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The World Turned Upside Down

Hugh Gough

Revolutionary Ideas. An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre, by Jonathan Israel, Princeton University Press, 888 pp, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0691151724

Anyone looking for a neat explanation of the French revolutionary terror faces the problem of choice. Since the collapse of Jacobin rule after Robespierre’s execution in Thermidor Year II, debate has raged over how an event that began with the promise of liberty and fraternity degenerated so rapidly into fifteen months of mass imprisonment and death. During 1793 and 1794 around three hundred thousand people were jailed, many of them dying from disease and neglect, a further seventeen thousand were guillotined or shot and a quarter of a million killed in civil wars, of which the Vendée was by far the most deadly. After Thermidor the revolution’s opponents argued that terror on such a scale was inherent in the entire revolutionary project from the outset, part of a “genetic code” of violence and intolerance deeply embedded in the revolutionary gene. The revolution’s supporters, on the other hand, defended terror as the product of difficult circumstances, a regrettable but necessary expedient to combat the threats posed to the republic by civil war and military invasion.

Each side, in other words, blamed the other back then and have continued to do so ever since, taking up entrenched positions that have dominated historians’ and the public’s attitudes for over two hundred years. Along the way new avenues of interpretation have widened the argument, bringing on board issues such as social conflict and food shortage, the importance of Enlightenment thought, changes in sensibility, the influence of personality and even the serendipity of sheer accident. Yet the basic divide has remained and, with the shift towards liberalism and democracy in European politics during the nineteenth century, the dominant interpretation has usually been that of the revolution’s supporters, the argument of legitimate defence. Over time too that argument has been given a veneer composed of a mixture of democratic republicanism and Marxist determinism. French republicans, almost permanently in power from the 1870s onwards, long viewed the revolution as the source of their democratic system. As a result they defended much of the terror as a justifiable tactic to preserve the first republic from counter-revolution, with the notable exception of the Great Terror of the summer of 1794, when the guillotine in Paris was decapitating over thirty victims a day. Danton rather than Robespierre was their hero and the massive bronze sculpture that looms over commuters and tourists emerging from the Paris metro at Odéon dates back to1891 when the centenary of the revolution was being marked. Robespierre on the other hand, held responsible for the Great Terror, has only a modest metro station and a street in the working class suburb of Montreuil, along with an array of busts, plaques and street names in a few provincial towns. After the Russian revolution of 1917 a social veneer was added, bringing out the role played in the revolution by the rural and urban poor. Albert Mathiez and Georges Lefebvre traced the impact of food shortages and social protest and Mathiez in particular argued that the terror was largely driven by pressure on the Jacobin governing elite from urban labourers and artisans – the sans-culottes – who demanded economic controls to stabilise food price and terror to punish counter-revolution. One of Lefebvre’s students, Albert Soboul, later published a history of sans-culotte activity in Paris during the terror which traced in minute detail their mobilisation, mentality and motives.

The decline of communism in the 1960s dented this Marxist-republican synthesis and in the following decade François Furet savaged it, presenting an alternative approach based on political culture. Furet downplayed the role of social factors and rejected the argument of legitimate defence, viewing the terror instead as a logical consequence of the ancien regime tradition of political intolerance and of the influence of Rousseau, whose theory of the “general will” rejected pluralism. He argued that the potential for terror was embedded in revolutionary ideology as early as 1789, but that it only developed its full potential in 1793-4. His “revisionism” was bitterly contested when it first appeared but quickly became the new vulgate on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s, causing bitter divisions when the bicentenary of the revolution was celebrated – under a socialist president – in 1989. However, since then many of the revisionist arguments have themselves been progressively dismantled and the search for a consensus continues.

Jonathan Israel’s book is the latest to attempt to establish one. Israel has already gained admiration and respect for several pathbreaking books on the radical thought of the Enlightenment, which he traces back to Spinoza and seventeenth century Dutch republicanism: Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), Revolution of the Mind (2009) and Democratic Enlightenment (2011). This radicalism reached its full development with a handful of mid-eighteenth century philosophes, including Diderot, d’Holbach and Helvétius, who stood apart from the more moderate strands represented – each in their own different ways – by Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire. This book extends the exploration into the revolution, where Israel believes he has uncovered the key to the political dynamic that led to political instability and terror. A small group of radical republicans, made up of a “tiny minority” of journalists, pamphleteers, liberal nobles and “renegade” priests – renegade is a word that recurs frequently ‑ were active as early as 1788. Followers of the radical Enlightenment, they were intent on carrying through a total transformation of France into a democratic republic and seized their opportunity in 1789, as the old regime collapsed, using newspapers, pamphlets, political clubs and personal networks to drive through a pre-set package of reforms that included the Declaration of the Rights of Man, individual liberty, press freedom, religious toleration, church reform and a new constitution. They also, less successfully, campaigned for the abolition of slavery and the granting of votes to women. The driving force behind almost all the revolution’s reforms, they reached the logical culmination of their work with the overthrow of the monarchy itself in the summer of 1792 and the establishment of a democratic republic. However, their subsequent hold on power was brief as they were outmanoeuvred by the Jacobin faction, led by Robespierre, who represented the “revolution of the will” (essentially a combination of Rousseau’s ideas and populism) against the “revolution of reason”. The Jacobins first eliminated radical republicans from politics and then installed the institutions of terror over their corpses. Yet, although defeated in the short term, Israel argues that the radical republican programme was unmistakably modern, creating the world’s first democratic and secular constitution, asserting individual freedom and human rights, initiating the abolition of slavery and pioneering reforms in tertiary education.

If Israel’s account were credible it would be the philosopher’s stone of the revolution, the all-embracing explanation that has been lacking since the 1970s. Yet, like the philosopher’s stone, it seems, to this reader at least, to be a mirage. One of the keys to the argument lies in Israel’s definition of what pre-revolutionary republican radicalism was, and several reviewers have already pointed out that his choice is highly selective, designed to fit into his pre-determined argument. Many of the thinkers that he cites may well have been agnostic or atheists, but few were republican or democratic: Diderot cosied up to Catherine II of Russia, who bought his library to pay his debts, while d’Holbach defended the role of monarchy in pushing through reform. The Enlightenment was no monolith and radicals co-existed with moderates, making philosophes difficult to package into ideological groups or tie down to precise political programmes. The same difficulty crops up in Israel’s analysis of revolutionary politics, as he repeatedly refers to different ideological groups – “left republican radicalism”, the “liberal monarchist centre”, authoritarian populists – in a way that implies a group or party coherence that most historians of the revolution would not accept. There were no political parties in the revolution and even the most obvious political groups, such as the Feuillants, Girondins or Montagnards, were never cohesive or tied to a defined political programme. The Jacobins were probably the most cohesive of all, but even they contained a variety of political strands.

Once we come to the revolution the problems mount, because Israel’s argument that a small republican clique was responsible for pushing through the major reforms stretches credibility. It is never really clear precisely who was in the clique and some of those named were neither radical or republican: Mirabeau was a constitutional monarchist who did sordid secret money deals with the court and the Abbé Sieyès a political elitist in favour of a wealth-based franchise who later helped bring Bonaparte to power. Even Brissot, who probably fits the radical and republican mould best, had probably been a police spy in the 1780s and frequently expressed his admiration for Rousseau, whose influence Israel allocates to the rival Jacobin fold. More importantly, there is no evidence provided for how this clique, most of whom were not even in the national assembly, managed to exert such a dramatic influence over almost a thousand deputies, except for vague references to the power of the press, political clubs and personal connections.

The problems of evidence are exacerbated by a partisan approach which leads to a number of contentious and potentially misleading assertions. For example, to illustrate the political inexperience of deputies to the national assembly in 1789, Israel points out that there were almost no businessmen, bankers or members of the upper middle class among them. But there is solid evidence to show that there were over a hundred businessmen and over two hundred magistrates in the Third Estate alone, and that the great majority of deputies were both prosperous and successful men. On a personal rather than collective level, but pursuing the same theme, he states that Antoine Joseph Barnave’s background as “a renegade parlementaire”, an intellectual and a Protestant, made him somehow “unrepresentative”. But unrepresentative of what or whom? The enigma is not helped by a footnote which attributes the assessment to a bitter political rival. This tendency to base judgements on the views of political opponents is not uncommon. For example, the Parisian sans-culottes are called a “bunch of rowdies” (not a term generally used in historical analysis), while Robespierrists are accused of “vote rigging, foot-stamping, shouting down and paying hired bullies to intimidate opponents” in the winter of 1792. The observation could possibly be true but the fact that the footnote cites allegations made by anti-Jacobin moderates from the provinces who had no first-hand knowledge of Parisian politics does not inspire confidence.

Other generalisations are just perplexing. It seems odd to describe the enragé Jacques Roux as a “freedom fighter”, with all its twenty-first century connotations, when he was a radical priest campaigning for the use of terror to ensure cheap food supplies rather than heading up a guerrilla movement. Defining the “essence” of Robespierrisme as “the dragooning of misinformed sections by manipulative section assemblies” leaves us with a very limited view of the driving force behind a significant political actor. If that was his “essence”, how did he ever get so far? Israel also alleges that Marat and Robespierre agreed on a consensus political culture, but Robespierre frequently dissociated himself from Marat (and disliked his posthumous cult) while Marat himself was totally incapable of accepting any sort of consensus. As for his assassin, Charlotte Corday, did she really strike a “blow for the Revolution’s true conscience against Montagnard authoritarian populism”? If so, it would be nice to know why, and what that conscience was. Moreover, it is difficult to accept that, after her dagger had plunged into his heart, the dead Marat was venerated by both the regime and people “to an extent that nobody else in history ever had”. All these comments, and many more, reflect the distaste that Israel feels towards Jacobinism and sans-culotte politics: a distaste which is understandable but which stands in the way of objectivity and, if pushed too far, can lead to strange historical comparisons. Marat, for example, is described not only as “a shrill, unlovable militant” (which he certainly was) but also as “a hero of the people” who used proto-fascist tactics. Jacobin populism too is described as “an early form of modern fascism”. The fascist analogy is a serious one, but as Israel makes no attempt to elaborate on it or back it up, it reads more like a political smear than an historical judgement.

This is a long and extremely detailed book, and at times an engaging one, although its polemical tone and tendency to divert from the main narrative into side issues can make for heavy reading. Israel has mined an immense amount of printed source material, with an enviable eye for detail and a readiness to explore major issues from an unusual angle. The chapters dealing with education, slavery and dechristianisation in particular are packed with fascinating detail and acute observation and his claim that several of the radical republican ideals are directly linked to modern democratic ideology is certainly plausible. With all its faults, his account reminds historians that ideas had a role to play in the revolution, but it overstates their rigidity and the degree to which politicians of the revolution followed a pre determined plan. What made the revolution in France so unique was the unpredictability both of its outbreak in 1789 and of its subsequent development. Ideology played a role in that but it was only one of many factors and this book, like others that have attempted to find a single theme to explain what happened, fails to convince.

Hugh Gough is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Dublin.