The Revolution is over
- The Permanent Revolution: The French Revolution and its Legacy 1789-1989 edited by Geoffrey Best
Fontana, 241 pp, £4.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 00 686056 7
Eugen Weber, who contributes one of the essays to this interesting collection, writes of the way the Revolution became a national obsession in 19th-century France. The reason was, at least in part, that throughout the century the threat – or indeed the reality – of violent political change was never off the agenda. One can go further, however. Historical awareness of the Revolution may not run deep among the mass of Frenchmen, but it often does among the élite, for whom it constitutes an elaborate dramatic metaphor shadowing the practices and institutions of contemporary life. Thus at the height of the May Events of 1968, the French Communist Party, full of quasi-revolutionary rhetoric, announced that it would hold a large public demonstration through the streets of Paris. A route-map of the demonstration was published which showed that it would lead past the Hôtel de Ville (which houses the mairie of Paris); then, just before the march began, the route was altered so as to bypass the Hôtel de Ville. The point which the PCF was (rightly) sure would not be lost on the governing élite was, of course, that the seizure of the Hôtel de Ville has been the customary first step in any revolutionary seizure of power. In other words, the original announcement constituted an implicit threat that, unless concessions were made to it, the PCF might run up the red flag over City Hall; the revision absolved the PCF of all responsibility should, for example, any Trotskyites among the marchers try to take matters into their own hands. The authorities, in their turn, would have responded within this well-understood, if unstated tradition, which is still sufficiently alive to allow such creative improvisation: indeed, stays alive through it. Many of the central traditions of British political life, by contrast, such as the state-encrusted flummery of Black Rod, the Mace and the Queen’s Speech, are quite dead: the rows about the handling of the sacred Mace are really to do with the blasphemous disturbance of a corpse.
Eugen Weber amends Marx to say that when revolution repeats itself, it becomes not tragedy or farce but tradition. Looking at what is planned for the bicentennial of 1789, one can see that there is a further stage to this cycle, when everything deteriorates into a sort of Disneyland heritage theme-park replication of itself. And when it comes to sheer bad taste the French, on their day, have few equals. It’s not just a matter of fireworks, tightrope-walkers and waiters in Phrygian caps, though we shall have all of these in abundance. Douglas Johnson, in a customarily masterful essay, mentions two rather finer examples. An immense tower will be built to desecrate the Place de la Bastille, and the entire population of Paris will then be invited to take a brick home with him/her (there will be a brick each) so that, this time, anyone can share in the dismantling of the Bastille. Better still is the proposal to commemorate the women’s march from Versailles to Paris by building a trench the entire length of the route and filling it with six thousand urns containing urine. Floating irresistibly back come recollections of John Nance Garner, Vice-President of the United States, describing his own job as ‘about as much use as a pitcher of warm piss’. John Nance Garner, where are you now that we need you? The bizarrerie that pleases me most is that in Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, 14 July will be marked by a pop concert by Johnny Clegg, ‘le Zoulou blanc’ (unknown in Britain, where, as a South African, he is banned from TV, but bigger than Springsteen or Michael Jackson in France). What would Danton have thought of the Revolution being commemorated by a left-wing South African singing Zulu rock in the South Pacific? Perhaps it’s best we don’t know. One longs, at times, for the more considered attitude of Mao Tse-Dong, who, when asked what he thought the effects of 1789 had been, replied after some thought that it was still too soon to know.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Recent publications about the French Revolution include:
Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge by George Comninel. Verso, 225 pp., £24.95 and £8.95, 19 November 1987, 0 86091 179 9
Origins of the French Revolution by William Doyle. Oxford, new edition, 246 pp., £22.50 and £7.95, 4 August 1988, 0 19 822283 1
Prelude to Terror by Norman Hampson. Blackwell, 199 pp., £19.50, 9 June 1988, 0 631 15237 7
The Peasantry in the French Revolution by P.M. Jones. Cambridge, 360 pp., £27.50 and £9.95, 13 October 1988, 0 521 33070 X
Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution by Joan Landes. Cornell University Press, 276 pp., $31.95 and $10.95, 15 September 1988, 0 8014 2141 1
Festivals and the French Revolution by Mona Ozouf, translated by Alan Sheridan. Harvard, 378 pp., £29.95, April 1988, 0 674 29883 7
Fashion in the French Revolution by Aileen Ribeiro. Batsford, 159 pp., £14.95, 13 October 1988, 0 7134 5352 4
The French Revolution by George Rudé. Weidenfeld, 224 pp., £14.95, 1 September 1988, 1 297 79452 3
Artisans and Sans-Culottes by Gwyn Williams. Libris, 162 pp., £19.95 and £7.95, 16 March, 1 870532 80 7
Vol. 11 No. 8 · 20 April 1989
R.W. Johnson (LRB, 16 February) tells us that in the volume of essays he is reviewing, ‘Eugen Weber amends Marx to say that when revolution repeats itself, it becomes not tragedy or farce, but tradition.’ This not very striking observation seems to depend on the belief that Marx made that comment about revolution. He did not. What he wrote, in the opening sentence of ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, was that Hegel had remarked ‘somewhere’ that ‘all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice.’ It is then that Marx pretends that Hegel forgot to add ‘the first time as tragedy, the second as farce’. This is a typical Marxian joke and not meant to have universal application. It gives him an opportunity to compare facts and personages of 1789 and 1848 – ‘a Louis Blanc for a Robespierre’ etc – and end up with ‘the Nephew for the Uncle’. Louis Napoleon, whom he christened ‘Crapulinsky’, was a favourite butt. If there is any historical lesson intended, it is more likely to be that Caesarism, rather than revolution, is first tragic then comic.
While I am here, may I compliment Craig Raine (Letters, 16 March) on tracking back ‘pffwungg’ to Ulysses but also advise him that the siren zooming cannot be a police car. To unravel past literature, even when written by such near-contemporaries as Auden, it is necessary to know not only the intellectual, but also the social, life of the period. Police cars did not have sirens before the last war. Indeed, I doubt whether they were fitted before the Fifties. What the police car did have was a bell, like a giant, frenetic alarm-clock, on the roof. It added quite a different resonance, as they say, to the night sounds of British urban life.
Vol. 11 No. 13 · 6 July 1989
R.W. Johnson (LRB, 16 February) claims that ‘men like Burke are always wise after the event, never before.’ Now Burke may have been a quirky old sod when he wrote the Reflections, but one thing you cannot accuse him of is being wise after the event. Particularly when, as Mr Johnson must well know, ‘the event’ of the French Revolution occupied several years. In tact, Burke was way ahead of ‘the event’, if we consider what was said and thought about the Revolution in England at that time, and do not allow ourselves to yield to the now threadbare ‘class’ view of Burke as simply and solely a dyed-in-the-wool political reactionary, nostalgic for the ‘age of chivalry’. Of course, the Rational Dissenters were overjoyed at the news of the Revolution, while the exuberant Whig leader Fox and his colleague ex-playwright Sheridan also exulted over it. Yet Pitt was hardly less enthusiastic. He thought that the libertarian upheavals in France made the country ‘an object of compassion even to a rival’, that it would now become ‘less obnoxious as a neighbour’, and perhaps even turn into ‘one of the most brilliant powers in Europe’. Of course, such admiration would be transformed into outrage once the September Massacres put him and most other English sympathisers off the Revolution. By then, too, Pitt would have his own native movement of political radicalism to contend with. But, in 1790, as Conor Cruise O’Brien has said, ‘the French Revolution did not seem dangerous, to most Englishmen.’ However, it did to Burke, an acute Irishman whose first-hand experience of his oppressed homeland put him in a unique position to see where abstract ‘rights of man’ arguments could and would lead: to ‘homicidal philanthropy’. For those who don’t know, the essence of Burke’s position can be summarised by quoting from a letter he wrote to A.J.F. Dupont at the end of March 1790, when he was half-way through writing the Reflections on the Revolution in France: ‘I have no great opinion of that sublime abstract metaphysic reversionary, contingent humanity, which in cold blood can subject the present time and those whom we daily see and converse with to immediate calamities in favour of the future and uncertain benefit of persons who only exist in idea.’ (Burke’s emphases.) No one else was saying this at the time, and what he predicted would happen, did happen. So it is true, as George Steiner has said in one of the essays reviewed by R.W. Johnson, that Burke’s Reflections embodies a ‘wholly prophetic’ exposition, seeing ‘Bonapartism coming out of the very matrix of what looked, in 1790, to be a gradual ripening towards constitutional monarchy and the rule of law’. How can we explain Burke’s prescience? This is where his brilliant mind and his extraordinary skills as a writer come in.
When he wrote the Reflections, Burke was not acting simply as ‘spokesman’ for an aristocratic élite feeling under threat from ‘levelling’ democratic principles, as R.W. Johnson states. Of course, as a counter-revolutionary pressing his case at painstaking length, he obviously knew that history might well thrust such a role upon him, as it quickly did, from Mary Wollstonecraft onward, and ad infinitum. But we miss the point about Burke if we treat him thus. For what Burke had seen, from as long ago as his brilliant satire on Bolingbroke, the Vindication of Natural Society (1756), was something about the new bourgeois-liberal mentality that made him recoil with horror: what made him shudder was that mentality’s indifference to God, and its neutralising of our ‘capacity for affection’. (I am indebted to O’Brien for this phrase.) What haunted Burke from a very early stage was what we have come to call, since Nietzsche brilliantly investigated the phenomenon, the Death of God. This can be ascertained from that other early work of Burke’s, his brilliant Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), where he develops a theory of language discovering the non-referentiality of words – the now famous ‘arbitrary signifier’ so beloved of Post-Structuralists.
OK, so Burke was of the arriviste class: but being so placed allowed him to see what he saw, and to say what he thought about the age of ‘oeconomists and calculators’ – even if he was then capable of producing the heartless Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. Being a lonely and prominent genius in the midst of industrial and political revolutions was bound to make him somewhat twisted. And OK, so he indulged in ‘gothic’ word-play and rhetorical flights and plungings: but only because, poised on what Foucault has called the ‘threshold of modernity’, he had learnt the terrifying secret that words and the world no longer hang together in quite the same way as they did.
Let us not go back to the bad old days of seeing Burke in the arrogant but vague way that Raymond Williams did when he dismissed him on the second page of Culture and Society. ‘The confutation of Burke on the French revolution is now a one-finger exercise in politics and history.’ Williams admitted his mistake in 1981, but was still too unfamiliar with Burke to do anything about it.
Department of Literature,
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989
Maurice Hindle (Letters, 6 July) urges us not to regard Burke with the arrogance supposedly shown by Raymond Williams near the beginning of Culture and Society when he says that ‘the confutation of Burke on the French Revolution is now a one-finger exercise in politics and history’. But Mr Hindle misses the point here. In fact, Williams was deprecating such confutations and what follows, far from being arrogant, is very respectful to Burke, as we should expect from a man who once said that the three thinkers whom he found hardest to answer back were Aristotle, Burke and Marx. Burke’s appeal to experience is admired for stressing perhaps ‘the most important form of learning’. And Williams argues that Burke’s insistence on slowness and caution about political innovation can neither be appropriated by conservatives nor dismissed as reactionary by radicals because ‘Burke is describing a process based on a recognition of the necessary complexity and difficulty of human affairs’ and of the need for ‘an essentially social and co-operative effort in control and reform’. It was this kind of dialectical strength, eschewing ‘one-finger exercises’ in the analysis of the anti-revolutionary case, which made Culture and Society a landmark in 20th-century British left-wing thought. Mr Hindle’s conclusion that by 1981 Williams had ‘admitted his mistake, but was still too unfamiliar with Burke to do anything about it’ is baffling.
University of Salford