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Ian H. Birchall


(Winter 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.23, Winter 1965, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The French Revolution: from 1793 to 1799
Georges Lefebvre
Routledge, 42s.

This second volume completes Georges Lefebvre’s history of the French Revolution. The work is the product of a life-time’s study of the Revolution, and has been almost unanimously praised by academic historians. Its qualities are erudition, precision, objectivity and comprehensiveness.

And yet these very qualities contribute to the feeling of inadequacy it leaves with the reader. Lefebvre rejects single-cause explanations of historical events. The only unity he gives to six years of political, economic and intellectual activity in all the countries of Europe is the unity of the untiring collection and classifying of facts. The results are often impressive; often trivial or superficial. We alternate between arithmetical problems (‘The king of Prussia marched on Mainz with 42,000 men and left 33,000 in Westphalia, while Wurmser supported him with 24,000 Austrians, who were to be joined by 14,000 Germans. England subsidised 20,000 Sardinians and 6,000 Neapolitans.’) and pocket encyclopedia definitions (‘Having destroyed metaphysics, Kant reconstructed a substitute founded on moral conscience, which, in essence, meant (to him) a return to divine intuition’). A person who had no knowledge of the French Revolution except from Lefebvre’s book would, despite the mass of facts, be bewildered as to why men had acted in this way in the first place. Lefebvre conveys, far better than most historians, revolutionary or reactionary, the complexity of the Revolution. But his Revolution is neither inspiring nor frightening; his books belong to an age and an intellectual environment for which ‘revolution’ is an abstract concept not a reality of life.

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