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Ian Birchall

Selling off Robespierre

(February 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.117, February 1989, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Permanent Revolution: The French Revolution and its Legacy 1789-1989
Geoffrey Best (ed.)
Fontana £4.95

The Peasantry in the French Revolution
P.M. Jones
Cambridge University Press £9.95

CAPITALISM will try to make anything into a commodity to be bought and sold – even revolution, providing it is safely in the past. So this year’s bicentenary of the French Revolution will see the market flooded with commemorative articles of various sorts.

Some, fortunately, will be useful articles, like Peter Jones’s book on the revolutionary peasantry which presents a synthesis of research done since the time of Georges Lefebvre. He describes the dynamic of peasant revolt, its development from anarchy to organisation, and shows how the bourgeoisie was caught in the cross-fire between nobles and peasants. Jones is too detached and objective to ever understand why the Revolution happened, but he can tell us quite a lot about how it happened.

Unfortunately, the best sellers are likely to be not solid works like Jones’s, but anthologies like Best’s. This is a ragbag of articles from eight contributors, including Conor Cruise O’Brien and George Steiner, who were presumably selected not because they have done any serious work on the revolution, but because their names look good on the cover.

The blurb claims that Best’s book “is not about the French Revolution then, but about the French Revolution now”. A worthy aim – unfortunately not one of the distinguished contributors has any perspective for approaching it. In 1978 the French historian Francois Furet declared: “The French Revolution is over.” By that he meant that the basic gains of the bourgeois revolution are now accepted by all sections of the political spectrum.

But Furet spoke too soon. Within five years France had seen the emergence of Le Pen’s National Front, which precisely did reject the basic gains of the revolution.

A repeated theme in the collection is the emergence of nationalism in the revolutionary period. As Steiner puts it: “The French Revolution woke into fierce being and enlisted within its energies that most trenchant of modern emotions: the tribalism of the nation-state.” And, with some reservations, the prevailing view seems to be that this is a good thing.

But things were not so simple. National consciousness did not spring spontaneously out of the revolutionary fervour. It was imposed by the ruling class as the result of a long process of struggle. For example, at the time of the Revolution in many areas only a small minority of the peasantry understood the French language. They did not spontaneously identify themselves as “French”.

And in the best essay of the book (Hew Strachan on conscript armies) we learn that two thirds of Napoleon’s army which invaded Russia were not French – so it was not patriotism that made them plod through the snow.

Norman Hampson’s review of historians of the French Revolution does its best to minimise the Marxist contribution. But his main target is Albert Soboul. And Soboul, despite his great merits, never broke free from the framework of Stalinism. The “progressive” nature of the bourgeois revolution is viewed through the spectacles of the Popular Front. Robespierre becomes a forerunner of Old Joe himself.

The anti-Stalinist historians of the revolution, like Daniel Guerin and Maurice Dommanget, who showed the embryonic proletarian revolution emerging within the bourgeois revolution, do not even get a mention.

Hopefully some publisher will celebrate the Revolution by reprinting Guerin’s Class Struggle in the First French Republic.

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Last updated: 6 May 2010