Chapter 6
Where it stands

‘The whole business now seems over’, wrote the English observer Arthur Young in Paris on 27 June 1789, ‘and the revolution complete.’ People would repeatedly make the same observation, usually more in hope than conviction, over the next ten years until Napoleon officially proclaimed the end of the Revolution in December 1799. Even then all he meant was the end of a series of spectacular events in France; he was to continue to export them for another sixteen years. Besides, the Revolution was not simply a meaningless sequence of upheavals. These conflicts were about principles and ideas which continued to clash throughout the nineteenth century, and would be reinvigorated by the triumphs of Marxist Communism in the twentieth. Thus it still seemed outrageous to many French intellectuals when, in 1978, the historian François Furet proclaimed, at the start of a celebrated essay, that ‘The French Revolution is finished’ (terminée).

A historical challenge

What he meant was that the Revolution was now, or ought to be, a subject for historical enquiry as detached and dispassionate as that of medievalists studying (his example) the Merovingian kings. Whereas the history of the Revolution as it has been written in France for much of the twentieth century had been more a matter of commemoration than scholarly analysis, its legitimacy monopolized by a succession of Communists or fellow-travellers entrenched in the university hierarchy. Furet’s attack was suffused with personal history. Though a Sorbonne graduate, he had always despised the university world, and had built a career in the rival Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes (later EHESS). A Communist in youth, like so many others he was disillusioned by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and renounced the party. And when he and a fellow apostate, Denis Richet, wrote a new history of the Revolution in 1965, they were unanimously denounced by leading specialists in the subject as intruders, not qualified in the subject, who, in offering an interpretation suggesting that it had ‘skidded off course’, had traduced the Revolution’s essential unity of purpose and direction. By 1978 Furet had abandoned this view, but not the enmities it had aroused. For the rest of his life (he died in 1997), he pressed home his attack, particularly during the debates of the bicentenary. As that year came to an end, he cheerfully proclaimed that he had won.

The classic interpretation

What had he defeated? He called it the ‘Jacobino-Marxist Vulgate’. His opponents called it the ‘classic’ interpretation of the Revolution. Its basis was (and is, since despite Furet’s triumphalism it retains many adherents) the conviction that the Revolution was a force for progress. The fruit and vindication of the Enlightenment, it set out to emancipate not just the French, but humanity as a whole, from the grip of superstition, prejudice, routine, and unjustifiable social inequities by resolute and democratic political action. This was the ‘Jacobin’ bedrock, differing little from the professions of countless clubbists in the 1790s. As a historical interpretation, it built on the work of nineteenth-century custodians of revolutionary traditions, most famously perhaps Jules Michelet, that apocalyptic idolizer of ‘The People’. Confident and complacent, the Jacobin perspective was disturbed only by the terror, which it did not seek to defend except as a cruel necessity and a reflex of national defence.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, this historiographical Jacobinism began to acquire a new political overlay. From 1898 the great left-wing politician Jean Jaurès began to produce a Socialist History of the French Revolution which emphasized its economic and social dimensions and introduced an element of Marxist analysis. Marx himself had written little directly on the Revolution, but it was easy enough to fit a movement which had begun with an attack on nobles and feudalism into a theory of history that emphasized class struggle and the conflict between capitalism and feudalism. The French Revolution from this viewpoint was the key moment in modern history, when the capitalist bourgeoisie overthrew the old feudal nobility. The fundamental questions about it were therefore economic and social. At the very moment when Jaurès was writing, a fierce young professional historian, Albert Mathiez, was beginning a lifelong campaign to rehabilitate Robespierre, under whose terroristic rule clear ‘anticipations’ of later socialist ideals had appeared. Mathiez set out to stamp his own viewpoint on the entire historiography of the Revolution, and his native vigour was redoubled from 1917 by the example and inspiration of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which seemed to revive the lost promise of 1794. Robespierre’s Republic of Virtue would live again in Lenin’s Soviet Union. Mathiez only belonged briefly to the Communist Party, but he established a parallel historical party of his own in the form of a ‘Society of Robespierrist Studies’. Its journal, the Annales Historiques de la Révolution française, is still the main French-language periodical devoted to the Revolution. Apart from the years of Vichy, when it was silenced, from the death of Mathiez in 1932 until the advent of Furet this society and its members dominated teaching and writing about the Revolution in France, and its successive leading figures occupied the chair of the History of the Revolution at the Sorbonne. When Furet launched his polemics, the incumbent of this apostolic succession was the lifelong Communist Albert Soboul (d.1982), against whose convictions the waters of what he naturally called ‘revisionism’ broke in vain.


But revisionism had not begun with Furet. It originated in the English-speaking world in the 1950s – in England with Alfred Cobban, in the USA with George V. Taylor. Although many of the great minds of nineteenth-century anglophone culture had been fascinated by the French Revolution and Napoleon, interest lapsed during the first half of the twentieth century. The handful of historians still attracted to the subject worked little in France and achieved almost no recognition there. After the Second World War, however, as Western democracy appeared threatened by Marxists both domestic and foreign, it seemed urgent to rescue the great episodes of modern history from tendentious distortions. Both Cobban and Taylor chose to confront what they called the French ‘orthodoxies’ head-on. It was a myth, Cobban claimed, that the revolutionaries of 1789 were the spokesmen of capitalism; the deputies who destroyed the ancien régime were office-holders and landowners. In any case, Taylor argued, most pre-revolutionary wealth was non-capitalist, and such capitalism as there was had no interest in the destruction of the old order. That destruction, indeed, so far from sweeping away the obstacles holding back a thrusting capitalist bourgeoisie, proved an economic disaster and drove everyone with money to invest in the security of land. Taking their cue from the vast range of questions raised by these critiques, throughout the 1960s and 1970s a new generation of scholars from English-speaking countries invaded the French archives to test the new hypotheses. By the 1980s they had largely demolished the empirical basis and the intellectual coherence of the ‘classic’ interpretation of the Revolution’s origins.

Initially the French maintained their traditional disdain for the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, dismissing Taylor and Cobban as cold warriors who had read too much Burke and wished only to disparage the Revolution as a continuing threat to the hegemony of the Western bourgeoisie. But when Furet and Richet challenged the classic interpretation from within the introverted world of French culture, the Robespierrists were forced onto the defensive. Furet, who had no problems with the English language, had by the early 1970s begun to incorporate the findings and arguments of the foreigners into his own interpretations; as well as those of a compatriot long neglected in France but always taken seriously by English speakers, Alexis de Tocqueville (d. 1859). Tocqueville saw the Revolution as the advent of democracy and equality but not of liberty. Napoleon and his nephew, whom this aristocrat of old stock hated, had shown how dictatorship could be established with democratic support, since the Revolution had swept away all the institutions which, in impeding the relentless growth of state power, had kept the spirit of liberty alive. These insights persuaded Furet that the Revolution had not after all skidded off course into terror. The potential for terror had been inherent right from the start, from the moment when national sovereignty was proclaimed and no recognition given to the legitimacy of conflicting interests within the national community. For all its libertarian rhetoric, the Revolution had no more been disposed to tolerate opposition than the old monarchy, and the origins of modern totalitarianism would be found in the years between 1789 and 1794.


This was more than revisionism. The approach of Cobban, Taylor, and those who came after them has largely been empirical, undermining the sweeping social and economic claims of the classic interpretation with new evidence, but seldom seeking to establish new grand overviews. The most they claimed was that the Revolution could be more convincingly explained in terms of politics, contingency, and perhaps even accident. This is largely the approach adopted in earlier chapters of this book. Such suggestions did not satisfy bolder minds. As Furet began to depict a Revolution in the grip of attitudes and convictions which propelled it inevitably towards terror, others, mostly in America, sought wider explanations for revolutionary behaviour in cultural terms. They saw a number of ‘discourses’ emerging from the political conflict between 1770 and 1789, which laid the foundation for much of the uncompromising language and arguments of the revolutionaries. Borrowing from the speculations of the German left-wing philosopher Jürgen Habermas, they argued that in the generation before the Revolution public opinion escaped from the king’s control, and that in the process respect and reverence for the monarchy ebbed away. Furet found these interpretative trends even more congenial than those of early revisionism, and spent increasing amounts of time in America and at conferences abroad, where yet another generation of young scholars committed to the cultural approach treated the triumphs of revisionism as yesterday’s battles. By 1987, these trends were crystallizing into a new orthodoxy, and were being labelled as post-revisionism.

The bicentenary

Whatever might be said against the classic interpretation, it was at least coherent and comprehensible. By contrast, the ‘linguistic turn’ of post-revisionism, increasingly influenced by philosophers and literary theorists, produced much abstruse material that could barely be understood outside specialist circles. When, therefore, the Socialist president of France decreed, some years in advance, that the revolutionary bicentenary of 1989 must be celebrated, he entrusted the academic side of the festivities to the still well-entrenched defenders of what Soboul had called, just before he died, ‘our good old orthodoxy’. Soboul’s successor at the Sorbonne, Michel Vovelle, was given a worldwide mission of coordinating academic commemoration. He worked so hard at it that eventually doctors instructed him to stop. But the learned bicentenary proved just as unmanageable as the more public one. While both Vovelle and Furet toured colloquia in every continent, they never appeared together on the same platform, and Furet and his cohorts boycotted the biggest conference of the year organized by Vovelle in Paris. This was scarcely the attitude of scholarly detachment for which Furet had seemed to be calling in 1978. As a subject arousing sectarian passions, the Revolution was clearly far from finished, even for those claiming it was.


11. Scholarly overload: The reaction of reviewers to the bicentenary (Daily Telegraph, 3 June 1989)

The bicentenary, in fact, released a torrent of vituperative publishing, most of it denouncing one aspect or another of the Revolution and its legacy. Particularly vocal in France were defenders of the Vendée rebels, the most persistent contemporary French enemies of the Revolution, and in consequence victims of the most savage repression. The heroism of devout peasant guerillas, long derided as superstitious fanatics, was now lovingly chronicled. Catholic clergy reminded their flocks of when modern impiety had begun. In the English-speaking world, meanwhile, while hundreds of learned gatherings picked over the debris of a generation of scholarly clashes, and publishers and the media felt obliged to mark the bicentenary in one way or another, the sensation of the year was the publication of Simon Schama’s Citizens, a vast ‘chronicle’ of the Revolution which ignored the historical debate almost entirely in the interests of telling a colourful and lurid story. The overall message was the folly of undertaking revolutions (one fortunately lost on the East Europeans who were at that moment defying Soviet satellite regimes). Yet there was an intellectual stance behind Schama’s Dickensian narrative, and it was basically the same as Furet’s. The terror, declared the most famous sentence in the book, was merely 1789 with a higher body count; and ‘violence … was not just an unfortunate side effect … it was the Revolution’s source of collective energy. It was what made the Revolution revolutionary’. Significantly, Schama’s tale ended abruptly in 1794 with the fall of Robespierre and the end of the terror.

One of the favourite mantras of the Revolution’s classic interpreters was taken from Georges Clemenceau, the statesman of the Third Republic who gloried in the achievements of the First. The Revolution, he declared, was a bloc. It had to be accepted in its totality, terror and all. It could not be disaggregated. Revisionism, with its emphasis on the contingent, the accidental, and the reality of choices facing those involved, suggested otherwise – as had the young Furet when he and Richet spoke of the Revolution skidding off course. Only by approaching events as contemporaries had to, without an awareness of horrors to come, could regicide, dechristianization, and the guillotine be prevented from throwing their shadows over what preceded them, as they did over everything that followed. Post-revisionists, however, turned against this approach. In emphasizing the cultural constraints that determined what history’s actors could or could not think or do, they opened the way to a determinism not unlike that of the economic and social factors emphasized by the classic historians in their Marxist-inspired heyday. And in insisting that terror was inherent in the Revolution from the start, Furet made it the central issue by which to judge the movement’s entire significance. For post-revisionists of all stamps, in fact, the Revolution was as much a bloc as it was for those they claimed to have vanquished.

It was, of course, a different sort of bloc. And while the post-revisionist emphasis on the centrality of terror encouraged blanket denunciations not only of the Revolution but also of the very attempt to commemorate it, there were also plenty of celebrations throughout France, as Mitterrand intended, of two hundred years of human rights. Vovelle, for his part, while reiterating his commitment to left-wing values traceable back to Jacobinism, refused to accept that there had been any sort of contest with Furet, observing meekly that scholarly enquiry was open to all viewpoints. But, apart from a few hard-line Communists, the adherents of the once-hegemonic classic tradition emerged from the bicentenary chastened. In the 1990s, the Annales Historiques de la Révolution began gingerly to open its pages to non-members of the Robespierrist studies circle, and to review their books for purposes other than denunciation. The chair of Mathiez, Soboul, and Vovelle is now occupied by a historian of the Vendée. And although since the death of Furet new sympathetic analyses of Jacobinism have begun to appear, they have been anxious to deny that terror was part of its mainstream. The heaviest blows, however, were not delivered by scholarly revisionists or post-revisionists. They came from thespectacular collapse of Soviet Communism, and the repressive attempts of its Chinese variant, just a few weeks before 14 July 1989, to shore up its authority against students calling for liberty and singing the Marseillaise.

The end of a dream?

Awareness of the full repressive record of Soviet Communism had been growing at least since Krushchev had begun to denounce Stalin in 1956. But so long as the Soviet Union continued apparently flourishing and powerful, it could be argued that its Marxist ideology worked and that its bloody past had been a worthwhile price to pay to secure popular democracy. Similar arguments had been used to justify terror in 1793–4, and by later pro-Jacobin historians. When the rule of Gorbachev revealed the whole Soviet edifice to be unviable, and incapable of sustaining its sister-republics in Eastern Europe, this delusion collapsed. A regime invested for seventy years with all the hopes and dreams repeatedly frustrated since the fall of Robespierre had proved scarcely more successful, and at far heavier human cost, than the prototype which it and its friends held in reverence. The Chinese, whose historical loyalties were similar, had no answer to their own domestic critics other than to shoot or imprison them. If such regimes were the true heirs of the French Revolution, then Tocqueville and Furet were right in their perception that its significance lay not in the enhancement of liberty but in the promotion of state power. Faith in the benevolent potential of a rationalizing state was the first, and perhaps the last, illusion of the Enlightenment; and in this sense the French Revolution, and all the others that followed over two hundred years, were its authentic heirs. The illusion died whilst historians in the West squabbled about how, or even whether, to mark the Revolution’s second centenary.

But of course totalitarian peoples’ democracy was not the only legacy of ways of thinking that first triumphed in the 1790s. François Mitterrand’s decision to celebrate the rights of man at the bicentenary was more than a doomed attempt to dissociate the memory of the Revolution from the terror. It was also a recognition that the ideology of human rights was, if anything, more important than it had ever been. Regimes of tyranny and massacre have no monopoly in the heritage of the Revolution. Citizens of modern constitutional democracies whose civil and political rights are guaranteed, and whose life chances are equal before the law, can find much in it to celebrate. The ambition of the French Revolution was so comprehensive that almost anyone living since can find something there to admire as well as to deplore. Nor are all the battles it launched yet over. If the collapse of Communism can be seen as defeat for Jacobins, the European Union looks very like a Girondin project to bring the liberal benefits of 1789 to Europe as a whole. In turn, this aspiration meets most resistance from national reflexes first fully aroused by the challenges emanating from revolutionary France. ‘The barest enumeration of some of the principal consequences of 1789’, wrote an eminent literary critic in 1987, even before the full symbolic significance of the bicentennial year had emerged,

enforce the realisation that the world as we know it today … is the composite of reflexes, political assumptions and structures, rhetorical postulates, bred by the French Revolution. More than arguably, for it entails subsequent, so often mimetic revolutionary movements and struggles across the rest of the planet, the French Revolution is the pivotal historical-social date after that of the foundation of Christianity … Time itself, the cycle of lived history, was deemed to have begun a second time … 1789 continues to be now.

G. Steiner, ‘Aspects of Counter-Revolution’, in G. Best (ed.)

The Permanent Revolution

The last word, however, should perhaps be left to the author with whom this book began. ‘That, my dear Algy’, says Ernest Worthing, ‘is the whole truth pure and simple.’ ‘The truth’, his friend replies, ‘is rarely pure and never simple.’

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