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.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the 150th anniversary in 1939 was a disaster. The Minister of Finance didn’t want to spend any money on the celebrations, while the President was frightened that the whole thing would turn into a giant left-wing demonstration. Bad weather and a complete absence of popular enthusiasm for the anniversary caused the celebrations to collapse into shambles and fiasco. At the end of the summer the whole thing was brought to a summary – and apocalyptic – conclusion by the outbreak of a new world war. The 1989 celebrations ought to avoid that fate, but their success should not be taken for granted. The bitter rivalry between Mitterrand’s Elysée and Chirac’s Hôtel de Ville has already caused the cancellation of Mitterrand’s plan for an international exhibition. Chirac, speaking as ‘M. le Maire’, argued that Paris couldn’t cope with all the visitors and attendant pressures such an event would entail: the President’s plan, he said, simply took no account of the hassle and frayed nerves of his – Chirac’s – municipal constituents. The argument was irresistible – the Exhibition clearly couldn’t go ahead against the opposition of City Hall – but rang a little hollow given Chirac’s simultaneous and Herculean attempts to attract the Olympics to Paris.

There are many good reasons why the Revolution should be popular. It is worth quoting Eugene Kamenka at length:

Europe and Latin America by the end of the 19th century, and Asia, Africa and the Pacific by the last quarter of the 20th century, have come to stand in the shadow of the French Revolution, to live in ... the new age inaugurated by that Revolution and symbolised by it. The appeal to reason, the elevation of the people as sovereign and of their welfare as constituting the point of government, the doctrine of progress, the acceptance of revolutionary ideologies and revolutionary transformations, are a basic part of the modern world. For two hundred years it has been impossible to speak of nationalism ... socialism and democracy, of self-determination for peoples and nations, of government by law and of the belief in human rights ... of ‘the people’s’ demands, of ... ‘secular’ education, political propaganda and the state’s role in promoting ‘enlightenment’, of popular participation, factional struggles and class conflicts, without thinking of or unconsciously echoing themes introduced by the French Revolution.

The Revolution produced more even than that. Among its fruits must also be counted religious emancipation, the notion of equality before the law, the abolition of slavery, the idea of the perfectibility of man, national unity, a common language, a rational and uniform system of administration, a common coinage and system of weights and measures (and with that the metric system), the guillotine, the provision of zoos and restaurants (and thus the generalisation of French cuisine), the concept of ‘historical monuments’, political banquets and the notions of ‘right’ and ‘left’. At least, these were among the things that lasted: much else was invented that did not last, such as the worship of the Goddess of Reason, the new calendar of months (Thermidor, Brumaire etc) and the metric day, which left behind a sad little heritage of useless watches and clocks with ten-hour dials. Little wonder that Douglas Johnson quotes Chinese students coming to France in the early decades of this century because ‘it is France which holds the three mainsprings of modernity: the doctrine of the rights of man, the theory of evolution and socialism.’ (Englishmen who thought evolution was something to do with Darwin should take a stroll in the Jardin des Plantes, near Jussieu, where they may see the statue of Lamarck inscribed Fondateur de la Doctrine d’ Evolution.)

As Johnson notes, however, the Revolution has never been really popular in France. This is so for a host of reasons, beginning with the tourist notion that kings and nobles left palaces and art galleries which the barbarous revolutionaries merely damaged. Moreover, historians have studied the Revolution almost to death, making it impossible for anyone to make any general statement about it with confidence. Finally, the Revolution was simply too radical for a cautiously bourgeois nation ever to feel quite comfortable with it. Take even so central an event as the execution of the King. As Conor Cruise O’Brien points out, for anyone committed to the notion of popular sovereignty the very existence of a king was an attack on all one held most dear, a crime against the nation – the King’s indictment spoke of ‘the nation blasphemed’. No British nonsense here about ‘King and Country’: if you were for the King, you were against country and put yourself outside the nation. When Stendhal heard of the King’s execution he experienced ‘one of the sharpest feelings of joy I have ever felt in my life’. This is all well and good, and not a few of us would wish that cutting off Charles I’s head had had the same results as cutting off Louis XVI’s, but the idea of feeling ‘the sharpest feelings of joy’ at the news of any execution is not a comfortable one. Similarly, one can understand why enthusiasts of the Revolution like Mathiez, Lefebvre and Jean Jaurès tended to glorify Robespierre: ‘my place is among the Jacobins, alongside Robespierre,’ writes the liberal humanist Jaurès proudly. One can agree with Mignet that the Revolution saw ‘transient excesses alongside lasting benefits’. But that’s not enough: we’ve all seen how socialist enthusiasm led to excusing Stalin, how ideological zealotry led to Pol Pot. Maybe we’re too squeamish, but the idea of going along with ‘transient excesses’ has become pretty difficult these days, even for the left or liberal intellectual, let alone the comfortable bourgeois.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that the Counter-Revolution and the Right found it all too easy to turn the Revolution’s innovations to its own account. The Revolution’s early internationalism and republicanism were, of course, betrayed by Bonaparte, but O’Brien rightly points out how easily the early ‘patriotism’ was Prussianised into a racist, regimented nationalism. Similarly the conscription on which the Revolution’s armies were based came to serve more reactionary causes, to the point where, instead of building the Army in the image of the nation, we have all too often seen the building of nations in the image of their armies. And one reason why revolution so often gives way to counter-revolution is precisely that it has squandered its moral advantage, made it seem that the only choice is between equally murderous opponents. The love of mankind leads to the necessity of abolishing inequality and the levelling of class differences; and when the privileged resist, this leads to what Burke called ‘homicidal philanthropy’. If you love man and equality enough, you end up killing men for their own good.

This, at least in part, is the argument of counter-revolutionaries from Burke to Solzhenitsyn – and 1789 introduced not merely the romantic notion of revolution but the idea of counter-revolution too. Their case is ably surveyed here by George Steiner: ‘The attempts to institute on earth “kingdoms of justice”, to legislate the messianic in secular terms, go not only against the grain of human nature ... they go against the grain of divine providence. It is in the first and last nature of the human condition, in the alpha and omega of politics and history, that those who plant “trees of liberty” shall, rapidly, make of them gate-posts to prisons and to death-camps.’

Which is all very wise and well, and rather unfair – for the practitioners of revolution are here being held up against the theorists of counter-revolution. But counter-revolution has its practitioners too, its Admiral Horthys, Francos and Pinochets, men who are so devoted to Christian civilisation that they are willing to kill, torture and crucify quite endlessly in its name. This reality, too, must be considered. Even Burke’s still-powerful critique of the Revolution has to be set alongside the fact that what his fine phrases were actually defending was the corrupt oligarchy of pre-Reform Act England, a world of squireish arrogance and a quite casual denial of the rights and sufferings of the majority. Burke, after all, spoke for the class that had just provoked – and lost to – the American Revolution, without ever really understanding that either: in that sense, his strictures on the French Revolution are the sheerest cheek. Men like Burke are always wise after the event, never before: it is only after the Bastille has been stormed that such men discover that their disapproval of those who stormed it is now matched by a retrospective sympathy for those who had been locked up in it. Not surprisingly, Burke has always been largely ignored in France.

What do the French think of their Revolution? An IPSOS poll taken on 20-21 December 1988 found that a third of those interviewed were ‘Don’t knows’ even when asked such open questions as what they thought had been the most important events of the Revolution. Not surprisingly, the taking of the Bastille came top (37 per cent), followed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man (16 per cent), the execution of the King and Queen (13 per cent) and the abolition of aristocratic and other privileges (10 per cent). Among the changes wrought by the Revolution, human rights (17 per cent) and greater freedom (16 per cent) topped the poll ahead of universal male suffrage (some, oddly, attributed female suffrage to the Revolution, though that didn’t come until 1945). This identification of the Revolution with liberty (which is no doubt strengthened in the popular mind by the fact that 14 July marks the beginning of the summer holiday season) remains powerful but vague – only 30 per cent could cite the first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and when asked which three words symbolised the Revolution, 55 per cent got liberty, 48 per cent equality, while fraternity, as ever the poor relation, got 43 per cent. In the poll for the most important personalities of the Revolution, Robespierre (48 per cent) and Danton (40 per cent) came far ahead of all others – Marat came next with 12 per cent. Neither Robespierre nor Danton were unambiguous heroes, as became clear when IPSOS asked respondents their views on what one might almost literally term the crunch issue: who did they think ought to have been guillotined? Twenty-one per cent thought Robespierre deserved to be executed (11 per cent thought the same of Danton), and another 12 per cent (16 per cent in Danton’s case) thought that his execution was inevitable, that he had simply been caught out at his own game. By comparison, Louis XVI’s execution evoked a mere 19 per cent-all tie in the approval ratings, though nobody had anything positive to say about the King. What these figures suggest is that the revolutionary Terror has made a far deeper impression on the popular imagination than the more humdrum, everyday cruelties of the Ancien Régime. The main reason for this is that nobody can imagine the monarchy ever coming back – it is a bogeyman that has long ceased to exist, but Robespierre seems a frighteningly contemporary figure.

This was evident when respondents were asked to situate the Revolution politically. It is still not seen as an event that belongs to everyone: 10 per cent associated it with the extreme Left, 41 per cent with the Left, 23 per cent with the Centre, 9 per cent with the Right and 2 per cent the extreme Right.

When asked which contemporary political figures seemed to be the chief inheritors of the Revolution, two Socialists came top, Mitterrand with 31 per cent and Rocard with 14 per cent. It seems clear, however, that this is simply because they are the immediate exemplifications of the Republic. And the Republic, crucially, is seen as the chief legacy of the Revolution: indeed, to be virtually identical with it. Thus when respondents were asked who had done most to continue the Revolution, De Gaulle (30 per cent) had no real competition: Jaurès (8 percent), Pompidou (7 per cent) and Mitterrand (6 per cent) brought up the tail with a host of others. De Gaulle, a Catholic conservative who disliked all politicians, fought the Left, and did all he could to reduce the role of the National Assembly, could hardly be said to personify the spirit of ’89. But, quite clearly, this concerned voters less than the fact that he had stood out for the republic against Vichy in 1940 and had refounded the Republic again in 1958. Similarly, it is difficult to explain why Pompidou, President for only five years and dead fifteen years ago, should rank ahead of Mitterrand, the once and future President, but for the fact that Pompidou is still seen by many as the man who saved the Republic from anarchy in 1968.

The simplistic identification of the Revolution with liberty, the Republic and not much else attests to the fact that, as François Furet puts it, ‘the Revolution is over’ – a fact the large number of ‘Don’t knows’ in the IPSOS poll would seem to confirm. Two things kept the Revolution alive so long: the ever-present possibility of violent political change and the opposition to it of the intransigent Right. These factors are now no longer relevant. Despite the speed wobble of 1968, the Fifth Republic is now assumed to guarantee political stability as far ahead as anyone can see; and the sort of Right which wanted to get rid of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité as the national motto went down to defeat and disgrace with Pétain. Since 1944, all conservative movements of note, however right-wing, have been avowedly republican. Indeed, the Algiers coup of 13 May 1958, without doubt the most serious right-wing threat France has known since the Liberation, bore poignant witness to the strength of the republican tradition, even as it overthrew the Fourth Republic. Even before they got down to the business of planning the paratroop drop which was to take Paris and install a military junta, the right-wing officers and colons who staged the coup formally constituted themselves into a Committee of Public Safety, a quite self-conscious echo of 1789.

The Revolution is over in other ways too. The most fundamental social change wrought by 1789 was the seizure of the great estates by millions of serfs. Henceforward the first law of French politics, respected by all regimes irrespective of political coloration, was that these millions of smallholders must be kept happy, or at least solvent, by a policy of agricultural protection. In time, this policy was extended to the rest of Europe and renamed the Common Agricultural Policy. The CAP persists, of course, but at long last product-ceilings and quotas have begun to open up cracks in it, and now that it benefits Greek, Portuguese, Irish and Spanish peasants more than French ones, there is a serious possibility of fundamental reform. By the same token, 1992 and all that points clearly towards a reduction of the system of European national states inaugurated by 1789.

Perhaps the man who has done most to turn the page on 1789 is Robert Badinter, the quietly-spoken Jewish civil rights lawyer who was Mitterrand’s Minister of Justice from 1981 to 1986. M. Badinter was not a member of the Socialist Party, but he stuck to his libertarian principles with such bravery than many within the PS came to feel he was the best socialist in the Government. For the Right, he was the hated symbol of the Left’s permissiveness and ‘laxity’ with criminals – M. Badinter even had to endure anti-semitic demonstrations against him by a section of the Paris Police. Through all this he persevered with the gigantic task of replacing the Code Napoléon, an objective which reformers have had in mind for almost two hundred years but whose achievement had eluded everyone. This monument of law reform was shelved when the Left lost power in 1986, but now it is again before the National Assembly and it seems certain that this Parliament will legislate through the Code Badinter (as it is already called). I once visited M. Badinter in his office at the Constitutional Council (whose President he has been since 1986) and was much impressed by his soft-spoken intelligence and quick practical grasp. During our conversation my eyes kept wandering to an artefact standing on the mantlepiece in front of a large gilded mirror. It was a framed copy of another reform with which M. Badinter had signalled the end of the Revolutionary era: the Bill to abolish Madame Guillotine, no less.

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