Friend Robespierre

Norman Hampson

  • Interpreting the French Revolution by François Furet, translated by Elborg Forster
    Cambridge, 204 pp, £15.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 04 330316 1
  • Class, Ideology and the Rights of Nobles during the French Revolution by Patrice Higonnet
    Oxford, 358 pp, £22.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 19 822583 0

Francois Furet’s book, which appeared in France in 1978, reopens the debate on the nature and significance of the French Revolution. For a very long time, what Professor Soboul likes to describe as the ‘classical’ interpretation provided the frame of reference for all the arguments. It was challenged by the late Professor Cobban in his Wiles Lectures, published in 1964 as The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, but Cobban’s attack was essentially negative. He disputed many of the assertions of what he took to be Marxist historians of the Revolution, but, for all his pugnacity, he was more concerned to expose error than to construct a new creed of his own. Indeed, to an extent of which he must have been unaware, what he implied was not that the Marxist interpretation was wrong, but that Lefebvre and Soboul were bad Marxists. He accepted their theoretical assumptions but reversed their conclusions, claiming, for example, that ‘it was a revolution not for, but against capitalism.’ He answered their Jacobin patriotism with an economic determinism that flew the Union Jack: ‘There is nothing surprising in the fact that, the economic development of English society being so far in advance of that of France, its political evolution should also have shown much greater maturity.’ He cut the French Revolution down to size so drastically that one was left wondering what all the excitement was about. Since he wrote, many detailed studies, in America, England and, latterly, in France, have inflicted further, if sometimes unknowing damage on the ‘classical’ synthesis: but this was not the kind of evidence to overthrow the prevailing orthodoxy. Furet sets out to do just that.

His book makes extremely tough reading, despite Elborg Forster’s altogether admirable translation. This is mainly due to a very French preoccupation with abstractions which may leave the pragmatic English reader gasping for air. The fact that the work is in two parts, of which the first – written later – presents the conclusions for which the second part provides the basis, does not help. It is probably rather easier to grasp if one reads the second part first.

Furet sets about the ‘classicists’ with some relish. He gets a good deal of mischievous enjoyment out of confounding Soboul and Mazauric by quoting Marx and Engels at them. His argument here – which has a great deal to be said for it – is that what admirers and opponents have usually accepted as a Marxist interpretation of the Revolution is in fact ‘neo-Jacobin’, a compound of economic determinism, French patriotism and (although Furet himself does not stress this) a quite gratuitous devotion to Robespierre. This identification of ‘classical’ with neo-Jacobin creates more problems for Furet than he seems to realise.

His assault on the classical school, unlike Cobban’s, is not based on the claim that its explanations do not fit the facts, although he thinks that to be the case. ‘The fact is,’ he says, ‘that scholarship ... is never sufficient in itself to modify the conceptualisation of a problem or an event.’ What it takes to do that is a new outlook. Furet sees very clearly that much French writing on the Revolution, from Michelet onwards, has taken the form of the historian’s self-identification, whether from a Royalist or from a Republican point of view, with the events he was commemorating. As Lefebvre once said of Robespierre, ‘Après tout, c’est mon ami.’ For Furet this is easily understood since French politics, from 1789 to the fall of the Vichy Government, were defined in terms of the principles of the Revolution. Any history of the Revolution was therefore a declaration of political faith and, conversely, a historian’s politics inclined him to identify with whichever individual or group seemed to have held his principles in 1789 or 1793. With the virtually unanimous acceptance of the Revolutionary legacy since 1944, this situation has changed, only to re-emerge in a new form. The Russian Revolution has provided new terms of reference, with political options in the present once again equated with historical judgments in the past. Cobban had already observed that the Marxist historians of the French Revolution were, in fact, Leninists. There is much truth in what Furet says, although the events of 1968 suggest that budding revolutionaries are now more inclined to claim descent from Trotsky and Mao than from Marat and Robespierre and it is at last becoming possible to see the French Revolution as a part of history, rather than as notre mère à tous.

What Furet is attacking is a particular manifestation of a more general problem. It is not merely ‘neo-Jacobins’ who seek the meaning of events in the intentions of the participants, nor does such an approach to history necessarily imply that the historian identifies with any of the protagonists. Pragmatists or historical agnostics who plead guilty to such an approach might well reply to Furet that the only alternative could turn out in the end to be a kind of myth or meta-history, resting on assumptions that it was impossible to prove or refute. Since most French ‘Marxist’ historians have been neo-Jacobins, Furet is inclined to assume that exposing the latter disposes of the former. It is quite possible to imagine a Marxist interpretation of the Revolution, although it would have to be a very complicated one, that would fit the evidence (or at least accommodate itself to as much of the conflicting evidence as any of the other explanations) without suffering from the kind of narcissism of which Furet understandably complains. To the extent, however, that he confines himself to what currently sails under Marxist colours, he has made his point.

For his own interpretation he goes back to Tocqueville and to Augustin Cochin, whose work he rescues from undeserved neglect. From Tocqueville he derives the general conclusion that the Revolution accelerated and completed the work of the monarchy: not merely, as Furet sees it, in the creation of a centralised bureaucratic state, but also in the destruction of a hierarchical society of Orders and its replacement by one that was ‘democratic’ in the sense that all its members were essentially equal as subjects. The creation of such a society, over a long period of time, was the necessary precondition for the full development of the bureaucratic state. There are problems here. Furet is too honest not to draw attention to the fact that Tocqueville initially saw society as imposing appropriate institutions upon the state. Later on, perhaps as a result of his experience in the 1848 Revolution, he reversed the roles, to allow of the state shaping society in accordance with its political choices. If one takes the earlier view, the French Revolution must have emerged from the society of the Ancien Régime: despite the unanimous opinion of its leaders, it was not a new start, but the culmination of an old process. This immediately raises the question of why contemporaries should have believed the opposite and why the transition should have been one of such dramatic violence.

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