The Revolution is over

R.W. Johnson

  • 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.

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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