Review: The French Revolution

Review: The French Revolution


Books on the French Revolution would fill a large library, and the history of histories of the Revolution is a fascinating subject in its own right. But in the end, all the multitude of theories about and approaches to the Revolution come down to two: “it was a good thing” and “it was a bad thing”.

Eric Hazan is firmly in the former camp. In his conclusion he writes that he has tried to recapture the “incandescent phase of the Revolution, in which men of government, sometimes followed and sometimes driven forward by the most conscious section of the people, sought to change material inequities, social relations and ways of life”. He urges us to remember and be inspired by “a time when one heard tell that ‘the unfortunate are the powers of the Earth’, that ‘the essence of the Republic or of democracy is equality’, and that ‘the purpose of society is the common happiness’.”

Twenty-five years ago, when the bicentenary of the Revolution coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dominant view of the Revolution was that of the followers of François Furet, who believed that the Revolution had been unnecessary, a deviation from a process of modernisation that was already under way. Hazan quotes with scorn the comment by Furet that “nothing resembled French society under Louis XVI more than French society under Louis-Philippe”. He is, of course, right. One need only look at a few pages of Balzac to see that the France of the 1830s was radically different from that of the 1780s.

Hazan’s work is not based on new archival research; he has drawn on extensive reading of the classic republican historians – Michelet, Jaurès, Mathiez, Lefebvre and Soboul – as well as some of the less orthodox leftists such as Daniel Guérin and Maurice Dommanget, and a good deal of recent research. He has pulled all this together into a rich narrative history of the Revolution, largely a chronological account, but from time to time interrupted by what he calls an “excursus”, in which he comments on or analyses a particular theme or problem. It is written clearly, with a mass of concrete detail, so it would provide a useful introduction for someone unfamiliar with the course of events. Yet those who already know something of the Revolution will find a great many insights and perspectives – some of them controversial – from which they will learn. It deserves a wide readership.

Hazan’s history is openly partisan. He sides with the ideals of the Revolution, and in particular defends some of its most radical personalities – Marat and Robespierre in particular. Of Robespierre he notes that he took positions “against the property restriction on suffrage …. for the civil rights of actors and Jews, against martial law, against slavery in the colonies, against the death penalty, for the rights of petition and the freedom of the press. In what country, and in what assembly, has anyone rowed so consistently against the current, and with such strength of conviction?”

He recognises that the Revolution contained events whose horrific nature was “palpable” – mass shootings in Lyon, drownings in Nantes, executions in Paris – and insists “I have no intention of prettifying this horror”, yet he argues that we generally perceive the Terror in terms of myths that were retrospectively created: “Terror with a capital T is a historically inconsistent notion, and it is an ideological artifice to superimpose a theory of Terror on the events of this time.” But he also recognises that some events, notably the execution of Danton, cannot be justified: “Whatever one thinks of Danton in his last phase, his dodgy friends and his political contortions, the accusation of having been a traitor from the start of the Revolution, and the emergency law voted to stifle his resounding voice, make this one of the blackest moments in the whole history of the Revolution.”

One of the great joys of reading about revolutions is to see how people changed, often in a remarkable short space of time. As we look at the world around us, and observe how the ruling ideas (those of the ruling class), constantly reinforced by the mass media and all the institutions of society, assert their grip on the minds of our fellow-citizens, it is easy to be pessimistic. But the French Revolution, and other such historical moments, reminds us that when people set out to change the world, they rapidly begin to change themselves as well. In 1789 it would have been hard to find anyone in France who favoured the abolition of the monarchy. Less than four years later the King was executed. And though some intellectuals had criticised religion, and the Church had done itself no favours by its endorsement of privilege, France in 1789 was still very much a Christian country. Within five years “dechristianisation” had become a genuine popular movement, and the revolutionary government was actually obliged to limit the movement and bring it under control.

Indeed, it would not be stretching language too far to argue that in the years following 1789 we can observe a process of “permanent revolution” at work. Demands originally formulated by members of the intermediate layers in society rapidly spread to the lower strata of the unpropertied and dispossessed, who wanted to share in the “equality” that was being so much discussed.

One aspect of this was the emergence of the enragés (the mad dogs), who appeared on the far left fringe of the Revolution. Hazan is rather dismissive of the enragés, whom he refers to as the “darlings of today’s far left”, and stresses the limits of their politics and their influence. But he does allow them to speak in their own voice, citing Jacques Roux’s words to the Convention: “Who can believe that the representatives of the French people, who have declared war on tyrants abroad, have been so cowardly as not to crush those at home?”

The enragés had close links with some of the radical groups of women who emerged in the course of the Revolution. The Revolution began with the “Rights of Man”, but women soon began to demand their rights too. Women played an important role in the large demonstrations; and as Hazan points out, women often actually voted in the primary assemblies which elected deputies through a two-tier system. But the radical 1793 Constitution gave the vote only to men (only the followers of Babeuf, a little later, would call for full citizenship for both sexes). And the women’s clubs were closed down. Hazan records the fact, but offers no explanation, leaving us to think that revolutionary men may have been sexist pigs. Perhaps they were, but the real reason was that many of the Parisian revolutionaries were small artisans for whom the family was the unit of production. The craftsman and his apprentices and journeymen often lived under the same roof; the wife was required at home to do the cooking and washing, and could not be allowed to spend her time on politics.

The Revolution did not unfold smoothly in a straight line. Hazan shows us the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows. He shows the interaction and the tension between Paris and the provinces, between town and country, between the National Convention and the streets, between moderates and extremists. Within the revolutionary leadership there were constant conflicts between groups and individuals. Saint-Just (sounding like a Marxist party boss) may have declared that “any faction is criminal, since it tends to divide the citizens”, but divisions and factions constantly recurred.

The strength of Hazan’s account is that it is concrete; he constantly reminds us that the Revolution was made by flesh-and-blood human beings. Thus he describes how, on 14 July 1789 before the storming of the Bastille, the Invalides was seized by “seven or eight thousand unarmed townsmen who emerged furiously from three adjacent streets, and hurled themselves into a ditch twelve feet wide and eight feet deep, which they rapidly crossed by standing on each other’s shoulders”.

Likewise Hazan reminds us that if the Revolution was about lofty ideals like Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, it was also about access to the necessities of life. He records the announcement that “in future the rich will not have their bread made from wheaten flower whilst the poor have theirs made from bran”.

The strength of Hazan’s account is that he lets the revolutionaries speak in their own voices. Thus there are many quotations from the debates in the elected assemblies and from the revolutionary press. The growth of newspapers was one of the most striking features of the Revolution, and it penetrated deep into the population; thus Marat’s paper L’Ami du peuple, “was read in groups by sans-culottes, many of whom were illiterate”. Songs and posters also bore ideas to those who could not read.

The revolutionary press reflected popular language and showed the vigour and self-confidence of ordinary people awakened to political awareness. After the king’s failed attempt to flee from Paris, he was addressed as follows in Hébert’s Le Père Duchesne: “You clapped out hypocrite! Putting me and everyone else in the shit. I knew well enough you were a blockhead, but I didn’t realise you were the biggest scoundrel and most abominable of men!”

Hazan gives us many memorable passages from the rhetoric of the revolutionary years. Thus Robespierre, while defending private property, defined its limits powerfully: “The first social law is therefore the one that guarantees all members of society the means to live; all the others are subordinate to that one; property was only instituted and guaranteed to consolidate it …. Everything essential to conserve life is property common to the whole of society.”

Chaumette, confronted by a crowd demanding bread, climbed on a table and declared: “I have been poor myself, and so I know what the life of the poor is like. We have an open war of the rich against the poor. They want to crush us; all right! We must forestall them, we must crush them ourselves, and we have the strength to do so!”

To listen to the inanities mouthed in our present-day parliaments, and then to walk through the streets of London or Paris and observe the beggars who inhabit them, is to be reminded that the aims of the French Revolution retain their relevance. Hopefully Hazan’s book will be a source of enlightenment and inspiration to those who still want to change the world.

But while I would unreservedly recommend the book, I have a number of criticisms of Hazan’s approach. The first is his rather peremptory dismissal of Marxism. He refers scornfully to “the teachings of barracks Marxism, or ‘proletarian science’: the bourgeoisie, a rising class during the Revolution, destroyed feudalism and established capitalism: it was a progressive element inasmuch as it gave rise to the proletariat, destined to construct a classless society and carry out the great revolution of October 1917.”

Now doubtless there are many Marxist accounts, warped by Stalinism, which deserve Hazan’s mockery. But Marxism cannot be disposed of quite so easily. A rather more sophisticated Marxism can offer many insights into the way the Revolution developed, as Hazan shows by the way he draws on such Marxist historians as Albert Soboul, and, to a lesser extent, Daniel Guérin.

As Hazan notes, by 1791 there was an end to any unity “between the possessor classes and the poor, between those who had come to power on the shoulders of the people and those who had no hesitation in shooting them down”. But would not a Marxist analysis of class struggle be the best way to describe this conflict? In fact Hazan shows quite clearly that there was an emergent working class in the 1790s; he accepts that “the number of wage-earners in the manufactories scattered across Paris has perhaps been underestimated”. If prices, and the need for price control, were a major focus of struggle, wages too were a significant issue, and he records several strikes by workers. In particular he shows that in the summer of 1794 the authorities were taking rigorous measures to control and reduce wages – something that may well have meant that workers did not take action to defend Robespierre when he was overthrown. Saint-Just had warned that wage rises could lead to unemployment: “It is said that the pay of artisans rises with the price of foodstuffs; but if the artisan has no work, who will pay for his idleness?” A similar argument is often deployed in our own time.

Secondly, and as a result, Hazan rejects the classic Marxist explanation of the French Revolution as a “bourgeois revolution”. He argues that the term “bourgeois” was scarcely used in the revolutionary epoch, and deduces from this that: “The bourgeoisie did not exist as class. There were certainly rich and poor, haves and have-nots, but this does not amount to a bourgeoisie and a proletariat. Was the Revolution bourgeois or not? That is a question I refuse to ask, as it basically has no meaning.”

Hazan’s rather brusque dismissal evades some of the central questions at stake. That the bourgeoisie itself did not actually make the Revolution is a fair point – the bourgeoisie is generally quite happy for other people to do its dangerous and dirty jobs. But the result of the Revolution was to create a society in which modern capitalism could develop. In the words of Alex Callinicos: “Bourgeois revolutions must be understood, not as revolutions consciously made by capitalists, but as revolutions which promote capitalism.”[1] Hazan fails to engage with this important debate.

In myriad ways the Revolution helped to form and shape the world we live in today. The revolutionary calendar may be no more than a bit of quaint folklore (workers did not think much of a ten-day week) – but the metric system (to the chagrin of UKIP) has conquered most of the world.

Indeed, it is only by seeing the Revolution as a bourgeois revolution which gave birth to modern capitalism that we can fully evaluate its contradictory legacy. Certainly, as Hazan stresses, the positive values of the Revolution, the search for a fairer and more humane society, must not be forgotten, and many of the democratic institutions we enjoy today have their roots in the French Revolution.

But it is also worth remembering that in 1914, when the European labour movement collapsed into support for the war, French socialists justified their capitulation by claiming that the French republic was the heir of 1789 and was fighting for democratic republican values against German militarism. More recently the secular principles of the French republic, inherited from the Revolution, have been invoked in defence of Islamophobia.

Finally, Hazan ends his story with Thermidor 1794, when Robespierre and the Jacobins were overthrown. Now there is no doubt that this was a significant turning-point, and the end of the most radical phase of the Revolution. (Hence the time wasted by Russian Revolutionaries in the 1920s in a futile debate about the possibility of a “Soviet Thermidor”, when the concept was quite irrelevant to a totally different process.) But it was scarcely the end of the Revolution, which was concluded only when Napoleon came to power (and even he carried forward many important revolutionary changes). Yet Hazan makes it clear in a couple of pages that the story is not worth continuing.

This means there is no discussion of one of the most significant figures of the Revolution, Gracchus Babeuf, who built on the ideas of the Revolution to establish a socialist programme and a socialist organisation. As a recent remarkable study by Jean Marc Schiappa has shown, Babeuf had an extensive national organisation, whose development was intimately tied up with the emerging working class.[2] Yet Hazan gives Babeuf only a few passing mentions and does not deem him worthy of an index entry.

That such gaps and problems remain, even in such a well-researched and honest history of the Revolution, are clear evidence that the French Revolution is not simply a tedious item on a history syllabus; it continues to engage questions that are at the very heart of the world we live in.

[1] Cited by Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago, 2012, p. 477. For a full account of this important debate see pages 428-483 of this book.

[2] Jean Marc Schiappa, Les babouvistes, Saint-Quentin, 2003.

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