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Ian Birchall

The Ancien Regime and Revolution


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2, 2002, pp.25–50.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

William Doyle
The Ancien Regime
Palgrave, Basingstoke 2001, pp. 66

Moira Donald and Tim Rees (eds.)
Reinterpreting Revolution in Twentieth-Century Europe
Macmillan, Basingstoke 2001, pp. 242

IN one sense, the reform or revolution debate has moved on. Today nobody, except for a handful of deep entrists in the Labour Party, even pretends to believe that socialism could come through parliament. Yet, as October 1917 recedes into the past, the notion of what a revolution would actually look like becomes more obscure. But the old mole is not dead, and these two volumes reveal that even the academic world has to face the problem.

Doyle is a well-known revisionist on the question of the French Revolution; and in this guide for students he tries to belittle the importance of the Revolution by stressing the continuities between the old regime and post-Revolutionary society. In this, he is indebted to Tocqueville, one of the few genuinely intelligent conservative thinkers, to whom the present crop of anti-revolutionaries return again and again.

Thus he argues that ‘trade and industry commanded as little social prestige in the early nineteenth century as they had since the remotest times’, and that the real change came with the advent of the railways after 1840. He should follow Engels’ advice and study the novels of Balzac, where he will see just what an impact the Revolution had on the values of society, religion and the family.

He argues that there was no significance to Le Chapelier’s law to ban trade unions, because pre-Revolutionary governments had ‘never countenanced any form of workers’ organisations’. Why then was Le Chapelier, who had been President of the National Assembly in 1789, so anxious to insist that the Revolution was ‘finished’. Precisely because social relations were changing far more rapidly than he had envisaged; as Marge Piercy puts it in her brilliant novel City of Darkness, City of Light: ‘Enlightened gentlemen imagined a Revolution that would be vigorous but polite … They had never imagined that people who waited on them in stores and made boots for them, who carted off their waste and brought them water, would come to rule.’

He also claims that the Enlightenment was not hostile to the old regime, but was essentially reformist. This is to forget that the philosophic movement of the eighteenth century contained many different currents — rather like the pre-Blair Labour Party — from moderate reformers to militant atheists and utopian communists.

However, Doyle makes one telling point. He argues that ‘the overthrow of the Ancien Regime began in France because there centralised government had excluded everybody from all say in or experience of public affairs, and thereby deprived men of all sense of public duty’. Two centuries later, that analysis has a real resonance.

The Donald and Rees volume is a collection of essays by academics, based on a series of seminars; like many such collections, it enables contributors to fulfil the norms of a system increasingly based on piecework. But since each writer is concerned with his or her personal research, there is no unifying focus. Certainly, the book contains many interesting observations, and much useful empirical material. But there is no engagement of debate, and no confrontation of theory with practice, such as would be necessary to truly develop a scientific approach. It confirms the present reviewer’s view that the bourgeois universities will play an ever-decreasing rôle in the development of knowledge.

Several contributors are concerned to define exactly what constitutes a revolution. Thus there are chapters entitled Stalin’s Great Turn and The Nazi Revolution. The problem here is of not seeing the wood for the trees. In Marxist terms, a revolution is the self-emancipation of an oppressed class; the means must be revolutionary, since the institutions of society are in the hands of the oppressors, and cannot serve their victims. Once this basic insight is abandoned, and merely secondary features are considered, then it is indeed difficult to tell a revolution from a counter-revolution.

Several contributors are concerned by the ‘revolutions’ of 1989 in the Stalinist bloc, since these present an apparently new historical phenomenon. Yet again the danger is of looking too closely at their subject. The question as to how extensive and how significant popular uprisings were is certainly of great interest, but it is secondary. It is first necessary to establish the nature and causes of the events.

It is all too easy to be confused by the regimes’ self-description. But anyone who considers that the collapse of Stalinism constituted a defeat for the working class has entered a world of formalism and abstraction, in which the term ‘working class’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the women and men who actually work in factories, mines and offices. It is rather like announcing that the French Revolution was against the Will of God, since Louis XVI claimed to rule in God’s name.

Moreover, the detailed focus on national specifics by academic specialists leads them to miss the ultimate cause of the collapse of Stalinism, namely the fact that centralised state economies, which had achieved a certain brutal efficiency in rapid industrialisation, had become obsolete as world capitalism entered a more highly globalised form in which the Stalinist regimes were incapable of competing.

Yet the ghost of revolution still walks through the corridors of our universities. Many readers will doubtless agree with the concluding sentences of the book, by Krishan Kumar: ‘The end of revolution has been proclaimed on numerous occasions in the twentieth century, in the 1930s as well as the 1950s and the 1980s. In each case a surprise was in store. We will be surprised again; of that we can be sure.’

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Last updated: 21 May 2021