Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


Citizens and Cannibals

Eli Sagan
Citizens and Cannibals: The French Revolution, the Struggle for Modernity and the Origins of Ideological Terror
Rowan and Littlefield, Lanham, Boulder, New York and Oxford 2001, pp. 624, £27.00

CITIZENS and Cannibals is a rather idiosyncratic book. It is the sixth book of an elderly man with theories about a wide range of topics of which many are not at first sight immediately relevant to the French Revolution, and the text alone – not counting notes, bibliography and index – runs to 554 pages. Given the obsession of British publishers with short books – often leading to the mutilation of valuable monographs based on thoroughly researched doctoral theses – it is rather surprising to find an American publisher so reluctant to edit the work of so prolix an author. The sheer length of this tome is bound to deter readers, especially general readers, and since Sagan has not done any primary research on the French Revolution, and has no previous background in that area, it is probable that many specialists will treat it with disdain. It is therefore likely that if this work gains any currency at all, it will be used instrumentally and selectively because of the sustenance that parts of it give to the standard right-wing claim – particularly popular in the USA – that revolutionaries are always terrorists.

However, it would be excessively reductive to dismiss it as merely a part of the right-wing historiographical assault on the French Revolution that has gathered pace since 1989 when Simon Schama’s Citizens with its sensationalist Dickensian approach to the French Revolution reached a receptive Anglo-American audience, eager to denigrate rather than to celebrate the bicentenary of the French Revolution, months before the collapse of the Eastern European Stalinist regimes, a collapse which gave a further boost to Schama’s debunking. Despite the prominent use of ‘Citizens’ in the title, Sagan makes only one passing reference to Schama (pp. 386–7) in connection with a very general contention about the relationship between revolutionary violence and modernisation rather than any of the specifics of the Terror. Given the copious references to recent historical work on the French Revolution in Sagan’s 36 pages of notes, one is bound to suspect that such reticence is actually an implicit indication that he does not rate Schama particularly highly, at least as an historian of the French Revolution.

In other respects, too, Sagan is not a dedicated follower of fashion, and remains loyal to his own intellectual formation as an East Coast Jewish intellectual coming to maturity in the late 1940s, influenced by Marx and Freud, repelled by McCarthyism but accepting the overall framework of the Cold War, and situating himself on ‘the left wing of the possible’ (p. 554), in a way that the generation of renegade ‘68ers so prominent in our own universities would have massive difficulty in understanding. Accordingly, Sagan has none of the modish hostility towards the Enlightenment so prominent in most recent academic work influenced by Foucault and post-modernism. Despite his considerable reservations about Rousseau, he has a very positive view of the Enlightenment as a whole, remarking, for instance, that ‘the Enlightenment was one of the great achievements of the Early Modern Age’ (p. 4). Moreover, he has no time for post-modernism, contemptuously remarking that ‘the notion that we live in a post-modern world is the latest manifestation of the triumph of the wish for omnipotence over reality’ (p. 551).

Far from being opposed to ‘grand narratives’ like so many recent critics of Marxist historiography, Sagan has a ‘grand narrative’ of his own about the ‘struggle for modernity’, and a large portion of the book is devoted to an exercise in historical sociology influenced by Marxism, but trying to supersede it. Whilst the primary focus is on France, attempts, sometimes flawed ones, are made at comparisons and serious engagement with the giants of classical bourgeois sociology, Durkheim and Weber, as well as a continuing dialogue with Tocqueville, which enliven a text which draws much empirical detail from the recent historiography of eighteenth-century France. Inevitably, an attempt is made to downgrade the role of both class struggle and economic developments in favour of intellectual and cultural factors, but the bourgeois character of the French Revolution is accepted, and the positive rôle of many ideas about liberty and equality that it put on the agenda for the first time is acknowledged. In short, this section cannot be condemned out of hand as reactionary or sensationalist, and has some interest for those concerned with the history of the modern world.

However, the book eventually seems to lose its balance in a way that makes the earlier chapters seem irrelevant, and closes down genuine debate. One problem is that the relatively nuanced and calm discussion in the earlier chapters is not sustained whenever references are made to the events of 1793–94, and once the book shifts its main focus to the Terror (pp. 327–507), the text becomes much more of a politically-engaged polemic than a reasonably detached exercise in historical sociology, as well as switching away from long-term trends – sometimes over several centuries – towards very short-term developments – sometimes a matter of days. Moreover, although a close reading of the early chapters would reveal intermittent traces of ideas derived from psychoanalysis within the more frequent and more conventional sociological concepts, in Chapters 15–22 psychoanalysis suddenly becomes the overwhelmingly dominant mode of explanation as a sort of deus ex machina. Although Sagan’s own attempts to link theories about paranoia and borderline personalities to vivid case-studies of figures like Robespierre and Rousseau are actually quite readable, and are by and large quite convincing, on occasions we get subjected to lengthy quotations from psychoanalysts like Kernberg, whose turgid and mind-numbingly repetitive prose is reminiscent of Stalin on a particularly bad day. Whilst it seems quite likely that Robespierre ended up close to psychosis in the last months of his life – indeed I am sure that I am not alone in feeling Sagan is far too cautious in his qualifications here, as Robespierre’s last speech seems completely demented – the attempts to explain general trends in this fashion are far less convincing.

This is not just a question of extravagant rhetoric, although the use of the word ‘Cannibals’ in the book’s title seems a little excessive – and sensationalist – despite Sagan’s sincere attempts to draw analogies with literal cannibalism, about which he wrote in an earlier book – Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form (1993). Barbaric as it may have been, the display of severed heads, on pikes or otherwise, was not unique to the French Revolution. The demonisation of the Jacobins and the idealisation of the Girondins in which Sagan engages in this section seem to mirror the paranoid ‘splitting’ into ‘all good’ and ‘all bad’ he diagnoses in Robespierre. Even on the evidence that Sagan presents earlier in the book, one is bound to conclude that each faction aimed to eliminate the other, and that the Girondins had no more conception of a ‘loyal opposition’ than the Jacobins. The fratricidal struggle between former comrades is closer in character to that between the Parcham and Khalq factions of the Afghan Communist Party in the 1970s than to the rivalries of a modern parliamentary democracy. Once one accepts that neither faction was playing by any rules, it seems reasonable to judge them on the basis of their policies and the social composition of their support base. Since Sagan is not really a conservative, he is intermittently disingenuous about the extent to which the Girondins were linked to the propertied élite and the Jacobins to the urban poor, desperately trying to obfuscate the rational basis of the struggle on the ground in favour of a focus on the more paranoid elements of political discourse (which did indeed equal anything produced by the Stalinists in the late 1930s).

There is very little mention of the Jacobin Constitution of 1793 in the book (and, in contrast to the other French revolutionary constitutions, it is totally absent from the index). He admits ‘only the constitution of 1793, adopted but never actually put into practice, written after the coup d’état of May–June that created the Jacobin dictatorship – only this could be considered as establishing a radical democracy, wherein there was full male equality of political rights’ (p. 40). He then claims that ‘the Jacobin dictatorship, of course, had no actual intention that le peuple should rule, just as the Stalinists in the 1930s, with their glorious, liberal, egalitarian constitution, did not expect that the sovereignty of the people would become a reality’ (p. 40). The comparison with the Stalin Constitution of 1936 seems far-fetched; the Stalin Constitution was a nod in the direction of alien bourgeois constitutions during the Popular Front period, whilst the 1793 Constitution differed radically from all existing ones, and did not add to the regime’s respectability vis-à-vis internal élites or foreign powers. The 1793 Constitution was the first constitution anywhere in the world to call for universal male suffrage, and inspired generations of radical democrats both in France and elsewhere until its implementation in practice, however briefly, in 1848. Sagan himself also has to confess that ‘it was only the third and most radical of the Revolutions [the Jacobin of June 1793 to July 1794] that was passionate enough on this issue to risk the abolition of slavery itself’ (p. 65). By the time Sagan gets round to looking at the Terror in detail, ‘the third and most radical of the Revolutions’ has been downgraded to a mere coup, and, unsurprisingly, the major difference between Jacobins and Girondins in relation to slavery is never reiterated. It is of course true that the Girondins were far more sympathetic to the rights of women than the Jacobins, and that the Jacobins repressed the pro-Girondin women’s organisations, so Sagan makes much of this (pp. 391–3) – the only issue on which the Girondins could be said to be to the ‘left’ of the Jacobins. Sagan’s praise for Danton is tiresome; he was undoubtedly a corrupt, unprincipled careerist opportunist who never had any moral qualms about sending others to the guillotine, and one suspects he was the Jeffrey Archer of his day, not the Jacobin equivalent of Nikolai Bukharin (although Sagan, for whom even Bukharin would be an ‘ideological terrorist’, does not make the analogy). Conversely, Sagan’s failure to show any similar sympathy for the ‘non-bourgeois radical Hébert’ (p. 125), who seems to have been a more consistent friend of the sans-culottes than Robespierre, suggests that Sagan’s intermittent pose of sympathy for the sans-culottes exploited and betrayed by the Jacobins is little more than a rhetorical device.

Sagan is inevitably not content to act as an intellectual apologist for Thermidor, and to leave it at that. Readers of this journal will not be surprised to find a parallel drawn between Jacobins and Leninists, that Lenin and Trotsky are branded ‘ideological terrorists’ and that the ‘latest revelations about Lenin’ (p. 411), the precise nature of which, confusingly, are never specified by Sagan, prove that he was no better than Stalin. One could go on arguing with this enthusiast for the Girondins and the Mensheviks, but to what end? Although I can easily guess the political and psychological labels he would pin on me, there is in the end something very sad about old Sagan, who genuinely wishes that the USA had a progressive income tax and a proper welfare state, and consistently opposed the Vietnam War (albeit without understanding that the only way it differed from numerous other wars of American imperialist aggression was in its employment of a massive number of ground troops), but ends up preferring the ‘Conservative dictators’ Franco and Mussolini to the ‘ideological terrorist’ Lenin.

Tobias Abse

Updated by ETOL: 21.10.2011