Commentary Magazine

Demystifying the French Revolution

On July 14, France will celebrate, with considerable pomp and circumstance, the bicentennial of the French Revolution, or, more precisely, of that revolution’s central symbolic event, the capture of the Bastille fortress and prison by a mob of hungry Parisians looking for bread and guns.

The Bastille represented the authority and repressive power of the government; the victorious mob represented the will and needs of a people determined henceforth to take the fate of the nation into its own hands. Viewed thus, the symbolism is simple and perfect, and that is undoubtedly how it will seem to those participants on the day itself who bother to reflect on what it is they are commemorating. For most, July 14 in Paris, and throughout France, will be a “prodigious feast of national unity and even of chauvinism,” as the historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd told me when I called to ask about preparations for the great day. “The Republic is quite simply extremely popular,” he added. “The Revolution is part of national tradition, and that is what we will be celebrating.”

To illustrate his point, Todd described how the streetcorner boulangers, the little bakers who traditionally support the extreme right wing of French politics, including Robert Le Pen’s xenophobic Front National, have without exception garlanded their shops in tricolors and are offering red, white, and blue gateaux révolutionnaires for sale. “If there were any constituency in this country truly hostile to the revolutionary tradition, that’s where you would expect to find it. The fact is, it isn’t there. Everybody, including the extreme nationalists, loves the Revolution, because it’s become part of the very national tradition that they, in particular, are so obsessed with defending. We’re all going to have a great time on July 14, no matter what the historians say.”

No matter what the historians say: for so far as the historians are concerned, the last twenty years have indeed witnessed a radical revision of the formerly dominant views of the Revolution on which the celebrations on July 14 will still be based.

Thus, with the exception of a small remnant of diehard Marxists, associated, more or less intimately, with the French Communist party, the historians now see the Revolution as a “tragedy,” “overwhelmingly destructive,” the product of “harmful political passions.” Far from representing any sort of an advance in freedom and material life, the Revolution is depicted as having polarized politics, delayed popular sovereignty, and interrupted the course of economic and population growth that France had followed during most of the 18th century. The result, it is said, was a stagnant, class-ridden, divided society, ill-equipped materially and morally to meet the challenges of our own century, specifically the ideological challenge of Marxism-Leninism and the military challenge of Germany.

There is a paradox here, with several aspects. From a historiographical viewpoint the most striking is that the revisionist consensus, which is the result of decades of immense labor by dozens of historians in many countries, appears to confirm in all important respects the verdicts of Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)—less than a year after the fall of the Bastille, and well before the Terror—and of Alexis de Tocqueville in L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856). Add to this the very relevant fact that, with the notable exception of Francois Furet, the pioneers of revisionism have not been French but British and American, since most French historians have until recently been obliged by their political ideology to interpret the Revolution as a triumph of justice and human aspiration.

But (just to complete the paradox) it is precisely that ideology which, as Todd’s remark about the boulangers shows, has now extended to political and social groups in France that once would have openly denounced it. What has happened in French politics in the 1970’s and 1980’s is that the very polarization engendered by the Revolution has itself vanished. Instead of a strictly Stalinist Communist party contesting for power with a Gaullist majority, the 1980’s have seen the collapse of Communism as a political and intellectual factor and the emergence of an unprecedented consensus spanning socialists, liberals, and neo-Gaullists. This consensus needs an unproblematic revolution, which it will duly celebrate starting July 14.



The French Revolution, however one looks at it, remains the seminal event of modern European history, the cataclysm from which all else flows. Consequently, whatever today’s popular mood may be, the radical revision in historiography represents an intellectual and, I would argue, a political fact of no small moment in contemporary European and, indeed, world affairs. How did this dramatic reappraisal come about? What, precisely, was the earlier orthodoxy, and how was it overturned?

To answer those questions the best place to begin is with the events themselves. With the publication of Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution,1 we have available the most devastating, most informative, and most entertaining account, and the most penetrating critique, of the Revolution itself since Tocqueville’s book of more than a century ago. Citizens will surely become the history of the French Revolution for our generation. Not only that: I warrant that Schama’s book will enter the canon of permanent classics, along with the works of Burke, Michelet, Tocqueville, Lefebvre, Cobban, and Furet. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand not only what happened during the Revolution but what those events can tell us about the force of material need, the role of human will, and the power of political passions.

Schama, born in England but now a professor of history at Harvard, has accomplished the near-impossible: he has written a work based on serious, comprehensive scholarship which is yet accessible to the nonspecialist. What is even more extraordinary, he has combined a humane and thorough record of events, both known and hitherto unknown, of public and private lives, of emotions, passions, and judgments, with a profound message of his own about the Revolution; that message reflects and encapsulates the revisionist work of the past few decades without distorting the narrative or prescribing the reader’s evaluation.

Schama starts by telling us that he intends to develop three themes in his book. The first is “the problematic relationship between patriotism and liberty, which, in the Revolution, turns into a brutal competition between the power of the state and the effervescence of politics.” The second is the revolutionary leaders’ conception of the nation as an idealized family, which induced them to view disagreement with particular policies as tantamount to a child’s betrayal of his parents and therefore particularly immoral. The third is “the painful problem of revolutionary violence,” concerning which “historians have erred on the side of squeamishness.” All three themes belong to the realm of ideology, passion, and will: in short, to individual human choice and action—factors largely ignored or denied by the old orthodoxy.

That old orthodoxy consisted of two somewhat incompatible doctrinal ingredients: revolutionary nationalism and Marxist determinism. The former was nothing other than the fundamental belief of the Revolution itself in the nation as the sole political and moral reality, which must be freed of all divisions and hindrances in order to carry out its mission: the political redemption of mankind. This belief justified the Terror of 1792-94, which was held to be necessary to sweep away the debris of the old regime.

The father of modern revolutionary nationalism was Jules Michelet, who wrote his history of the Revolution in 1846-53 to glorify the short-lived Second Republic of 1848-51 and to keep alive revolutionary pride and memories in a time of reaction. No later French historian, not even Furet, has been able or willing wholly to shake off the domination of Michelet, for whom the revolutionaries were always right, whatever their actions, because they were defending the cause of universal freedom and justice, which only evil or ill-informed people could oppose.

Revolutionary nationalism is the basis of the universal popular appeal of the Revolution in France today. As I indicated, this has recently spread further than ever before. Twenty years ago, one could still find a small but sturdy constituency of monarchists in France, some of whom even argued for an alliance of king and wage-earners against bureaucrats and big business, denounced as “new feudalists.” Today, there are few monarchists in France. In Emmanuel Todd’s words: “Of course we had to guillotine the king. It’s quite clear that if you say all men are equal you can’t have an inherited monarchy. The king was an alien element. Everybody agrees on that; it’s part of the republican tradition.”



The socialist leader Jean Jaurés introduced Marxist determinism to revolutionary studies in the 1900’s, when he published a seven-volume history of the Revolution—an extraordinary achievement which, despite its ideological parti pris, reminds one of the level of culture that earlier generations could expect from their political leaders. For Marxists, history necessarily moves in one direction, from primitive Communism through the slave, feudal, and capitalist modes of production. At the end of this final phase, society will be universally divided into a tiny class of capitalists, who own all, and a vast majority of workers, who own nothing but their labor. This polarization then sets the stage for “the expropriation of the expropriators” and the arrival of true Communism, where each will work according to his ability and receive according to his needs.

For the Marxist historians who followed Jaures, all this was not a metaphysical belief but a scientific analysis of history. In their view, the Revolution was essentially a transition from the second, the feudal, to the third, capitalist, mode of production. Norman Hampson, a liberal British historian, has paraphrased the Marxist orthodoxy in these words:

A rising industrial and commercial middle class refused any longer to accept its subordinate status within a society and state whose values and policies reflected the obsolete demands of a decayed “feudal” order. When the French nobility took advantage of the impending bankruptcy of the crown [in 1787-88] to provoke a political crisis, in the hope of winning a conservative constitution like that of Great Britain, the middle class took charge of the movement and converted it into a social revolution. The resistance of the old order, however, was so tenacious that the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” could never have established a society based on legal equality, the sanctity of private property, and the freedom of the market if it had not enlisted [in 1791-92] the support of the sansculottes, whose own objective was social democracy rather than liberalism. The alliance between these two divergent forces could never have been more than temporary. When it broke down, France became ungovernable by processes involving mutual consent, and Napoleon eventually restored the authority of the state, at the price of endorsing the social change brought about by the Revolution.

By the 1920’s, this was the mainstream view of the French historical profession and formed the basic set of ideas underlying all empirical research. In no other democratic nation has a Marxist interpretation of the central event of the national history had such power and influence. The reason was that Marxism appeared to confirm that the Revolution, with all its drama and violence, accorded with the laws of historical development.

The “scientific” justification of revolutionary nationalism was elaborated in a series of seminal works of the 20’s and 30’s by Albert Mathiez and Georges Lefebvre, both of whom (like all architects of the old orthodoxy from Michelet on) worshipped Robespierre, the uncrowned king of the Jacobins and virtual dictator of France in 1793-94.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, three younger historians, George Rudé, Albert Soboul, and Michel Vovelle took over and modernized the interpretative scheme established by Mathiez and Lefebvre. All three were or are Communist-party members and identify closely with the cause of Marxist-Leninist revolution throughout the world. Of the three, Rude, who recently published what will probably be the last full statement of the old orthodoxy, is the odd man out.2 Despite his name, he is not French but British, and was therefore faced early in his career with an academic environment where the standard view of the Revolution was diametrically opposed to the one dominant in France, and where his Communist-party membership reportedly caused him some trouble in getting a university appointment (he eventually went to work in Canada). Soboul and Vovelle, for their part, introduced into the old scheme the postwar disciplines of social history and history of mentalités (culture and popular attitudes), which enabled them to step away from the revolutionary events themselves to explore popular attitudes and the psychology of social groups. This turn away from politics gave the old orthodoxy a new lease on life, even as historians elsewhere were showing it to be untenable.



It is a lamentable illustration of the parochialism of historians that the attack on the Marxist interpretation, which was largely the work of Alfred Cobban and other British (and American) historians of the 1960’s, did not penetrate to France until the mid-1980’s. For twenty years from the mid-1960’s on, virtually the sole authoritative French voice critical of the Lefebvre-Soboul orthodoxy was that of Francois Furet. This isolation has had the paradoxical result of leaving Furet today as France’s undisputed leader among historians of the Revolution, since he is the only figure of stature with a consistent record in support of the revisionist interpretation that is now victorious.

Furet began his career in the Annales school with its antipolitical focus on the secular trends of large-scale economic movements, popular attitudes, and permanent or very slow-changing geographic and climatic factors. But in 1965 he published, with Denis Richet, a history of the Revolution that enraged the Marxist-Leninists, and in 1978 he committed further sacrilege in a series of essays denouncing the orthodoxy as both oppressive and misleading. Furet found the keys to a proper understanding in two thinkers whom the orthodoxy had totally spurned: Tocqueville, who saw the Revolution as a violent continuation of the centralization of power that was already occurring under the old regime, and Augustin Cochin (1876-1917), who located the causes of the Jacobin mentality in the pre-revolutionary literary and political debating clubs known as sociétés de pensée.

By the late 1980’s, Furet had emerged as the champion of what he called the conceptual, as opposed to the “commemorative,” interpretation of the Revolution, which he described most recently in a lavishly illustrated history of France from 1770 to 1880.3 In this summary of his work and reflections to date, Furet, in an elegant balancing act, manages at one and the same time to justify and preserve revolutionary nationalism as a source of pride while not in any way concealing his judgment that the Revolution of 1788-99 itself was a destructive, violent, and largely harmful episode that did little to further French democracy in the long run. Like Schama’s new book, Furet’s work will stand as a monument to the political interpretation of the Revolution as the result of men’s will and actions, not of metaphysical forces beyond their control.

With the exception of Rude, few Anglo-Saxon historians of the Revolution ever fully endorsed the Marxist orthodoxy. Some, like Hampson or, in an older generation, the American Robert Palmer, have accepted the basic tenet of revolutionary nationalism, namely, that radical change was both necessary and beneficial in 1789-91. Typical is Hampson’s conclusion to his latest book, a study of “the Constituent Assembly and the failure of consensus” in 1789-91.4 He points to “the almost incredible achievements of that Assembly which transformed virtually all of France’s institutions and created, not merely a new society, but new ways of looking at man as a social animal and new ideas about the scope of political action. . . . France was transformed, in a way that many, probably most, of its educated citizens passionately believed to be for the better.” Nor, in Hampson’s view, was the Terror inevitable; rather, it was caused by the emergency resulting from the foreign invasion of 1792 which to those in power made extreme measures seem acceptable and even proper.

The key to Hampson’s outlook is his conclusion that “it was the height of their aspirations that led men to perceive their opponents as the incarnation of evil and thereby gave the Revolution its tragic dimension. If the Assembly failed its impossible task of effecting national regeneration by consent, this was due to what was best, much more than to what was worst in it.” Schama, as we shall see, shows that this benign view of the early stages of the Revolution cannot be justified. As Cochin long ago suggested, violence and terror were inseparable from the entire project of universal national regeneration according to an ideological scheme.



The actual work of undermining the Marxist orthodoxy was the achievement of Alfred Cobban. In typical British style, he demolished the premises underlying half a century of French scholarship, represented in thousands of dense pages, in a brief lecture series in 1962, later published as The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution.5 Cobban was able to show that the notion of a bourgeois class overthrowing a feudal class in order to promote capitalism found no support in the sources. The revolutionaries of 1789 were not capitalists, but mainly lawyers and officeholders anxious about their status in a period of economic crisis and recession. These activists, who formed the bulk of the Constituent Assembly, were “forced to destroy what was called feudalism against their will, under peasant pressure. The Revolution was also a clash of country against town, and poor against rich, and in the end proved economically retarding and a triumph for the conservative, landowning classes.”

Cobban’s analysis raised some very intriguing questions. Unfortunately he himself did not go beyond social and economic questions, and hence produced what Hampson has called an anti-Marxist but still essentially economic and deterministic interpretation. Neither Cobban nor the Marxists had much use for a true political or ideological interpretation, one that would emphasize the role of the Enlightenment and of the faith in rational social organization, and which would see the Revolution as primarily a political event.



This brings us back, at last, to Schama. For him the Revolution was not predestined, either in Marxist or in any other terms. Each of its stages issued, rather, from the deliberate actions and plans of leading individuals of the time. Politics and ideology, not social or economic structures, are the decisive features. Schama justifies this argument in part by his method. He begins every chapter with some characteristic anecdote, some event in an individual life, that illustrates the developing dialectic of liberty and coercion, from the institutional reforms of 1789 to the Terror of 1793-94.

What did the revolutionary leaders want? Schama argues that nationalism, more than anything else, was the ideological binding glue that held together progressive aristocrats, radical priests, and lawyers and journalists, the group that Cobban marked as the pivot of revolutionary activism. What, then, was nationalism in France of the 1780’s? According to Schama, literate Frenchmen of all orders and social groups had suffered profoundly from the British victory in the Seven Years’ War (known to Americans as the French and Indian War). The French defeat came as a shock to people who believed that France, by far the largest and richest country in Europe, could not possibly be number two in any international contest. The flip side of anti-British resentment was a growing demand that France, as it were, pull itself together, rise as a united nation, and take revenge for past insults and defeats. This burgeoning nationalism spurred the French intervention in the American Revolution; but that was not enough.

Perhaps the most original contribution of Schama’s book to revolutionary studies has to do with the extent of nationalist feeling that he finds years, even decades, before 1789. As far back as the 1730’s, the Marquis d’Argenson wrote a treatise on how France should be governed which accurately anticipated many of the ideas of 1789—above all, the two ideas that national glory requires unity and an end to the administrative chaos of the old regime as well as some form of national, popular representation. In the late 1750’s, the Abbé Mably denounced the existing structures of government and administration as archaic and inappropriate, and recommended a system of popular representation to sweep away the irrational debris of centuries and to establish true national government. With uncanny foresight, he predicted that such a radical transformation of government could only occur after a period of “spiritual ferment” that might well result in violence and civil war.

One aspect that Schama does not emphasize enough, in my opinion, is the role of religion in the rise of French nationalism. French Catholicism had always had a strongly separatist tinge. In the Middle Ages, French kings repeatedly refused to bow to the Pope’s jurisdiction in ecclesiastical affairs. During one of these controversies, Philip the Fair in 1303 even went so far as to have Pope Boniface VIII arrested, in a curious anticipation of what the revolutionary government did to Pius VI in 1797. In later centuries, this belief in a special status for the French Church became known as “Gallicanism,” which the Popes resented without being able to do much about it.

In the 17th century, Gallicanism received a powerful boost from Jansenism, the puritan movement which condemned the morals and the intellectual repression of the institutional Church. By the mid-18th century Jansenism had become part of the belief of many French Catholics that they were somehow special, and superior to the general run of their co-religionists. This emerging religious nationalism fed into and strengthened the political nationalism that Schama detects after 1763.

In the 1780’s, the nationalists found a further cause of urgency in the lamentable economic situation of the government. By late 1786, the French state was bankrupt. The nationalist or, to use the contemporary phrase, the patriotic solution to the problem was to establish a national representative body that would reform the administration and replace royal absolutism with popular sovereignty. By late 1788, the king, Louis XVI, had been persuaded to summon the only representative bodies known in French tradition, namely, the Estates General, which had last met in 1614.



No sooner had the Estates been convened in early 1789 than the Third Estate, representing the commoners, declared itself the embodiment of the national will and changed its name to the National Assembly. The Assembly invited progressive nobles and clergymen to join it, and proceeded, in a series of measures in 1789- 90, to abolish all inherited social and economic rights and privileges, to disestablish the Church, and to introduce civil and political rights for all citizens.

So far, so good. Schama points out, however, that the prestige and power of the Assembly depended not merely on rational consent but on a fateful change in the patriotic ideology that inspired its leaders, a change that he argues was inherent in its universalist logic. The patriots wanted total change and they wanted it immediately. As Edmund Burke clearly saw in 1790, this was a grotesque, even inhuman, demand, since it implied the wholesale destruction of all traditions, whether good or bad. Moreover, the patriot lawmakers were a small minority of intellectual activists in an overwhelmingly agrarian country, most of whose inhabitants wanted simply a solution to the serious economic crisis. The harvest of 1788 had failed, the price of bread skyrocketed; hunger and misery were widespread in the spring of 1789. This was the immediate cause of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, which dramatically illustrated what could be done with half-armed Parisian mobs, a lesson not lost on the more radical activists.

Schama argues that even as early as 1788 it was clear that the patriot program was going to lead to bloodshed, violence, and civil war. The reason was that the very absolutism of the ideologues of national regeneration necessarily led them to regard any and all opponents as unpatriotic and therefore as “enemies of the people”:

Once aristocrat became synonymous with anti-national, it meant that anyone who wished to preserve distinctions of rank in the political bodies of the new order identified himself as incapable of citizenship. Such people were, in effect, outside the Nation, foreigners even before they had emigrated.

According to Schama, the “sentimental panaceas” of patriotic rhetoric led to violent conflict because they created entirely unrealistic expectations while at the same time labeling all opponents as vicious, immoral enemies who, for narrow, egotistical reasons, were preventing universal happiness. The ideologues told the nation that the Assembly would, by some magical process, solve all problems and grievances. When this did not happen, the activists found enough support in marginal groups threatened by economic disaster to provide the physical means of civil war—a moralistic civil war, to be sure, fought on behalf of the People against its enemies.

The phrase “sentimental panaceas” raises the question of the revolutionary temperament, the outlook of those who could believe that destroying all existing institutions to create a perfect new political society was either possible or desirable. Schama is not alone in pointing to Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the ancestor of this particular form of sentimental terrorism. Certainly, as Schama is careful to note, Rousseau himself warned that instituting a republic of “virtue”—a key revolutionary term—in a great, existing state was to invite disaster. In 1789, however, Rousseau had been dead for eleven years and the point was not what he had actually said but his prestige among radical intellectuals. Their rhetoric, as Schama notes, was “Rousseau with a hoarse voice and sharpened with bloody-minded impatience.” From this crude version of Rousseau the intellectuals devised the notion that virtue (vertu) could and must be institutionalized, and that doing so would bring about national regeneration.

Schama shows that the “direct relationship between blood and freedom” (in the ideologues’ sense) was clear, not, as Hampson would have it, in 1793, but already in 1789. “From the first year it was apparent that violence was not just an unfortunate side-effect from which enlightened Patriots could selectively avert their eyes; it was the Revolution’s source of collective energy. It was what made the Revolution revolutionary.”



It would be hard to imagine a more direct challenge either to the Marxist orthodoxy of collective factors operating beyond human will or to Hampson’s benevolent liberalism. Yet Schama carries it off, above all by his extensive and cogent quotations from major or minor actors of the drama. His thousand pages are not a political tract or an argument with rival interpretations; he has no time for that, so concerned is he to report what people actually did and said. Nevertheless the fundamental message is clear. The Revolution, so far from producing liberty and democracy, was fated by its fundamental ideology to produce confrontation and civil war. Since, given human nature, the project of total renewal could not be carried out, it led necessarily to intolerance and repression of a particularly vicious kind, in which opponents were not merely adversaries to be convinced or restrained, but evil forces to be eradicated.

In a critique of Schama’s book, Hampson has argued that Schama ignores the ideology of the revolutionaries. This is hardly the case, as I have indicated; Schama makes that ideology clear in ways that few, except for Tocqueville, have done. But two other critical points are more relevant. One is that Schama spends so much time describing and analyzing the pre-revolution of 1774-89 that, despite his thousand pages, he has too little space for the period from the end of the Constituent Assembly in late 1791 to the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Jacobin Terror in 1794. A second is that Schama offers so much that an unprepared reader may indeed miss the forest for the trees. What we need to complement Schama is a bare-bones history of the revolutionary events combined with a philosophical interpretation, something like a French equivalent of Martin Malia’s extraordinary little volume on the Russian Revolution.6 In barely 100 pages, Malia shows what made the Russian Revolution inevitable, what happened during it, and why its results were as they are.

Applying Malia’s method to France, one can immediately see certain striking analogies to the Russian case as well as equally important differences. The biggest difference is that, however bloody the Jacobin Terror, it came nowhere near destroying French civil society as the Bolsheviks, aided by the famine they caused, destroyed Russian civil society in 1918-21. France survived, recovered, and eventually found its way to a democratic system that honors the revolutionary tradition while in fact having very little in common with the revolutionary ideology.

The analogies may be more important. Both revolutions had absolute goals, which naturally entailed the absolute eradication of the enemies, real or imagined, of these goals. Both saw in national uniformity the key to power and survival. For both, foreign war and expansion were a necessary complement to national, domestic revolution. Both, in accordance with this doctrine, brought untold and entirely unnecessary misery to millions of Europeans, as well as inflicting terrible damage on their homelands. Both, finally, were, as Schama notes in the French case, “anti-modernizing”; they retarded rather than accelerated the movement of their respective political cultures toward democratic pluralism, tolerance, and government by genuine popular sovereignty.



The Marxists, of course, long ago decided on the answer to the question of whether the Revolution was modernizing, and how. Cobban proved them wrong but had no positive scheme of his own to put in the Marxist place, since he still believed in a social, not a political, explanation. A few years after Cobban wrote his debunking book, an American historian, Edward Whiting Fox, came up with a general interpretation of French history that, combined with Cobban, may offer some interesting pointers to what happened during the Revolution.7 Curiously, Schama neglects this work, though it provides useful support for his thesis that the Revolution was “anti-modernizing.”

Fox believes that French history can be interpreted as a secular struggle between what he calls “areal” and “linear” forms of organization. The areal is the organization of the territorial state, based on control, direct or indirect, of land. Linear organization is the network of commercial and financial interest which, in 18th-century France, spanned the Atlantic seaboard from Bordeaux in the south to Calais in the north, and the Rhine and Rhone valleys. The champions of areal organization and of the territorial state were by definition conservative, seeking to include and control the commercial cities in order to tax and exploit them. The merchants and financiers of the linear system, on the other hand, were by definition liberal, interested in withdrawing as much as possible from areal control and in resisting the encroachments of the state.

Ironically, a Marxist would find it very easy to apply Fox’s scheme to the Revolution. What happened, he would say, was that the linear people rose against the encrusted stagnation of the areal system, thus producing 19th-century French capitalism. The only problem with this neat solution is that we know, thanks to Cobban, that it is the exact reverse of the truth: the Revolution was in fact a tremendous victory for the arealists and a complete defeat for the linear, commercial culture. Cobban, and after him many others, have noted that French commerce was ruined by the Revolution and the wars that followed. French foreign trade in 1815 was a fraction of what it had been in 1789; Bordeaux, Brest, Le Havre, Calais, Strasbourg, and the other trading cities were shells of their former selves. The question one must ask is: was this ruination deliberate, and if so, why was it done?

Schama and Cobban together can provide the answer. As I indicated above, Cobban points out that the revolutionary leaders were radical lawyers and officeholders fearful of losing status. So they climbed on board a rising wave of nationalist ideology which they then used to launch an unprecedented centralization of authority and coercive force. What do the radical measures of 1789—the abolition of the orders, of feudal privileges, of the established Church, of inherited distinctions—all mean? If we peel away the patriotic varnish that Hampson and other liberals are so concerned to refresh, what they mean is a demolition of all traditional, local political cultures, and of all other institutional and psychological obstacles to uniform national power, centrally located in the Assembly and, later, the Convention.

This is what Tocqueville clearly saw in the 1850’s. He did not see what more recent histories can tell us, namely, that this centralization was not only brutal and violent, but viciously regressive from the viewpoint of economic and political modernization. Thanks exclusively to the activity of the patriots—or should we call them arealists?—Frenchmen in general were vastly poorer and arguably less free in 1793 than they had been in 1788.



This Cobban-Fox-Schama interpretation carries some powerful lessons for today. One is that it is naive to think that commercial capitalism, just because it produces economic growth, is politically destined to defeat areal power on a national or global scale. Many people today believe, not only that the cold war between Western democracy and Communist totalitarianism is over, but that Western-style liberal capitalism is necessarily the coming thing. Certainly it would be pleasant if that were the case, but the French Revolution shows that determined arealists are closer to the levers of power, and that they will not hesitate to use them.

This consideration seems to me to have no small relevance for how we evaluate the modern fate of the Russian Revolution as symbolized in the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union. The Russian revolutionaries were, in Fox’s term, arealists. In their ideology there was no place for capitalist development, which they accordingly proceeded to crush so effectively in Russia that many parts of that vast country are materially worse off today than they were in 1913. Now Gorbachev’s strategy appears to be one of reinforcing areal control of the Soviet Union. In carrying out that strategy, he will not be impressed by arguments that linear capitalism is the wave of the future. Real history has no place for such a determinism, which is merely the mirror image of Marxism. Linear-style capitalist organization can win if it is backed by more resolution and a stronger will than its enemies. If not, it loses. So it was in 1789, and so it is in 1989.

One riddle perhaps remains. How could the Enlightenment ideals of liberal progress, toleration, and individual rights become the justification of mass murder and repression in the name of the People and vertu? After reading Schama, one realizes that this is not a riddle at all. Nothing is easier than perverting an ideal into the tool of repressive power while retaining the original slogans. Surely the history of Soviet Communism has taught us that. If we need examples closer to home, we need look merely at the striking transformation in the meaning of liberalism in the United States over the past two-and-a-half decades. At the time of the original Civil Rights Act of 1964, equal rights meant equal rights, not equality of result. Nevertheless, today’s administrators, lawyers, and bureaucrats have no trouble interpreting earlier doctrines according to an entirely different agenda, one of increasing regulation and control in the name of group rights.

These lawyers and bureaucrats, members of what some sociologists have called the “New Class,” are the social and intellectual analogues of the French activists of 1789. This is not, of course, to say that they have hidden plans for a Jacobin Terror to eradicate capitalism and political liberty in America. It is, however, to say that in this country we have a conflict of political cultures wherein the forces of regulation have managed to seize the moral and ideological high ground in ways not wholly dissimilar to the methods of the patriotes vis-à-vis well-meaning liberals in 1789-91. The leaders of these forces in America are using our contemporary sansculottes—the radicalized leadership of the urban minorities—as battering rams in their strategy of control, offering them power and jobs in return for loyalty and support. The results of this strategy are already evident in our stagnating economic productivity, the catastrophic condition of our schools, the lack of standards and professionalism in higher education, and in the growing calls for government policies in a variety of areas formerly considered to lie within the domain of individual responsibility.



If schama’s magnificent book teaches us anything, it is that people suffer when individuals with power and responsibility let their political fantasies get the better of their understanding of reality. Robespierre was a liberal in 1789 and a terrorist for vertu in 1794. But Schama may also inspire us to hope that such a process is not inevitable. The experience of mankind since 1789 directs us to value democratic institutions where they exist, and to fear those who would have us reject or undermine them in the name of a more “just” or “equitable” distribution of resources or of power.




1 Knopf, 950 pp., $29.95.

2 The French Revolution, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 224 pp., $19.95.

3 La Revolution 1770-1880: Volume 4 of Histoire de France by various authors, Hachette (Paris).

4 Prelude to Terror, Blackwell, 200 pp., $29.95.

5 Cambridge University Press, 1964.

6 Comprendre la révolution russe, Seuil (Paris), 1980.

7 History in Geographic Perspective, Norton, 1971 (available in paperback).

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