The French Revolution at the end of the Cold War

Lynn Hunt

  • Revolutionary France, 1770-1880 by François Furet, translated by Antonia Nevill
    Blackwell, 630 pp, £40.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 631 17029 4

In 1989, François Furet was frequently hailed (or criticised, depending on the context) as the ‘king’ of the Bicentenary of the French Revolution. He seemed to be everywhere, on television, in the newspapers, and adorning the pages of almost every glossy magazine. Foreign reporters featured him in pieces on the celebration. Even his absence from the international scholarly meeting at the Sorbonne in July of that year merited a comment in Le Monde. Furet’s elevation marked the apparently definitive defeat of the Marxist interpretation as the dominant paradigm in studies of the French Revolution, a defeat which coincided with the collapse of Eastern bloc Communism. Historiography and world politics seemed to reinforce each other in uncanny fashion in the home of the revolutionary tradition, and it was as if the historian Furet had proved prescient about the future as much as the past.

Furet’s panoramic history of the long French Revolution, 1770-1880, appeared in French in 1988 on the eve of the Bicentenary celebrations. Given the date of its writing, it might well have reproduced the slash-and-burn tactics of his previous criticisms of the ‘Lenino-populist vulgate’. In two major works, Penser la révolution française (English translation, Interpreting the French Revolution, 1981) and with Mona Ozouf, Dictionnaire critique de la révolution française (English translation, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 1989), Furet demolished the major tenets of the Marxist interpretation, in particular the notion of a class-based, bourgeois revolution as a ‘metaphysical monster’ which suffocated historical reality in the name of Jacobino-Leninist piety. He struck the pose of liberal St George taking on the dragons of Marxist and Communist ideological conformity and seemed never to let his guard down, even for a moment of celebration.

The tone of Revolutionary France is surprisingly serene, in contrast, as if the author knew that the major battles had already been won. An opening note of non-belligerence had sounded more faintly in the Dictionary, when on its very first page, Furet and Ozouf had admitted that the notion of a bourgeois revolution was ‘not without pertinence or fruitfulness’ and that the idea of class struggle did indeed ‘have a legitimate place in a history of the French Revolution’. The victors could afford to show their generosity of spirit to the vanquished. But Revolutionary France is no mopping-up operation. Where the Dictionary was the last volley in a barrage of criticism directed at the opposition, Revolutionary France ventures out onto new territory altogether. Gone is the contentious dialogue with competing views and Furet’s previous insistence on the superiority of criticism and analysis over narrative. Instead, we get the Revolution as longue durée, told in an almost 19th-century way, with the author speaking as national sage.

For some time now, Furet has shown his predilection for the 19th-century historians of the French Revolution. The Dictionary included a long section on ‘Historians and Commentators’, in which the 20th-century historians of the Revolution were relegated to one dismissive article. As far as Furet was concerned, what was left of the academic – equated with ‘narrow’ and ruled by jealous patrons – tradition of Revolutionary historiography ended for good when George Lefebvre ‘lay down in the Procrustean bed’ of Marxism-Leninism. Furet’s few pages on Alphonse Aulard, Albert Mathiez and Lefebvre (Albert Soboul and his successor at the Sorbonne, Michel Vovelle, were apparently beneath contempt and so merited no space at all) paled in comparison to the loving, vivid treatment of Benjamin Constant, Louis Blanc, Jules Michelet, Edgar Quinet and a handful of other, non-academic, non-positivist, non-specialist writers – including Karl Marx – who shared a grand passion for public affairs and ‘sought the secrets of contemporary France’ in the heritage of the Great Revolution.

Such is the narrative tradition that Furet aims to revive in Revolutionary France. His revival of narrative is not without surprises: indeed, it could be labelled a reversal of his previous position. In Interpreting the French Revolution, Furet had juxtaposed Alexis de Tocqueville, his central inspiration, to Michelet, almost always to the detriment of the narrative historian. ‘It seems to me,’ Furet announced, ‘that historians of the Revolution have, and always will have, to make a choice between Michelet and Tocqueville.’ Where Michelet had celebrated communion with and commemoration of the Revolution, a narrative in the mode of personal identification, what Furet termed ‘a history without concepts’, Tocqueville offered a more sober and incisive ‘sociological interpretation’, ‘a critique of revolutionary ideology’, a kind of liberation from the revolutionaries’ own gripping but dangerous illusions. Narrative itself thus seemed incompatible with criticism, conceptualisation, and the appropriate distance from the past. How can you ‘take apart’ the French Revolution, as Furet exhorted us to do, without breaking up the steady chronological stream of narrative?

If Furet had previously preferred Tocqueville to Michelet, now he rehabilitates Michelet. This is not just a swing of the pendulum, however, in which a new favourite knocks down the old one. Furet aims to combine the best of the two and offer an analytical narrative – a history with concepts, presumably – which captures the clanging grandeur of events even while revealing the workings of invisible, tidal movements. Tocqueville has not disappeared. He is actually cited more often than Michelet, but almost always as a witness to events rather than as a historian of them. Michelet’s historical judgments are called in as support again and again, and more often than any other author.

What Furet offers, then, is the post-Marxist, post-vulgate, and even post-Cold War (avant la lettre) narrative of the French Revolution. It is a fascinating account with many attractions. He writes with uncommon verve, demonstrating an ability to juxtapose sweeping judgments about the main lines of French political history with telling details of personal political odysseys and collective ceremonial and symbolic experience. In earlier works, Furet had forcefully argued the case for considering the Revolution an exceptional political moment in which the overwhelming impulse to forge a new democratic political consensus short-circuited the normal operations of politics as the representation of competing and conflicting social interests. Here he shows how the legacy of that moment set the constraints for politics throughout the 19th century.

In Interpreting the French Revolution, Furet had insisted that the Revolution was over, in the sense that its results had been finally accepted by all the parties. Now he shows the actual historical process by which the Revolutionary legacy was incorporated into French life. ‘Terminating the Revolution,’ he insists, ‘meant first of all accepting it.’ This should give pause to those in the post-Communist world who hope that some kind of simple restoration of the old pre-Communist regimes might still be possible, that the heritage of Communism can simply be put in brackets. In France, the Revolutionary tradition died a slow, agonising death between 1789 and 1871, and when it disappeared (if indeed it did), it took with it the tradition of monarchy.

The main consequence of Furet’s approach is certainly not a diminishing of the significance of the short French Revolution, 1789-1799. Not only do those ten years take up more than a third of the narrative space in the book, but they also set the themes for all that follows. The question of bringing the Revolution to an end dominated all other questions during Napoleonic and Restoration periods, Furet argues. All the political ideas of the July Monarchy, he goes on to claim, ‘found their source in reflection on the French Revolution’. Even Napoleon III’s drive to improve the French economy in the 1850s and 1860s had its origins in the notion of civil equality of 1789. And the French Revolution finally came home to port, he concludes, when the Third Republic actually became republican with the departure of Mac-Mahon in 1879.

The French did not have to accept everything about their Revolution in order to come to terms with it. Furet finds a dual nature in the 1789 Revolution: ‘the Revolution had founded the modern nation on the universality of citizens, but at the same time had torn history and society to pieces.’ Digesting this heritage meant retaining the first while regurgitating the second. Beginning in Thermidor, republicans had to learn how to refuse ‘the bloody and fictitious political unity of the revolutionary government’, in which Terror replaced liberty. Whenever the insurrectionist tradition bubbled up to the surface, political leaders had to meet the potential for violence head on. In 1830 republicans were headed off at the pass and made to bide their time. The June Days of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 showed that republican leaders were prepared to use force to put down the revival of 1793. In Furet’s view, the dead of the Commune ‘thus facilitated the coming together of the centres, republican and Orleanist, which would be the basis of the Third Republic’. The violence of repression ‘cleansed’ the Republic of insurrectionary and terrorist suspicions.

In fact, however, violence does not loom large in this narrative. The street fighting of the June Days is described in one sentence in which no death totals are given for either side. Even the Vendée rebellion of the 1790s – now a subject of Franco-French acrimony – merits only a couple of paragraphs. In part, this downplaying of violence reflects the author’s continual recourse to abstract agents and reified categories of analysis. After a brief and balanced review of the Vendée question, for instance, Furet concludes: ‘Thus the Terror struck out blindly.’ Again and again, it is society in general, France as a nation, history, the Terror or the Revolution that acts, a class or coalition of classes more rarely. At times the language is almost Hegelian.

This does not mean that there is no place for individuals in Furet’s account. Two kinds of exceptional individual provide the focus for his analysis: those who have power by virtue of their political position (rulers, ministers and party leaders) and those whose significance endures because of the political perspicacity of their writings. Furet offers telling descriptions of those in the first category. Louis XVI, for example, ‘was too serious, too faithful to his duties, too thrifty, too chaste and, in his final hour, too courageous’ to be an ideal monarch during the twilight of royalty. Although his account of Louis is brief, it is certainly vivid – and even Robespierre, derided as the ultimate conformist in Interpreting the French Revolution, is treated with something approaching respect. Sieyès wrote the philosophy of the revolution, Mirabeau understood its inner workings, but only Robespierre, among the three, actually exercised power. In general, Furet prefers political figures who endeavoured to move with the direction of history, not against it. Hence the two Napoleons appear in a much more favourable light than Charles X, who preferred hunting and womanising to ideas and who returned the French monarchy to its daydreams rather than carefully calculating a future direction.

The real heroes of the story are not the rulers or politicians, however, but the thinkers and writers, especially those close enough to affairs to taste the heady wine of power but disabused enough to retain their lucidity. It is Turgot, Sieyès, Constant, de Staël, Royer-Collard, Guizot, Ferry and Gambetta who understood the Revolution’s biggest secrets, its deepest motivating forces: the desire for equality, the hatred for nobility, and the seemingly inescapable connection between radical individualism and administrative dictatorship. In short, Furet’s heroes are those who anticipated or agreed with Tocqueville’s dry-eyed analysis of French society and yet were (in most cases) able to embrace Michelet’s more mystical enthusiasm for what Tocqueville himself called the ‘noble and glorious principles of the Revolution’.

The attention given to the ideas of these astute political commentators is central to Furet’s endeavour to write a narrative history ‘with concepts’. Battles, diplomacy, popular movements and economic trends only appear in these pages when they are absolutely necessary to the plot line. They are downplayed because in Furet’s view they are not critical to the absorption of the Revolutionary legacy. What matters is political philosophy, each society’s attempt at self-reflection and self-understanding. The longest single quotation in the book comes from a speech by Royer-Collard in 1822, in which he explained that ‘the death of the old society’ opened the way to centralisation because the Revolution had ‘left only individuals standing’. Royer-Collard urged freedom of the press as the only means of restoring society ‘to itself’ and combating the pernicious trend towards the re-establishment of absolutism, whether monarchical or republican.

Thus, the real agents of change, according to Furet’s account, were the new ideas working their way into French politics below the surface: in particular, the conceptual legacy left by the Revolution of 1789 – democracy and Terror. De Staël in the 1790s and Ferry in the 1860s, one at the beginning of the process and one near the end, one the famous daughter of a famous father (Necker) and the other the hard-working son of a provincial lawyer and political dissident, both understood the stakes left by the Revolutionary experience: on balance the goals of the Revolution were good, but its means unacceptable. What was needed were the institutional guarantees of constitutionality, the shucking-off of Jacobinism from the republican core, the renunciation of the delusion that politics could reshape society.

This method of stringing together great political minds definitely creates a glittering impression, and it does not preclude a sensitivity to the power of individual decisions or symbolic events. Yet it does leave open many questions about the way history works. The eventual success of the Republic depended not just on Germaine de Staël’s understanding of its necessary preconditions but also on the laborious fulfilment of those preconditions themselves. Furet, who has also written a study of literacy, devotes more time to the inspiration driving new laws on education than to the process of education itself. Industrialisation doesn’t even appear in the index. The vast political refashioning of the urban working classes and eventually of the peasantry goes largely unnoticed and unanalysed. Important recent work on 1848, to take one example, is cited in the bibliography but used in the text only to shore up points about the climate of ideas as it affected the upper classes. Changes in worker organisation, the rise of labour militancy, and the spread of a working-class and artisanal press get short shrift, even though Furet himself admits that at this very moment, ‘the idea of class was permeating national political culture.’ More attention to the fruits of positivist, academic historiography would have pushed this account into very different channels.

Furet has turned Marxist analysis inside out. Change does not occur because one mode of production has grown up inside another one and engendered a new conflict of classes, but rather because one political idea has grown up inside another increasingly outmoded one and fostered the development of a new political system. Thus, the political system of the July Monarchy had been ‘exhausted’ before 1848, and ‘the time had therefore come for a republic.’ Is this any less teleological than the Marxist emphasis on the inevitable rise of new classes? The old political structures, according to Furet, were consumed by their own internal defects rather than undermined by new social or economic developments. The political system consequently seems almost entirely self-enclosed, undone only by its own winding-down. Social developments enter the story only as the independent variable, ‘society’, as Furet’s formulation of the defects of monarchy under the Old Regime: ‘Royalty, which was too modern for what it had preserved and refashioned of the tradition, and too traditional for what it already had in the way of modern administration, tended to turn itself into the scapegoat for an increasingly independent society.’ It is the abstract relationship between a political system and its society that matters, not the concrete interactions between administrators, job seekers, dissidents and social and economic élites. Politics seems more a matter of elaborately choreographed ballets than of messy, rough-and-tumble negotiations.

It is easy to complain about perspectives overlooked in a general history of a century-long development. Despite its relatively narrow purview, Revolutionary France remains an impressive, even dazzling achievement. As usual, François Furet has succeeded at a task too few historians would dream of setting for themselves: showing the enduring and profound underlying significance of a long, volatile political history. Ironically, in its ambition, if not in its content, Furet’s achievement resembles more the work of Christopher Hill on the English Revolution than that of Hill’s neo-positivist critics, who see only isolated events where Hill saw inner meaning and long-term trends. Furet’s broad-stroked political philosophical analysis makes sense of that dizzying French succession of revolutions, coups and constitutions – three republics, two empires, and three monarchies in different styles in just a century – precisely by attaching all this turmoil to one main line of narrative: the taming of the revolutionary tradition. In the end, his message is very upbeat. No matter how long it takes, societies can come to terms with their pasts, choosing to enshrine some principles and discard others. Some may wish to give this a more empirical and pragmatic cast, but Furet’s political-philosophical account has the great merit of showing that ideas can matter, especially when they engage the attention of political élites.