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Henry Judd

Books in Review

“Righting” History

(January 1950)

From The New International, Vol. XVI No. 1, January–February 1950, pp. 62–64.
Transcribed by & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

La Lutte de Classes sous la Première République
by Daniel Guérin
(Vol. 1, 511 pp., Vol. 2, 472 pp.) Collection “La Suite des Temps,” NRF, Gallimard, Paris.

The problem of writing history from a Marxist and revolutionary viewpoint is hardly a new one, although a field in which, unfortunately, little progress can be noted. On the one hand, those few efforts to set up scholarly Marxist societies or institutes for historic research have either petered out for reasons beyond the control of their initiators, or degenerated into reactionary and propagandistic centers of little or no value, as is the case with the famous Marx-Engels Institute. From another angle, the capacity and possibility for “objective” and meritorious Marxist history has never been subjected to a definitive test since those few who have made contributions in this field have been men of such outstanding talent and ability that, so to speak, their very personalities and creativeness made success inevitable and their works worthy of study.

Thus in the field of historic writings Marxism has several great historians to its credit (Marx, Engels, Mehring, Trotsky, Pokrovsky, Kautsky), but no substantial, well-developed school of historians exists or has existed. This may argue well for the insistence of Marxism upon the relationship between history and the making of history, but it cannot convince those who question Marxism as a science of society capable of writing a penetrating, revolutionary history of that society.

Daniel Guérin, author of Fascism and Big Business, and a long-time militant in the socialist movement of France, devoted five years to his elaborate, two-volume history of the French Revolution as seen from the standpoint of its inner class forces and struggles. While accepting the remark of the well-known French writer Raymond Aron to the effect that objectivity does not mean impartiality, but universality, it is questionable whether Guérin’s achievement will rank high in the field of Marxist history.

It is regrettable that Guérin’s work has not received the attention it merits, if only for the thought and reflection it provokes on the problems facing revolutionary historians. The New International has likewise erred in not recognizing the energy, devotion and care which Guérin has given to this absorbing task of reevaluating the Great Revolution. While we cannot hail the results of the author’s work with equal conviction, it must be recognized that the effort made by Guérin has much to teach us.

It is not the intention of this review to give a detailed or critical account of the two volumes. For those interested in such a review, by a scholar and specialist in the field, we refer to the work of R.R. Palmer of Princeton University (in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. XIX, No. 4, December 1947). An evaluation of Guérin’s sources and an estimate of his critical polemics against the classic analysts of the French Revolution (Michelet, Jaurès, Mathiez, etc.) may be found in the article of this reviewer who approaches the work from the standpoint of modern historical scholarship. We shall concern ourselves here only with the manner of approach and the spirit in which Guérin has carried out his work.

Proletarian Historian

It must be said in all frankness that Guérin’s execution leaves much to be desired. He has given us a splendid example of sectarian and doctrinaire historical writing carried out to such a degree that, at times, one feels he is reading a fantastic anachronism. Guerin describes himself as a “proletarian historian” whose purpose it is to analyze the Great Revolution from a proper “class” view. No previous historian has done this; no one has applied Marx’s concept of the permanent revolution (later developed in Trotsky’s theory) to an understanding of the 1789-93 period. Michelet wrote his history from the viewpoint of a “moderate democrat”; Jaurès was actually a “bourgeois republican” whose work failed to reach the level of good Social-Democratic history; Mathiez was blinded by his petty-bourgeois ideology which led him to glorify and misrepresent Robespierre – i.e., the petty-bourgeois leader of the revolution.

These men have written “bourgeois” history; Guerin sets out to write “proletarian,” revolutionary history which he sadly interprets to be Marxist history. The hero of his work is the sans culotte, the bras nu – the proletarian. But since Marxist history has a class and revolutionary objective, Guérin does not spare us his conclusion. The French masses today must reject the French Revolution as it was; it did not constitute a step toward their ultimate liberation.

“An authentic Marxist analysis should contribute to detaching the modern proletariat from the bourgeois orbit, by showing the false light in which the French Revolution has ordinarily been presented to it and revealing that even at that time, though in rudimentary forms, the struggle was engaged between rich and poor.”

It is clear from both context and general tone that by “struggle” Guérin means the main struggle. In fact, at one point Guérin insists that the same problems, in essence and content, exist today!

Confusing Revolutions

This approach – to put it mildly – dominates these two lengthy volumes. But it assumes a specific and detailed form. It is true, as the author tells us, that we may much better understand a former revolution in the light of a later one. Properly understood, the experience of the Russian Revolution helps us to penetrate the nature of the French Revolution more rapidly and with greater ease. But if we wish to transpose the content, terminology, situation and conditions of the latter to the former, then, far from understanding, we end up in a monstrous distortion and an absurd caricature of what we are studying.

This, regretfully, seems to have been the result achieved by Guérin. He confuses Marx’s early formulation of the “revolution in permanence” with Trotsky’s elaborate working out of the conception; he confuses primitive, ideologically weak and undeveloped san culottes of 1789 (or rather, to be more exact, a small leftist vanguard of this broad, indeterminate and embryonic class) with the Bolshevik-led proletariat of Czarist Russia; he fails to understand that the divisions within the ranks of the bourgeoisie (Jacobin vs. Girondin, etc.) were of far greater importance to the French Revolution than divisions within the ranks of the working class; he fails to understand the difference between the narrowly commercial and plundering aspects of the foreign wars engaged in by revolutionary France and their objectively historic results in battering down feudalism, etc. In a word, Guérin looks at the French Revolution from the position of a man who would examine the stars by doubling over and sticking his head between his legs. The rush of blood to the head (in Guérin this takes the form of angry indignation directed at the bourgeois leaders, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Danton, etc.) would tend somewhat to influence what is seen.

Error in Method

How well it would have been for Guérin to have paid attention to Engels’ remarks on the Marxist technique of writing history, or to have taken the examples set by the great Marxists! Engels pointed out that Marxism, far from oversimplifying and denaturing the process of writing history, required an analysis, synthesis and fitting into a whole of an infinite variety of facts, forces and currents; that the basic tenets of Marxism were levers and instruments for sifting, ordering and organizing the material of history so as to give a broad, overall view not with the impossible aim of achieving an alleged “objectivity,” but a universality – i.e., the place of this or that event or happening in the history of mankind. In this respect, of course, every Marxist (except Guérin) has understood the French Revolution as one of the most progressive, revolutionary and glorious events in human history. To say that a Robespierre is a “reactionary” because he was not Lenin or Trotsky is to make a mockery of Marxist methodology. May we merely note that even Guérin recognizes that the death of Robespierre marked the definite halting of the revolution’s progress, even in bourgeois-democratic terms.

Is it necessary to say that an embryonic struggle, a foretaste of the future class struggles of 1832, 1848 and 1871 already existed within the context of the French Revolution? Surely recognition of this situation cannot have been the compelling factor in the arduous labors of the author. Jacques Rous, the Enragés and Herbertistes, Babœuf and his supporters all take their place in the history of the revolutionary working class, but let that be a properly understood place. The fatal error in Guérin’s methodology is his effort to impose the criticism, standards and possibilities of the Russian Revolution upon the French Revolution.

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