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.

For the answer to this, Furet turns to Cochin, who ‘came to grips with the central mystery of the French revolution: the origin of democracy’. If we are not to get into an inextricable tangle, it is necessary to look at what Furet means by ‘democracy’. He does not use the word in Tocqueville’s usual sense, of an egalitarian society, or give it its conventional meaning of representative government and universal suffrage. What he has in mind is more akin to J.L. Talmon’s ‘totalitarian democracy’, a conception that perhaps originated with Montesquieu, who rejected it, and became central to the thinking of Rousseau. In this sense, it meant a regime based on vertu, a state or society (the two terms being significantly synonymous) in which individuals found their fulfilment and identity in the collective life of the community. When the French monarchy destroyed the corporate institutions of the Ancien Régime and put an end to traditional aristocratic politics (vide Tocqueville), there ensued a kind of social vacuum, since the later Bourbons were both incapable of imposing a Prussian kind of absolutism and unwilling to accept the constitutional role of the Hanoverians. In France, the place of the administrators or politicians was therefore assumed by the philosophes, who thought in abstract and ideal terms and whose natural habitat was ‘literary circles and societies, masonic lodges, academies and patriotic and cultural clubs’. Well before 1789 such groups of theoreticians dominated the intellectual life of the country and supplied it with a ‘democratic’ ideology, centred on the creation of a sovereign general will and the excommunication of all who refused to subscribe to the new moral imperatives. Although obviously restricted to the educated, this ideology did not correspond to any specific section of society and was indifferent to distinctions of birth and economic interest.

What made the French Revolution both unique and at the same time an inspiration to all future revolutionaries was the fact that, when the collapse of political authority was superimposed upon the social vacuum that the monarchy had created, the ideologists were able to move in and take over, first of all, society and then, in 1793, the state. What happened in France was therefore neither the last of the bourgeois revolutions nor the forerunner of socialist ones. It was the prototype of a kind of ‘democratic’ dream that has haunted the minds of revolutionaries ever since. The progress of events from 1789 to 1794 is not to be explained by the success or failure of politicians or the pressure of circumstances. It consisted of the radicalisation of an ideology in accordance with the laws of its own dynamism, a process realised through the agency of ‘a company of obscure, mediocre, expendable and interchangeable men. Brissot, Danton and Robespierre were not so much the leaders as the products of Jacobinism.’ Political rivalry during the Revolution consequently took the form, not of a conflict of policies, but of competing assertions to embody the general will, with the loser being automatically allotted the role of the Enemy. This will bring an instant nod of recognition from all those who have been puzzled to find the Girondins and Dantonists overthrown, not so much for doing or proposing to do anything, as for being what they ought not to have been. It explains how Robespierre could argue that all his dead opponents, who had opposed each other bitterly enough during their lifetime, had participated in the same plot. Furet’s analysis has the great merit of making clear many things that would otherwise be incomprehensible.

And yet ... Doubts arise wherever one looks. He has indeed succeeded, where Cobban did not, in detaching the Revolution from its alleged place in a transition from feudalism to capitalism, without in any way denying its central place in European history. He has explained some things that were inexplicable. But he has not provided any final answers. At most, he has produced one possible interpretation. Like all the others, it has one foot planted in the events it describes and the other in the world where the historian actually lives: in Furet’s case, a present disillusioned with all forms of millenarianism and unsure of all its bearings. Moreover, his attempt to get away from and above the battle has been less successful than he believes, and although he does not identify with any of the combatants, he does repeat some of their arguments. His gospel of ‘democracy’ would have come as no surprise to them, though they would probably have called it ‘regeneration’. Furet, of course, recognises that his ‘democracy’ is very close to Rousseau’s conception of the sovereignty of the general will, but he seems to regard this as something of an accident, since ‘most of the men of 1789 had not read Rousseau.’ This is demonstrably untrue, even if many of them were not familiar with Du Contrat Social. They could get a reasonably good idea of Rousseau’s message from his other writings, notably from his article, ‘Economie Politique’, in the Encyclopédie, which was accessible enough. One could cite many examples to show that they understood the implications of Furet’s argument: for example, Saint-Just’s writings of 1791-92, in which he criticised several of the totalitarian aspects of Du Contrat Social, or Robespierre’s speech on 5 February 1794, when he wrestled with the ghost of Montesquieu in an attempt to convince himself and his audience that the Terror was not the kind of regime based on fear that Montesquieu had damned as despotic. Before the Revolution, Mercier, who was later to publish a couple of volumes on Rousseau’s claims to be one of its main authors, had quite deliberately opted for Montesquieu. To a greater extent than Furet recognises, the men who made the Revolution were aware of the ideological options before them.

They were therefore in a position to make a conscious choice between ‘democracy’ and liberalism – to the extent that circumstances permitted. Here we encounter another difficulty. In order to present the Revolution as forced to fulfil what was implicit in its ideology from the start, Furet has to eliminate chance, minimise the influence of external pressures and make the characters fit their parts. In this process Robespierre retains the consistency and the pre-eminence that he was first given by the neo-Jacobin historians. Here, as elsewhere, the evidence does not always square with what the theory demands. This is particularly important in the case of the decision to go to war, since it was the war that frustrated the revolutionaries’ attempts to decentralise the administration, and made possible the brief triumph of the ideologists. Furet must therefore present it as inevitable if, as he maintains, the whole progress of the Revolution was implicit in its beginnings. He admits that the Girondins opted for war and Robespierre opposed it, on grounds of political tactics. He then produces a highly ingenious argument to show how Brissot’s defence of his war policy exposed him, in Robespierre’s eyes, as a traitor to the ‘democratic’ ideology. This may well be true, but his own ideological purity did not enable Robespierre to prevent France from declaring war. Despite Furet’s subtlety, contingency kept breaking in and la force des choses, to use Saint-Just’s expression, imposed its own imperatives. Furet, in other words, as the untranslatable French title of his book suggested, helps us to penser la révolution, in the sense of entering into the mental world of its participants, but this is not enough to explain why things turned out as they did.

Patrice Higonnet’s subject is not the nobles and what happened to them, but the way the evolution of other people’s attitudes towards them illuminates the objectives and assumptions of the revolutionaries. His starting-point is the assertion that changes in the treatment of the nobility were determined, not by their opposition to the Revolution, but by the ideological, psychological and tactical needs of their adversaries. He cites attitudes towards the Jews in Nazi Germany as an example of a similar situation. The parallel is perhaps rather forced, in the sense that there was at times a serious attempt to organise counter-revolution in France, and many of the leaders were nobles, but Higonnet’s argument remains valid.

According to his version of events, revolutionary opinion in 1789 was hostile to the idea of nobility, as conferring a separate identity on some of the members of what ought to have been a unified society, but without hating nobles as individuals: indeed, there was an eagerness to welcome them within the fold, once they had shaken off their ‘prejudices’. From 1791 onwards, this attitude changed, as the more radical revolutionaries began angling for popular support with a programme that included the deliberate stimulation of hostility towards those who were now officially ex-nobles. From 1793 to 1794, anti-noble policies became a means of distracting the attention of the poor from the refusal of the revolutionary government to make social and economic concessions to them. So far, so good: most historians of the Revolution might find themselves broadly in agreement. Difficulties arise when Higonnet sets about explaining why things should have turned out like that. His book tackles one of the most important problems of the Revolution: not why it should have started, but why the propertied classes did not unite to stop it when it began to threaten their political and economic interests and eventually their lives. What happened across the Channel, where the mere distant threat of revolution destroyed the Whigs and united most of respectable society behind the government, ‘ought’ to have happened in France too. The fact that it did not made the Revolution possible.

The explanation of the divisions within the upper ranks of French society may lie in a combination of many different factors: the new importance given by the Estates General, in which the nobility formed a separate House, to a social distinction that was ceasing to matter very much; the exceptional importance in France of the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment, and especially of Rousseau; the fact that the rapid transformation of French institutions, between 1789 and 1791, overstretched the limits of consent; the advent of war, which confused attitudes towards the Revolution with the interests of national defence. One could go on adding to the list, but Higonnet would not be satisfied with such a heterogeneous assortment of isolated causes. To borrow Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor, he is a hedgehog rather than a fox, determined to account for everything by a single global theory. The trouble is that he finds two – one ideological and the other social – and that they get in each other’s way. He sees himself as steering a middle course between the Marxists (Lefebvre, Soboul and Mazauric) and those whom he significantly describes, not as non-Marxists, but as ‘revisionists’ – Cobban, Furet and Chaussinand-Nogaret. This attempt to ménager la chèvre et le chou does not work and the result is a zigzag that takes him alternately rather close to Scylla and to Charybdis.

On the starboard tack, he seems to assert the primacy of ideology over economic determinism. ‘Bourgeois structures of thought and action’ were the ‘necessary and organic preconditions’ of capitalist society; for the nobles in 1789 and the bourgeois in 1791, ‘ideas had more substance than fact’; in 1793 ‘politics opposed one myth to another.’ One can construct an ideological interpretation of the Revolution along such lines. Before 1789 the predominant attitude was based on a somewhat woolly amalgam of Montesquieu’s liberalism and Rousseau’s moral and colletivist utopianism. That unforgettable year seemed proof enough to many that the millennium was actually happening, that ‘regeneration’ was taking place before their eyes. In this mood, the nobility accepted the sacrifices offered by their representatives on 4 August 1789 and were welcomed into the body of the reunited nation by the commoners. Over the next few years, what had begun as something surprisingly close to unanimity gradually broke down. When the anti-royal forces triumphed on 10 August 1792, true to their Rousseauist principles, they proclaimed themselves the embodiment of the general will of the nation and reduced monarchists of every persuasion (who could be held to encompass the nobility) to unpersons. Subsequent political battles amongst the republicans were not so much about specific policies as about claims to represent the general will. That meant no compromise and no quarter for the defeated. When in opposition, a faction tended to assume that the general will corresponded to what the majority of working people actually wanted. Once in power, and faced with popular resistance or opposition, it had to explain away what ought never to have been possible. The Girondins accused their opponents of misleading the sansculottes; the Montagnards – especially Robespierre and Saint-Just – thought that the people themselves would have to be somewhat briskly regenerated before they could appreciate what had been done for their good. By the summer of 1794, when the custodians of the general will had shrunk to half a dozen Montagnards, ruling by ever-intensifying Terror, the whole millenarian enterprise had reached a dead-end.

Some such way of looking at things helps to explain a good deal. It has something in common with Furet’s book, for which Higonnet expresses a good deal of sympathy. As a total explanation of why things went the way they did, however, it is a non-starter. It does not show why so many intelligent people had fallen under the spell of Rousseau, why France was so different from other countries or why radicalism – both theoretical and practical – should have prospered as it did. It is, at best, a way of understanding certain aspects of a diverse and extremely complicated period. Higonnet is out for bigger game. He is looking for an explanation of the explanation, which will provide the answers to all the questions. This takes him on to the port tack, where he gets into difficulties off the Marxist shore.

He seems to assume – despite his assertions to the contrary – that all ideologies are socially or economically determined. This leads him to define the mixture of Montesquieu and Rousseau as ‘bourgeois universalism’. What this seems to mean is a view of society as a potentially harmonious whole, in which each individual can attain fulfilment without threatening to overturn the existing distribution of property. That probably was the view of many people in 1789. It is rather odd to label it ‘bourgeois’ when it was shared by many nobles and no doubt by some of the better-educated artisans, and rejected by an unknowable but probably substantial number of those whom the British sometimes described as the ‘middling sort’. The trouble is that, in order to get his play performed, Higonnet has to cast the ‘bourgeoisie’ in too many parts. At times they are identified with ‘capitalism’ and one thinks of them as townsmen, if not businessmen. Then one is told that most of them were landowners and many were seigneurs. This is no doubt accurate enough, but it makes up a queer sort of ‘class’: socially speaking, they ranged from millionaire bankers to Figaro. Beaumarchais may have thought of himself as bourgeois, but his ex-barber valet would not even have qualified as an active citizen in revolutionary France. To see all this lot as ‘clearly a social class’ calls for good eyesight. Their political role was equally multiform. In 1791, ‘advanced patriots’ detached themselves from the mass of the bourgeoisie. A little later, this vanguard has become the‘revolutionary bourgeoisie’. In the spring of 1793, the Montagnards ‘took the lead in bourgeois revolutionary politics’. (This was about the time that Robespierre noted that ‘the danger in the interior comes from the bourgeois.’) It was ‘bourgeois’ propaganda later that year that whipped up popular hatred of the nobility, at a time when other bourgeois were leading counter-revolutionary movements. All this is not very helpful. The revolutionaries themselves may have been almost as vague about what the word meant but they were entitled to be: they were making their history, not writing it.

Some such sleight of hand is necessary if the bourgeoisie is going to win a trick here as the queen of diamonds and lose one there as the three of spades, but it does not inspire confidence. It forms a shaky foundation for Higonnet’s socio-ideological thesis. According to this, by 1789 the relatively advanced economies of Britain and America had induced their citizens to opt for Adam Smith and liberalism. In France, the dichotomy between an advanced ideology and a relatively primitive economy gave birth to ‘bourgeois universalism’. Unlike liberalism, this did not see nobles merely as property-owners; unlike fully-fledged millenarian thought, it did not imply communism or the redistribution of property on an egalitarian basis. This is ingenious, but it contains at least two snags. Millenarianism, at least in its Rousseauist version, took such a spartan view of what constituted the good life that it was not very likely to attract the working man; the loi agraire and the redistribution of land were not, as Higonnet seems to imply, an alternative economic policy, but a fantasy for some and a turnip-ghost for others. When the Revolution ran into difficulties its more radical leaders (both the future Girondins and the Montagnards), convinced that there was no danger of either a return to the old order or an attack on property from the lower ranks of society, began appealing for popular support, on an anti-noble platform. When they realised their mistake, this constituted ‘the unravelling of the bourgeoisie’s “false consciousness”’. He has now to explain how the Girondins and the Montagnards came to engage in a fight that was literally to the death. Higonnet is in general such a careful and erudite historian that his rather peculiar comments on this subject are perhaps the result of his preoccupation with the container rather than the contents, the category rather than the individual. Thus we are told that Brissot was ‘the son of a pastrycook’. His father actually left between one hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand livres, although it is true that Brissot himself did not get much of it. Brissot and Robespierre, he says, were both ‘bourgeois men of law’: they had law degrees, which is not quite the same thing. In 1789 Robespierre was a practising barrister and Brissot had never had a case in his life. As for being ‘bourgeois’, Robespierre was a respectable citizen who was a member of the Arras academy and literary club, while Brissot had been in gaol in England (for debt) and in the Bastille (on a charge of peddling pornography). The actual difference in the social standing of the two men would reinforce Higonnet’s point about the Girondins being less respectable than the Montagnards, if one could safely generalise from isolated examples. He thinks that the Girondins adopted an anti-noble stance in their radical phase and dropped it as they became more conservative. The Montagnards initially reacted in a similar way but then revived the campaign against the nobles, in order to distract the sansculottes from the latter’s radical economic demands. The evidence that the sansculottes themselves had lost their old animosity towards the nobles rests on two examples. The first concerns Jacques Roux, who, amongst other things, was a priest, the second Taboureau, who may have been a noble himself. It takes more than two such swallows to make a thermidor. What with one thing and another, the argument that ideology was a product of social factors does not come out very well.

To isolate examples of this kind is legitimate, since Higonnet’s thesis does in fact depend on woolly definitions and dubious examples, but it is to do less than justice to an intelligent and often enlightening book. There are many good things in it. He is to be congratulated on getting right away from the conventional hagiography and the tendency to present the Revolution either as a success, when it was a failure, at least in terms of the aspirations of the republicans, or as a near-miss for some particular hero who was brought down just as he was about to score the winning try. For part of the time at least, he sees that Girondins and Montagnards were similar people with similar principles, whose enmity was the product of the circumstances in which they found themselves. If he goes a little far in lumping Brissot and Robespierre together as ‘mediocrities’, this is a good deal better than casting Maximilien as Sainte-Nitouche. One can forgive him his own golden calf when he makes short work of some of the sacred cows. One could forgive him much more for his fine humane conclusion, when he declares very firmly that the shedding of innocent blood is not to be excused because it happens to be blue. ‘The gratuitous violence of the Revolution was intolerable and cannot be justified or excused in any way, however admirable or necessary or “world-historical” the Revolution may have been.’ The fact that this needed saying reflects no credit on his predecessors and all the more on him.