Revolutionary Yoke

William Doyle

  • The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism 1680-1800 by David A. Bell
    Harvard, 304 pp, £30.95, November 2001, ISBN 0 674 00447 7

Recording the moment Samuel Johnson startled his friends in 1775 by declaring patriotism to be the ‘last refuge of a scoundrel’, Boswell felt that the definition needed to be glossed. Johnson ‘did not mean’, he assured readers, ‘a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest’. Europe, in that case, was a rascally place indeed. In Johnson’s England ambitious politicians had been cloaking themselves in patriotism since the 1730s, and George III himself had begun his reign glorying in the name of Briton. Across the Irish Sea, the legislative hegemony of Westminster over Dublin was stridently denounced by self-styled Irish patriots, some of whom, such as Henry Flood, dreamed of forcing themselves into office thereby. Within a few years, the Dutch Republic would take up arms against the Prince of Orange, and these resisters, too, called themselves ‘patriots’. They were copied in the late 1780s by Belgians revolting against the headlong rationalisations of Joseph II. By then Poland was seething with patriotic indignation at the way foreigners had sliced off portions of its historic territory under a Russian-imposed King. And France, even as Johnson spoke, was still echoing with applause at the return from exile of the magistrates of the parlements on the accession of Louis XVI, an event hailed by their supporters as a patriotic triumph. By 1789 the word ‘patriotic’ in France was practically a synonym for ‘revolutionary’. Johnson, if he had lived to see it, would certainly have felt his definition vindicated.

Johnson’s famous put-down reflected the anger and disgust of an establishment man that those who had appropriated patriotism most successfully in his lifetime were not the powers that be – the Court and Government – but their opponents. All these self-styled European patriots claimed to love their countries more than those formally in charge of their destinies did, and to have programmes and ideas more likely to promote their countries’ good than those of their rulers. And it is true that the trigger for patriotic clamour was often a military defeat or a government failure. Yet when the patriots got their chance to run affairs the outcome was scarcely reassuring. Before the century was out, the dreams of Irish, Dutch, Belgian and Polish patriots had become nightmares. Only in two countries could patriotism be said to have succeeded. One was Britain, where, no doubt to the satisfaction and relief of Johnson’s unquiet shade, the established order had reclaimed it and outlawed opponents as virtual traitors or upstarts. The other was France.

The process by which British patriotism became a resource of government rather than opposition was memorably analysed ten years ago by Linda Colley in Britons. David Bell, a colleague of Colley when she was writing that book, now offers a parallel analysis of the French case. It has often been claimed that the French Revolution invented nationalism. Bell goes further, arguing that although the Revolution did indeed astonish the world with a national militancy more vigorous than any seen before, the form its nationalism took was of a very distinctive sort, and can be understood only in the context of the preceding century. Claims to patriotism had played a very important part in France, especially after the mid-century defeats at the hands of the Prussians and the British. Sentiment was focused on the martyrs of the Seven Years War, such as Montcalm (depicted dying on the dust-jacket) and the less well-remembered (but equally famous at the time) Jumonville, killed in 1754, even before war was declared, by a young British officer called George Washington. Just as British identity was forged in contrast to a hostile image of the French, so the French over the period of the ‘Second Hundred Years War’ increasingly came to define themselves in terms of how they differed from their barbaric, perfidious, heretical, greedy and money-grubbing neighbours across the Channel. The French regime made determined efforts to direct patriotic outrage against the uncouth islanders. It encouraged literary and dramatic effusions, such as Belloy’s famous Anglophobe epic, The Siege of Calais, the theatrical sensation of 1765. It commissioned works of art commemorating the deeds of ancestral heroes and heroines – Joan of Arc, Duguesclin, Bayard.

Yet by then the regime was already in trouble, having been blamed for the national defeats; in any case, Bell argues, highlighting the bravery of non-royal heroes had a negative effect on the King’s image as a promoter of patriotism. Commemoration of national worthies culminated in 1791 in the establishment of the Panthéon, whose first permanent inhabitant was a writer (Voltaire) and where no King rests to this day. The cult of great men, in fact, is claimed by Bell as inherently republican – though this might come as a surprise to anyone who has been inside Westminster Abbey.

Bell argues that the outcome of the literary debate spanning the later 18th century on the French national character was also republican. This debate is a topic which modern historians have instinctively avoided, seeing it as a quagmire of untestable speculation. No such inhibitions constrained the subjects of Louis XV and Louis XVI. In one sense the whole of later 18th-century discussion of public affairs was essentially a debate about Montesquieu; certainly his claim that every type of government had a ‘spirit’ launched a thousand hares. Honour, he wrote, was the spirit of monarchies, whereas virtue (which he defined as love of country) was only to be found in republics. Did that mean the French were not virtuous? Many were prepared to lament that they were not. Foreigners habitually saw them as sociable, polished, polite, but inclined to frivolity and (summing it all up) light; writers who disliked this image sought ways of explaining how it had come to be accepted, in the hope of changing it. It was not the French as a whole who were like that, they argued, but only French high society, and above all the people at Court. It was all the fault of the monarchy which – in a Gallic equivalent of the idea of the ‘Norman Yoke’ so popular among British radicals – had effaced an older, graver and more rugged, but above all more authentic French character. This fitted in very well with Rousseau’s contention that primitive human goodness had been corrupted by the advance of so-called civilisation. Perhaps, it was implied, the true French character could not manifest itself and flourish under the monarchy. Before 1789 this viewpoint fuelled defiance of monarchical ‘despotism’. Later, it was easy to square it with having no monarch at all.

At the heart of Bell’s argument lies a paradox. The French were, quite self-consciously, one of the longest-established nations in Europe. And yet the men and women of 1789 did not believe that as yet this nation had a patrie. Only with the Revolution did the French, as Edmund Burke put it to the Irish patriots in 1782, ‘begin to have a country’. They saw the task of the Revolution as regenerating, building the nation afresh, to make the French worthy of it. Beneficiaries of the collapse of a centuries-old former regime, they could hardly think otherwise or desire anything else. But when he came to write Reflections on the Revolution in France Burke was wrong to accuse the French of throwing away all that belonged to them. Bell convincingly shows that the new edifice was built, not necessarily with very old bricks, but certainly with used ones.

French Revolutionary nationalism was more than a matter of self-image. It was a creed, a faith, a secular religion. It is scarcely a coincidence that the two Revolutionaries whom Bell picks out as spokesmen for the new nationalism, Rabaut de Saint-Etienne and Grégoire, were both in Holy Orders. Tocqueville (to whom historians of this period find themselves coming back again and again) long ago observed that the ostensibly political French Revolution operated more like a religious one. Although Bell’s argument is not a simple reprise of Tocqueville, the importance of religion is central to it. In this way, it is representative of current historical thinking about the 18th century, which has religious preoccupations resurfacing everywhere. Revolutionised French citizens did not just love their patrie. They worshipped it, to the exclusion of all other allegiances. And like any other messianic religion, the cult of the nation could not be expected or even allowed to spread by osmosis. It needed to be inculcated, and constantly sustained, by proselytism. Rabaut argued that a truly national system of education was needed, and the system he proposed was clearly modelled on the indoctrination practised by the Catholic, far more than his own Protestant, Church. Priests, ‘with their catechisms, their processions . . . their ceremonies, sermons, hymns, missions, pilgrimages, patron saints, paintings, and all that nature placed at their disposal’, had shown the way. Grégoire, meanwhile, believed that the nation would never be properly united unless all its members spoke the same language. After circularising parish priests (who else?) for information on France’s linguistic diversity, he elaborated plans to suppress it. In 1793 and 1794, as Counter-Revolutionary revolts broke out in regions where French was not spoken, the Committee of Public Safety threw its weight behind Grégoire’s efforts in what has sometimes been called the ‘linguistic terror’. As with every other aspect of reformed France, language had to be made uniform. The prestige of that language would be central to the character of French nationalism throughout the next two centuries.

That most of the French did not speak French before recent times is now a common textbook assertion. In Brittany, Alsace, Flanders, Roussillon and the Basque country, linguistic difference was obvious. One wonders, however, whether it was so obvious to patois speakers, even in Occitania, south of the Massif. The dialect of the Yorkshire village where I was born was incomprehensible to people from outside the county, but nobody who spoke it thought it was not English. It ought to be clearer than it is that language is an issue subject to political appropriation. Bell’s own position is ambiguous. Early on he prints a linguistic map of France which makes it look like a Babel of mutual incomprehension. Later he commends the lost qualities of the Toulousan poet Pèire Godolin, who wrote in Occitan rather than French. But later still he concedes that the linguistic problem might have been an invention of Revolutionaries pursuing their own vision of the nation, rather than a reflection of genuine linguistic difficulties. It is to be hoped that his doubts about whether there was a problem at all will spread before long to other interpreters of French history and culture, who ever since Braudel have been too inclined to describe the country as more diverse than it actually is or was.

The cultural origins of the late 20th-century obsession with French diversity are worth investigating in themselves. Is it simply a new form of nationalism to claim that France is uniquely diverse? If so, this would challenge Bell’s contention, in a frankly speculative conclusion, that French nationalism has run its course. With the disappearance of a peasantry in need of constant civic instruction, the loss of an overseas empire, and the rise of mass immigration, he believes that the soil in which French republican nationalism put down such strong roots has been eroded. Even the Catholic Right against which this nationalism defined itself after 1791 has largely disappeared following the ignominious episode of Vichy; and the engine of its propagation, the education system, has lost its unitary focus since the events of 1968. Underlying it all, he argues, is the wider secularisation of the West, in which even substitute religions such as nationalism find it hard to flourish. National identity and national character will survive, he declares, ‘not as a field of homogeneity, but as a site of exchange, where different cultures meet and mix, in constant movement’. It all sounds somewhat like the cosmopolitanism of the Ancien Régime that Revolutionary nationalists were so determined to bury. Perhaps it is not so much French nationalism that has no future, but the Revolution that facilitated its emergence in so distinctive a form. Perhaps some older French identity is only now shaking itself loose from the Revolutionary ‘yoke’.

Bell acknowledges the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in history writing and shares the fundamental assumption of those whose approach to the French Revolution is governed by the idea that things happened only when they became ‘thinkable’. And yet the Revolution was full of examples of utterly unthinkable accidents which then conditioned what happened and dictated what people thought. I suspect, however, that he is rather less committed to the cultural turn than he admits. On the same page he both declares Revolutionary radicalism to have been made thinkable by cultural shifts and recognises that before 1789 the monarchy was far from having been ‘desacralised’ in the way so often claimed. And he certainly has not succumbed to the fashion for tortuous, obscure and pretentious language. He writes simply and accessibly, even when invoking authors notoriously freighted with jargon. Behind a determination to keep in touch with the current culturalist fashion there remains David Bell the assured empiricist.