In the latest issue:

Botanic Macaroni

Steven Shapin

What made the Vikings tick?

Tom Shippey

In the Lab

Rupert Beale

Will there be a Brexit deal?

Anand Menon

Short Cuts: Under New Management

Rory Scothorne


Bridget Alsdorf

Sarah Moss

Blake Morrison

Poem: ‘Country Music’

Ange Mlinko

On the Trail of Garibaldi

Tim Parks

Art Lessons

Peter Campbell

You’ll like it when you get there

Tom Crewe

Early Kermode

Stefan Collini

‘The Vanishing Half’

Joanna Biggs

At the Movies: ‘The Truth’

Michael Wood

The Suitcase: Part Two

Frances Stonor Saunders

Poem: ‘Siri U’

Jorie Graham

Diary: Getting into Esports

John Lanchester

Wide-AngledLinda Colley
The French Revolution in Global Perspective 
edited by Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt and William Max Nelson.
Cornell, 240 pp., £16.50, April 2013, 978 0 8014 7868 0
Show More
Show More

What is history for? What do we want it to do? In 1731, an obscure Kentish schoolmaster named Richard Spencer offered some answers. Properly to ascertain his position in geographical space, he reasoned, required not a single map, but access to a global atlas, one that would allow him to ‘see what London and the adjacent parts are in the kingdom; what the kingdom is in Europe, and what Europe is in the universe’. Much the same, he thought, applied to history. ‘Particular histories represent to you, what things have happen’d to such or such a People, with all their circumstances,’ he explained: ‘But to understand the whole clearly, you must know what relation every history can have to others.’ Only when such connected and wide-angled histories were available, might one hope to ‘see all the order of time’.

Spencer was writing to puff his translation of Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History, a work the French theologian had embarked on in the 1670s while employed as tutor to Louis XIV’s heir. Interest in world history is nothing new. When Lord Acton planned the volumes of the Cambridge Modern History in the 1890s, he took for granted both the need for ‘transcending nationality’, and that world history signified something more than ‘the combined history of all countries’. As to ‘global history’, the first book in English to incorporate that phrase in its title seems to have been Hans Kohn’s The Age of Nationalism: The First Era of Global History. Published in 1962, it formed part of a multi-volume series called World Perspectives, designed to address ‘our growing global age’. ‘Globalisation’, though, is a more recent coinage. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it noticeably infiltrated media and political chatter. Since then, the global turn in history writing has moved faster, made more noise, and spun in quite different directions.

The evolving effects of decolonisation and their intellectual repercussions have been one reason for this. On the one hand, postcolonial scholarship has tended to sweep aside earlier attempts at universal history, dismissing them as little more than celebrations of the modernising impact of the West. On the other, a dramatic rise in new research into Asian, South Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific histories has worked to challenge and modify interpretations of some of the set-pieces of the past. Thus accounts of the ‘first industrial revolution’ are now likely to address not merely Britain’s European competitors, but also the input of its slave plantations in the Caribbean, the role of textile technologies learned from India, and the degree to which all 17th and early 18th-century European powers lagged behind China economically. These trends in recent history writing – a deliberate and much greater stress on how major changes in the West in past centuries were triggered or moulded by developments elsewhere – have piggy-backed on and been reinforced by shifts in the postwar global order: Europe’s continuing decline, the resurgence of the great Asian powers, and the rise of new powers in Africa and Latin America.

In some respects, however, the French Revolution has always been seen in transnational and transcontinental terms. Almost from the start, some observers saw its significance as ‘world-historical’, a verdict endorsed by many later commentators, from critics like Carlyle to modern revolutionaries like Mao. It has also long been accepted that the revolution was influenced by developments outside France. The central thesis of R.R. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution (1959-64) was that 1776 and 1789 – along with other late 18th-century upheavals – were linked, and should be treated in tandem. And while Palmer concentrated on white revolutionaries, in his 1938 classic, The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James successfully revived interest in the slaves and free blacks active in Saint-Domingue’s revolution in 1791. Arguing that liberty, equality and fraternity meant even more to the enslaved in France’s richest Caribbean colony than to the inhabitants of Paris, James didn’t so much decentre the French Revolution as locate its impassioned heart outside Europe, an interpretation some recent writers have found deeply attractive.

In their introduction, the editors of The French Revolution in Global Perspective argue that ‘scholarship on the French colonies, especially Saint-Domingue … has reframed the field of French revolutionary studies.’ Their declared aim is to encourage a ‘more capacious view’ of the revolution by demonstrating how it was shaped by ‘global factors’, and how French ‘republican political innovations emerged from international processes.’ The 11 essays they have assembled, all by historians of France and its empire, are not just for specialists. They demonstrate how a particular group of Europeanists has sought to respond and react to the current global turn. The collection also raises questions about how practicable, and how productive, this mode of historical research has proved to be.

That said, different contributors interpret their brief differently. Rafe Blaufarb is primarily concerned with some of the transatlantic consequences of the revolution. He charts the way the outbreak and spread of the Revolutionary Wars distracted both the Spanish and British governments from working to limit overland expansion by the new United States. Other contributors focus on influences outside Europe and how they can enhance our understanding of 1789. Michael Kwass brilliantly explores the volume of illicit trade in pre-revolutionary France, especially in non-European commodities such as tobacco and calico. Perhaps half of all Frenchmen condemned to the galleys between 1685 and 1791 were incarcerated for participating in the underground economy. Hunt also touches on extra-European commerce, and on French traders’ conspicuous success in it immediately before and after the outbreak of the revolution. Between 1787 and 1792, the French had more ships in the Indian Ocean than both the Dutch and the British. In roughly the same period, French vessels carried some 40 per cent of victims of the transatlantic slave trade, as against 13 per cent between 1778 and 1783.

Hunt offers important revisions to the view that it was crucially the cost of France’s involvement in the American Revolutionary War that hastened its financial collapse. With a nod to current events, she places more emphasis on the role of speculation, and on the arrival in Paris of foreign bankers such as the Genevan Etienne Clavière and the Dutch Jean-Conrad de Kock. It was the funds such men made available which, she argues, made it easier for French governments to borrow themselves into ever deeper trouble. Another suggestive essay is Suzanne Desan’s discussion of the National Convention’s decision in August 1792 to make 18 distinguished foreigners honorary French citizens, and so advertise its status as ‘a congress of the whole world’. Desan uses this episode to examine some of the contradictions of revolutionary universalism. A conviction that ‘regeneration and republican politics should be built outward from France and Europe to span the globe’ fostered cosmopolitan initiatives and international connections, but also helped to drive and legitimise crusading warfare and new exercises in imperialism.

Some scholars have traced a gradual shift from intellectual critiques of European empire in the later 18th century to a more forthright pro-imperial liberalism evident by the 1830s. Most contributors here, however, accept – rightly – that the age of democratic revolutions was interpenetrated with colonial and imperial enthusiasms from the start. William Max Nelson shows how even the abbé Grégoire, a leading revolutionary who supported political rights for Jews and men of colour, also worked on projects to annihilate French local languages and so advance internal colonialism; while Ian Coller discusses how some French occupiers of Egypt after 1798 came equipped with a kind of ‘vast prefabricated republican kit’ which they also hoped to employ in invasions elsewhere. As evidenced in Rousseau’s Social Contract, the desire to promote liberation and political virtue could become entangled with dirigiste and controlling ambitions with terrifying ease.

Of the 18 eminent foreigners made French citizens in 1792, seven – the largest national contingent – came from Britain, and only three from outside Europe. This points to an intriguing aspect of the book. In defiance of its editors’ intentions, it makes clear just how Eurocentric and often Britain-obsessed many French revolutionaries remained. Andrew Jainchill traces the revolutionary legacies of French Huguenots exiled in England after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Intellectuals from this immigrant group went on to play major roles in translating English-language texts on republicanism and constitutionalism into French, and introducing this potentially subversive material to their onetime countrymen. Charles Walton also stresses the impact of cross-Channel politics and exchanges in his discussion of the Eden trade treaty between France and Britain in 1786. He shows how many French commentators condemned the treaty as unduly favourable to British interests, and how this deepened the sense that France’s governing elite was both incompetent and cavalier in regard to the welfare of domestic industries.

French preoccupation with Britain at this time (and vice versa) was understandable. Each was the other’s prime competitor and point of reference in terms of trade, empire, varieties of hard power, intellectual curiosity and cultural pretensions. And while their rivalry found expression in different parts of the globe, in terms of manpower, money, ideas and political effort, their mutual obsession and antagonisms were worked out mainly within Europe. So what importance should we give to global perspectives?

Although the global turn in history has become more prominent in recent decades, its impact remains limited, and is more pronounced in the United States than in Europe. Two historians, Nicholas Guyatt of the University of York and Luke Clossey of Simon Fraser University, have compiled a fascinating report on this, an extract from which recently appeared in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History. After examining the profiles of 2400 historians in 60 large history departments in universities in the US, UK and Canada, Guyatt and Clossey concluded that three-quarters of the historians in their sample still focused their research on some area of Europe (including the UK) and/or on some part of North America, but that scholars based in North America were more cosmopolitan and extrovert in their research choices than their UK counterparts. Of the twenty universities they placed top in terms of wider-world historical research, only one was in Britain. Of the remaining 19, 15 were based in the US, and four in Canada. Cambridge and Oxford (both of which have built up their global history provision in recent years) came in respectively at 46 and 48 in the complete Guyatt/Clossey list, while some of the top Scottish universities ranked lower still.

The Guyatt/Clossey report is a snapshot of the situation in 2011. Some of the departments they investigated will have changed since then, and some would doubtless want to query their methodology. Head counts, after all, are scarcely the whole story. Two of the most significant works produced on global history in recent years, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 by C.A. Bayly and Jürgen Osterhammel’s Die Verwandlung der Welt: Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts (soon to be available in English translation), were both written by scholars based in Europe. Yet in general, on the basis of my own experience, Peter Baldwin – an academic at UCLA who has also done research on transatlantic historical practice – is justified in claiming that ‘American historians are the most cosmopolitan.’*

Different levels of economic resources, different pedagogic traditions and different patterns of university organisation all help to account for these transatlantic disparities. It seems probable, for instance, that the draconian demands of the RAE and now the REF, and the unremitting pressure to produce more and more highly specialised journal articles, have prevented some UK historians (and scholars in other fields) from being as exploratory and wide-ranging as they would have liked. But the fundamental reason Europeans and Americans have reacted to the global turn rather differently is that they inhabit different parts of the globe, which are characterised by very different histories and have very different likely futures.

As Baldwin remarks, one rudimentary reason Americans can devote more attention to global history is that their own recorded national history is so brief. Conversely, a basic reason Europe-based historians may seem more parochial is that their continent contains a large number of small, declining nations, and this can put pressure on subject choice. A historian based in Belgium, say, who chooses not to write Belgian history, has good reason to fear that few people anywhere else in the world will bother to write Belgian history either. Indeed, in some European countries – Sweden, for instance – many academic historians feel virtually compelled to devote some time to their nation’s history, because the powers that be fear it will otherwise go unwritten and unstudied and no longer be a living resource for ordinary citizens.

As this suggests, for all the buzz about world history, the degree of take-up is partly driven by national pressures and national imperatives. Americans are more likely to feel drawn to global history because theirs is still a global power, and because their nation is so obviously made up of immigrant groups from all over the world. Europeans may well not feel attracted to those modes of global history that seem set on provincialising Europe, since they are all too aware that history is provincialising their continent with every day that passes. Certainly, as far as the UK is concerned, the loss of worldwide empire is likely to have led to some contraction of historical outlook and interest. Many UK-based historians are now more interested in adopting a European framework for their inquiries, not necessarily just out of intellectual curiosity, but because they support the EU, or because they see European perspectives as a corrective to insular and teleological whig histories, or because – if they are Scottish, or Welsh, or Irish nationalists – focusing on European history and connections may seem a way of downgrading the prominence of England in their respective pasts.

Do any of these debates and differences over global history matter outside the academy? They should. Although academics sometimes intervene noisily in arguments over what sort of history should be taught in schools, there is rarely much public discussion of the kind of history that should be taught in universities. Yet one of the ways in which all universities could contribute substantially to their home societies is by helping students obtain a better understanding of the development and interdependencies over time of our seemingly fragmented globe. There may be a case here for an intelligent deployment of MOOCs (massive open online courses). All students, irrespective of departmental affiliation, might usefully be encouraged or required to take a MOOC in global history, perhaps alongside another MOOC on the evolution of scientific knowledge, as a means of acquiring a basic toolkit for understanding the world. Clusters of different universities could collaborate on shaping and sharing their own global history MOOCs; and, in the UK, writing and participating in such an online course would have to be accorded substantial REF credit. After a suitable interval, MOOCs in global history might be made freely available to the general public, just as Berkeley and Yale Universities already make some of their best history lecture series available online.

The implementation of such ideas requires only the necessary will on the part of governments and universities. More difficult, as far as universities are concerned, will be working out how to maintain the different area and national studies on which global history depends, which brings me back to The French Revolution in Global Perspective. Nobody reading it could be left in any doubt that the French Revolution not only had a transforming effect on many other parts of the globe, but was also – in some of its causes, aspects and ideas – influenced by transcontinental and transnational developments and actors. Yet at times some of the contributors push their case too hard. The book concludes with a deeply interesting and provocative essay by the Sorbonne historian Pierre Serna entitled ‘Every Revolution Is a War of Independence’. ‘The European continent,’ he writes, ‘can no longer be studied in isolation, as a central place from which would emerge the impetus for action in the New World,’ which is correct. But he goes on to suggest that the French Revolution should be seen as in essence an anti-colonial struggle, one of a series of such outbreaks stretching from the revolt of the United Provinces against Spanish rule in the 16th century to the postwar independence movements of the 20th century. Viewing France as a ‘monarchic empire’ rather than a ‘monarchic nationstate’, and interpreting 1789 as a war of independence against the Versailles monarchy would, Serna argues, underline the centrality of colonialism and of struggles against it, and thus ‘reinstate the colonies … to their fundamental role as the spark that would ignite the entire Atlantic world’.

This exaggerates the significance of issues and ideas to do with the empire and colonies in the minds of Frenchmen and women of 1789, and severely understates the importance of national and domestic grievances and perceptions. Lynn Hunt’s richly detailed findings on the financial origins of 1789, for instance, are a challenge to those historians who have sought to interpret the French Revolution as a manifestation of a global military-fiscal crisis brought on by the escalating costs of warfare. As she shows, the real story of the financial collapse of the Ancien Régime is more complicated than that, and more particular to the financial and political configurations of Paris and Versailles. By the same token, while she makes it clear that extra-European trade was booming in France by the 1780s, she also reveals the limited impact of this in the minds of ordinary French people. Although pre-revolutionary France had in some respects a burgeoning economy, growing numbers of its inhabitants judged its government to be a failed system, not because they saw it as somehow imperial, but because it did not function effectively or equitably.

The need for historians to continue investigating national and local history while also embracing and advancing what is useful in the global turn poses challenges for all universities, especially at a time of contracting resources. In many American history departments, more jobs have been created in non-Western history by means of reducing the number of appointments allocated to European history. In some universities, indeed, Europe is now increasingly treated as a homogeneous bloc, to be covered by a single historian. Manifestly, some rebalancing is necessary and overdue. Moreover, many American students – and growing numbers of European ones – tend now to prefer transnational and global history to courses devoted to a single country. But unless arrangements can be put in place to ensure that specialised research into particular countries continues in some universities at least, our understanding of the past will be impoverished and distorted. As always, much depends on what we think history should be for, and on what we want it to do.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences