Where will this voyage end?

Neal Ascherson

  • Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two centuries look back on the French Revolution by E.J. Hobsbawm
    Verso, 144 pp, £24.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 86091 282 5

Historians as a tribe are suckers for anniversaries, no less than journalists. And both professions are equally unwilling to leave a nice, juicy coincidence alone, in the spirit of that pre-glasnost Pravda phrase: ‘It is no accident that ...’ These faiblesses ensure that, in our lifetimes and in those of our children, books and journals and Sunday papers will continue to gnaw and growl over the fact that a year of revolutionary upheaval in Eastern and Central Europe took place precisely 200 years after the beginning of the French Revolution. Parallels, some interesting and many frankly idiotic, will go on being drawn.

However, the timing wasn’t quite precise enough. The bicentenary celebrations and the much noisier disputes about the impact, value, morality and inevitability of the French Revolution reached their climax in July 1989. The wave of revolutions in the Soviet zone of Europe did not reach its peak until November that year. (Revolution, insurrection, revolt: none of these terms fitted, except in the Romanian case. Our language here needed a word like aufstand or powstanie, in German or Polish, with their connotation of a ‘standing up’ after long prostration.) The Polish elections had taken place in June, but the Communist retreat did not become an uncontrollable rout there until a few months later. Much the same was true of Hungary, while the interventions of ‘the people’ on the streets of Prague, Leipzig, Berlin, Timisoara, Bucharest – the events which felt authentically revolutionary in the old way – happened towards the end of the year. This put all the contestants in the bicentenary argument in a quandary. Both sides claimed, of course, to have been reinforced by the 1989 uprisings: those who continue broadly to defend the importance and the heritage of the French Revolution, and those who seek to ‘revise’ it down to the scale of a mere interregnum, a hiccup in French history, an insignificant putsch.

The revisionists saw the liberations of 1989 as a final renunciation of the whole radical family of ideas about government which had passed down from the Enlightenment through Jacobinism to Marxism and Leninism: a mighty Thermidor of history, in which the social engineers who had been pushing humanity around for two centuries were themselves trundled to the guillotine. The other side retorted that the triumphs of November-December 1989 were only possible because of weapons bequeathed to Europeans by the French Revolution: the doctrine of the Rights of Man, the sanctification of mass revolutionary action in the streets, some aspects (though not all) of the Jacobin version of nationalism. What won in Prague or Budapest was not some sort of ‘end of history’ conservatism, but the liberal-republican tradition whose ‘deposit of faith’ began to be laid down in 1789.

At this distance from July last year, the moment has arrived for just the sort of book which Eric Hobsbawm has written: a history of the Revolution’s history which examines the main interpretations over the past 200 years in the light of today’s revisionist counter-offensive. Professor Hobsbawm displays his past-mastery of sources. He goes not only to history and memoir, in four languages, but to forgotten encylopedias and obsolete dictionaries which reveal even more sharply how and when new words and ideas make their conquests and then their colonisations. But this book is, I am glad to say, violently polemical. Hobsbawm remarks that the bicentenary is ‘largely dominated by those who, to put it simply, do not like the French Revolution and its heritage’. To put it equally simply, he dislikes them back. ‘The new literature on the French Revolution ... is quite extraordinarily skewed.’ He describes the claim by some modern revisionists that the Revolution was unnecessary as ‘the kind of counterfactual proposition that is neither testable nor plausible’.

Hobsbawm understands revisionism, in France at least, as a phenomenon which is both personal and ideological. At one level, it is a rebellion against the almost impregnable left-wing orthodoxy represented by the Chair in the History of the Revolution at the Sorbonne, and its ‘apostolic succession’ of occupants and disciples since its establishment in 1891: a vendetta between French intellectuals fought out in the Fifth and Sixth arrondissements. The content of revisionism, however, is a cannon aimed at what these rebel historians imagine to be the heart of the Sorbonne orthodoxy: at a ‘Marxist’ interpretation of the French Revolution which incorporates it as one necessary, inevitable stage in the development of the dialectics of history which was to culminate in the Bolshevik Revolution. Eric Hobsbawm suggests that the true revisionist target is not 1789 or even 1793 – the Terror – but 1917. And he concedes that orthodox history of the Revolution could at times be horribly dogmatic; he goes so far as to agree that ‘the outline histories of the late Albert Soboul (but not his outstanding work on the Parisian sans-culottes) sometimes leave themselves open to Furet’s gibe about une sorte de vulgate lénino-populiste.’ But he is scornful of some of the claims by Furet and Co, in particular objecting that their arguments are seldom based on new facts emerging from research but rather on the rearrangement of data which are not generally in dispute. And he is certainly not going to allow them to smear the best radical historians of the Revolution – Lefebvre, Labrousse, Mathiez – as if they had been no more than parrots repeating some Stalinist school-text about the laws of history.

The main action in this defensive battle is fought in the chapter which investigates the idea of the French Revolution as a ‘bourgeois’ revolution – for me, the most powerful and intriguing section of Echoes of the Marseillaise. Revisionists blame the Marxists for this term, and for a ‘Lenino-populist’ schema in which the bourgeois revolution overthrows feudalism in order to open the way to capitalism, so that capitalism can in turn be transcended by the secular triumph of the ‘universal class’, the proletariat. Hobsbawm retorts: ‘The Liberal revisionism of French Revolution history is entirely directed ... at 1917. It is an irony of history’ that it attacks ‘precisely that interpretation of the Revolution that was first formulated and popularised by the very school of moderate liberalism of which they see themselves as the heir.’ It wasn’t Marx or Engels (whose pronouncements on bourgeois revolutions were few and incoherent) but an earlier liberal generation – Guizot above all, Mignet, de Tocqueville himself – who perceived 1789 as the beginning of open struggle between the aristocracy and the middle class, a struggle which de Tocqueville did not think had been finally won by the bourgeoisie until the July Revolution of 1830. He found it hard to overstate the momentousness of the Great Revolution and the totality of its rupture with the past: ‘not only did the middle class thus rule society, but it may be said to have formed it.’ But, for the moderate liberals, this infant society had to be protected against monsters on either flank. Too strong a blow against the Ancien Régime’s relics, and the plebs might submerge the Revolution in violence and chaos; too much use of authority, and an uncontrollable swing to despotism, restoration and reaction could develop. With Napoleon, despotism temporarily won. But the Restoration gave back to the middle-class liberals some of the civic rights they had lost to Bonaparte and guaranteed them against both the masses and a revived royal absolutism.

The bourgeoisie of 1789 was overwhelmingly pre-industrial. Yet, though terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘capitalist’ had not arrived, the makers of the Revolution were devoted to private property, equality before the law, equality of opportunity for talent, and free trade (Hobsbawm lists three editions of The Wealth of Nations in French before 1789, and four more by 1802). The revisionists argue, to some effect, that if 1789 had been a bourgeois revolution, then one might expect that France in the early 19th century would have industrialised faster and more successfully than its less radical neighbours, whereas the opposite is true. But the fact that a social class leads a revolution in the hope of doing well out of it does not imply that the hope is automatically fulfilled. Post-Revolution France may have failed to compete with Britain economically, but it had become a place utterly unlike France before 1789: the money-obsessed, enrichissez-vous country of Balzac’s characters.

If the Marxists did not invent the view that 1789-94 was a revolution led by a middle class which considered itself to be involved in a class war against both aristocrats and the poor, then neither did they originate the thought that the French Revolution had set off an uncontrollable historical process – a chain reaction which would eventually transform the whole world. Again, it was the participants in the Revolution and the intellectuals of the 1820s who first came to that conclusion. As Hobsbawm makes clear, this thought had two focal lengths.The first was an awe-struck recognition of the apparently supra-human forces released by such events: ‘the discovery of revolution as a sort of natural phenomenon escaping from human control’. In a later chapter, he argues that this was among the perceptions which the Bolsheviks drew from their own reading of the French Revolution: Lenin, he claims, always insisted that revolutions could not be made or even accurately foretold, and was addicted to images about ‘volcanoes’ and ‘thunderstorms’ when he described them. And he adds (giving a good many hostages to his own adversaries, I would have thought) that Lenin was ‘the very opposite of ... the man who tries to make revolution by an act of will or a coup or a putsch, although it is for this that his opponents criticised him. He was at the opposite pole from Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.’

The second dimension of this sense of revolution as uncontrollable process is a longer view into the future. Here, Echoes produces two succulent quotations. One is de Tocqueville, he who once hoped that 1830 would be the end of history, asking in the 1850s ‘where this voyage will end. I am tired of thinking, time and again, that we have reached the coast and finding it was only a misleading bank of fog. I often wonder whether that solid ground we have so long sought really exists, or whether our destiny is not rather to sail a storm-tossed sea for ever.’ The other comes from Jakob Burckhardt in the 1870s, opening his course of lectures on the Revolution: ‘We know that the same storm which hit mankind in 1789 is still driving us into the future.’

Each uses storm imagery, but – unlike Lenin – yearns for calm and for solid dry land underfoot. As Professor Hobsbawm puts it, the bourgeoisie no longer needed or wanted a revolution by the second half of the 19th century. France had stabilised in the decade after the 1871 Commune as a democratic parliamentary republic, with a strong state machine, which co-opted a remarkable amount of Jacobin rhetoric and slogans once they were safe to use. This was the France which celebrated the first centenary in 1889. The Paris ambassadors of European empires and monarchies boycotted the affair, but they missed the increasingly folkloric air creeping into commemorations of the Revolution. If the French Left, in a later age, was identified as restaurant ouvrier, cuisine bourgeoise, so the Third Republic in its first decades was restaurant jacobin, cuisine libérale. If there were revisionists around in 1889, and their number in contrast to 1989 was tiny in comparison to the celebrators, then their objection to the Great Revolution was not that it was anti-monarchical but that it was democratic. Jacobinism and neo-Jacobinism led towards universal suffrage, which would in turn replace the sensible constitutionalism of the old liberals with a regime based on the popular will: with the reign of the poor, the ignorant, the easily-led.

Fashions in the personalities of the Revolution have changed, and there is a thoroughly Hobsbawmian pop-chart drawn up here from biographies and theses. Before 1914, the losers – especially the royal victims – led the charts, with Mirabeau doing well as the most moderate revolutionary. But Mirabeau’s fans dwindled rapidly after the First World War, while the popularity of Danton grew. Robespierre, representing radical Jacobinism, came up fast in the same period, peaking in the Popular Front years of the late 1930s and then again in the 1960s and 1970s. Marat was overtaken by St-Just as an idol of the far Left; Babeuf, ‘the first Communist’, was nowhere at all until he was rediscovered in the 1930s and rose to brief but dazzling stardom around 1968.

Bolshevik and later Communist taste in revolutionaries was at first glance unexpected. In theory, they should have admired the far Left, those who were the tribunes of the poor and the most radical exponents of an equality which was not just political but economic. But Marxist historians, and Communist politicians, paid little attention to Hébert or Babeuf. It was the Jacobins, the executioners of the proto-socialist Left, whom they adored, and Robespierre in particular. This book ends with a telling section from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, tacked on as an appendix, which helps to explain this preference: Gramsci perceived the Jacobins as the group which moved the bourgeoisie beyond its own corporate class interests into the position of a ‘hegemonic’ group leading all popular forces. The Jacobins ‘won their function of “leading” party by a struggle to the death; they literally “imposed” themselves on the French bourgeoisie, leading it into a far more advanced position than the originally strongest bourgeois nuclei would have spontaneously wished to take up.’ Hobsbawm comments that this preference is almost as surprising as if British socialists and Communists were to ‘champion Cromwell against the Levellers and Diggers’.

The transformations of Europe and the rest of the world since 1945 have now severed the sense of being still directly in touch with the French Revolution. What Eric Hobsbawm calls France’s ‘extraordinary continuity from-1789 until, say, 1958’ is over. ‘Paris itself, the city of the Revolution par excellence, is today a gentrified habitat of the middle classes’: the People have become commuters from cement jungles on the periphery, while in 1989 the Right controlled not only the city itself but every one of the 20 arrondissements. The period dearest to the author’s heart, the Popular Front years of anti-fascist struggle in which the Enlightenment and republican traditions joined forces with Communism, is not only dead but beyond any hope of resurrection. So if François Furet and his colleagues say that the French Revolution is over at last, how should they be answered?

Hobsbawm answers this in three ways. He points, unanswerably, to the extent to which the Revolution shaped the world we live in, and will continue indirectly to shape it. He remarks that ‘the power of the people’ derives from that moment when the French Revolution gave ordinary subjects the confidence not only that they could change history but that they had the right to do so. ‘The power of the people ... is rarely seen and even more rarely exercised. Yet when it is seen, as it was on several continents and occasions in the bicentennial year of the French Revolution ... it is an overwhelmingly impressive spectacle.’ Finally, the Revolution can still provide a sword and shield, as the enemies of progress begin once again to gather. ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, plus the values of reason and the Enlightenment, are more needed than ever, as irrationalism, fundamentalist religion, obscurantism and barbarity are once again gaining on us.’