The French Revolution at the end of the Cold War

Lynn Hunt

  • Revolutionary France, 1770-1880 by François Furet, translated by Antonia Nevill
    Blackwell, 630 pp, £40.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 631 17029 4

In 1989, François Furet was frequently hailed (or criticised, depending on the context) as the ‘king’ of the Bicentenary of the French Revolution. He seemed to be everywhere, on television, in the newspapers, and adorning the pages of almost every glossy magazine. Foreign reporters featured him in pieces on the celebration. Even his absence from the international scholarly meeting at the Sorbonne in July of that year merited a comment in Le Monde. Furet’s elevation marked the apparently definitive defeat of the Marxist interpretation as the dominant paradigm in studies of the French Revolution, a defeat which coincided with the collapse of Eastern bloc Communism. Historiography and world politics seemed to reinforce each other in uncanny fashion in the home of the revolutionary tradition, and it was as if the historian Furet had proved prescient about the future as much as the past.

Furet’s panoramic history of the long French Revolution, 1770-1880, appeared in French in 1988 on the eve of the Bicentenary celebrations. Given the date of its writing, it might well have reproduced the slash-and-burn tactics of his previous criticisms of the ‘Lenino-populist vulgate’. In two major works, Penser la révolution française (English translation, Interpreting the French Revolution, 1981) and with Mona Ozouf, Dictionnaire critique de la révolution française (English translation, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 1989), Furet demolished the major tenets of the Marxist interpretation, in particular the notion of a class-based, bourgeois revolution as a ‘metaphysical monster’ which suffocated historical reality in the name of Jacobino-Leninist piety. He struck the pose of liberal St George taking on the dragons of Marxist and Communist ideological conformity and seemed never to let his guard down, even for a moment of celebration.

The tone of Revolutionary France is surprisingly serene, in contrast, as if the author knew that the major battles had already been won. An opening note of non-belligerence had sounded more faintly in the Dictionary, when on its very first page, Furet and Ozouf had admitted that the notion of a bourgeois revolution was ‘not without pertinence or fruitfulness’ and that the idea of class struggle did indeed ‘have a legitimate place in a history of the French Revolution’. The victors could afford to show their generosity of spirit to the vanquished. But Revolutionary France is no mopping-up operation. Where the Dictionary was the last volley in a barrage of criticism directed at the opposition, Revolutionary France ventures out onto new territory altogether. Gone is the contentious dialogue with competing views and Furet’s previous insistence on the superiority of criticism and analysis over narrative. Instead, we get the Revolution as longue durée, told in an almost 19th-century way, with the author speaking as national sage.

For some time now, Furet has shown his predilection for the 19th-century historians of the French Revolution. The Dictionary included a long section on ‘Historians and Commentators’, in which the 20th-century historians of the Revolution were relegated to one dismissive article. As far as Furet was concerned, what was left of the academic – equated with ‘narrow’ and ruled by jealous patrons – tradition of Revolutionary historiography ended for good when George Lefebvre ‘lay down in the Procrustean bed’ of Marxism-Leninism. Furet’s few pages on Alphonse Aulard, Albert Mathiez and Lefebvre (Albert Soboul and his successor at the Sorbonne, Michel Vovelle, were apparently beneath contempt and so merited no space at all) paled in comparison to the loving, vivid treatment of Benjamin Constant, Louis Blanc, Jules Michelet, Edgar Quinet and a handful of other, non-academic, non-positivist, non-specialist writers – including Karl Marx – who shared a grand passion for public affairs and ‘sought the secrets of contemporary France’ in the heritage of the Great Revolution.

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