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’.

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