the Jacobins believed they could do that.

This Issue

April 8, 1999