Eventlessness

Norman Hampson

  • France 1815-1914: The Bourgeois Century by Roger Magraw
    Fontana, 412 pp, £4.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 00 635741 5

This is the first volume to appear in the ‘Fontana History of Modern France’, edited by Douglas Johnson, which will eventually cover the period from the Ancien Régime to the present day. The intention is presumably to provide the student and general reader with a synthesis of the enormous amount of new writing on French history since Alfred Cobban published his much shorter history of modern France twenty years ago. The mere existence of this formidable corpus of information presents the writers of the new series with both opportunities and problems. With more space at their disposal than Cobban, they can afford to get away from Parisian politics, explore social and intellectual history and take account of the complexities of regional variation. At the same time, they are writing for a public that cannot be assumed to have any previous knowledge of what was going on. This calls for a framework of political history. Unless the reader is told which regimes succeeded which, and when, the study of the changing balance of social forces is likely to confuse him. Once this political basis is established, one can, of course, argue that it was the outcome of social conflicts. The social structure of France did not change much between 1847 and 1852, but it would be a bold determinist who argued that the way in which France passed from a monarchy through a republic to an empire was therefore of minor importance. General history of this kind has no need to be impersonal. If the pursuit of impartiality implies the elimination of the personality of the historian, it is likely, in practice, to mean that he endorses past orthodoxies, whether or not he is aware of doing so. Such pusillanimous objectives make for dull reading and the mechanical retelling of a familiar tale. At the same time, the historian must play fair. The reader of a textbook is entitled to know when his author is giving him the consensus of scholarly opinion and when he is putting forward an interpretation of his own. History can seem more exciting when the writer believes that one interpretation has been refuted by another, or when his own belief in the way things happen in history imposes a particular way of looking at the period as a whole: but the reader has to feel that the historian is a genuine explorer and not primarily concerned to impose a preconceived pattern on such parts of the evidence as he chooses to examine. Procrustes may have had a tidy mind, but one has doubts about his methodology. On all of these counts Roger Magraw’s book invites serious reservations.

He is not much interested in events. His treatment of the 1830 revolution is typical. ‘In July 1830 three days of Parisian street fighting sufficed to overthrow the Bourbons. Analysis of the sources of the opposition to the fallen regime is essential for any understanding of the nature of its successor.’ Essential or not, we are then treated to seven pages of it, when the actual revolution has been dismissed in that one sentence. In the case of 1848, since he agrees that the revolution itself was an ‘accident’, one might have expected him to devote some time to showing how particular circumstances brought about results that could not have been predicted by an analysis of social tensions. The quarante-huitards do fare rather better than the men of 1830, in the sense that the February revolution gets a whole paragraph. Then we are off again on a study of social conflicts. The reader to whom all this is new might have welcomed a description of what the ‘accident’ involved, but Magraw does not even tell him what happened to Louis Philippe. The ‘Crimean expedition’ is dismissed in another sentence, which is all very well for those who already know about it but not very helpful to those who don’t. Towards the end of the book, the acquisition of the new French empire is described in ten lines while the next ten pages are spent discussing the nature of French imperialism. From the author’s point of view, this is perhaps to get things in proportion, since he believes that foreign policy, military strength and even the conduct of military operations are all reflections of social conflict: Bazaine’s troops surrendered at Metz ‘possibly because their Bonapartist commander had done a deal with Bismarck to keep his forces intact for future use against Parisian socialists’. It was not a very clever way of serving the Bonapartist cause.

The perspective from which everything is viewed is rigorously Marxist, or, to be more precise, Leninist, since Marx himself – though almost always cited as sufficient proof for a particular interpretation – is occasionally suspected of bourgeois deviationism, as when he was ‘briefly persuaded that Clemenceau might be an ally of socialism.’ The better-off French peasants are described from time to time as ‘kulaks’. The clubs of 1848 were ‘no substitute for a revolutionary party’. If what mattered was the party, one might have expected more emphasis on individuals and their tactics. There is no reason why a Marxist interpretation of 19th-century French history should not be as illuminating as any other, but Marx and Lenin themselves were political activists rather than historians. For them, investigating a situation was essentially a means of exploiting its possibilities, and discrediting their opponents was more important than understanding them. This is not good enough for a historian, unless he sees himself primarily as a propagandist. Magraw’s loaded terminology puts him in the latter category. If public opinion supports the wrong man, he is not popular but ‘populist’. Religion is generally described as ‘religiosity’. ‘The village curé often acted as an official witch doctor.’ No doubt some saw him that way but he was not officially appointed in that capacity. Since the elections of 1848 went the wrong way, they were ‘a manipulation of universal suffrage’. When Ledru-Rollin tried to ‘guide’ them he was ‘attempting to “democratise” rural France’.

Magraw nails his colours to the mast in the first sentence of his book. ‘Despite the recent attempts by British, French and American writers to reinterpret the French Revolution, the only plausible, coherent analysis remains that of scholars who, in the tradition of the great French historian, George Lefebvre, saw it as a “bourgeois revolution”.’ This cheerfully sweeps aside the researches of a whole generation. Cobban, Forster, Taylor, Doyle and Chaussinand-Nogaret have laboured in vain. Magraw is not writing about the revolution of 1789 but his misunderstanding of it sets his book on an insecure foundation. He claims, for example, that ‘the First Republic gave the land’ to the peasants. Lefevbre knew better than that. More seriously, his refusal to consider the findings of recent research into the society of the Ancien Régime leaves him with some very old-fashioned stereotypes when he comes to deal with early 19th-century France. Thus he contrasts a bourgeoisie whose ‘ethos was one of work, thrift, energy’ with the ‘rentier idleness’ of the nobility. No doubt some members of each group did exhibit some of the appropriate virtues or vices, but to characterise the groups as a whole in this way is to set myth against myth. Magraw is too honest a historian to suppress information that does not fit his argument, but his way of accommodating it is rather curious. Faced with the inconvenient fact that ‘nobles were prominent in major industries and non-agricultural enterprises,’ he says that this ‘added to their schizophrenia’.

Magraw’s strength is his familiarity with the mass of recent research on the subject. Many of the articles he cites are to be found in out-of-the-way sources and most have been written during the past twenty years. Anyone who is already acquainted with half the material that he incorporates can consider himself something of an expert: but handling such voluminous and contradictory evidence in a book designed for the general reader has him in difficulties. His usual technique is to align the arguments for one point of view, confront them with those pointing in the opposite direction and proclaim that the ayes have it. They always do and the verdict is always predictable. The detailed evidence never challenges the overall thesis. This happy consummation would be more convincing if the argument was conducted with more logical rigour. We are told that heavy French investment in Turkey, towards the end of the period, was ‘a classic model of “non-colonial” economic imperialism’ which was also ‘a classic example of Lenin’s thesis that “imperialist” economic conflicts were pushing Europe to war.’ But the war did not begin over Turkey and when the Turks joined in, it was on the wrong side. We are given a fair amount of information about the industrial investments of Etienne, including the rather gratuitous fact that he was ‘president of the Paris bus monopoly’. Magraw then adds: ‘In 1913 Etienne was war minister.’ The inference is presumably that he used his position to start a war that would increase the value of his investments, but the demonstration can scarcely be called conclusive. The reader is bombarded with information, most of it very detailed and localised and some of it fairly meaningless. What is someone trying to get a general picture of 19th-century France to make of such statements as ‘vocation rates in the Biterois fell by nearly 90 per cent after 1846’ – especially when there is no terminus ante quem? ‘By 1838, 51 per cent of republican activists were workers and 12 per cent were small masters.’ Who counted them with such precision?

Despite the book’s title, there is no serious attempt to say who the bourgeois were. The fact that lawyers rather than industrialists tended to dominate politics is brushed aside: ‘Lawyers were trained to speak and relied on economic élites for patronage.’ That would have interested Robespierre and, in any case, they presumably had a choice of patrons. Like Lefebvre, Magraw is inclined to include master craftsmen in the bourgeoisie when they were politically quiescent and to transfer them to the ‘workers’ when they became militant. This is to make class a function of politics rather than vice versa. There is something to be said for such a point of view, but the author is not the man to say it. Whoever they were, the bourgeois were rather a nasty lot, even when they were fulfilling their historic role as the progressive class within a bourgeois revolution. ‘Like the middle class which he epitomises, Birotteau is fatally flawed by greed, the lure of expansion and wealth.’ The equation of the middle classes with thrift leads to the rather odd conclusion that economy and sobriety were signs that a man was not a wholehearted proletarian. ‘The audodidacts who dominated the worker-press ran the risk of becoming respectable, high-minded and austere, anxious to moralise the workers to make them fit for the franchise – in short, of losing touch with the bitter violence of much worker protest.’ There is a touch of radical chic here. Although he is dealing with a ‘bourgeois century’, in a section called the ‘bourgeois republic’, Magraw describes the republicans, in the 1870s, as looking for a middle path between ‘feudalism’ and socialism. The one must have seemed almost as remote as the other at the time. The real subject of his book is not the heyday of the bourgeoisie but the prehistory of French socialism. Whatever it is – and it, too, is never defined – socialism must not be ‘utopian’. Cabet gets a reprimand since he ‘seduced sections of the young labour movement with the siren song of impossible class collaboration’. It seems to absolve one from any obligations to the Other Side: ‘Caussidière was not a socialist and urged Parisian tenants to pay their rents.’ Socialism has a kind of inherent legitimacy, irrespective of whether or not people want it. Popularity is rather suspect. The fact that the Petit Parisien had a circulation of a million when the entire socialist press could muster only sixty thousand is a sign of a ‘bourgeois cultural hegemony’ and not of what people wanted to read. Democratic politics is dismissed as ‘electoralist reformism’ and the only permissible objective is preparation for violent revolution. Logically enough, the volume ends with a description of the problems facing the French Communist Party as it emerged soon after the First World War.