Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française Jean Jaurès

The Causes of the Revolution: The Philosophical Spirit

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française Volume I. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2009.

At the end of the eighteenth century two revolutionary forces enthralled spirits and increased the intensity of events by a formidable coefficient. These were the two forces:

On one hand the French nation had reached intellectual maturity. On the other the French bourgeoisie had reached social maturity. French thought had become conscious of its grandeur and wanted to apply its methods of analysis and deduction to all of reality, society and nature alike. The French bourgeoisie had become conscious of its power, its wealth, its rights, and its near infinite possibilities of development. In a word, the bourgeoisie had attained class consciousness while French thought touched the consciousness of the universe. These are the two ardent resources, the two sources of the fire of the Revolution. It was through them that it was possible, and it was through them that it was great.

M. Taine interpreted the effect on the Revolution of French thought, of what he calls the classical spirit, in the falsest fashion: I would even say he did so childishly. According to him the Revolution was completely abstract. It was led to the worst systematic errors and the worst excesses through general and vague ideas, by the empty concepts of equality, humanity, right, popular sovereignty, and progress. And it was classical culture removed from French spirit a sharp and complex sense of reality; it was this that habituated the French of the eighteenth century to noble but vain generalizations.

And so the revolutionaries were unable to precisely conceive the living diversity of conditions and men. They were incapable of seeing the passions, the instincts, the prejudices, the ignorance, and the habits of the 27,000,000 men they suddenly had to govern. They were thus condemned to recklessly overturning social life and individual existences under the pretext of reforming them. The narrow classical ideology applied to the conduct of societies: this, according to Taine, was what precipitated the Revolution into utopianism, adventure, and violence. M. Taine repeats the sentence against the Revolution delivered by Napoleon I: “It was the work of ideologues.” But even more than Napoleon, he fails to recognize its grandeur and might. And his condemnation goes even further: it is not just the revolutionary ideology he denounces, it is the national ideology and the very foundations of the French spirit.

But M. Taine is completely wrong. He saw neither what the classical spirit was nor what the Revolution was. It was he who substituted a futile scholasticism and a reactionary ideology for precise knowledge and a clear vision.

Far from having been abstract and vain, French Revolution was the most substantial, the most practical, the most balanced of revolutions history has seen to this day. We will soon demonstrate this.

The men of the Revolution had a profound knowledge of reality, a marvelous understanding of the complex difficulties into which they’d been cast. There has never been a program of action that was more extensive, more precise, and more sensible than that contained in the Cahiers of the Estates General. Never has a program been more fully realized through more appropriate and decisive methods. And as we will see, the French Revolution met all its goals. It accomplished or outlined everything the social conditions allowed, all that the new needs commanded, and in the past century nothing has succeeded in Europe and the world but that which has followed the road laid out by the Revolution.

It is on the counter-revolutionary side that we find utopianism and senseless and sterile violence. Even the agitations of the Revolution have a meaning: hidden beneath the revolutionary phraseology were the most substantial conflicts, the most precise interests. There wasn’t a single group, there wasn’t a single sect that didn’t respond to a parcel of social life. There was not a phrase, even the most apparently vain, that wasn’t dictated by reality and that didn’t bear witness to historical necessity. And if M. Taine, whose work reveals an almost incredible ignorance, has so wildly misunderstood the Revolution, what becomes of his theory about the classical spirit and the vertigo of abstraction?

But here again he was completely wrong. In the first case, through the most arbitrary abstraction he incorrectly opposed science to what he calls the classical spirit. He sang a magnificent song of praise to science as it developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It revealed the structure of the universe, its immensity, the laws of the worlds that move in it and are connected. It taught man what the earth was, its place, its form, its dimensions, its movements and its probable origin.

Under the eyes of man it began the classification of the countless forms of life and it taught man himself, until now proudly isolated, that he was part of a long series of beings; that he was a bud, the highest one, of the immense tree of life. It attempted to analyze human society, to discover the secrets of social life, and it attempted to break down economic phenomena, the ideas of wealth, rent, value, and production.

In short, from the distant movements of the stars, barely perceptible in the heavens, to the beginnings of new trades in factories, science has attempted to understand and develop everything in the same continuous order as that of nature itself. This is what the scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did, and this education of the public spirit by science would have been admirable if, according to Taine, the classical spirit hadn’t accustomed the French to retaining about immense reality only a few general and summary ideas ready made for the frivolous combinations of conversation or the fearsome combinations of utopia.

Solid and stable science vanished into thin air in the salons, and then was deformed in the assemblies and clubs. From this came the vanities and follies of the Revolution.

But by what strange operation was M. Taine able to separate modern science from the classical spirit? These are two forces that are not only connected; they are also intermingled.

The classical spirit consists in analyzing the essential elements of every idea, of every fact, in eliminating whatever is superficial or fortuitous, and of then lining up all the necessary elements in their most natural, logical, and clearest order. This method, this habit of simplification and connection was necessary to the human spirit in order for it to approach the infinite complexity of nature and life, to undertake the scientific conquest of the universe.

Let us imagine the human spirit leaving behind for the first time ready made cosmogony, astronomy, and physics, the ready made history, morality, and religion left to them by the Middle Ages. How could it venture out into unlimited and disconcerting reality without being made dizzy, without its being astonished? Would it, as was done during the Renaissance, seek the key to the universe in the books of ancient wisdom? Of course not; Latin and Greek humanity glimpsed but a portion of reality.

The sixteenth century was able to intoxicate itself on the generous spirit of ancient times and thus liberate itself from the intellectual asceticism of the Middle Ages. But this intoxication of reading and erudition left only fog in human brains, and one must look immense and tangled reality directly in the face with a firm spirit.

Let us then shake off the burden of erudition and break the chains of tradition. Let the human spirit gather itself together and isolate itself so as to interrogate the universe without any intermediaries. But will it allow itself to be tempted by the strange charm of dreams? Will it try, like Hamlet, to penetrate the mystery of the world by silent forebodings and to divine, as in a lucid dream, the secrets of heaven and earth that are beyond philosophy? This would be a trap and folly, for it isn’t through dreams, but rather through experiment and reason, through observation and deduction, that man will master the universe. But if this is how we must approach things and beings how will we not get lost in countless and fleeting details? It is method that will save us.

In every order of questions, in every order of facts we must attempt to draw out the most general idea. We must seek the largest and simplest concept under which we can group the greatest number of orders and objects, and we will thus little by little extend our net over the world.

This is science’s method of invention and penetration, and it precisely resembles the methods of expression and demonstration of classical thought. I vainly seek for a way to dissociate them, and it is only through childish sleight of hand and factitious distinctions that Taine was able to oppose the one to the other.

It was according to this method that Newton was able to link the falling of bodies on the surface of our planet with the fall of stars gravitating towards each other. It was according to this method that Linnaeus classified the infinite variety of plants using the sexual organ as the fundamental characteristic. It was according to this method that Haüy studied crystals, ordering them based on their geometric forms. It was according to this method that Buffon and Laplace reduced all stars to the primary nebulous type and deduced the sun and the planets from the same mass of slowly condensed and differentiated vapors. It was according to this method of necessary abstraction that Montesquieu reduced the infinite types of human government to four types. And it was according to this method that Adam Smith was able to study the innumerable diversity of economic phenomena, reduced by him to a few fundamental categories.

In all times and places, under the infinite and overwhelming diversity of particular facts, science through a daring operation perceives and draws out a few decisive and profound characteristics. And it is this clear and relatively simple idea that it tests and develops through observation, calculations, and by the ceaseless comparisons of the extension of the act and the extensions of the idea.

But it was according to the same method that the classical spirit constructed its works. It is thus that Descartes, with the two ideas of thought and expanse, developed the entire material world and the moral world. It is thus that Pascal, burrowing down to the depths of human nature, laid bare our degradation and our grandeur and deduced all of Christianity from the sole idea of the fall deduced. And in just this way our great writers of tragedies and comedies built their living works on a grand and simple theme. And again, with the two ideas of nature and reason, the Encyclopedia shook up all erroneous systems. And finally, with the affirmation of the rights of man and the citizen the Revolution summed up with marvelous power the new aspirations of awakened consciousness and the positive guarantees that the new interests demanded.

The Revolution as well, like the great science which M. Taine vainly opposes to it, found a dominant and vast idea that allowed it to express an entire period of social life and to coordinate enormous forces. In any case, M. Taine cannot condemn the classical spirit and the Revolution without also condemning science itself, and it is only by being inconsistent that he avoids taking the positions of extreme reaction. He stopped half way along that road.

It would have been handy for religious, monarchical, and feudal absolutism if the eighteenth century had limited itself to dull monographs buried in Benedictine archives and patient, erudite research into the past. It would have been handy for all tyrannies, to all privileges if French thought, as it had done in the sixteenth century, had continued to play at verbal debauchery and drowned its revolt in the uncertain and troubled waters of Rabelaisian prose. It would have been handy for priests, monks, and nobles if the eighteenth century, getting a head start on romanticism, wasted its time in meticulously describing with the richest vocabulary the old portal of an old church or the old tower of an old chateau.

But classical thought had other things to do. It noted with precision and anger all the superstitions, all the tyrannies, all the privileges that opposed the free growth of thought, the expansion of labor, the dignity of the person.

For this combat it needed a direct, sober, and strong language. It rejected the excess baggage of sensations and verbal curiosities, the systematically picturesque that M. Taine would like to impose on it. Alert, excited, it cast rays of light in all directions and it denounced all present institutions as contrary to nature and reason.

How could it have smashed this old, out of date, and variegated world if it had not appealed to great, simple ideas? Is it by disputing like a village lawyer every feudal right, every ecclesiastical pretension, every royal act that classical thought would have been able to tear France from servitude and routine? A total effort was needed; enlightenment, and an ardent appeal to humanity, to nature, to reason.

But this necessary cult of general ideas in no way excluded within classical thought the precise and profound knowledge of facts or curiosity about details. And this is M. Taine’s second error. He failed to see what the noble classical form contained of richness, facts, and sensations.

I don’t have the time to discuss his superficial judgment of the literature of the seventeenth century, but how is it possible to contest the eighteenth century’s immense effort to document itself? It was the century of memoirs in the historical and social orders. And how many studies, how many efforts in the fields of economy and technology! The Academy of Sciences published a magnificent collection of industrial processes and new inventions. Precise, detailed studies and books supported by statistics and figures abound concerning wheat and subsistence goods. And the economists didn’t limit themselves to formulating their general theories. In their collection of “Éphémérides” they noted the daily variations in prices, supplies, and the state of the market. Books and pamphlets multiplied concerning the feudal regime and the peaceful and practical methods of abolishing the feudal regime through a system of redemptions. In the last third of the century the royal agricultural societies published the most substantial studies. The manufacturing inspectors addressed reports to the government that our modern labor office wouldn’t disavow, and we will borrow from those of Roland de Platière, written five years before the Revolution, the most precious and detailed documents on the state of industry, the forms of production, and the condition of wage workers.

No century was ever as attentive as the eighteenth was to life’s details, to the interactions of all social mechanism, and no revolution was ever as prepared as this one was by more serious study, by richer documentation. One day Mirabeau cried out in the Constituent Assembly: We no longer have the time to study; fortunately, we have a head start in ideas. Yes, a head start in ideas and facts. Never had thinkers been better provisioned, and M. Taine, who seems to be unaware of this immense labor of documentation of the eighteenth century, is mocking us when reduces the classical spirit to the noble ordering of impoverished abstract ideas.