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Alex Callinicos

Revising the revolution

(September 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 123, September 1989.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
Simon Schama
Viking £20.00

THE FRENCH Revolution gave the British ruling class the fright of its life, scaring many of its more enlightened members away from even the most limited reforms for a generation.

The intensity of the shock lived on in the dominant images of the Revolution, which were perhaps given definitive shape by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities – images of mob rule, bloodshed, anarchy and unreason.

After the Second World War, British historians made a major contribution to dismantling this view of the French Revolution.

In particular, Richard Cobb, George Rude and Gwyn Williams – under the influence of or in collaboration with French Marxists such as Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul – pioneered the history of the Revolution from below.

The appearance of Simon Schama’s new book marks a sharp swing back of the pendulum.

His analysis of the Revolution is very much old hat, drawing on Alfred Cobban and Francois Furet, the principal authors of the “revisionist” attack on the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution over the past 35 years.

What Schama offers is not any new ideas but, in the first place, a distinctive style. He is a skilful and fluent writer.

But – unlike his earlier book The Embarrassment of Riches, about the seventeenth century Dutch republic – Citizens is not a portrayal of an entire society. It is, as Schama says, an “old-fashioned piece of storytelling”.

More than that – it is a story told primarily from the point of view of the aristocracy. The sufferings recounted are typically those of noble victims of the Revolution. Instead of history from below, we have here top people’s history. Schama is the Nancy Mitford of revolutionary history.

He is traditional also in lingering on the violence of the revolution. Bloody deaths are described in graphic detail. Some deaths seem to matter more than others. There are two sentences on the 98 citizens killed during the storming of the Bastille.

The killing during the September massacres of Marie Antoinette’s friend, the Princesse de Lamballe, merits a page – far more than the few lines devoted to the mass execution of Jacobin leaders after Robespierre’s fall on 9 Thermidor.

Schama denounces those historians who are more concerned to explain than to condemn Jacobin violence for “the scholarly normalisation of evil”, but is quick to find excuses for the atrocities committed by the counter-revolutionary peasants of the Vendée and virtually ignores the White Terror under the Thermidorean regime.

The revolution, then, was a thoroughly bad thing. But how does Schama explain it? Not by social forces. France before the revolution was, he claims, a dynamic, rapidly modernising society in which the main impulse for change came from the liberal nobility who had largely become capitalists.

Far from representing the survival of feudal social relations, “eighteenth-century privileges seem to have more in common with the honorific distinctions and forms common to all modern societies”.

The radicalisation of the revolution under Jacobin leadership in 1792–4 is portrayed as the accidental diversion of a benign reform of French society from above. Accordingly Schama takes 600 pages to reach the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792.

He is, however, less orthodox in insisting on a continuity between 1789 and the Year II. “The notion that, between 1789 and 1791, France basked in some sort of liberal pleasure garden before the erection of the guillotine is a complete fantasy.” On the contrary, “the Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count.”

Schama dismisses the idea that the violence of the revolution had anything to do with the poverty, inequality and brutality endemic in France under the old regime.

He makes revolutionary ideas the driving force, stimulating the violence on which Schama obsessively, if selectively, concentrates.

This tells us precisely nothing about why the ideas had so profound an impact. To answer that question we need the classical Marxist analysis which stresses the extent to which feudal relations of production still weighed down on the mass of the French people.

If the lords’ privileges were, as Schama claims, little more than elegant versions of the CBE, why did peasants rise throughout the French countryside not merely during the Great Fear of July 1789, but repeatedly, until the Convention finally abolished feudal dues four years later?

Schama virtually ignores the bitter class conflicts which raged in rural France throughout the Revolutionary period, treating even the Great Fear as an inconvenient and frightening interruption of the de la Tour du Pins’ holidays.

Equally, Schama plays down the extent to which revolutionary violence was a response to the threat or reality of counter-revolutionary violence.

Yet even he cannot conceal that the fall of the monarchy and the September massacres took place as Prussian and Austrian troops advanced on Paris threatening the city with, in their commander’s words, an “exemplary and unforgettable act of vengeance”.

The real continuity between 1789 and the Year II is that of a popular movement, in the cities at least. Under the leadership of a section of the bourgeoisie, usually spurred on by hunger, it forced through changes against the opposition of counter-revolutionary forces.

In this conflict both sides resorted to force: Schama’s attacks on the revolutionaries’ use of violence for political ends are merely indicative of his own sympathies for the ancien regime.

Citizens is more than a mere popularisation of the revisionism of Cobban and Furet – though it is that, modishly packaged for the yuppies of the Thatcher-Reagan era with, for example, carefully signalled bourgeois feminist sympathies (thus, counter-revolutionary women like Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday were the objects of “sexual fear”).

By completely detaching the understanding of the revolution from the analysis of social processes Schama reveals the logic of revisionism, namely a regression to seeing the great events of 1789–94 as merely the barbarous, even demonic destruction of a gracious, lamented social order.

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