The French Revolution: Now and Then, Now and Again

Arrest of de Launay by an anonymous artist.

Arrest of de Launay by an anonymous artist.

by Alfonso Casal

I will not begin my speech by saying that the French Republic is a drooling, stinking bitch. I will not say it, because everyone knows!” (O’Shea, 1989). Such were the words spoken, not so very long ago, by a French royalist addressing a congregation of the monarchical faithful. At the same time as this orator was draping himself in the fleur-de-lîs, a group of Jacobins in the Paris municipal government were hotly debating the need to dedicate a statue to Robespierre in one of the city’s fine public squares. That these two extremely divergent political opinions were expressed by citizens of the same country, in the same city, and at the same time should come as no great surprise. The French Revolution was nothing if not an event of titanic volatility.

However, I do believe that most would be astounded to learn that these sentiments were voiced not in September of 1792 when the Revolutionary Republic was founded; but, nearly 200 years later at the time of the French Revolutionary Bicentennial in December of 1988.

The French do take their past more seriously than most, be that past the Maid of Orléans or the students of ’68; and, it must be said, the French Revolution was their revolution, long before anyone else could lay claim to it, and they argue all of its aspects with a level of passionate commitment utterly alien to, say a group of Americans discussing the merits of their Revolution, if indeed, outside of academic circles, we ever do.

There is something more at play here than simple scholarly reflection on the events of yesteryear. During the 1989 Bicentennial celebrations, at a public festival of revolutionary songs, the singer was assaulted onstage by a gang of thugs associated with the right-wing Catholic organization, Action Française, and tear gas was sprayed into her eyes (O’Shea, 1989). Clearly, the French Revolution is an historical event quite unlike most others. No matter how strongly one may feel about the suppression of Spartacus’ slave revolt, it’s difficult to imagine an historian using chemical warfare against an interpretative opponent.

As distinct from July 4, 1776, which, generally speaking, is about as controversial as Arbor Day, 14 Juillet 1789 (not to mention ’93) is a living, breathing reality; not only in France, but throughout the World. It was not for want of originality that Algerian resistance cells styled themselves Committees of Public Safety; or the Cuban neighborhood committees modeled themselves after the Jacobin Comités revolutionnaires; or protesters from Sub-Saharan Africa to South America sing the Marseillaise.

The fires of the French Revolution burn as furiously today as they did in the streets of Paris over two centuries ago. The demand for liberty and equality, the Rights of Man (and their denial), the right of insurrection (and the call for repression), the people in arms; these are the components of our world. Thus, it is extremely difficult to be neutral about the French Revolution. It doesn’t receive much sympathy from conservatives; liberals tend to wish that it had stopped somewhere along the line, preferably before the working classes (sansculottes) got the idea into their heads that they were entitled to get something out of it; while socialists and communists of different stripes are likely to feel a certain enthusiasm. This picture is by no means complete, though. On the Right, I’m sure that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will send diplomatic felicitations to French President François Hollande on the occasion of this year’s Bastille Day celebrations; and, on the Left, many ultra-leftists and anarchists view the Great Revolution as little more than the triumph of the bourgeoisie and the hated modern state (even though their own political beliefs were born in that conflict). All this being so, is it any surprise that the history of the French Revolution has been the continuation of the battle itself by written means?

Any historical event or personage, and especially one which so enflamed public opinion and so molded later political developments as did the French Revolution, will have its legacy continually reviewed by later generations. Two centuries have passed since the beginning of the revolutionary drama, and the number of books, fiction and non-fiction, good and bad, written on the subject would fill several warehouses floor to ceiling. The same questions are asked over and over: Was the French Revolution a uniquely French event or a part of a larger historical pattern? (Michelet, 1967; Palmer, 1967) Did the Revolution advance equality and democracy or was it the herald of “totalitarianism” (Aulard, 2015; Talmon, 1970). Were revolutionary policies negative or positive? (Schama, 1989; Mathiez, 1964) What classes or social forces did the Revolution advance or combat? (Soboul, 1975) And was the Revolution just the end result of centuries of internal institutional development? (de Tocqueville, 1983).

In the formation of any historical verdict, there are a number of factors to be considered. One is the nationality of the historian. Nations which have themselves been through recent upheavals are far more likely to see revolution and revolutionaries in a more concrete way than those which have been, more or less, free of revolutionary movements. Equally important is the time in which the observer is writing. They may be writing in a time of revolutionary expectations, such as 1945 or 1968; or in a period of tension and conflict like that of the Cold War; and such experiences are more likely to sharpen insights into what happened in an earlier “time of troubles” than one of prosperity, good feeling, and stability. Then there is, of course, the political perspective that the historian brings to their work. This latter perhaps being the most important point, for most recent writing on the French Revolution has been molded by the experience of the two World Wars, the Russian Revolution and spread of communism, the Cold War and its end, and the national liberation struggles of the post-War era.

The differing and combative interpretations of the events of 1789 offered by later historians can, more often than not, be directly traced to one or another of the parties to to the original conflict. Conservative (Royalist); Liberal (Girondist); and Marxist (Jacobin). These were the political stances adopted by the participants to the Great Revolution; and, are the views taken by historians today.

In history, as in life, to the victor goes not only the spoils, but also the last word – or at least the first insult.

In the French Revolution, the victors, or so it seemed at the time, were the Royalists who streamed back into France after the Bourbon restoration in 1815. It is from them, and from the counterrevolutionary tradition established by them during the struggle itself that today’s Conservative interpretation stems.

French Revolutionary historiography began during the revolution itself; and, the first shots were fired from the Conservative side. In 1790, just as the Revolution was beginning to engage in its work of liberal reform, British parliamentarian Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke’s main criticism of the French monarchy was that it wasn’t more English; and there was nothing much wrong with the Ancien Régime that a few anglicizing reforms couldn’t cure. The Revolution itself wasn’t a legitimate movement for social change, but rather came from the ambitions and resentments of a few intellectuals and lawyers who mobilized the “swinish multitude” in their service (Burke, 2009). Burke’s has proven to be the most popular of the Conservative critiques of the Revolution and the inspiration for many others, both in France and abroad. The two most noteworthy of Burke’s followers were Hippolyte Taine, who wrote in the 1870s in reaction to the Paris Commune and Pierre Gaxotte, writing in the 1920s, inspired by the Russian Revolution (Taine, 2012; Gaxotte, 2016).

Among more recent Conservatives, the trend has been to see the French Revolution as the antecedent to modern political problems. In the Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, Israeli historian J. L. Talmon condemned the Revolution in that he saw it leading to Marxism-Leninism (Talmon, 1970). American historian Simon Schama, take the opposite position and his book, Citizens claims that the French Revolution was responsible for Hitlerism (Schama, 1989).

With the exception of people like Talmon and Schama, the explicitly Conservative, Royalist-driven line of interpretation has been pretty much discredited in France. The people who held these views were the same people who applauded the Vichyite collaboration government during the War. A number of them took book their political ideology and their historical interpretations with them to the firing squad after Liberation.

The most successful interpretation of the revolution has been the Liberal one. “Successful” in the sense that most popular presentations of the Revolution, both factual and fictional, endorse this view. The Liberal view is very eclectic and varies from one author to another, unlike both the Conservative and Marxist interpretations. It does, however, have a unifying theme: the concept that the Revolution started off well enough; but somewhere along the line skidded off course. Exactly where this deviation occurred no one can say, because Liberal historians have various claimed late 1789, 1792, or early 1793 as the decisive moment. Each of these dates corresponds to a a different stage in the progressive radicalization of the Revolution. Liberal historians support the Revolution up to some point at which they feel it went “too far.”

The three schools of interpretative reflect present day political concerns. Conservatives attack the Revolution because it represents their contemporary fears; the Liberals and Marxists embrace the Revolution as representing their political hopes, with the Liberals applauding the earlier, bourgeois reformist phase of the Revolution from 1789-1792, and the Marxists cheering on the radical Republic of 1793-1794. Both Marxists and Liberals see the Revolution as a legitimate protest against the tyranny of the Old Regime; and as an attempt to better the lives of those classes marginalized by monarchy and aristocracy.

The first Liberal historians, Thiers, Mignet and Madame de Staël, writing in the 1820s, saw the Revolution as part of their struggle in the face of the restored French monarchy. In their view, the Revolution was a reform movement spawned by the liberal nobility and bourgeoisie aiming at updating outmoded government institutions (Thiers, 2014; Mignet, 2015; de Stael, 2009).

The generation of 1848 had a much more radical view of the Revolution. Represented by Jules Michelet, they saw the Great Revolution as a more extreme experiment in the curing of social ills. For Michelet, the entire French nation rose up in an act of mystical regeneration against tyranny and misery (Michelet, 1967). Alexis de Tocqueville, took a different point of view, and saw the Revolution’s drive towards equality as essentially destructive. Tocqueville also argued that the Revolution was unnecessary in that it merely carried on the centralization of French political life begun by Louis XIV (de Tocqueville, 1983).

The first socialists to write on the French Revolution began to appear at this time. Filipo Buonarrotti, a young man at the time of the Revolution was a protégé of Robespierre; and later became a follower of Gracchus Babeuf in the “Conspiracy for Equality” of 1796 (Buonarroti, 2009). Through Babeuf and Buonarroti, a connection to the Revolution is made to Karl Marx. Marx saw the French Revolution the model for class struggle which, although going through an intensely radical phase, was finally to turn to the benefit of the bourgeoisie (Marx, 1994). This, drawn from Marx, would until recently, become the dominant paradigm for interpreting the Revolution.

Perhaps the last great proponent of the Liberal view was Alphonse Aulard. Aulard was a leading figure in the Third Republic, which had arisen on the ruins of the Second Empire and the Paris Commune. The political climate of the Third Republic was bourgeois, but also anti-clerical; radical, but anti-socialist. So, the Revolution could not just be dismissed; but had to be interpreted in a manner acceptable to the new ruling élite. Aulard presented the Revolutionary Republic as an emergency government of national defense. However, for Aulard, the line of acceptability was crossed in the Spring of 1794 when, under the sponsorship of Saint-Just and Robespierre, the Revolutionary Government passed the Ventôse Decrees, which confiscated the properties of convicted enemies of the Revolution and redistributed them to the poor (Aulard, 2015).

Up until Aulard’s day, the events of 1789-1799 were seen entirely from above, as the actions of King and Court, or Convention and Jacobin Club. Nothing was said about the masses and role in history save as a mirror to the actions of the Nobility or bourgeoisie. The Marxists were to change this situation dramatically. In his Socialist History of the French Revolution, Jean Jaurès, a socialist deputy and labor leader, changed the direction of French Revolutionary studies. For Jaurès, the Revolution was a drama whose actors were social classes. Class struggle became, not just a side-issue, but the central focus of history (Jaures, 2015).

Following Jaurès, Albert Mathiez, took up the Marxist cause. An enthusiastic supporter of the Russian Revolution, Mathiez devoted himself to studying previously ignores aspects of the Revolution such as the economic crisis an the high cost of living among the Parisian sansculottes. Mathiez’ work inspired other Marxist scholars to explore things such as the roles of the peasantry; the composition of the revolutionary masses; and the economic and social aspects of the Terror (Lefebvre, 1989; Rude, 1967; Soboul, The Parisian Sansculottes in the French Revolution, 1793-1794, 1979).

In 1917, while Mathiez was penning his monographs, Lenin was putting theory into practice. Lenin wrote that:

Bourgeois historians see Jacobinism as a failure. Proletarian historians see Jacobinism as one of the highest peaks in the emancipation struggle of an oppressed class. The Jacobins gave France the best models of a democratic revolution and of resistance to a coalition of monarchs against a republic. The Jacobins were not destined to win complete victory, chiefly because eighteenth-century France was surrounded on the continent by much too backward countries, and because France herself lacked the material basis for socialism, there being no banks, no capitalist syndicates, no machine industry and no railways. . . It is natural for the bourgeoisie to hate Jacobinism. It is natural for the petty bourgeoisie to dread it. The class-conscious workers and working people generally put their trust in the transfer of power to the revolutionary, oppressed class for that is the essence of Jacobinism” (Lenin, 1977).

Thus, Jacobinism and Bolshevism were united, not just in academia, but in the World Communist Movement. For most of the 20th century, the Marxist view dominated French Revolutionary studies. This is remarkable, as conservative politics usually prevail in history departments. Respected and admired historians such as Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, R. R. Palmer, Eric Hobsbawm, Richard Cobb, all followed the Marxist line of interpretation.

Today, however, the Marxist interpretation has come under severe attack and has lost its pride of place, possibly forever. Starting in the 1960s, and picking up steam in the 1980s and beyond, two forces have worked to unseat the Marxist interpretation: a new Rightist interpretation and Post-Modernism.

Writing in 1964, Alfred Cobban attacked the Marxist interpretation in all its key concepts. Cobban argued that feudalism, aristocracy, and bourgeois revolution did not exist; that the Revolution was ultimately won by conservative landowners who retarded the growth and development of capitalism (Cobban, 1999). Following Cobban, Francois Furet went even further and claimed that the Revolution had blown off course when the bourgeoisie lost control and the radical sansculotte masses assumed center stage. Furet also charged the Marxist historians with sneaking Marxism-Leninism into their works and that the lessons of the Revolution were no longer relevant to the contemporary world (Furet, 1981).

Furet became something of a celebrity both in France and in America where he fit in very well with then rising wave of conservatism following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Furet spoke as an honored guest at numerous US universities throughout the decade; invited by history departments eager to have an excuse to the rid themselves of the Marxist anomaly in their midst. Eventually, he last years were spent at the University of Chicago. Since the 1980s, post-modernist interpretations of the French Revolution have dovetailed with Cobban’s and Furet’s neo-rightist views. Eschewing “grand narratives” and focusing on “discourse” and “culture,” post-modernist historians have nearly succeeded in de-politicizing the signal political event of modern history (Hunt, 2004).

And so it stands. Something, though, has been lost. The voice of the Revolution itself has been ignored; and the truly vital question, the only questions that really matter goes unanswered: what was the Revolution? What did it mean to the men and women who created it? And what does it mean to we who live in its all-encompassing shadow? One would not even presume to answer that question. Instead, the Revolution should speak for itself.

On the 5th of February 1794, Maximilien Robespierre mounted the tribune of the National Convention and answered that question:

It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution. Today we announce to the World the true principles of our action.

We wish an order order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings awakened; where ambition is the desire to deserve glory and to be useful to one’s country; where distinctions arise only from equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the country secures the welfare of each individual, and each individual enjoys the prosperity and glory of his country; where all minds are enlarged by the constant interchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where industry is an ornament to the liberty which ennobles it, and commerce the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous riches for a few families.

We wish to substitute, in our country, morality for egotism, probity for a mere sense of honor, principle for habit, duty for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of custom, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, large-mindedness for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good men for good company, merit for intrigue, talent for conceit, truth for show, the charm of happiness for the tedium of pleasure, the grandeur of man for the triviality of grand society, a people magnanimous, powerful and happy for a people lovable, frivolous and wretched – that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and puerilities of tyranny.

We wish, in a word, to fulfill the course of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy, to absolve Providence from the long reign of tyranny and crime. May France, illustrious formerly among nations of slaves, eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have existed, become the model of the nations, the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the oppressed, the ornament of the universe; and, in sealing our work with our blood, may we see at last the dawn of universal felicity gleam before us! That is our ambition. That is our aim.”

Historians say that the French Revolution ended in 1799; and, yes, the events in France did come to a close in that year.

But the Revolution?

The Revolution?


That is far from over.


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Buonarroti, F. (2009). History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.

Burke, E. (2009). Reflections on the Revolution in France. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cobban, A. (1999). The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

de Stael, G. (2009). Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

de Tocqueville, A. (1983). The Old Regime and the French Revolution. New York: Anchor.

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O’Shea, S. (1989, July/August). A Royal Pain in La France. Mother Jones, p. 40.

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Rude, G. (1967). The Crowd in the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schama, S. (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Soboul, A. (1975). The French Revolution: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. New York: Random House.

Soboul, A. (1979). The Parisian Sansculottes in the French Revolution, 1793-1794. Wesport, CT: Praeger.

Taine, H. (2012). The French Revolution. Ulan Press.

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Categories: France, History, International, Revolutionary History, Theory, World History

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