George Rudé 1961

Interpretations of the French Revolution

Source: Historical Association Pamphlet, General Series, no 47 (London, 1961). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

No period of history has so frequently been rewritten in the light of current preoccupations or been such a repeated battleground of conflicting ideologies as the French Revolution. Ever since Edmund Burke, 170 years ago, dipped his pen in vitriol to blast the Revolution in its infancy, generation after generation of Frenchmen, with occasional support from other countries, have joined in the fray and done their bit to disprove the validity of Ranke’s contention that history is ‘what actually happened’. The main events of the Revolution — the meetings of the Notables and of the States General, the Constitution of 1791, the fall of the monarchy, the execution of Robespierre, and the rise of Napoleon — have, it is true, been accepted as facts by even the most incredulous and disputatious; but precious little else. What sort of Revolution was it? One of ‘poverty’ or ‘prosperity'? A bourgeois revolution that overthrew feudalism? A national struggle for liberty, democracy or ‘eternal justice'? Or, again, a criminal conspiracy against the old social order? What did it achieve? What was its ultimate significance? What sort of men were its leaders, its supporters and its victims? What part was played in it by aristocracy, middle classes, peasants, urban sans-culottes? When did it begin? When did it end? What were its most significant landmarks and turning-points? Was there one single French Revolution or were there several? Questions such as these have been asked and variously answered by succeeding generations and ‘schools’ of historians. It is the purpose of this pamphlet to consider the main stages of this discussion and some of the changing views and interpretations that have arisen in the course of it.

The Restoration Period, 1815-30

After Burke’s Reflections (1790) no really important contribution to the discussion appeared until the Restoration of 1815-30. It was a period admirably suited for the rewriting of history in political terms. Forty million pages of history, it has been said, were written in the year 1825 alone — a large part of them devoted to the Revolution. [1] Napoleon had been shipped to St Helena to the general satisfaction of ‘respectable’ society; Louis XVIII had returned with the émigré nobility and clergy; the Charter had been granted to appease liberal opinion and to ensure the restored monarchy of the general support of the ‘political nation’. But memories of the momentous events of the past quarter-century died hard; and behind the façade of national unity conservative Legitimists and liberal Constitutionalists sharpened their pens (if not yet their knives) to settle old scores, and the stage was admirably set for a prolonged duel of words with the French Revolution as its major theme. ‘An opinion on historical fact’, wrote the Liberal Berville, ‘cannot constitute an offence in the eyes of the law.’ Augustin Thierry was even more specific. ‘In 1817’, he wrote, ‘preoccupied with a strong desire to contribute to the triumph of constitutional opinions, I began to look into the works of history for proofs and arguments which would support my political beliefs.’ [2]

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that under these circumstances the Liberals’ thesis of the Revolution should take on a distinctly political complexion and should tell us almost as much about their own constitutional pretensions as about the Revolution itself. As supporters of limited monarchy and upholders of the Charter of 1814, the Liberals were anxious to prove that the Revolution was justified, that it had its roots in France’s national past, and that the Charter itself, by the method of its granting, set an official seal of approval on the work of the ‘men of 1789’. To Guizot the Revolution had its distant origins in the struggles of Gauls against Franks; in later history, the consecutive crimes of aristocracy, Church and Absolute Monarchy had all made its outbreak inevitable. [3] Madame de Staël considered it:

... one of the grand eras of social order... The same movement in the minds of men which brought about the revolution in England was the cause of that in France in 1789. Both belong to the third era in the progress of social order — the establishment of representative government. [4]

Though the constitution-makers of 1791 were not without their faults, the result of their work was to transform ‘the internal existence of the nation’. For the abuses of the past, wrote François Mignet:

... the Revolution substituted a system more conformable with justice and better suited to our times. It substituted law in the place of arbitrary will, equality in that of privilege; delivered men from the distinction of classes, the land from the barriers of provinces, trade from the shackles of corporations and fellowships [sic!], agriculture from feudal subjection and the aggression of tithes, property from the impediment of entails, and brought everything to the condition of one state, one system of law, one people. [5]

Of course, the Liberals were embarrassed by the ‘excesses’ of the Revolution and, in general, considered that it took a wrong turning after 1791. Being monarchists, they could hardly condone the execution of Louis XVI; not being democrats, they found little to enthuse them in the activities of the Parisian sans-culottes; and being Liberals, they detested the ‘despotism’ of the Committee of Public Safety and of Bonaparte. With them, therefore, the Revolution tends to fall into two distinct parts — the years 1789 to 1791, which are generally approved of; and the years 1792 to 1794 (or 1799 or 1814), which are generally condemned. There are, however, exceptions. Danton, for example, receives praise. ‘Danton’s mind’, wrote Adolphe Triers, ‘was uncultivated, but it was noble, contemplative and, above all, possessed simplicity and firmness'; [6] and Mignet wrote of the death of Danton and Desmoulins:

Thus perished the last defenders of humanity and moderation, the last who sought to promote peace among the conquerors of the Revolution and pity for the conquered. [7]

But the great exception to the general rule was the attitude of the Liberal historians to the feats of arms performed by the soldiers of the Republic and Empire: these, at all costs, must be rescued from oblivion and seen as part of France’s great heritage of military glory. ‘The conduct of the French army during the period of Terror’, wrote Madame de Staël, ‘was truly patriotic... the soldiers belonged not to any particular chief, but to France.’ And how, she asks:

... was it possible for the government of 1793 and 1794 to triumph over so many enemies? This prodigy can be explained only by the devotion of the nation to its cause. A million men took arms to repel the forces of the coalition; the people were animated with a frenzy as fatal in the interior as invincible without. [8]

And even the ‘crimes’ of the Convention and of the Jacobins, though thoroughly reprehensible, were no worse, according to the Abbé Montgaillard, than those perpetrated on St Bartholomew’s Eve, at the time of the Fronde, and by Louis XIV. [9] In any case, the aristocracy and higher clergy must bear their full share of responsibility for the turn of events for, having joined with the rest of the nation in promoting the Revolution, they deserted it after October 1789 and left its direction in the wrong hands.

For the men of rank and property offering no support to liberty [wrote Madame de Staël], democratic power necessarily acquired the ascendancy... In France, the nobility opposed these rights [that is, the rights long enjoyed by the English Commons], but being too weak to struggle with the people, they quitted the country in a mass, and allied themselves with foreigners. [10]

Conservative writers, on the other hand, reflecting the views of the majority of returned émigrés, tended to view the Charter of 1814 with suspicion and to condemn the Revolution as a series of crimes against society, church and state, leading by inevitable stages to regicide, terror and the dictatorship of the usurper Bonaparte. [11] None of these, however, if we except the Abbé Barruel’s five-volume polemic against Jacobinism written in exile, wrote a full-length history of the Revolution; but, though strongly divided among themselves on their attitude to the parlements, the nobility and the church (whether Gallican or Ultramontane), they formed a more or less common front to press home the attack on the weaker points in the Liberals’ arguments in a number of scattered pamphlets, political treatises and memoirs. The only one of them to have an influence comparable with that of the Liberal historians was Barruel, who first put forward the explanation that the Revolution was the outcome of a conspiracy hatched by Illuminati, Freemasons, philosophes and Jacobins. [12] This theory was to become part of the stock-in-trade of subsequent generations of conservative historians. In England, it found an early adherent in John Wilson Croker who, besides endowing the British Museum with his vast collection of Revolution tracts, drew heavily on royalist memoirs to refute the works of Thiers and the ‘Jacobin historians’ and to present the events of 1789 in terms of a conspiracy devised in the entourage of the Duke of Orleans. [13]

The Revolution of 1848 and the Second Empire

The July Monarchy, being fashioned in the image of the Liberals of the 1820s, added little that was new to their conception of the Revolution until it was in full decline. The Revolution of 1848, however, and the Second Empire that followed, raised new problems and produced another crop of historical writing on the subject. Jules Michelet began to work out his ideas on the Revolution as professor at the Collège de France in Louis-Philippe’s reign; but his great seven-volume History is impregnated with the spirit of the Republican democrats of 1848 and belongs essentially to that period. [14] Conservatives and Liberals of the Restoration, for all their differences and bitter mutual recriminations, were at least agreed in their contempt for the common people, or sans-culottes, of the Revolution. Thiers and Mignet both justified Bailly’s proclamation of Martial Law against the Parisian petitioners of 17 July 1791, which led to the notorious ‘massacre’ of the Champ de Mars; and Thiers liberally dubbed the rioters and insurgents of 1789 as ‘brigands’. [15] Carlyle, writing in 1837, was more sympathetic: the poor workers and artisans of the Faubourg St Antoine, who destroyed Réveillon’s house in April 1789 and broke into his wine-cellars, were for him at least ‘poor lackels, all betoiled, besoiled, encrusted into dim effacement’. [16] Michelet, however, viewed ‘the people’ with more than pitying indulgence. They become the very life-blood, inspiration and driving force of the Revolution, whether in peace or war; and the leaders, in consequence, are reduced to playing the subordinate part of puppets that are brought to life, inflated or destroyed by the ebb and flow of the popular movement.

L'acteur principal [he wrote in his preface of 1847] est le peuple. Pour le retrouver, celui-ci, pour le replacer dans son rôle, j'ai dû ramener à leurs proportions les ambitieuses marionnettes dont il a tiré les fils, et dans lesquelles, jusqu'ici, on croyait voir, on cherchait le jeu secret de l'histoire. [17]

To Michelet the Revolution marked a regenerative upsurge of the whole French nation, born of the hunger, poverty and oppression of the masses and the lofty idealism and quest for ‘eternal Justice’ of men of every social class; the Bastille surrendered to ‘the people’ because ‘its conscience troubled it’, and the revolutionary wars were fought with mystical fervour by the whole nation under arms. But, as a Republican democrat of 1848, he drew a distinction between the glories of 1789 to 1792 — ‘l'époque sainte’ — when the nation was united, and the ‘heroic’ but ‘sombre’ days of 1793-94 — ‘l'époque des violences, l'époque des actes sanguinaires’ — to which the Republic had been driven by dangers from within and without. [18] Concerned as he was to present the Revolution as a great popular movement, it is not surprising that Michelet’s History should open with the events of the spring and summer of 1789 and close with Robespierre’s overthrow in July 1794.

Michelet certainly broke new ground and his influence on subsequent generations has been profound; but, in several respects, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution appeared a few years later, was a more original thinker. Like Michelet, Tocqueville was strongly influenced by his experiences of 1848, when he had served as a Minister, and perhaps even more by the Bonapartist coup d'état and Empire; but unlike Michelet he was a conservative Liberal, who shared none of his enthusiasm for democracy and was appalled rather than enthused by the part played by ‘the people'; in fact, he wrote that ‘this Revolution was prepared by the most civilised, but carried out by the most barbarous and the rudest classes of the nation’. [19] However, far from presenting the Revolution as an unfortunate break with France’s otherwise glorious past in the manner of the Restoration Conservatives, Tocqueville stressed the continuity of ideas and institutions linking the Revolution and Empire with the Old Regime: in this he went considerably further than Guizot had done before him. ‘The French Revolution’, he wrote, ‘will only be the darkness of night to those who merely regard itself; only the times which preceded it will give the light to illuminate it.’ [20] Certainly the Revolution saw a strengthening of the central administration in the authority conferred on the committees of government and their agents over both Assembly and local authorities — a process carried considerably further under the Consulate and Empire. But this, argued Tocqueville, was merely the logical sequel to the ‘administrative revolution’ that had already begun under Louis XVI; and he pointed to the extended powers of the Conseil du Roi, the all-pervading activities of the Intendants, the progressive reduction in the independence of pays d'état and local government, the growing integration of the Gallican church with the machinery of state, and the emergence of a whole new apparatus for the exercise of administrative justice. Such reforms were accompanied by a phenomenal increase in national prosperity: the commerce of Bordeaux, on the eve of the Revolution, outmatched that of Liverpool, and the French bourgeoisie could pride itself, as never before, on its wealth and economic power. The peasants, too, far from grovelling in abject poverty, backwardness and unrelieved squalor, were already the owners of half the land of France. Why then, he asks, was there a revolution in France and not in Austria, Prussia, Poland or Russia, where the people were far more impoverished and oppressed? It was precisely, he argued, because of the rapid pace of prosperity and enlightenment that the survivals of feudalism — in many ways actually intensified during these latter years of the old order — appeared all the more onerous and intolerable. Ministers and officials, whose job it should have been to administer and defend the existing system, were the first to be affected by the corrosive ideas of Encyclopaedists and philosophes; the bourgeoisie, by virtue of their growing wealth, resented all the more the exemptions and privileges of the other orders; and the peasants, having tasted of the sweets of personal freedom and ownership, were all the more exasperated by the surviving burden of feudal dues and obligations. Tocqueville sums up this part of his argument in a famous passage:

It is not always by going from bad to worse that a society falls into revolution. It happens most often that a people, which has supported without complaint, as if they were not felt, the most oppressive laws, violently throws them off as soon as their weight is lightened. The social order destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than that which immediately preceded it, and experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform... Feudalism at the height of its power had not inspired Frenchmen with so much hatred as it did on the eve of its disappearing. The slightest acts of arbitrary power under Louis XVI seemed less easy to endure than all the despotism of Louis XIV. [21]

The Paris Commune and Taine

Among those whom the Revolution of 1848 had made enthusiastic for the popular cause was Hyppolite Taine. But the Liberal of 1848 became soured and disillusioned by his experience of the Commune of 1871 and, five years later, he published the most eloquent, bitter and scathing indictment of the great Revolution that had yet been penned. [22] But whereas earlier conservative historians had presented the Revolution as an unfortunate accident or the product of a conspiracy, Taine saw it as the logical outcome of the dissolution of government and of the old social order (which he, incidentally, condemned); thus anarchy — ‘spontaneous anarchy’, as he calls it — was let loose and the ‘mob’ took over. At one stage of his narrative, this appears to happen from the very start; elsewhere, he is more specific and dates the final surrender to anarchy and terror from the forcible return of the King to Paris from Versailles on 6 October 1789. ‘Cette fois, on n'en peut plus douter; la Terreur est établie et a demeuré.’ [23] But he puts forward what was then a highly original explanation of the particular anger and violence of the popular outbreak: one factor was famine which, he claimed, had been chronic since January 1789 and was becoming progressively more severe; another was the high hopes aroused among the people ('la grande espérance’) that, as the King himself had ordered the States General to meet and the cahiers to be drawn up, everything would be done to redress their wrongs. This, he believed, was as important as the economic crisis and the longstanding grievance against feudal exaction in prompting the peasants to take the law into their hands and to march on the mansions of their seigneurs to shouts of ‘Long live the King!’. But Taine, unlike Michelet, by no means identifies the insurgents with the French people as a whole: the provincial rioters of 1789 are presented as ‘contre-bandiers, faux-sauniers, braconniers, vagabonds, mendiants, repris de justice'; and the captors of the Bastille become ‘la lie de la société’, ‘la dernière plèbe’, ‘bandits’ and ‘vagabonds’ [24] — epithets that have served the conservative historians of the Revolution ever since. Taine goes further: the leaders, too, the Jacobins and other promoters of the concept of ‘popular sovereignty’ are neither typical Frenchmen of their day nor normally balanced mortals: they tend, in fact, to be social failures and misfits, mainly of the lower middle class, men of unstable character, riddled with dogma and with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. ‘Ce sont là nos Jacobins; ils naissent dans la décomposition sociale, ainsi que des champignons dans un terreau qui fermente.’ [25] Taine’s ideas were to have a great influence on later writers: not surprisingly, the destructive and unflattering picture that he painted of the Revolution appealed to extreme conservatives; but his social analysis proved of interest and value to a later school of radical historians as well.

The Third Republic and Aulard

As Michelet reflected the views of the Republican democrats of 1848 and Taine those of conservatives and ex-Liberals of the next generation, so Alphonse Aulard was a typical Radical of the Third Republic. Of a generation that had acclaimed Gambetta and seen the downfall of the Second Empire, he was the first occupant of the newly-created Chair of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne. His great four-volume Political History appeared at the turn of the century [26] and marks a sort of parting of the ways in the study of the Revolution. On the one hand, it ushered in a new era as being a work of exacting and scrupulous scholarship: Aulard was the first French historian to apply to a work of modern history the rigorously systematic and critical use of sources; here he took as his models Ranke and his school in Germany and French medievalists trained in the Ecole des Chartes. But Aulard’s History, as its title suggests, still follows the nineteenth-century pattern of arguing about the Revolution in political and ideological terms, and the greater objectivity of the scholar has by no means eliminated the political bias of the citizen reared in the democratic-Republican tradition of Michelet. This bias and his general interpretation of the Revolution are evident in the preface to his first edition:

I wish to write the political history of the Revolution from the point of view of the origin and the development of Democracy and Republicanism. Democracy is the logical consequence of the principle of equality. Republicanism is the logical consequence of the principle of national sovereignty. These two consequences did not ensue at once. In place of Democracy, the men of 1789 founded a middle-class government, a suffrage of property-owners. In place of the Republic, they organised a limited monarchy. Not until 22 September did they abolish the Monarchy and create the Republic. The republican form of government lasted... until 1804... when the government of the Republic was confined to an Emperor. [27]

Equally significant of his conception of the Revolution is Aulard’s division of ‘the history of Democracy and the Republic’ into four main stages, which correspond to the divisions separating each one of his four volumes — (i) 1789-92, ‘the period of the origins of Democracy and the Republic'; (ii) 1792-95, ‘the period of the Democratic Republic'; (iii) 1795-99, ‘the period of the Bourgeois Republic'; and (iv) 1799-1804, ‘the period of the Plebiscitary Republic’. [28] One suspects that had Aulard been asked to choose one single decisive turning-point in the course of the Revolution, he would have chosen October 1795 (the point at which his second volume ends): not because it marked the end of the ‘popular’ Revolution with the defeat of the Parisian san-culottes in Prairial (May 1795), but because it marked the adoption of the Constitution of the Year III, whose essential characteristic he considered to be ‘the suppression of the system of democracy established on 10 August 1792’. [29] In fact, a confirmed critic of the Revolution like Cochin could justly tax Aulard with accepting the whole period 1789 to 1795 as being all of a piece: Taine had done so, too, but in order to damn it wholesale; not, as in Aulard’s case, to present it as a great and continuous struggle for the attainment of a highly desirable objective. Even so, Aulard was by no means undiscriminating in his admiration of the leaders of the Revolution. For him, as for many Radicals of his generation, Danton was the great man of the Republic, a man cast in the heroic mould of a Mirabeau or a Gambetta, who, although lacking a system and a programme, was a stranger to hatred and vengeance and undeserving of the charges of cruelty and venality that historians and contemporaries had heaped upon him. Robespierre, on the other hand, for all his integrity and his outstanding services to the Republic, was a meaner type of mortal: he did not hesitate to destroy the Girondins in order to avenge an affront to his personal dignity and there was some justification (Aulard felt) for considering him ‘a hypocritical demagogue’.

Lord Acton, who was lecturing on the Revolution at Cambridge during the years that Aulard was assembling the materials for his Political History, greatly admired his scholarship and even thought that the pending publication of the proceedings of the Jacobin Club, of the Paris Commune and Electors, and other collections of documents would soon make it possible to write the definitive history of the Revolution: ‘... in a few years all these publications will be completed, and all will be known that ever can be known.’ [30] But, as a Whig, Acton stood far closer to Tocqueville than he did to Aulard. ‘Tocqueville’, he wrote, ‘was a Liberal of the purest breed — a Liberal and nothing else'; and he clearly shared his suspicion of democracy ‘and its kindred, equality, centralisation and utilitarianism’. Like Tocqueville, too, he criticised the French philosophes for their ‘disregard for liberty’ — an influence, he considered, that left its mark on the whole Revolution. But his outbursts of moral indignation are entirely his own, as, for example, his comment on the September Massacres: ‘We have touched low-water mark in the Revolution; and there is nothing worse than this to come. We are in the company of men fit for Tyburn.’ His judgement on Danton, completely at variance with that of Aulard, was in keeping: ‘With Danton and his following we reach the lowest stage of what can still be called the conflict of opinion, and come to bare cupidity and vengeance, to brutal instinct and hideous passion.’ [31] Even more significant of Acton’s general attitude to the French Revolution was his assessment of the Constitution of the Year III which, for him, too, brought the revolutionary period to a close, though for reasons quite different from those of Aulard.

The new Constitution [he wrote] afforded securities for order and liberty such as France had never enjoyed. The Revolution had begun with a Liberalism which was a passion more than a philosophy, and the first Assembly endeavoured to realise it by diminishing authority, weakening the executive and decentralising power. In the hour of peril under the Girondins the policy failed, and the Jacobins governed on the principle that power, coming from the people, ought to be concentrated in the fewest possible hands and made absolutely irresistible. Equality became the substitute of liberty, and the danger arose that the most welcome form of equality would be the equal distribution of property... These schemes were at an end and the Constitution of the Year III closes the revolutionary period. [32]

A far more thorough-going critic of Aulard, and one who, in the tradition of Taine and the Restoration Conservatives, condemned all that the Revolution stood for, was Augustin Cochin. Cochin’s particular contribution was to pick up the arguments first advanced by the Abbé Barruel, bring them up to date in the light of more recent research, and to present a fully renovated version of the ‘conspiracy’ thesis as an explanation of the outbreak and further progress of the Revolution. A less gifted contemporary, Gustave Bord, had already made a rather crude attempt to present the Paris insurrection of July 1789 in terms of a masonic conspiracy. [33] Cochin was both more scholarly and more subtle and concentrated his attack more particularly on the events immediately preceding the Revolution in the two provinces of Burgundy and Brittany. [34] He argued that both masonic lodges and literary societies (he calls them ‘sociétés de pensée’), which existed in large numbers in French provincial towns towards the end of the century, were in reality political clubs, whose members, nourished on the ideas of the Enlightenment, planned and plotted the overthrow of the old social order. How was it possible, he asks, to organise a campaign to secure a double representation of the Third Estate in January 1789, to elect similarly minded deputies to the meetings of local electors and to the States General at Versailles, to prepare cahiers de doléances of a common inspiration? ‘Il y a là un phénomène étrange qu'on n'a peut-être pas assez expliqué.’ The only reasonable explanation, he concludes, is that there was a plot — a plot that, in the first instance, was formed and directed by what he calls ‘la cabale des avocats’, though he adds that, in Burgundy at least, it was composed equally of doctors, surgeons and notaries, ‘tous petits bourgeois obscurs, dont plusieurs se firent nommer députés aux Etats, dont aucun ne laissa un nom’. [35]

A conservative historian of a very different outlook, and one whose influence in this country has been greater than that of either Taine or Cochin, was Louis Madelin, whose main work on the Revolution was published in 1911. Unlike most of the conservatives of the nineteenth century, Madelin condemned the anarchy of the Old Regime and approved of the aims of the men of 1789; he was also the first prominent historian of the Revolution to be a convinced Bonapartist.

The Revolution of 1789 [he wrote] had been the work of the Nation. The ‘progress of knowledge’ had opened the eyes of the upper classes to the abuses of inequality. The excess of the public suffering had driven the popular classes into rebellion. Their firm resolve to abolish the feudal system had stirred the peasants to revolt. The evident anarchy existing in the King’s government had roused a general desire for a Constitution, but by the word Constitution nine-tenths of the French nation understood nothing more than a charter which should reorganise the state. Equality in matters of justice and taxation the abolition of the feudal system a methodical and orderly system of government — these were what the Frenchmen of January 1789 sought to obtain. [36]

By August, argues Madelin, ‘almost all these things had been secured'; and for most Frenchmen, the peasantry in particular, the Revolution, having achieved its purpose, had come to an end. This, then, for Madelin is the real turning-point far more than Thermidor or the Constitution of the Year III; and after this, the Revolution is merely carried on for another ten years by its own impetus, the ambitions of political leaders, and the rapacity of the ‘mob’ until, at long last, Bonaparte and his grenadiers came to clean up the mess, drive out the profiteers, demagogues and oligarchs on 18-19 Brumaire, and to complete and consolidate the early achievements of the Revolution.

Napoleon Bonaparte was to give France all that was expected of him. And for that reason the Revolution did not come to an end on that evening of 19 Brumaire, for it was to be written now in Codes, and Concordats, and Treaties. [37]

Madelin’s contemporary, Hilaire Belloc, painted an entirely different picture of the Revolution. As a Roman Catholic, he considered the conflict between church and state in the Revolution to be of paramount importance, and he presents the events of 1789 to 1794 essentially as a battle of ideas. But, perhaps surprisingly, he shared Michelet’s view of the Revolution as a great regenerative episode in the history of the French people; and even Robespierre comes in for praise. Danton, it is true, is his particular hero and is commended for his intelligence, courage, patriotism, eloquence and powers of leadership; yet Belloc is anxious to dispel the ‘legend’ that Robespierre was ‘a man of blood’: ‘He has left no monument; but from the intensity of his faith and from his practice of it, his name, though it will hardly increase, will certainly endure.’ [38]

Historians of the Twentieth Century

So far, the historians of the Revolution, for all the deep differences of social outlook, political affiliation or mere emphasis that divide them, have certain significant characteristics in common. For one thing, they all (even Michelet) see the Revolution ‘from above’ — that is from the vantage-point of the King’s Court at Versailles, the National Assembly, the Jacobin Club, the Committee of Public Safety, or the national press. The Revolution is presented as a battle of ideas or of rival political factions in which the main contenders for power are the King and the Court party, the parlements and aristocracy, and the Third Estate with their middle-class and liberal-aristocratic leaders. The peasantry hardly appears in the picture any more than the urban sans-culottes; and if they do, their thoughts and actions (where not merely blind outbursts of ‘mob’ violence) are the reflections of those of the aristocracy, the revolutionary bourgeoisie, or the orators and journalists of the Tuileries and Palais Royal. This approach to the problems of the Revolution and their interpretation is as true of the Liberal and Radical historians as it is of the conservatives and royalists — as true of Thiers, Michelet and Aulard as it is of Taine, Cochin and Madelin; as true of those who saw the Revolution as a struggle for a Constitution (Thiers, Mignet, Madelin), for ‘eternal Justice’ (Michelet), for Democracy and the Republic (Aulard), or for Liberty (Acton) as of those for whom it was an evil conspiracy designed to pull the old order out by the roots. Tocqueville, admittedly, does not quite fit in to this pattern, but he is altogether somewhat of a freak.

In the sixty years since Aulard wrote his Political History, the main school of historians of the Revolution has tended to shift its focus from the centre of events and from the classes that solely engaged the attention of their predecessors. Serious study has been made of economic and social questions, not merely to provide the political story with frills but to give new depths and a new perspective to the Revolution as a whole. The peasantry and urban sans-culottes (particularly in Paris, it is true) have been brought into the picture and studied ‘from below’ as social classes and groups having their own identity, ideas and aspirations, independent of those of the upper and middle bourgeoisie and the revolutionary politicians and journalists. Robespierre has been taken out of the Chamber of Horrors and put at the centre of the stage as the most consistent and important leader and spokesman of radical democracy. Finally, there has been a tendency to present the conflicts of the Revolution in terms of a struggle of classes rather than of ideas or ideologies. This reorientation of Revolutionary studies clearly owes a great deal to Marx and to the spread of socialist ideas in Europe during the past seventy-five years: to that extent it may be said to represent a new socialist interpretation of the Revolution. But it is not only that, since historians other than socialists have been affected by it; and, in that sense, it may be said to respond to the new problems and social developments of the twentieth century that have widened the horizon of historians generally — such developments as universal suffrage, market research, the Welfare State, mass trade unionism, the Russian Revolution, and the experiences of two World Wars. Partly, no doubt, too, historians of the Revolution have been influenced by historians in other fields, among whom Marc Bloch with his studies of medieval rural society has probably been the most eminent.

The first historian in France to give this new direction to Revolutionary studies was Jean Jaurès, secretary of the French Socialist Party and author of the Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française, published in 1901-04. In spite of its highly tendentious title, this was by no means a set party-piece or a political polemic, and it received the unstinting praise of Aulard. Jaurès accepted Michelet’s and Aulard’s general thesis that the Revolution was a struggle for the democratic Republic: to that extent he was no innovator and he claimed to owe his inspiration as much to the narrative vigour of Plutarch and the mysticism of Michelet as to the materialism of Marx. Besides, his four volumes are packed (in the manner of several of his predecessors) with lengthy passages from the speeches of Mirabeau, Vergniaud, Danton, Robespierre and Saint-Just, and from the writings of Brissot, Marat, Prudhomme, Desmoulins and Hébert. But, with all this, his History is essentially an economic and social interpretation of the Revolution. Aulard had previously discouraged such an attempt in view of the wide dispersal of documents; to which Jaurès replied that a history confined to the political issues was ‘a mere abstraction’ and asked:

How can he [Aulard] fully understand the change that occurred during the Revolution from a bourgeois oligarchy to a democracy without conceiving of the social and political upheavals as intimately linked? [39]

The presentation of the Revolution as a struggle of social classes was, of course, not a new one: Guizot, Thierry and Tocqueville had, with varying degrees of emphasis, suggested as much; Marx, Engels and Kautsky had treated it almost exclusively in such terms; and on the eve of the Revolution itself, Barnave had insisted that the conflict between the Third Estate and the privileged orders was essentially over property. But Jaurès was the first to write a full-length history of the Revolution with this as its central theme; besides, whereas Barnave had limited the conflict to two classes only and Tocqueville, Taine and others had confined their attention to the aristocracy, bourgeoisie and peasantry (and then only in the most general terms), he put on to his canvas, in addition to these classes, the sans-culottes — the workshop masters, small shopkeepers, journeymen and labourers — of the towns as well. In so doing, Jaurès probed far deeper than his predecessors into the evident divisions within the Third Estate — divisions that became more acute as the Revolution advanced, particularly after the summer of 1791. Again, although the peasantry and countryside continued to play a distinctly subordinate role, Jaurès on occasion shifted his focus from Paris and paid some attention to revolutionary developments in such cities as Lyons, Rheims, Rouen and Bordeaux. In one respect at least, he took after Tocqueville rather than Michelet. His study of the growing wealth and economic importance of the bourgeoisie on the eve of revolution led him to reject Michelet’s thesis of a ‘révolution de la misère’ and to stress the impetus given to its outbreak by the increasing irritation of the wealthy middle classes at their continued exclusion from privilege and political authority.

Not the least of Jaurès’ achievements was the stimulus that he gave to the study of the economic aspects of the Revolution. In 1903, with Ministerial support and Aulard’s cooperation, he founded the Commission de Recherche et de Publication des Documents relatifs à la Vie économique de la Révolution, whose purpose it was to collect and publish the most important economic documents relating to the Revolution. The venture was brilliantly successful and, by the time of Jaurès’ assassination in 1914, 57 volumes had been published; to these were added, in the ten years following the First World War, a further 36 volumes — mainly of cahiers de doléances and of records of sales of biens nationaux. This work still goes on.

The most influential historian of the French Revolution, both in France and abroad, in the years between the two World Wars was Albert Mathiez. Mathiez was a great teacher and a persuasive writer, who began his career at the end of the last century as a conventional historian in the tradition of Michelet and Aulard: his early studies on the October ‘days’ and the church conflict in the Revolution bear the stamp of these masters. But, having become a convinced admirer of Robespierre, Mathiez broke with Aulard and, in 1908, founded the Société des Etudes Robespierristes. Up to this time, Robespierre, unlike Danton, had received little sympathy from historians and his importance had generally been underestimated. To Thiers he had appeared to be ‘one of the most odious beings that could have borne absolute rule over men'; Carlyle described him as ‘acrid, implacable-impotent, dull-drawling, barren as the Harmatten wind'; to Madelin he was ‘the dismal lawyer from Arras'; and to Acton ‘the most hateful character in the forefront of history since Machiavelli reduced to a code the wickedness of public men'; while even Michelet charged him with dictatorial ambitions and Aulard with hypocrisy. [40] In the numerous studies that Mathiez now began to devote to his memory, Robespierre emerges not only as a man of incorruptible virtue and unwavering principle, but as a great statesman of the Revolution besides. In presenting this new image of Robespierre Mathiez was influenced by Jaurès, who had criticised Danton’s conduct in 1793-94 and, to that extent, had justified Robespierre’s; but, more particularly, he had been disillusioned by the record of the Radical governments of 1902 and 1906 and a series of financial scandals. In the light of these, Danton became the typical Radical politician of the Third Republic, opportunistic and venal, while Robespierre, in contrast, was a model of revolutionary high-mindedness and incorruptibility. Mathiez’s experiences of the First World War completed the picture: added to his other vices Danton now appeared as a ‘defeatist’ moving in a circle of shady ‘foreigners’. The labels have stuck, though this ‘black-and-white’ portrayal of the Revolution’s two outstanding leaders has been considerably modified in the later work of Georges Lefebvre.

In the course of his one-way duel with Aulard (for Aulard never replied to his attacks), Mathiez had naturally been drawn into a study of the Jacobin–Girondin dispute and had begun to look for social differences underlying the political hostilities fought out between the two parties in the Convention and Jacobin Club. This, together with a deeper study of Jaurès, had aroused his curiosity concerning the social and economic problems of the Revolution. This new interest had been further stimulated by his reflections on the economic controls imposed by the belligerents in the course of the First World War. He saw in these a parallel with the Maximum laws enacted by the Convention under pressure from the Paris Commune and sans-culottes in 1793. The result was his great monograph, La vie chère et le mouvement social sous la Terreur (1927), which was the first attempt to explain the origins and policies of the Revolutionary Government in terms of social conflicts and economic pressures. For the first time, too, a clear distinction was drawn between the bourgeois conception of ‘freedom’ and that of the sans-culottes.

Meanwhile, Mathiez’s most influential work, his synthesis of the whole Revolutionary period, La Révolution française (1922-27), [41] had taken shape. In outlining the causes of the Revolution, he repeated Jaurès’ picture of the growing prosperity of the bourgeoisie; at the same time, he pointed to the ‘feudal reaction’ that had set in during the latter years of the Old Regime, an observation that had already been made by Tocqueville. Again, he took over from Châteaubriand and some of the Restoration Liberals the idea that the real starting-point of the Revolution was not the meeting of the States General or the fall of the Bastille but the summoning of the Assembly of Notables in February 1787. It was this that provoked the ‘révolte nobilaire’ (as Mathiez called it) out of which the events of 1789 sprang: in Châteaubriand’s words ‘les patriciens commencèrent la révolution; les plébéeins l'achevèrent’. [42] So for Mathiez the Revolution falls into four distinctive, though interrelated, parts (and it is interesting to compare his divisions with those of Aulard): (a) the revolt of the nobility, 1787-88; (b) the bourgeois revolution, 1789-91; (c) the democratic and Republican revolution, 1792-93; and (d) the social revolution, June 1793–July 1794. It is hardly surprising that, with the view Mathiez held of Robespierre, the fall of the ‘Incorruptible’ in Thermidor should bring the revolutionary era to an end; after that, ‘reaction’ took over under the Thermidorians and the Directory.

Professor C-E Labrousse shares with Tocqueville the distinction of never having written the work on the Revolution that he intended and yet of having considerably influenced subsequent thinking on its origins by his work on the Old Regime. His studies on the movements of prices and incomes in the eighteenth century and on the eve of the Revolution have thrown new light on the crisis out of which the Revolution emerged. [43] Basing his conclusions on a wide range of statistical materials, Labrousse gives some support to Jaurès’ and Tocqueville’s views in stressing the general prosperity and economic expansion that marked a large part of the eighteenth century, though he shows that, even in these years, wages and smaller incomes tended to lag behind the prices of food and essential consumers’ goods. After 1778, however, there was a recession as the result of which prices fell — gradually in most industrial and farm products, but reaching crisis proportions in wines and textiles. During these years, the net profits of small tenant farmers, peasant proprietors, wine-growers and other métayers (share-croppers) tended, because of the heavy and sustained toll of tax, tithe and seigneurial exaction, to fall out of all proportion to the fall in prices, while large landed proprietors were cushioned against loss by means of their feudal revenues. On top of this cyclical depression came the sudden economic catastrophe of 1787-89, which took the form of bad harvests and shortage, with the price of wheat doubling within two years in the main productive regions in the north and reaching record levels in 27 out of 32 généralités in mid-summer 1789. This, in turn, was accompanied by a crisis in industry and large-scale unemployment in Paris and the textile centres; while wage-earners and other small consumers were compelled by the rise in prices to increase their expenditure on bread from one-half to three-quarters or four-fifths of their earnings. [44] It was against this background of accumulated economic ills and social grievances, affecting the majority of social groups within the Third Estate, that the political crisis flared up at Versailles in May 1789.

One of the great merits of Labrousse’s work has been to give solid substance to the generalisations and conjectures of earlier historians concerning the economic origins of the Revolution: in the light of the new evidence, for example, a new complexion is put on the old argument that has exercised historians since Michelet’s day: was the Revolution the product of poverty or prosperity? Labrousse argues that, on the whole, it was neither the one nor the other, though he inclines towards Michelet’s view rather than towards that of Tocqueville, Jaurès and Mathiez. At the same time, his analysis convincingly illustrates the nature of the grievances that brought these highly diverse elements within the Third Estate (the Abbé Sieyès’ ‘nation’) together in the spring and summer of 1789 in common opposition to landlords, tax-farmers, grain-speculators and tithe-extracting bishops. While this is by no means the whole story, it helps us to understand why the alliance within the Third Estate appeared to be so solid at this time and, by implication, why it tended to disintegrate as the Revolution advanced.

No recent historian of the Revolution, however, not even Mathiez himself, held an international reputation for scholarship equal to that of Georges Lefebvre, who died in Paris in 1959. Though born the same year as Mathiez and closely following him both at the Sorbonne and as editor of the Annales historiques de la Révolution française, he pursued a remarkably distinctive course. Lefebvre always acknowledged his debt to Jaurès, but it was he rather than Jaurès who was the real initiator of the attempt to study the Revolution ‘from below’, or from the angle of the peasantry and urban sans-culottes. Perhaps the most striking of all the limitations of the nineteenth-century historians was their failure to take proper account of the part played in the Revolution by the peasants, who formed four-fifths of the population of France. The earliest pioneer in the field was the Russian Loutchisky who, before the turn of the century, began to make studies of peasant property in the Limousin and elsewhere. [45] Loutchisky’s researches were important in so far as they helped to answer the longstanding question as to the respective proportions of the land owned by peasants, clergy and nobility on the eve of the Revolution — a question that had, as we have seen, considerably interested Alexis de Tocqueville; but they had little to say about the social aspirations and attitudes of the rural population and were not in the least concerned with the part played by the peasants in the Revolution itself. After a preliminary study on the history of food supplies during the Revolution in the northern district of Bergues, [46] Lefebvre published his great pioneering work, Les Paysans du Nord pendant la Révolution française, in 1924. Here, for the first time, the peasants of the Revolution were presented not as a single undifferentiated mass, but as a conglomeration of widely varying social groups: for all their identity as a rural community which had made it possible for them to unite in a universal peasant rising in the summer of 1789, they were deeply divided by conflicting interests within the village, which ranged small proprietors against landlords and speculators and landless peasants against large tenant farmers and what Lefebvre called the bourgeoisie rurale. These differences and conflicts were traced throughout the revolutionary years and measured in terms of social disorder, purchase of land, distribution of property, and relations with government representatives on mission and local authorities. But the Revolution, far from healing these differences by giving universal satisfaction, widened the breach and made the differences irreconcilable. For the ‘rural bourgeois’, both old and new, derived substantial advantages by shedding the burden of tithe and seigneurial obligation and purchasing land at low prices; whereas the small and landless peasants, whose demands for controlled rents and the subdivision of farms went unheeded by successive governments, remained landless, poor and dissatisfied. This process and its results by no means corresponded to what took place in Paris and the provincial cities; and Lefebvre concluded that to the several minor revolutions of 1789-94 already noted by Mathiez must be added a specific ‘peasant revolution’, obeying its own laws, distinctive and autonomous, with its own origins, course of development, crises and fluctuations. [47] Thus the French peasantry at long last was firmly placed on the revolutionary map and a new perspective given to the study of the Revolution as a whole.

A further new dimension was added to Revolutionary studies by Lefebvre’s work on revolutionary crowds and on the rural disturbances of the spring and summer of 1789, known as ‘la Grande Peur’. [48] Previous historians, whether sympathetically portraying the participants in revolutionary popular movements as ‘the people’ (like Michelet) or unflatteringly labelling them as ‘rabble’ or canaille (like Taine), had tended to treat them as disembodied abstractions and had failed to probe deeply into the motives that impelled them. Lefebvre insisted on the need to study these particular motives which, he maintained, were quite distinct from, and often at variance with, those of the revolutionary leaders. But he went on to argue that, in order to understand the causes and nature of these repeated popular explosions, it was not enough to determine the more or less rational impulses prompting individuals: account must be taken also of the ‘collective mentality’ of the crowd. Thus the sociologist and the psychologist might be called in to aid the historian. His first exploration in this field of studies was his work on ‘la Grande Peur’ of 1789, in which he portrayed the astonishing power of rumour and panic-fear to influence collective human conduct and to generate revolutionary activity. He went on to accept Taine’s contention that the popular excitement of 1789 had in large measure been provoked by the ‘great hope’ aroused by the royal promise of fundamental reform; but this, in turn, had further consequences. When these hopes appeared to be threatened by a series of real or imaginary ‘aristocratic plots’, a defensive reaction set in, which Lefebvre termed the ‘volonté punitive’, and which, he claims, lay at the base of all outbursts of mass vengeance from the murder of the governor of the Bastille to the September Massacres. It was, in fact, he argued, the fear of another outbreak of this kind that prompted Robespierre and his colleagues, in June 1794, to introduce the notorious law of 22 Prairial, which substituted the tempo and procedure of the court martial for the hitherto more leisurely methods of the Revolutionary Tribunal.

What Lefebvre did thirty-five years ago for the revolutionary peasantry, one of his closest associates, Albert Soboul, has done recently for the Parisian sans-culottes. [49] No writer had doubted the importance of the part played by the Paris tradesmen, journeymen and sectional militants in the events of the Revolution; and, in the last fifty years, Mellié, Braesch, Mathiez and others have contributed solid work on their organisations and activities. But until Soboul’s book appeared they had still lingered, somewhat insubstantially, on the fringe of events, and there had been no fully documented study of their everyday activities, institutions, composition, social and political ideas and aspirations, and forms of behaviour. The result of his work has been both to give the sans-culottes a distinctive identity, to bring them to the front of the stage as a vital revolutionary force, and to illuminate the political history of the Revolution in one of its most critical phases. Historians had long debated the nature of the ‘de-Christianisation’ movement, the significance of the Laws of Ventôse, the respective rights and wrongs of Enragés, Hébertists, Dantonists and Indulgents, and the deeper causes of the tragedy of Thermidor. They will continue to be debated; but it was not until one of the essential elements in the story, the Paris sons-culottes, had been brought into perspective that the other pieces in the jig-saw could begin to fall into place without too heavy a reliance on conjecture, conspiracy theories or moral judgements.

In British and American universities, thanks to a core of teachers devoted to the study of the Revolution, there has never been much time-lag in keeping up with such new developments; and scholars have not been slow to reflect in their published work the latest research carried out in this field in France and elsewhere. A school of Revolution studies was built up at Oxford by the late JM Thompson, whose Robespierre (two volumes, Oxford, 1935) and The French Revolution (Oxford, 1944) were both strongly influenced — though by no means exclusively — by Albert Mathiez. A more recent work in the same tradition is Professor A Goodwin’s brief but masterly survey of the period 1789-94, which draws largely on the later researches of Georges Lefebvre and other scholars. [50]

The new school of research may, then, claim to have opened up new vistas and to have shifted the focus to the social and economic aspects of the Revolution and to the hitherto largely ‘submerged’ classes of the town and countryside; and, in so doing, it has perhaps tended to be less shrilly polemical and less blatantly partisan than its eminent predecessors of the last century. Inevitably, this has led to a certain disintegration of the traditional pattern of the Revolution: the Third Estate, for example, has become resolved into its component parts, and wage-earners, landless peasants, smallholders and independent craftsmen are shown to have had their own distinctive ways of life and thought, social aims and forms of behaviour; the Revolution may even, as presented by Mathiez and Lefebvre, appear to resolve itself into a series of successive minor conflagrations. But does this mean, as Professor Cobban has argued, that the Revolution has, by virtue of these developments, lost its old ‘indivisible unity’ and that ‘the substitution of a capitalist-bourgeois order for feudalism is a myth'? [51] This, were it so, would, of course, denote a sharp departure from the traditional presentation of the Revolution by the Liberal Republican and radical historians of the past; yet it may seem to some a reasonable conclusion to draw from the writings of the new school of historians. The writers themselves, however, have strenuously denied any such drastic intention of recasting old values. Though Lefebvre consistently maintained that the Revolution was not made ‘for the sole advantage of the bourgeoisie’ he equally insisted that it most decidedly ‘opened the way for capitalism'; [52] and Soboul has stressed (and maybe here he is at variance with Mathiez) the essential unity of the Revolution — despite its growing complexity and the rich variety of its succeeding phases. [53]

Other Twentieth-Century Interpretations

It would, of course, be entirely misleading to suggest that the historians of the Jaurès–Mathiez–Lefebvre tradition, though they have been the most prolific and influential of recent years, have been the only ones to rewrite the history of the Revolution during the past half-century. On the one hand, they have found a critic on ‘the Left’ — Daniel Guérin, whose two-volume work, La Lutte de classes sous la première République: bourgeois et ‘bras-nus’ (1793-1797), appeared in 1946. M Guérin has put forward a Trotskyist interpretation of events, based on Trotsky’s theory of ‘permanent revolution’. The result has been to challenge the interpretations of all preceding writers, both critics and supporters of the Revolution, Radicals as well as Socialists and more orthodox Marxists. Radicals and Marxists have certainly differed as to the depths of the divisions that arose from 1789 onwards within the Third Estate and as to the degree of intensity of the conflict that divided Jacobins and sans-culottes in the crucial period of 1793-94; but they have generally agreed that, despite these divisions, both parties still had the common overriding objective of seeking to destroy the foreign enemy without and the remnants of feudalism and aristocracy within. The predominant social conflict has for them, therefore, not been at any stage one of bourgeoisie against sans-culottes, still less of capital versus labour. To Guérin, however, the sans-culottes, or ‘bras-nus’ (a term borrowed from Michelet), constituted a pre-proletarian ‘vanguard’ and the Revolution, from 1793 onwards, takes on the form of a proletarian revolution in embryo. In this context, Robespierre, as the leading spokesman of Jacobinism, is the villain of the piece and a reactionary who deliberately stems the revolutionary tide in the autumn of 1793: this, then, rather than Thermidor appears to Guérin to be the real turning-point of the Revolution. The Jacobin dictatorship and the Revolutionary Government of the Year II become, accordingly, a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie whose aim is to defeat the challenge of the resurgent ‘bras-nus’ or sans-culottes. This new interpretation has stimulated a lively discussion but appears, up to the present, to have failed to gain many adherents among serious students of the Revolution. [54]

At the other end of the scale there are the outright opponents of the Revolution who, often drawing on new materials to support their arguments, have upheld the tradition of Taine or of the Restoration conservatives. Among these, Frantz Funck-Brentano seeks to discredit the Revolution by painting an idyllic picture of the Old Regime. [55] Like Tocqueville, he stresses the reforming zeal of the royal governments in its closing years. ‘The reign of Louis XVI’, he writes, ‘was one of the greatest epochs in our history, a glorious twilight to the setting sun of old France.’ The reforms then undertaken, he insists, would, if continued, ‘have completely realised a peaceful revolution in the constitution of France’. But ‘then came the Revolution, brutal, terrible, with the splendour of its pools of blood’. And after it was all over, the twin-pillars of the Old Regime — the family-system and the old system of administration — had been destroyed; all a useless waste and to no purpose, for ‘had Louis XVI remained on the throne, he and his successors, his ministers and their successors, in spite of themselves, would have been brought to realise them’. [56] This is, of course, good old-fashioned stuff, hardly calculated to make the upholders of the radical tradition lose much sleep. Pierre Gaxotte, on the other hand, is very much a conservative of the twentieth century. Having been as horrified by the Russian Revolution as Taine had been by the Paris Commune, he engages in a polemic against the French Revolution, the Jacobins and the sans-culottes, whose violence and choice of colourful epithet would have done credit to the master. He falls back once more on the conspiracy theory of the origins of the Revolution, drawing on the more modern version elaborated by Cochin; but he equally uses the evidence of Jaurès and Mathiez to give point to his contention that the eighteenth century was an age of prosperity; the Revolution, therefore, was a crime and in no sense a timely surgical operation. [57]

A more sophisticated critic is JL Talmon. His book, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, is the first part of a trilogy whose aim it is to trace the concept of ‘political Messianism’ or ‘totalitarian democracy’ from its genesis in the ideas of Rousseau, Mably and Morelly via the French Revolution to the Communist governments and People’s Democracies of the twentieth century. It is thus essentially a political-philosophical treatise, whose starting-point lies in the ideological battles of the present and in which the French Revolution serves as an illustration to a theme rather than as an object of study. The Revolution as a whole is condemned, not because it is seen as a criminal act or a conspiracy (in the manner of the conservatives of the past), but as the first episode in an historical sequence, mysteriously launched by a group of eighteenth-century thinkers, which has tended to deny man his most cherished possession, political freedom.

The most important lesson to be drawn from this enquiry [the author concludes] is the incompatibility of the idea of an all-embracing and all-solving creed with liberty. The two ideals correspond to the two instincts most deeply imbedded in human nature, the yearning for salvation and the love of freedom. To attempt to satisfy both at the same time is bound to result, if not in unmitigated tyranny and serfdom, at least in the monumental hypocrisy and self-deception which are the concomitants of totalitarian democracy. [58]

Another, very different, development has been the attempt to place the Revolution in an ‘Atlantic’ or ‘Western’ context. Its most mature and recent expression is to be found in RR Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1820 (1958). Here the Western world on both sides of the Atlantic is treated as a whole and a number of revolutions and radical movements breaking out within this period in England, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, France and America are considered in the same context; thus the French Revolution loses its particular identity and becomes merely a phase in a wider and more general political cycle. The idea is not entirely new, as it was by using similar arguments that Madame de Staël and other Restoration Liberals attempted to make the French Revolution more acceptable to their contemporaries. But whereas the Liberals drew the line at 1791 because most of the rest of the Revolution in France embarrassed them, there is no similar justification today for omitting or ignoring the particular features of what Mathiez termed the ‘democratic’ and ‘social’ revolutions of 1792-94, or even the peculiarly French aspects of much that took place in 1789-91 as well. It has been objected, in fact, that it is only possible to conceive of a general ‘Western’ or ‘World’ revolution during this period in terms of a purely ideological-constitutional movement from which the sans-culottes, the levée en masse, the peasant risings, the food crisis, and even the constitutional experiments of 1792-94 are excluded or glossed over. [59]

This by no means exhausts the list of new interpretations made of the French Revolution in recent years. The most significant development, we have suggested, has been the new emphasis placed on the Revolution’s social and economic aspects and the bringing into play of social classes that had been ignored by historians of the past. This reorientation has yielded substantial results, and is continuing to do so; [60] and it seems likely that much that has been added by this new approach will become part of the permanent stock-in-trade of all serious Revolutionary historians. Yet there have been, as we have seen, attempts made to view the Revolution from other angles; and at a recent discussion held by American historians the hope was expressed that a turn might be made away from the ‘new positivism’ of the ‘Labrousse school’ and more work be undertaken on institutions, religion, culture and ideas. [61] There is without doubt room for further research along these lines as well. Meanwhile, Professor Cobban has asked the disturbing question whether there was, in fact, ever a French Revolution at all; but it is not likely to be exorcised so easily; and if the experience of the past century and a half is anything to go by, one can safely prophesy that Frenchmen and others will continue to brood, to speculate and to research further into the origins and outcome and ultimate significance of the French Revolution.


1. Stanley Mellon, The Political Uses of History (Stanford, 1958), p. 1.

2. Mellon, The Political Uses of History, pp. 3-5.

3. Mellon, The Political Uses of History, pp. 12-14.

4. Germaine de Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution (three volumes, London, 1818), Volume 1, p. 14.

5. FAM Mignet, History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 (London, 1915), p. 1.

6. A Thiers, The History of the French Revolution (London, nd), p. 421.

7. Mignet, History of the French Revolution, p. 218.

8. De Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, Volume 2, pp. 127, 131-32.

9. Mellon, The Political Uses of History, p. 27.

10. De Staël, Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, Volume 1, p. 432.

11. Mellon, The Political Uses of History, pp. 58ff.

12. Mellon, The Political Uses of History, p. 72.

13. JW Croker, Essays on the Early Period of the French Revolution (London, 1857).

14. J Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française (seven volumes, Paris, 1847-53).

15. Thiers, The History of the French Revolution, pp. 9, 20, 29, 41, 44, 71; Mignet, History of the French Revolution, p. 96.

16. T Carlyle, The French Revolution (London, 1906), p. 120.

17. J Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française (two volumes, Paris, nd [1940]), Volume 1, p. 7.

18. Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française, Volume 1, pp. 7-8.

19. A de Tocqueville, L'Ancien Régime (Paris, 1856); The Old Regime (Oxford, 1937), p. 218.

20. De Tocqueville, The Old Regime, p. 220.

21. De Tocqueville, The Old Regime, p. 186.

22. H Taine, Les Origines de la France contemporaine: La Révolution: I: l'Anarchie (Paris, 1878); Les Origines de la France contemporaine: La Révolution: II: La Conquête jacobine (Paris, 1881); Les Origines de la France contemporaine: La Révolution: III: Le Gouvernement révolutionnaire (Paris, 1883).

23. Taine, Les Origines de la France contemporaine: La Révolution: I: l'Anarchie, p. 165.

24. Taine, Les Origines de la France contemporaine: La Révolution: I: l'Anarchie, pp. 18, 53.

25. Taine, Les Origines de la France contemporaine: La Révolution: II: La Conquête jacobine, pp. 12-42. For a more serious investigation, see Crane Brinton, The Jacobins (New York, 1930).

26. FVA Aulard, Histoire politique de la Révolution française (four volumes, Paris, 1901); The French Revolution: A Political History, 1789-1804 (four volumes, London, 1910).

27. Aulard, The French Revolution, Volume 1, pp. 9-10.

28. Aulard, The French Revolution, Volume 3, p. 279.

29. Aulard, The French Revolution, Volume 3, pp. 87-91.

30. Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (London, 1910), p. 373.

31. Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, pp. 21, 226-27, 248, 356-57.

32. Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, pp. 342-43.

33. G Bord, ‘La Conspiration maçonnique de 1789’, Le Correspondant, 10 and 25 May 1906, pp. 521-44, 757-67. For a more balanced and thorough study, see Gaston Martin, La Franc-maçonnerie française et la préparation de la Révolution française (Paris, 1926).

34. A Cochin, Les Sociétés de pensée et la démocratie (Paris, 1921); Les Sociétés de pensée et la Révolution en Bretagne (two volumes, Paris, 1925). Both publications were posthumous: Cochin’s studies date from 1904 to 1914; he died in 1916.

35. Cochin, Les Sociétés de pensée et la démocratie, pp. 235-82.

36. L Madelin, The French Revolution (London, 1916), pp. 625-26.

37. Madelin, The French Revolution, p. 634.

38. H Belloc, The French Revolution (London, 1911), pp. 67-83.

39. J Jaurès, ‘Critical Introduction to the Socialist History’, in F Stern, The Varieties of History (New York, 1956), p. 160.

40. Thiers, The History of the French Revolution, p. 473; Carlyle, The French Revolution, p. 489; Madelin, The French Revolution, p. 116; Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution, p. 300; Michelet, Histoire de la Révolution française, Volume 2, p. 1017; Aulard, The French Revolution, Volume 3, p. 868.

41. Albert Mathiez, The French Revolution (New York, 1928).

42. G Lefebvre, Quatre-vingt-neuf (Paris, 1939), p. 7.

43. C-E Labrousse, Esquisse du mouvement des prix et des revenus en France au XVIIIe siècle (two volumes, Paris, 1933); La Crise de l'économie française à la fin de l'ancien régime et au début de la Révolution (Paris, 1944).

44. Labrousse, Esquisse du mouvement des prix, Volume 2, pp. 640-41; La Crise de l'économie française, pp. ix-xii.

45. J Loutchisky, La Propriété paysanne en France à la veille de la Révolution, principalement au Limousin (Paris, 1912); L'Etat des classes agricoles en France à la veille de la Révolution (Paris, 1911).

46. G Lefebvre, Documents relatifs à l'histoire des subsistances dans le district de Bergues pendant la Révolution (1789-an V) (two volumes, Lille, 1914, 1920).

47. G Lefebvre, ‘La Révolution française et les paysans’, Etudes sur la Révolution française (Paris, 1954), p. 249.

48. G Lefebvre, La Grande Peur de 1789 (Paris, 1932); ‘Foules révolutionnaires’, Etudes sur la Révolution française (Paris, 1954), pp. 68-89.

49. A Soboul, Les Sans-culottes parisiens en l'an II: mouvement populaire et gouvernement révolutionnaire, 2 juin 1793–9 Thermidor an II (Paris, 1958).

50. A Goodwin, The French Revolution (London, 1953).

51. A Cobban, Historians and the Causes of the French Revolution (London, 1958), pp. 38-39; The Myth of the French Revolution (London, 1955), p. 20.

52. G Lefebvre, ‘Le Mythe de la Révolution française’, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, October-December 1956, p. 343.

53. A Soboul, ‘Classes et lutte de classes sous la Révolution française’, La Pensée, January-February 1954, pp. 39-62.

54. For criticisms of Guérin see G Lefebvre in Revue historique, Volume 205 (1951), pp. 90-91; A Soboul, ‘Classes et lutte de classes sous la Révolution française’, La Pensée, January-February 1954, pp. 55-56.

55. F Funck-Brentano, L'Ancien régime (Paris, 1926); The Old Regime in France (London, 1929).

56. Funck-Brentano, The Old Regime in France, pp. 361-66.

57. P. Gaxotte, La Révolution française (Paris, 1928); The French Revolution (London, 1932).

58. JL Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London, 1952), p. 253.

59. See M Reinhard’s review in Annales historiques de la Révolution française, April-June 1960, pp. 220-23; R Cobb, ‘The Era of the French Revolution: Some Comments on Opportunities for Research and Writing’, Journal of Modern History, Volume 30 (1958), pp. 128-29. For a contrary view see J Godechot’s review in Revue Historique, January-March 1960.

60. R Cobb’s massive work on the armées révolutionnaires of 1793-94, shortly due for publication, is likely to shed a new and revealing light on the Revolution in the provinces, the ‘de-Christianisation’ campaign in large parts of France, and problems of requisitioning and feeding the cities at the time of the Terror. A longer-term project is that being conducted by a team of workers under Labrousse into French social structures of the eighteenth century.

61. Journal of Modern History, Volume 29 (1957), pp. 85-89; Volume 30 (1958), pp. 118-30.