Tocqueville’s Lament


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

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