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Cultural Upheaval and Class Formation During the French Revolution

Patrice Higonnet

Was the French Revolution a social revolution? The answer obviously depends on what the word social means. But in one way or another, generally received common sense will surely answer, yes. Isn't history "a seamless web?" Doesn't the French Revolution, from its very complexity, have to be defined as a social, or perhaps even a "socioeconomic," dysfunction? Our answer, informed by a driving sense of the uniqueness of the French Revolution, will be categorical. The French Revolution was not a social revolution. Its first cause was neither economic nor social, in the classical sense of either word. Its motor was instead the complicated cultural transformation of the country's possessing, administrative, and educated elites in the preceding century. The politics of 1789–1799 had as their origin the prerevolutionary restructuring of ancient assumptions on the nature of the public and the private. Restated, this is to say that the first cause of the Revolution lay in the elites' renewed definitions of both the empowered self and the empowered nation. Particularly important also was the nature of the politicized relationship that the elites assumed would soon regulate their regenerated universe.

This "problématique" can be considered under various headings, the nature of the Republican idea in France, its origins before 1789, its decay during the decade of Revolution, and its effect on French politics from Bonaparte to Pétain.


For nearly a thousand years, French society had revolved—in theory certainly and in growing reality as well—around the notion of ordered and in-


termediary bodies (privileged guilds, estates, corps, parishes, regions, clients, families). As Delamare wrote in his Traité de Police of 1705:

l'homme est tellement né pour la société, qu'il en fait son objet favori & sa principale satisfaction. là vient que dans l'ordre de la nature, non content de ce premier lien qui ne fit de tout le genre humain qu'une grande société, il a recherché avec empressement des unions plus étroites, d'où se sont formés dans la suite les familles, les Villes, & les plus grands Etats; & dans chacun de ces Etats, des societez encore plus intimes, par les emplois & les professions particulières.[1]

In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, however, the social and administrative elites of the French nation began to rethink the shape of their collective life. By the 1780s, for reasons that are still opaque but which we will try to address, two poles had come to focus their energies on this score: first, meritocratic individualism, about whose nature and merits they were seemingly quite clear; and, second, what might be called, for want of a better term, "public life," a realm whose scope had widened steadily since the creation of the "Old Régime" in the mid-seventeenth century, a great transformation that holds our particular attention since that same trajectory from the corps to the nation has been widely reversed in our own times.

Nature, reason, humanity, civisme , sacrifice, people, and nation were varyingly used at various times to approximate this communitarian social nebula.

The terms private and public , which had had relatively little relevance only decades before, gradually acquired overwhelming cultural centrality. Montesquieu's popularity in France during the 1780s derived from his individualistic denunciation of arbitrary rule and not, as it did in America, from his defense of intermediary bodies or from his concern for the benefits of mixed government. The venality of offices, which had been allowed in the minds of Frenchmen by the collapse of the public and the private, was universally decried, even by the parlementaires whose social existence depended on it. Meritocratic academies gained at the expense of painters' guilds. Intellectualized, Parisian, and "ungendered" salons—where divisions of status were, if not ignored, at least suspended—waxed as the model of court life as Versailles waned. Privilege, heretofore a kind of private law, now became synonymous with abuse. The state itself, under the indirect aegis of the physiocrats, gave the (fitful) signal for an attack on feudalism and corporatism, especially in Paris. Of similar relevance to the rise of the new and "areligious" ethic of the private and the public were many newly introduced institutions: masonic lodges, for example, with their coded, neoparliamentarian rules of order; "lycées"; and "sociétés de pensées," where nobles and nonnobles found common cultural ground. Reference should also be made, though this is less clear, to the educational institutions of the times, some of


whose programs and personnel were renewed in the third quarter of the century.

These new foci of social life, then, were the staging areas for transformed definition of the public and the private, and for new patterns of sociability and thought. Their effect was felt in the near and distant corners of social life, in the explicit redefinition and secularization of public fêtes, for example; or in the increasing reluctance to consider Protestants and Jews as members of subprivileged groups rather than as individuals entitled by nature and reason to freedom of opinion.

A less important but perhaps more symbolic consequence of this reordering of priorities was the enlightened interest in pornography, which can be defined as the intimate and illicit made outrageously and illicitly public, as the interface between unrestrained individual desire and undefined natural circumstance. Sade's fantasies have suggestive relevance to the structure if not the content of Jacobin thinking on the relationship of nature to man and "others."[2]

A similar if inverted effect of this same reordering found expression in the conceptual opposite of pornography, that is to say, in a new and highly gendered literary genre, the epistolary novel. In La Nouvelle Héloïse and Les Amants de Lyon , the private and exemplary letters of a blameless woman were made public for the edification of the public, but only after the heroine's more or less suicidal and wholly apolitical death. Here, womanly selfsacrifice allowed the licitly private to be made licitly public as well.

The effect in eighteenth-century France of the invention or development of secularized privacy (an ancient English locution that to this day has no strict equivalent in the French language) can best be traced in the recently rewritten history of women in eighteenth-century France. The traditional political and public role of females (as queens, royal mistresses, or, more humbly, as vicarious voters in elections to the second estate in 1788–1789) was recoded, devalued, or even eliminated. Women (and children, whom they were held to resemble psychologically and physiologically, in the pitch of their voices, for example) were removed from the public eye and placed at the center of private life. Quite typically, Diderot, in the Encydopédie , considered citizenship as an exclusively masculine concern:

on n'accorde ce titre (de citoyen) aux femmes, aux jeunes enfants, aux serviteurs que comme à des membres de la famille d'un citoyen proprement dit; mais ils ne sont pas vraiment citoyens.[3]

This redefinition of feminized, private life had very wide effect. It spilled over into matters as varied and numerous as how and where men and women should work; children's literature and birthday celebrations; a concern for domestic comfort; for better heat and better smells; for women's bodies and


the joys of sex; and for the virginal white muslins with which women were ordinarily enrobed, both in the paintings of the counterrevolutionary painter Vigée-Lebrun and in David's elaborate settings of revolutionary fêtes. The sustained antifeminism of nearly all revolutionary leaders, from Chaumette to Robespierre and Amar (with some conspicuous exceptions, especially of Condorcet, a child of Reason more than of Nature, and the heir of Poulain de la Barre's Cartesian reasonings) finds its first and most obvious origin in the widely shared belief that the private sphere of woman could not be fused directly with the public life of men. It is curiously expressive that revolutionary anticlericalism should have had as one of its rhetorical motifs the forced marriage of heretofore culturally androgynous Catholic priests, a ceremony that might involve his entering a closed confessional in priestly (and womanly) robes in order to emerge from it reborn, régénéré , since attired in the manly—and public—uniform of the national guard.

The puzzling extent of the revolutionaries' antifeminist (and anticlerical) aggressiveness allows us also to apprehend the deep insecurities created in the minds of men by this Great Transition in the reshaping of sexual roles.[4] Public men and public women were set at the two extremes of a new ethic whose requirements had only been uncertainly interiorized by both men and women.[5] Marginal groups would pay the price of that insecurity in the years to come.

In similar if converse fashion, the rise of a new conception of the secularized public good (and of the "nation" as its prized institutional locus) found expression in the desire to depersonalize power and in the attendant desacralization of the monarchy, after 1750 especially. Architecturally, the newly discovered majesty of the public sphere was given physical expression not in palaces, as before, but in impressive, geometrically shaped and balanced squares (the first of them being in Paris, the Place des Vosges conceived in the reign of Henry IV; the last, the Place de la Concorde in 1754) and in the spacious, ordered cours and allées of Paris and many provincial cities like Nancy, Bordeaux, and Rheims, a spatial model so successful that it was soon copied all over Europe by would-be-modernizers from Lisbon to Copenhagen.

Though nationalism as a term was not coined until the revolutionary and imperial armies of the Grande Nation had made their aggressive effect painfully obvious from Madrid to Moscow, the reality of French nationalism and of militarized patriotism was everywhere visible long before 1789. The War of American Independence was very well received in Paris: "They tell me," wrote a delighted John Adams, "it is the first Time the French Nation ever saw a Prospect of War, with Pleasure."[6] It was popular in part as the first major conflict that the crown financed nearly exclusively from loans and not from taxes. But nationalism was yet more relevant to the zeal aroused by the struggle against perfidious Albion. Paradoxically, Britain was at once an


accepted social and economic model and the national enemy, so that masculine suicide—at times defined either as an individuated gesture, as "l'acte le plus libre," as a Catonian gesture of empowered and national self-sacrifice—was also (and contradictorily) held to be an "English disease." The nation became a standard unit of social measurement with the development of statistics and of social analysis.

Many, and perhaps even most, nobles were unable to resist this cultural shift: unable to persist in the view that theirs was an immanent unit in an integrated society of traditional Orders. Some aristocrats did stumble backward onto the wholly factitious theory of the distinct, Frankish racial origin of the noble-born. But the more representative response of nobles was, optimistically, to reconsider the role of the French nobility as a nationally useful and mercantile group, or as a remilitarized fraternity of trained and skilled officers whose self-appointed task would be to defend the fatherland more efficaciously and more professionally as well.

The nation became a standard point of cultural reference: a new feeling for national and public life found expression in the growing and archival interest for the historial origins of the French state, of French chivalry, and of the French or Frankish races. Latin now seemed less important than the national French language to these "moderns" who nurtured a thriving and corresponding disdain of local dialects. Many schemes of national education were floated here and there, one of them by an otherwise highly reactionary parlementaire, La Chalotais. By the time of the Revolution, the French had even developed a national musical canon, a repertoire of often-performed works which emphasized patriotic continuity rather than mere esthetic novelty.

It is critical to understand that this new and enlightened, private/public polarization of "a-religious," elitist sensibility was not perceived by its votaries as being conflictual. Sensibility, it may be useful to add, is more appropriate to describe the situation of prerevolutionary France than is the term ideology . Like social classes whose yearnings they express, ideologies ordinarily presuppose conscious and antagonistic allegiances. But to the contrary, the sensibility of the French prerevolutionary elite actively assumed the effortless social and political reconciliation of universally acknowledged principles.

Commentators who reflected on the gradual, meliorist emergence of the (feminized) private and the (masculine) public easily assumed that this newly discovered ecumenism was embedded in the books of Nature and/or Reason which previous generations had only falteringly and partially deciphered. Heuristically, many schools of thought might be harnessed to justify these new categories of social thought: Cartesian innovations as well as the more traditional principles of natural law were easily adapted to current needs. The new cultural arrangements, it was thought, needed only to be


conceptualized in order to realize themselves in practice. Revealingly, many thinkers were indifferent to the political context that would best realize their schemes. Before the 1780s, there was not much to choose, it seemed to many, between the rule of parliaments or of enlightened despots.

The social costs of the new ethic were drastically underestimated by meliorist "philosophers" who perceived the past as a record of failures never to be repeated. Nearly to a man (few of them were women), the philosophes assumed that the new social model would make existing social distinctions irrelevant or, at least, transparent , to use a term that has been appropriately used to describe Rousseau's seminal interpretation of man's ideal social condition. Indeed, during the 1780s it was widely held (in Paris) that the inhabitants of the newly emancipated, thirteen colonies, regenerated by independence and—as Brissot was to explain in 1792—by virilizing war, had already succeeded in reaching this Republican and fraternal goal. Americans, they concluded, had brought forth in their wilderness near-perfect replicas of the ancient republics.

A suggestive parallel can also be drawn between the expectation of civic harmony-to-come, which they assumed would soon characterize French public life, and the harmony that many French couples expected to find immediately, in their current, private, and maried life. Significantly, the political involvement of wives and husbands during the Revolution was often intertwined. On the side of the Revolution, the Rolands, Desmoulins, Roberts, and Condorcets, come to mind, as do also Pauline Léon and the enragé, Leclerc; the analogs on the right are Charette's Vendéan "amazons" like Mme. de Bulkeley and Thérèse de Moëllien, or, for that matter, the king and queen. In the apt words of Dominique Godineau, "l'existence de couples de militants est une donnée du mouvement populaire parisien."[7]

It is in this central assumption of social and cultural, private and public harmony (and in its failure) wherein lie the origins and the failure also of "l'esprit révolutionnaire." Jacobinism, which was to be the ideologized and politicized essence of that sensibility, pointedly harked back to lost ideals of classical antiquity. It was, in Benjaminian terms, a political phantasmagoria, a utopia that dreamed the future as the reincarnation of an imagined, classless, and harmonious past.

In the mind of the revolutionary elites, liberty (or the modern freedom of the individual) and equality (a common and classic access to the allencompassing politics of the commonwealth) were to be conciliated by Republican fraternity, in our own times a risible public slogan, but a critical concept for Frenchmen and women at the time: "la République," Roland was to explain in September 1792 to the newly arrived Conventionnels , "est une seule et même chose que la fraternité."

To use the terms but not the argument of Albert Hirschman's excellent book, public interest was not displaced by private greed or passion. To the


contrary, the two were aggressively perceived as separate halves of a complementary dynamic. For Montesquieu, the apparent inequality of meritocratic reward was actually a proof of equality, provided that all men were equally free to develop their varying abilities. Likewise, the giving of alms plain and simple was a poor idea since it discouraged individual endeavor. But the final effect of that wiser kind of charity that required the poor to become productive individuals would be to raise the disadvantaged to a suitable standard of civic equality.

In a more noble register, Lafont de Saint-Yenne, the first modern art critic, urged French artists to imitate Roman models, because in that ancient Republic, "every private person having his part in governance [of the state], the good constitution of the State became his private and personal interest."[8] Many philosophes were quite conscious of the wide gap that was implied by the simultaneous defense of property and of civic humanism; but they generally assumed that this difference could be transcended by the creation, in Rousseau's words, of an "égalité morale et politique." The voluntarist politicization of difference was to be a path not to conflict but to be unprecedented cultural integration.

Rousseau, the universally famous and solitary "Armenian" hermit of the Ile Saint-Pierre, the most representative figure of his age, a man whose life and works were to be a model for revolutionaries great and small, male or female, conceptualized this universalist ethic as the General Will, a masculinist moral universe within which an empowered and sovereign citizen might commune with his neighbors through the civil religion of a revived polis.

The Social Contract , it is true, was not widely read; but thousands of men—and women, especially—wept over the analogous message of La Nouvelle Héloïse . They communed with Saint-Preux, the suicidally prone, narcissist, self-obsessed and sensual hero of this epistolary novel who had managed to find a place in the patriarchal, fraternal family that revolved around his beloved Julie. In Rousseau's world view, man's nature, though not invariably communitarian and good, was nonetheless distinctly pliable. Man, if touched by social rather than divine grace, could—with the help of his fellow men—make himself good. Saint Vincent de Salles had explained, in the previous century, that the purpose of a Christian education was to break the sinful nature of the individual child. Rousseau proposed instead to nurture the child's desire to love and to be loved by others: "the vices and misfortunes of children," he reminded the subjects of the French king, "are chiefly the effect of the unnatural despotism of the father."

Public and private were everywhere held by the prerevolutionary elites to be in potentially consensual, antiauthoritarian, neo-Republican accord. So was it, for example, that the first and appointed task of contented women in the home was voluntarily to begin to shape through principle and affection the sensibility of future civic-minded or even Republican, fraternal, and pub-


lic figures. The sudden popularity of the rosières , or "queen of virtue," much praised by Target, the first lawyer of his day,[9] was expressive of this new and integrated private/public perception. Personal integrity and the upholding of public morality were enmeshed as the integrated, cardinal principles of the day. And in a higher (and later) register, the mutuality of the private and the public were to be reproduced in the (universalist) Declaration of the (private) Rights of Man of August 1789, which emphasized less the specific and inherent, imprescriptible rights of the citizen, than his total empowerment in the context of the nation-state. It was indeed this simultaneously naturalized and nationalized quality that in the eyes of its makers essentially differentiated the French statement from its inferior and more positivistic, Virginian antecedents.

In a lower but more immediate key, the craving of the reading public for a collapse of public and private values was inversely evinced in its horrified fascination for tales of courtly and monarchic corruption. The Diamond Necklace affair was the cause célèbre of the 1780s. Countless revolutionary politicians would also learn, in time, to fear politically crippling accusations of corruption, of having placed their private gain before the public weal. In this context, Danton and his foil Robespierre immediately come to mind. Only a genuinely base man, replied Robespierre to the Girondin Louvet in November 1792, could refuse to see that his entire sense of self must have the national good as its purpose. Ortega y Gasset aristocratically derided Joseph Chénier's denigration of Mirabeau: "Je considére qu'il n'y a pas de grands hommes sans vertu."[10] But this was to miss the point of Chénier's unspoken and wholly representative argument.

Before 1789, the detailed contours of the constitutive private and public elements of the new French collective identity were carefully annotated. On one side, rigidly moralizing distinctions were developed between positive and negative definitions of private life, that is to say, between those shapings of privacy that did dovetail with the public good and those which failed that acid test.

The physicality of breastfeeding was pleasing. Female sexuality in marriage was likewise much praised: the Desmoulinse's double-bed was for them and others the symbol of an emotionally and politically collaborative marriage. For Choderlos de Laclos, the author of the celebrated (and ironically epistolary) Liaisons Dangereuses , the sexuality of women could not be denied (as was made obvious in countless statements ranging from novels to "sexuated" representations of male and female skeletons); but within happy, mutually satisfying marriages this potent force of nature might well be tamed. (Choderlos was a prerevolutionary partisan of divorce, which was to be legislated in September 1792.)

Simultaneously, however, perverted female sexuality (i.e., a private yearning that sought fulfillment irrespective of the public good) was much


feared. Lesbianism now suddenly seemed far more threatening than male homosexuality, which in the recent traditionalist past had still been punished by burning at the stake. Dr. Tissot's criticism of female onanism, or tribadisme as it was then known, was warmly stated.

Republicanism for men, by contrast, often verged on homosexual, masculine friendship. In David's Oath of the Horatii , it united masculinized citizens in militarized and fraternal amity, just as it relegated women to the bosom of familial love, ordinarily inscribed in the devalued, bottom-righthand corner of vast canvasses. In the Year II, Romme, the self-sacrificing and fraternal "martyr de prairial," insisted on marrying any widow of a fallen and revolutionary soldier who might be assigned to him by his Parisian Section: this highly subjectivized but self-sacrificing Jacobin aimed to commune with both the Nation and an unknown, fallen, comrade through a female body, now become like other material and social forms, a "transparent" and almost irrelevant object.

In this same context of sexualized politics, Marie Antoinette, her prerevolutionary reputation, and the obscenities of her trial readily come to mind also, as does, on the other shore, the relatively unimpeded progression of Cambacérès and Fiévée from Republic to Empire and the more checkered career of Chaumette during the Revolution.[11]

Similar distinctions, positive and negative, were applied to the public side of the reconceptualized vision of sociability as well. Aged, country nobles who had grown poor in the unrewarded service of the state were much praised. Court nobles were by contrast despised, and this same distinction of "corrupt court and worthy country" was widely held, even in 1789–1790—even by Brissot, a man who lived from the crumbs he snatched from the tables of the titled great, and even when the more worldly and younger nobles of Paris and Versailles had repeatedly shown themselves to be the manifestly more liberal at the Estates-General than their troglodytic country cousins. In that same mode, it is worth noting that in 1793–1794, the most victimized of all nobles—both male and female—were parliamentary aristocrats, that is to say the most enlightened and wordly patrons of arts and letters. It did not matter that many of these often-enlightened jurists were as private persons (like Hérault de Séchelles and Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau) personally liberal. In the lottery of execution, their established reputation of indifference to the public good was an insurmountable handicap.

In short, by 1789, in many noble and nonnoble minds alike, the newer categories of private and of public (like those that defined the male or female) took precedence over the older distinctions of estates and corps as the structuring elements of l'imaginaire social . Rousseau, Thomas, Diderot, Mme. d'Epinay, and countless others pondered the question of woman's nature. And implicit in the background of the frequently raised question, "What is woman?" was, as has been said, the more dreaded if silent theme, "What is


man?"[12] Where did his self begin and end? Could it fully express itself in privatized social life? The emphatic declaration of man's rights and responsibilities in August 1789 can be read as an answer to hidden, unstated questions of gender as well as to the more explicit dilemmas of public politics.


The question inevitably arises of the social and economic origins of this new and soon to be politicized cultural world view. Was 1789 the more or less efficient machine de guerre of the nascent and irresistible French bourgeoisie, a frustrated, increasingly prosperous and antinoble group with a narrow if distinct cultural and economic configuration? Or was it instead a broader cultural upheaval, staged by a wide and educated public with divergent interests and materially unreformed origins?

To go one step further, can the Revolution be conceived as the well-nigh doomed effort of a socially heterogenous elite to institutionalize (in the face of historical legacy and popular resistance) a radically new and complementary, highly volatile and even self-destructive view of the private self and the social self? Generations of Marxist historians assumed that revolutionary politics were the necessary effect of antecedent social and economic change. Many historians would now wish to turn that assumption on its head: revolutionary politics failed precisely because the culture of the elites did not supply a solid material foundation.

The supposed material origins of Enlightenment thought are well known. Who would choose to ignore the strains caused by population growth or minimize increases in the volume of trade with the development of a comprador economy, on the Atlantic coast especially? Of relevance also are the rise of the national debt and the increased circulation of money. Many other factors of this type have been closely investigated: that is, the stabilization of the currency after 1724; improved communications under the aegis of the state and its trained employees; the gradual displacement of sharecropping by leaseholding (in Babeuf's Picardy, at least); incipient regional specialization and industrialization; the standardization of prices within an incipiently national market; introduction of new crops; and so forth. A century of excellent and relentless research allows an impressive extension of this point of view. Much is to be learned also from the material evolution of the French nation's constituent groups: pressed for funds, many nobles, parlementaires especially, did their best to revive lapsed and antique feudal dues. French peasants suffered especially: more numerous, unwilling or unable to go abroad or to leave the land for cities where the demand for labor was low, many of them were caught in a cruel bind between rising prices and an essentially unchanging productivity. Beggary was widespread, and much feared, in prerevolutionary urban and rural France.


But few historians of the Revolution would choose today to make of these transformations the determining base of some epiphenomenal cultural or political superstructure. The older arguments will not hold. The rhythm of cultural change far outstripped that of its material analog: in the main, France in 1789 was still as it had always been, a collection of "immobile villages." Unlike London, Paris was primarily an administrative center that grew relatively little in the eighteenth century, and which remained more focused on the production of luxury goods than on modern industry or international commerce. The creation of the Bank of England in 1694 antedates that of the Bank of France by more than a century. The relative immaturity in the eighteenth century of French private and state finance (and the attendant importance of foreign Protestant and Swiss bankers like those honest brokers, Necker and Clavière) needs no emphasis. Their presence speaks loudly to the relative financial backwardness of the French economy.

It is of great consequence that the French bourgeoisie, much of it marked by Jansenism, was, like the great majority also of French working people, visibly uninterested in the capitalist applications of the laws of supply and demand. Unlike the American and English political elites of the times, the French revolutionary political class had its roots in the professions, in law above all else, and not in business. The mercantile interest was socially marginal in France before 1789, and politically marginal after that as well in the nation's Assemblies, after 1791 especially.

Economic travails were often the catalyst of political radicalization after 1789, and especially for the urban poor; but they were never its first cause. The execution of the king was, for example, more relevant to the surge of the enragés in the spring of 1793 than was the competition of the army and the urban poor for scarce and more expensive food.

It is for reasons of this kind ultimately futile and even misleading to find the origins of cultural change in the material transformations of French society. Material change coincided with the cracking of the cake of custom, but it was more a sign than a cause of that event. The cardinal principles of the French Enlightenment have to be understood as a terminus ad quem, as the "vectors of new perceptions of reality,"[13] rather than as the mere consequence of some deeper cause. In the postrevolutionary words of Roederer, the institutions of the Ancien Régime were more injurious than they were onerous. A century of materialist explanation needs to be reinterpreted and transcended.

Unfortunately, historians who agree that the origins of the Revolution were more cultural than material have also found it extremely difficult to discuss these origins in a convincing way. The counting of books is a disappointing lode. Ideologically undiscriminating tabulations—which are of necessity sterile intellectually—ordinarily reveal the surprising (and of course deceptive) conservatism of the reading public.


An emphasis on the seamier side of the Enlighterment (that is to say, the reification rather than the interpretation of pornography) is likewise problematic, especially when a historiographical choice of this kind is, as it were, "institutionalized": it is highly conjectural to hypostasize the existence of a French Grub Street, of a supposed self-conscious milieu of scribblers and pamphleteers, many of whom in actual fact were either courtiers or the isolated hired pens of high-flying polemicists. Developed networks of information certainly existed even before the Revolution: on September 19, 1783, over a hundred thousand Parisians, forming perhaps the largest crowd that had ever been seen in France, knew that they should go to Versailles in order to witness the ascent of Montgolfier's hot-air balloon. To ignore the journalistic mediatization of information during the French Revolution would be very unwise: Hébert, Roux, Marat, Brissot, Desmoulins, Robespierre, and Mirabeau were all journalists of a kind. The creation of a typographical school run by women and for women is surely one of the most indicative faits-divers of the Revolution. But the torrent of the French Revolution cannot be plausibly presented as the subcategory of frustrated prerevolutionary journalistic ambition. Marat's Plan de Législation Criminelle of 1779 was certainly incendiary, but as his doctrinaire and Marxist biographer, Massin, interestingly points out, Marat was then at the height of his social success, and the radicalization of his polemical ideas owed more to the recent successes of America's revolutionaries than to his private concerns.

Far more critical in the background of cultural change than these pamphleteers was the emergence in enlightened France of "public opinion" as an accepted point of reference. The Republic of letters, it has often been suggested, was an antecedent of republicanism sans phrases. But public opinion was understood by all (including the hired hacks who tried to influence it through scurrilous text and image) to be the expression of the nation's renewed elite, and not of its marginal members at all. Symbolically, the first apologist of this "reine du monde" was Necker, minister to the king, a religious man who remained, in the end, more a partisan of enlightened despotism than of parliamentary monarchy sans phrases.

Institutional and political antecedents also appear promising as a possible cause of deep-seated cultural transformations. High on that list are the modernizing effects of the Ancien Régime itself, its leveling effect on "feudalism," a development whose consequences are well known to the readers of Tocqueville. The names of Lebrun, a client of Maupeou in the early 1770s who became second consul in 1799, and that of the future Baron Louis (in the 1780s a friend of Calonne and, many years later, himself a minister of finance) are eloquent symbols of the modernizing and official continuity that links the so-called Old Regime to the admittedly streamlined Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic state. The Bourbon monarchy did not succeed in modernizing French social institutions, but it did a great deal to make older arrangements obsolete.


More critical yet as possible causes for the rise of a new private and public vision of the common good are explanations that center less on the external forces (be they material, cultural, or political) that attacked traditional corporatism in France, than on the internal decay of that ancient system.

For a variety of reasons, many of them related to the French state's incessant need for money, the prestige of judicial and administrative traditionalism vanished as its scope increased. In some sense, traditionalist institutions in monarchic France simply collapsed under their own weight. (In Spain, a "backward" country, professional corporatism was by 1789 much more lightly felt than in France: women there had been given the right to enter any profession of their choice already in 1784; the venality of offices was unkown south of the Pyrénées; and outside of Catalonia, the institutions of provincial particularism were as a rule politically inconsequential.)

Behind the decay in France of corporatism and monarchic traditionalism was also to be found the self-destructing bent of its constituent institutions. Feudalism, as Tocqueville emphasized, no longer fullfilled any useful purpose. Its judicial and financial vestiges were bitterly criticized by many noble and official publicists. Guilds likewise neared collapse under the strains of internal rivalries. The momentary unpopularity of a church that rejected both tolerance and millenarian zeal has often been described but needs to be emphasized: the French in the 1780s were a religious people whose religiosity was dangerously incapable of finding expression in a church that had simultaneously rejected popular millenarianism and the enlightened individuation of religious forms. The humiliation of Jansenism, for example, was still deeply felt in 1789, as was to be attested by the careers of Grégoire and Lanjuinais. The Catholic church on the eve of the Revolution was a troubled institution, more torn by doubts than at any time since the Reformation: perhaps as many as twenty thousand clerics abjured their priesthood in 1793–1794, and three thousand of them chose to marry.

The weakness of the monarchy and the decline of its patriarchal myth in an age of incipient nationalism were also critically relevant to the rise of a countervailing political ethic. Though France in 1685 brought the idea of absolute monarchy to its European zenith, the prestige of enlightened despotism as a method of government was weaker in late eighteenth-century France than in any other continental country. By the 1780s, and perhaps long before, literate Frenchmen had given up on the idea of "reform from above." The servants of the French king were no more efficacious than their master: unlike its Prussian analog, the French bureaucracy was incapable of sustained and independent political action. Important also were diplomatic difficulties and the inability of the French state to maintain armed forces commensurate with its international goals.

Nationalist passions can likewise be seen as both a cause and effect of change. The growing prestige (and masculinization) of public life heightened the sense of nationhood. Nationalism in turn reinforced the new categories of


the private and the public. The elite of the French nation, with its eye on Britain's domestic economic achievement and her mortifying, worldwide military successes, resented the inability of the Bourbon state to marshal the energies of the French people. As has been remarked, the subjects of Louis XV and of his grandson had a lively—and grating—sense of French economic backwardness and of Britain's military, industrial, commercial, financial, and imperialist superiority. Bonaparte spoke knowingly when he said that the victory of Fontenoy had given the French monarchy an extra forty-five years of life, but it did no more than that.

The fit between domestic and international concerns was tight: the failure of the crown's bureaucracy to enact institutional modernization at home dovetailed in the public mind with its failure to impose its will on foreigners, as was seen in Holland especially in 1787. The waning prestige of this "visible hand," the decay of the mercantilist/absolutist state, crystallized the rising appeal in the minds of French men and women of new sensibilities, soon to become demanding systems of ideology. Some of these, like physiocracy, emphasized individualistic economic effort. Others, in the works of Mably for example, emphasized communitarian values. But all of them were ecumenical visions that assumed the possible creation of a transparent state, of an "invisible hand," that might effortlessly express the will of a united people.


Revolutionary politics can also be explained in this same cultural and institutional framework, as an unprecedented and unrepeatable drama, a unique if ominous performance whose backdrop was the unstable reshaping of the nation's collective identity before 1789.

The political trajectory after 1789 of the nation's possessing notables and of their intellectualized clients—some rich, some poor—all of them moving in uneasy and shrinking accord with the plebs of Paris, cannot be explained as a "superstructural" event. Revolutionary politics were not some impoverished effect that corresponded mechanically to some neatly labeled layering of capitalist society. (The sequence, we might add, ordinarily runs,

1. organicist, landowning nobles;

2. high, "grand-bourgeois" Feuillant constitutionalist;

3. upper-middle-class Voltairean Girondins;

4. middle-class Rousseauist Jacobins; and

5. the anticlerial plebs, itself split between (5b ) the Hébertist petite-bourgeoisie and (5c ) the more populist and democratic enragés.)

Pedagogically useful as this nomenclature may at first appear, it is however more sensible to envisage the events of the 1790s without reference to some supposed prerevolutionary structure of class. Politics were the signs of the decomposition of an initial cultural and political consensus that was


centered on an unstable vision of the self and society. It may well be that without accidents of routine politics (war, shortages, betrayals) the claims of revolutionary unanimism would not have unfolded as characteristically as they did. But in revolutionary times, difficulties of some kind are bound to emerge. Some revolutions succumb to unforeseen events, and others not. What matters in the end is more the inner logic of political assumptions than the nature of the serendipitous happenings that catalyze its emergence.

L'esprit révolutionnaire matters more than the events that brought it forward, and this spirit eventually proved to be unstable, violent, and tyrannical. Although the right of all (male) citizens to pluralist self-expression was theoretically recognized in the Constitution of 1791 (just as the more dramatic right to insurrection was likewise to be enshrined in the unapplied Constitution of 1793), the more fundamental vision shared by all the revolutionaries was that of a united, romanized cité in which regenerated individuals might find self-fulfillment as citizen—warriors struggling to maintain a unanimous and wholly politicized nation—state.

In the words of Le Chapelier, who was to be in rapid succession a founder and a bitter enemy of Jacobinism, "ll n'y a plus de corporations dans l'Etat; il n'y a plus que l'intérêt particulier de chaque individu, et l'intérêt général."

Regenerated by liberty, French men and women, though in fact hardly prepared to give up the day-to-day benefits and security of a corporatist world order, thought themselves on the verge of a new epoch: "L'ídée du bonheur," Saint-Just was to explain in 1794, "est neuve en Europe." Emancipated from the theoretical constraints of corporate life but unafraid of class tensions whose full impact they could not yet apprehend, the French gave unbridled scope to their social imagination, and to their lyric enthusiasm. At the stroke of a pen, law codes were abolished and new territorial arrangements drawn up. Language, religion, education, marriage were all to be reformed. Everything seemed possible for the better in 1789, and, as it happened, for the worse in 1794.

In the minds of its framers, the new revolutionary and universalist state was ultimately to guarantee the natural rights of all men (as against the American system of 1787 whose purpose was to defend the positive rights of enfranchised men). At the same time, the French obsession on the unity of the state's political purpose gradually but inexorably eroded a concern for the civic rights of individual citizens.

At first, in 1789–1791, civil society seemed more important than the state but, by 1793–1794, the revolutionary definition of sovereignty placed civil society at the mercy of the state, very much as Bodin had advised should be so and as Hobbesian or Ludovician, monarchic absolutism had also assumed to be true.[14] By placing the nation between the citizen and the exercise of his natural rights, the French possessing class in August 1789 set the stage for that very decomposition of individual liberties that it most feared.

In the first months of the Revolution, the new individualist and univer-


salist ethic (l'esprit révolutionnaire) with its mix of the private (symbolized by women) and of the public (the realm of the warrior-citizen) found an almost universal audience among the members of the French educated and possessing class, some of them nobles, and others not. Politically, after the initial difficulties of June and July 1789, "right" and "left," that is to say, at this point, both monarchists and constitutionalists, whether nobles or nonnobles, whether owners of feudal dues or enlightened reformers (many people in fact cumulated these two roles), were in basic accord on the practicalities of reform. The defeated and "unmasked" parlements had lost all credibility. The liberality of the nobles' cahiers de doléances is well known. It seems highly likely that most of the noble-born were in August and September of 1789 resigned or, in thousands of cases, even enthusiastic about the new order of politics.

In the early fall of 1789, right and left (somewhat misnamed in this early context since these terms arose only in 1792 when the earlier equilibrium of 1789 had broken down) differed only in the emphasis they gave to the constituent part of the newly politicized cultural synthesis: some of the actors in 1789–1790 were more eager to ignore the past in order to develop both the new individuated rights of private persons and of the universalist, Grande Nation. Others thought it prudent to meld their novel sense of what the public/private should be with the rhetorical legacy of the Ancien Régime. But nearly everyone looked for some compromise between the old and the new systems, between the legacy of the past, of king, church, and nobles (when taken as private persons), and the integrated values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Preferences were not everywhere the same, but the numbers of genuinely reactionary, organicist emigrés could in 1789 be nearly counted on the fingers of one hand. In 1789–1790, conservatives—like Cazalès and Royou—were Enlightenment figures of a kind who accepted the need for institutional reform and popular consultation.

And on the side of change, during these same early years, even ardent Jacobins were convinced monarchists, amis de la Constitution , respectful of religion and tepid in their application of the new legislation on the abolition of feudal dues. "Revolutionizing" Republicans in 1790 were as scarce as were the organicist conservatives. Louis XVI was probably more popular in 1789–1790 than any French monarch had ever been. In short, the cleavage of politics in 1789–1790 was set first within the new and ecumenical definition of private/public culture, of individualism effortlessly entwined with communitarian forms; and second within the monarchic legacy of French history.

Only later did dissenting actors set themselves outside that double context. It was only with the breakdown of consitutional monarchy in 1791–1792, and only then, that the initial arrangements broke down on two fronts. The right—prompted as it was by the civil constitution of the clergy, the abolition of nobility, and the humiliation of the monarch—did indeed regress


to religious integrism on a trajectory that would soon lead it to political organicism. And the popular left simultaneously advanced from a rejection of individualism in economic life toward an embryonic and organicist consciousness of class that was best expressed by Babeuf in 1796.

But in early 1790, no one even remotely suspected that either one of these upheavals was in the making. In Sieyès's initial and highly representative world view, the nation-state (wholly sovereign to be sure, but—for the moment and practically speaking—nearly invisible) and its empowered citizens were not to be separated by any kind of institution of any kind. Jews (from Bordeaux) were given complete equality as private individuals and resolutely denied a collective existence as "a nation within the nation." The situation of nobles and of the nobility was similarly envisaged. The French state was to be at once universal and invisible: it might monopolize the realm of collective representation but, practically speaking, it was to remain a cipher. Sieyès even argued against the suppression by the state of tithes.

Existing material arrangements, including even many feudal dues, were not immediately affected by the assertion of the new individualist-universalist state. As Sieyès, again, explained in September 1789, France was not and could not yet be a democracy. The material ordering of civil society was, in the main, left untouched, even though the subjects of the French king were now declared to be the citizens of a fraternal state. With the Le Chapelier law, as shall be seen, the revolutionary state agreed merely to enforce contracts whose individuated terms it had no right to shape. It would likewise eventually passively agree to dissolve the marriages of childless and consenting adults on their request. Significantly, the Jacobin clubs, which claimed to embody a hegemonic Public Opinion, simultaneously presented their associations as groups of atomized individuals whose natural, selfevident task was merely to be the mouthpiece of a preexisting, single, public, and national will.

By the summer and fall of 1791, however, Jacobins moved away from the first part of their initial stance. Their desire to find a compromise between the old and the new atrophied and died. They had wished at first to nationalize church and king, just as they had been eager to compensate the owners of abolished feudal dues. But after the king's flight to Varennes in June 1791 which was after the fact condoned by many Constituent deputies, the Jacobins realized that they alone truly expressed the sovereignty of the people. The clubs would have to supplant the Assembly politically in order to transform society, institutionally and culturally, through censorship and, if need be, Terror.

But the second facet of their world view remained unchanged. To the bitter end, Jacobins were to be resolute in their determination to uphold their vision of the empowered, politicized male citizen within an empowered and wholly sovereign nation. Jacobinism was first and foremost the ideologized


and Janus-faced quintessence of l'esprit révolutionnaire, at once bourgeois and universalist.

The Jacobins never wavered in their opposition to "factions" and to selfish and sectarian, feminized aristocracies (not to be confused with nobles). Jacobins were unbending in their defense of civic equality whose claims were still lightly felt in 1789–1791. Political parties were wholly foreign to their way of thinking, and the clubs persistently presented themselves not as a particularist association at all, but as the united hierophants of mankind. In the subsequent words of Saint-Just, Jacobins were later to become a conscience publique , the apostles of a national will that had proved to be less self-conscious than they had at first assumed.

Uncompromisingly national and unbendingly individualistic, Jacobins were also, and of necessity, rigidly antipluralist. The original, federal and Madisonian American solution of 1787, which also sought to blend private interest and public good, did not and could not have many echoes in the Grande Nation. Surprisingly, the Federalist Papers were translated into French by a friend of the painter David in 1792. (Madison, Hamilton, and Gay were even awarded honorary French citizenship in 1793!) But Louis Sébastien Mercier, a polymath linguist, a member of the Cercle Social, and a former Conventionnel , wrote of these essays that they had been hopelessly misunderstood by the Montagnards. They had failed to see, he explained, that this American text

est précisément un ouvrage contre le fédéralisme, en ce qu'il tend à ramener toutes les parties d'un état à l'unité de gouvernement, cette unité que Brissot vouloit, ainsi que nous tous, qui avons signé la proclamation aux départements pour la sûreté extérieure de la France et pour son union interne.[15]

But however statist and antipluralist they might be, the Jacobins nonetheless remained equally adamant in their defense of private property. Their universalism was at once boundless and dramatically circumscribed. Property, like women, was for them a private concern that could not be politicized. These embattled citizens were the mortal foes of the redistributive loi agraire . As private persons, the Jacobins were avid purchasers of biens nationaux but, revealingly, this desire to profit privately from the Revolution did not affect the Jacobins' conviction of being in good faith. These defenders not just of private property but of the local entrepreneur's right to rule in his own factory, these resident and ensconced officers of localized national guards, were also dedicated patriots, eager to equip—and at their own expense—those poorer citizens who had sacrificially volunteered to join the nation's warring armies. Jacobinism was fueled not only by the militant defense of private property and the strident denuciation of an impossible equality of wealth, it was ennobled also by the eulogistic glow of civic virtue. A good citizen might very well be a patriarchal and propertied father.


The critical theme of regeneration bridged for them the gap between selfishness and responsibility, both within the family and within the state.

Only regenerated and politicized citizens, they now fully understood, might uniformly realize their purified self in the state, regardless of their varying private situations as owners (or nonowners) of property. Empowered by an amour de soi that was purged of amour propre , regenerated Frenchmen would eventually form a regenerated France: "J'ai osé concevoir," wrote Lepelletier (a noble-born Jacobin) of a school designed to train the revolutionary male elites, "une plus vaste pensée [than that of mere instruction]."

[Et] considérant à quel point l'espèce humaine est dégradée par le vice de notre ancien système social, je me suis convaincu de la nécessité d'opérer une entière régénération et, si je peux m'exprimer ainsi, de créer un nouveau peuple.[16]

And should regeneration not suffice to create that sense of the private self that could realize itself fully in the public sphere, the Jacobins, unable and unwilling to reshape property relations, vigorously worked to establish equality in other realms, in education, in the ability to speak a national and equalizing language, and in the reshaping also of space and time. As Romme wrote:

Le temps ouvre un nouveau livre à l'histoire; et dans sa marche nouvelle, majestueuse et simple comme l'égalité, il doit graver d'un burin neuf les annales de la France régénérée . . . . L'ère vulgaire rut l'ère de la cruauté, du mensonge, de la perfidie, de l'esclavage; elle a fini avec la royauté, source de tous nos maux.[17]

The widely accepted revolutionary call to define as complementarily heroic both individualism and the public good (a mix that I have elsewhere described as "bourgeois universalism") found many applications in revolutionary France. It took on rhetorical substance in the prosodies and orchestrations of revolutionary fêtes, where extremely complicated scores involved the contrapuntal performances of choristers and highly trained soloists, all of them echoes of the nation's united will. The thirst for unanimity appeared also in the civic and Pantheonic cult of great and immortal individuals: bodies might turn to dust, but the people's remembrance of Barra and Viala, of Lepelletier, Chalier, and Marat could never be erased.

The collective apotheosis of the politicized and masculine self likewise explains in large part the public display of wounded bodies, the worship of fallen heroes, and the widespread fascination for the communitarian suicide of would-be legislators. Voluntary death, described by the Montagnard Conventionnel Lequinio as "l'acte le plus libre," was everywhere perceived, from royalist right to the populist, Babouvian left, by all actors of the revolutionary drama, as both the supreme assertion of the Faustian self and as a triumphant act of civic education. Even Pâris, the royalist assassin of Le Peletier who had voted the death of Louis XVI, mimetically killed himself. Republi-


can schoolchildren were given as their models the voluntary deaths of Barra and Viala, the exemplary and fallen child heroes of revolutionary war and civil war. (A festival to commemmorate the death of Barra had been scheduled for 10 Thermidor.) Staged and exemplary suicide was a model of death and becoming that appealed to Girondins like Condorcet or Mme. Roland (who did not actually kill themselves) and to Buzot, Roland, Clavière, and Pétion who did; to Montagnards like Saint-Just and Robespierre, who waited for execution, and to Lebas or the "martyrs de prairial" who chose to take their own lives; to Babeuf who stabbed himself in the dock at Vendôme, and to Doctor Bach who chose to end his days mutely at the foot of Liberty's statue on the Place de la Révolution, shortly after Bonaparte's successful and liberticide, military coup.

So was it also that Charlotte Corday's suicidal and deeply irrational murder of Marat (a figure whose private life was itself consumed by revolutionary struggle and who had threatened to fire a bullet in his brain on the very floor of the Convention) should have been particularly troubling for the dedicated, male revolutionaries of the day: Corday's Plutarchian and politicized determination inverted their deepest public expectations, just as Marat's vulnerable, exposed, naked and bathing body inverted centuries of iconographic clichés. (The Républicaines Révolutionnaires, who more than any others orchestrated Marat's burial, insistently carried his tub in their processions.)

Corday's was a sacrificial and heroic gesture: this, the Jacobins could easily understand. But the death and transfiguration of this young woman also formed and, to their intense dismay, became an archetypally masculine statement. Corday's desire to save republican France from Marat was doubly defiant, politically and sexually. It is hardly coincidental that after her execution, Corday's body was anatomically examined, in David's presence, in the hope that she might not have been a virgin: the idea of a doubly public woman would have been more easily encompassed.

The Jacobin's expected fusion of the private and of the public explains also the deeper nature of the d'Allarde and Le Chapelier laws in the late spring of 1791, laws that abolished all associations and therefore served, as Marx correctly explained, to clear the decks of French society for the elaboration in the next century of individualistic capitalism and industrialization.

In some obvious sense, of course, the motivation of this legislation lay in the plain defense of the manufacturer's immediate interest: banal strikebreaking is a meaningful aspect of the story. But the deeper point of these laws related instead to the expectation that the invisible hand that governed social relations would effortlessly reconcile the private and the public good in business and in industry as it had already done in high politics and in the family. Symbolically, Desmoulins opined in 1791 that this abolition of


the guilds would thrill the poor: "Il y aura des illuminations dans les mansardes."[18]

An analogy can be drawn here between the expected complementarity of monetized life, which Le Chapelier assumed would soon take shape, and the meritocratic fraternity of military life. Heroic authority was in its original intent exemplarily democratic. The careers of Napoleon's future marshals after 1800 started from the belief in 1793 that the unquestioned lead of elected officers would reinforce the fraternal democracy of military life.

That industrialism, Bonapartism, and a sexist Code Civil emerged as the unforeseen consequences of revolutionary individualist/universalist action is not to deny the thoughtfulness of the Jacobins' original impulses.

The year 1789 was a unique (and thrilling) moment of cultural and political optimism, a bonne nouvelle , coming as it did at the unfettered and libertarian, liberating intersection between the old and new structurings of French social life; that is to say, at a unique moment never to be repeated, when the constraints of "traditionalism" had lapsed, and when those of bourgeois modernity were not yet felt: Jacobinism was an ilusión , in the two senses of that Spanish word.

But these new constraints did surface, of course, and with a frightful vengeance made worse for initial misunderstandings. The ferocity of 1794 gives us the measure of the headiness of 1789, when "to be young was very heaven."

Inexorably, as events revealed the heretofore unsuspected extent of egoism and aristocratie , the sphere of the public began to devour the realm of what was to have been private. With the Club des Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires, women struggled to emerge into the public sphere. With the maximum, the sanctity of private property was questioned by the sansculottes. The Jacobins had brought into being that which they most feared.

Revolutionary praxis shook Jacobinism to its foundations. In their initial conceptions, especially as regarded the rights of private property, the Constituents had assumed, in their practice at least, that civil society was to be an immanent form. The purpose of politics was to make possible the transcendence but not the transformation of social forms, once feudalism had been abolished.

Nonetheless, the logic of the Jacobins' argument on the nature of the public good and of its relationship to private virtue, gradually led the Constituents or their Jacobin successors dictatorially to place a still unvirtuous (and rebellious) society at the disposal of the state that they now controlled.

The Jacobins soon found themselves to be the unwitting instruments of social and economic changes with which they could not cope; but even before these appeared, the first of the structural problems that sapped the dictatorialized, individualist/universalist synthesis of the propertied revolutionaries


was, very simply, the hopeless irrelevance of their vision of state and society to the lives and sufferings of most French men and women.

Jacobin cultural construct might please educated, enlightened, and propertied individuals—most of them, obviously, bourgeois, but many of them nobles (like Lafayette, the Lameths, Talleyrand, Condorcet, the Le Pelletiers [one a murdered Montagnard, the other a Babouvist], Antonelle, Hérault, Barras, Soubrany, and countless others). But in spite of this, Jacobinism bore little relevance to the daily life of ordinary people, if only because the constitutionalists quickly excluded millions of "passive" citizens from their universalist pact. Indeed, it is a measure of the unpopularity of traditional corporatism and the Old Regime (as it is also of the Patriotic party's control of word and image) that, in May and June 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate who represented the interest of a fraction of the nation's population should have effortlessly succeeded in presenting themselves as the spokesmen of a united and embattled people.

The appeal of the new ethic was very narrow. Most French peasants (and according to William Reddy, much of the French bourgeoisie as well!) were deeply suspicious of the laws of the market. Their rationality was focused on the private survival of their family as a group, rather than on their public prosperity as producers. Bourgeois individualism and republican universalism, defined as they were in relationship to property, held an especially small promise for women and especially for peasant women (surely a third of the nation's inhabitants) who proved to be the least prorevolutionary of all French social groups, as well they might be since now doubly disenfranchised as both females and nonowners of property. Even propertied and enlightened women were very ambiguously situated to the calls of republican public life—as Mme. Roland would discover—since their role was to support it from afar: "Restez à vos places," explained Amar to the Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires, "ne sortez point de vos demeures . . . . Il ne faut pas qu'un ménage reste un seul instant désert."[19]

More troubling yet were the many politically unforeseen and problematic implications of republican universalism. Conceived as negation, and for that reason practically defined less in its own right than as the antithesis of the principles of the Ancien Régime, revolutionary universalism created unexpected difficulties for itself at every step. The inclusion of Jews and of Protestants especially had certainly been one of its stated goals before 1789; but very few universalist public figures before that date had given sustained thought to its implications for the freed gens de couleurs in the colonies, not to speak of black slaves. Indeed, the universalist message, as Jacques Revel has pointed out, created political problems where none had existed before, with speakers of dialects for example, or with Jews, again, who had been a fragmented and unimportant corps before 1789 but now became a more homogeneous "nation within the nation." Freemasonry was an eccentricity


that a sated and avuncular Ancien Régime could easily tolerate. Catholicism was a universalist system that revolutionary Jacobinism was bound to deny.

But the acid test of the Jacobins' universalist zeal was of course in the answer they gave to the wholly unexpected claims of the urban poor, and more particularly of the politicized Parisian poor, male and female, who were given unprecedented prominence by their ability to coerce a recentralized French state, by the factional instability of revolutionary politics, by the eroding effect of depreciating paper currency in 1793, and by the ensuing competition for bread between Paris and the army in that same year.

Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here was the cleavage that was to define the French bourgeoisie after 1794, and which in 1792 already—after the September massacres especially—began to separate the formerly united and revolutionary party. In late 1792–1793, the patriots of 1789 split in two. On the losing side were the warmongering Girondins, ensconced in power, who had seen the handwriting of class on the wall and who were now desperate to stop the Revolution in order to preserve it. Many of them were lawyers and, in order to justify their stand, these jurists easily rediscovered the words of freedom and choice (and free enterprise) which they had so recently forgotten. Principle was to be sure at the heart of their politics but only in the sense that the Girondins genuinely wished eventually to save a Revolution that they identified with their place within it. In order to reach that greater and more distant goal, the short-run opportunism of the Girondins was boundless. Their transparent calculations gave great offense.

Arraigned against them were their former brethren, the opposing and more principled Montagnards who, despite the reality of sans-culotte demands, persisted in their still-powerful if increasingly irrelevant universalist vision of a harmonious public good. Here was an idealistic goal whose pursuit after the September massacres now implied the endorsement of horrendous popular violence. In the spring of 1793, the uncertain but republican deputies of the Plaine settled the issue between the two groups by choosing for the more determined Mountagnards.

Contrary to what most Marxist and even anti-Marxist historians have supposed, the Jacobin "patriots"—Girondins and Montagnards—had originally been all of one mind, and in the main of one social origin as well. Many of them had been close friends (Marat and Brissot, Robespierre and Desmoulins). In 1793, what distinguished Robespierre from Brissot was less a difference in the origins or nature of their political and universalist/ individualist culture, than the timing of their ultimately similar responses to the threat from below. Robespierre's hostility in the fall of 1793 to the dechristianization that was urged by the sans-culottes clearly echoed the Girondins dismay after the September massacres of 1792. And looking forward, the Incorruptible's denunciation of Chaumette and Fouché likewise prefigured the Thermidorean reaction of 1795.


The gap in 1793 between former and current Jacobins (i.e., Girondins and Montagnards) basically occurred because the Revolution failed in ways that none had expected could occur since their first and united animosity had been overwhelmingly focused on the destruction of the Old Regime. In principle, all Jacobins from Barnave to Saint-Just were in rough agreement: all of them had started in 1789 from the assumption that in their great crusade, private and public goals could easily be fused. Nearly all of them were hostile to the involvement of women in politics. None of them were particularly sympathetic to money or modern industry: Sieyès did admire Adam Smith's exposition of the advantages that might accrue from the division of labor, but went on to apply that principle not to social life but to politics (Rousseau had been wrong; deputies like himself, he thought, fully represented the nation at large; the task of voters was to vote, and that of representatives was to represent).

The inability of the propertied revolutionaries of all hues to resolve the gap between their universalist vision of transparent social forms and the reality of Parisian popular life strikes us with hindsight as having been little less than inexorable. We see the inevitability of the debate between Montagne and Gironde on what should be done with the Parisian sans-culottes. But to the participants, that same gap came as a complete surprise. That the Revolution would only be able to go forward with the help of the self-assertive Parisian plebs was something that few observers had foreseen, even in the summer of 1792.

In May and June 1793, with the help of the sans-culottes and of their enragés spokesmen and women (on whom he turned at once), Robespierre made good his universalist claims against the Girondins. In October 1793, women's societies were shut down. Vendean counterrevolution was destroyed. The nation in arms repulsed its foreign enemies. But Robespierre's system was deeply at odds with itself. The problem of Jacobinism was less in its ability to crush its opponents than in resolving its own contradictions. It was possible to institutionalize momentarily both the death penalty for partisans of the Loi Agraire and the decrees of Ventôse, which, in the version of Saint-Just, held out the possibility of land redistribution. But it was impossible to reconcile durably the conflicting goals that Jacobinism desperately sought to unite.

In 1789–1791, the various conflicting pieces of the Jacobin world view were easily fitted into a seamless whole. In 1793–1794, these arrangements decomposed. Jacobins as private persons continued to purchase biens nationaux while eulogizing the poor whom they simultaneously terrorized; but their professions of faith that had met at first with nearly universal approval gradually came to elicit nearly universal detestation. In late March 1794, Robespierre managed to execute the Hébertists who wished to use the sans-culottes to push the Terror forward. In early April, he executed


the Dantonistes who wished for the Terror to stop. But by this time, Robespierre had few friends left. In the words of Saint-Just, the Revolution was "frozen."

In 1789–1791, even prudent social conservatives like Barnave, Lameth, and Mirabeau had been Jacobins, but in the hour of their trimuph, in 1794, Jacobins were very thin on the ground. Even before the fall of Robespierre in July, attendance in the clubs fell off. Jacobinism had been an irresistible political movement in 1791–1794, but it nearly vanished, and without much struggle, in late 1794–1795. Robespierre's system was less overthrown than it was unable to stand the weight of its contradictions: in the unstable Jacobin ideology of 1793–1794, the vision of the public good could no longer encompass both the defense of individualist property on the right, and the sansculottes' growing material and communitarian claims on the left.

Though by no means impossible in theory, this mix had become practically impossible in the spring of Year II. The differences that the philosophes had indolently thought republican politics might sublimate had in actual fact become wholly impossible to manage. Recourse to violence and Terror now came instinctively to frustrated statesmen who as private persons may well have been shocked by the physicality of violence and physical punishment, but whose first political concern had become the destruction of their myriad and ever more numerous enemies.

Inexorably, tragically, and to the dismay and even disbelief of its votaries, the Jacobin phantasmagoria had become an oppressive and murderous nightmare. In Vergniaud's words, the Revolution, like Saturn, devoured its own firstborn.

Taine conceptualized Jacobinism as the collective aspiration of revolutionary psychopaths, but it is more fruitful to see the clubistes , or many of them at least, in Derridian terms as the "sites" of conflicting forces whose deeper structures they could not grasp. True, many Jacobins, like Brissot, were consciously and outrageously manipulative; but contemporary accounts of conscious motivation are of curiously limited use in the understanding of French revolutionary politics. They do convey powerfully the amazement of admiring or horrified spectators; but it often happens that their frequently personalized accounts (Marat's cruelty, Robespierre's intransigence, Danton's audacity) are conceptually impoverished.

In any instance, by 1795, most Jacobins had come to regret their past. Men can learn from their mistakes. After 1794 (with the exception of the more obdurate, and much to be admired, communitarian "Martyrs de prairial," who were executed in 1795) all of the bourgeois patriots gradually realized that their private/public phantasmagoria had failed. As François Furet has aptly written, on 9 Thermidor, society recaptured politics. Going one step further, one might see in the drama of Robespierre's fall the birth pang of French civil society in modern times. Social fact, now conceptualized


as an entity in its own right, triumphed over utopian hope. The revolutionary definition of legitimacy (i.e., the simultaneous pursuit of the rights of man in a universalist and even terroristic state) lost all significance, and the Thermidoreans were left with their threadbare claims as wielders of established and Republican legality,[20] a much-eroded concept that they themselves continued to violate in a tragicomic series of militarized coups from 1797 to 1799.

After having fallen away, bit by bit, from Jacobin orthodoxy in 1792–1794, the revolutionaries gradually reentered, bit by bit, in 1795–1797, a new and decidedly conservative Thermidorean consensus that merely parrotted the heroic republicanism of Year II.

In 1791, on Robespierre's motion, the deputies of the Constituent Assembly had selflessly (and uniquely) declared themselves ineligible for reelection; in 1795, the Conventionnels selfishly ruled that two-thirds of their number would have to be included by the voters in the new assembly. Inevitably, the enemies of Robespierre, himself much hated, also lost whatever popular audience Jacobinism may have had—and beyond the limits of southeastern France that audience had never been too large. A politicized fear of the demanding poor now became the generalized catalyst of middle-class, nationalistic, and persecutory, anti-clerical republican politics, a system that desperately tried to stake an ever-shrinking, propagandistic middle ground, between royalist aristocrats on the right and impenitent buveurs de sang or anarchistes on the left. As a title, De la Force du gouvernement et de la nécessité de s'y rallier of 1795 is Benjamin Constant's unwitting and comic masterstroke.

The Thermidoreans' reassertion of social structures as the matrix of political action, or, restated, the claims of bourgeois civil society to construe the nature of private contracts as it saw fit, had many lamentable effects for all socially marginal groups, especially after the seizure of power by that modern and unprincipled condottierre, Napleone de Buonaparte: slavery was reimposed; husbands whose wives committed adultery in their legal domiciles acquired the legal right to murder delinquent couples should they be found in flagrante delicto. In any dispute, the word of the employer was always to matter more than that of his employee. Property became the focus of the Code Civil: employers managed it; workers did not have it; wives entrusted it to their husbands.

Overall, the historical loss was great, but the diminution of the public sphere did have one positive effect, namely the tentative expulsion of Terror and of murderous violence from routine politics.

The institutionalization of social transparency in May-June 1789 (that is to say, the breakup of a society of Estates) marked the instantaneous escalation of both popular and middle-class violence: a great gap distinguishes the classic, church-king popular violence of the Réveillon riots in April 1789 from the ghastly decapitations and eviscerations that occurred in July 1789 after the fall of the Bastille. Barnave's celebrated "ce sang était-il si pur?" of


this same epoch also comes to mind. It is hardly fortuitous that the most egregious instance of popular violence—the September massacres—and of the middle-class violence—the Terror—should have coincided with the sudden and renewed, desperate assertion of republican classlessness, with its attendant collapse of traditionalist restraints.

So was it also, if from the other shore, that the reassertion of punitive social forms in 1795—now become those not of ancient Estates and order, but of modernizing social class—marked both the abrupt end of popular violence and the simultaneous, militarization and legalistic codification of republican violence.

The same collapse of accepted social categories that had made possible the lyricism of 1789, also transformed mild and ordinary individuals into persecutory tribunes, whose ability to punish was deployed by their detestation of anticivic "factions" and conspiracies. Good and evil were mixed without precedent in the minds of the Jacobins.

The destruction of restraints made ennobling heroism and self-sacrifice possible, but so did it simultaneously engender debasing cruelty. Marat's personality speaks to this bizarre mix of motives: kind in his personal relations, Marat protected some of his political enemies (like Lanthenas and Théroigne de Méricourt), and, as has been said, the man was deeply admired by the Républicaines Révolutionnaires of Claire Lacombe. But Marat was also the pathological apologist of blind execution, the apologist of the September massacres, a man who could and did arouse murderous and irresistible hatred.

The lifting in the summer of 1789 of man's mind-forged manacles was not without its costs. The revolutionaries had fully intended to banish not just violence but madness and "un-reason" from their regenerated universe, as Barère explained in Messidor of the Year II. During the Terror, however, the guillotine became a worshiped fetish, and recourse to it, a magical solution: "quand il y avait la guillotine, il y avait du pain. Et maintenant, il n'y a plus de pain."

From 1789 to 1794, ambiguities of motivation—and of morality—(like those of Marat) were common coin: in a now-celebrated pamphlet entitled Français, encore un effort! , the Marquis de Sade puckishly urged liberated Frenchmen to legalize rape and murder. After 1795, however, androgynous statements of this type became exceptions to a renewed rule of prosaic government. The decline of the Revolution's romantic imagination was also a signal for a return to law and order, however inadequate it may have been.

To paraphrase the words at once witty and profound of Marc Richir, the bourgeoisie did not (in 1789) make the Revolution. It was the failed universalist Revolution of 1793–1794 that brought into being a particularist, lawabiding, and unimaginative middle class that even privileged writers (Constant, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire) instinctively knew to hate.


It was the varyingly perceived understanding of conceptual contradiction that sequentially forced the Jacobins of 1789 to give up, one by one, their shared and earlier vision of unshackled private interests effortlessly reconciled to unrestrained public good.


Finally, the politics of the French Revolution also mark the beginnings of the history of modern France. We read forward to the Revolution from the shape of republicanism broadly defined under the Old Regime. We read forward from the revolution to the French civil wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The most distinctive effect for France of the Revolution was to disjoin its political and social trajectories for a century and a half. The iconographically varied and ubiquitous political discourse of the Jacobin Revolution, with its fascinating and, by now, much-studied representational wealth and extravagance, became a self-referential and hegemonic universe of discourse. What it did not include (that is to say, the particularisms of region, class, and gender) could not be spoken.

The most important if invisible effect of this success was to make impossible in France the political representation of the corporate values that continued to underpin much of French daily life. A great deal is implied by Napoleon's basic inability to withdraw ordinary rights of citizenship from even his weakest subjects, namely, Jews, whose outmoded, particularist, and even privatist customs he so disliked. And the Restoration was no more able to achieve on behalf of the landowning nobility as a whole what Napoleon had tried to impose on the Jews, a distinct social existence recognized by law.

To the dismay of the ultramontanes like the young Lamennais, the church under Charles X, though privileged within the post-revolutionary state, was hardly favored as a freestanding entity. The grandmaster of the post-Napoleonic university might well be a cleric, but control of education was never handed over to the church, pure and simple. And the officialized inability of the restored, neotraditional monarchy of "Charles the Simple" to recreate a corporatized France was echoed in the internalized assumptions of even those Frenchmen who ought to have been most sympathetic to its organicist world view: surprisingly, most noble-born electors in 1830 voted against the ultracisme of Charles X. Louis-Philippe, like the royalist dukes of 1871 who founded the Third Republic, could only function politically by stealing other people's leftist clothes, which they often tried to do, but with no durable success.

Though the defense of "leftist" or communitarian values in French republican doctrine was after 1795 feeble to a degree (the near travesty of Renouvier's solidarisme comes to mind), the revolutionary interdict of 1789–1791


on the political representation of "rightist" or corporate values, of church, monarchy, and nobility, remained by contrast durable and strong. The year 1789 did not durably transform the material face of the French nation, but it most certainly set its political agenda by making impossible the expression of traditional corporatism in France and to a degree that has no analog in any other European nation of the time.

The spectacular variety and richness of life within the borders of an entity called France found its principal and impoverished public image in the flattened and distorting mirror of a centralized, distant, and bureaucratic state. An esthetic analog would have been to make of official and historicizing, lêché painting the only tolerated mode of expression for the French pictorial imagination, to make of Delaroche or Gérôme, rather than Manet or Degas, the first painters of "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century." The bureaucracy of the Ancien Régime had been concerned to raise the power of the king, but the revived centralism of the French state in the nineteenth century had as its effect to reduce particularisms and culturally to assimilate a socially atomized population.

Commodity fetishism, wrote Walter Benjamin, couples the living body to the inorganic world. The stultifying memory of Jacobinism fastened the richness of French life to a passéiste and sterile understanding of the French Revolution, an understanding that resurfaced historiographically as "the Social Interpretation of the Revolution."

Equality before the law was obviously a critical conquest (and one that would elude American blacks until our own time). The French and Republican definition of civil rights was conditional in its dependence on the nation, but it was in other respects genuinely universalist. At the same time, of course, the costs of transforming "peasants into Frenchmen" was very high, as was also the "domestication" of women.[21] From 1870 to 1918, France was (with Switzerland and San Marino) Europe's only durable Republic. But this unusual triumph was not without its many shadows. The republican left did triumph over royalist right in France, but late-nineteenth-century French republicanism, regardless of its good intentions, found it strangely difficult to make room for the "neocorporatist," particularist interests of the working class: men make their history, wrote Marx, but they do not make it as they please: "the traditions of all the dead generations," he concluded, "weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living."

Without doubt, the numerous institutional achievements of the Third Republic were of lasting and liberating substance: the recognition of syndicalism in 1884, the encouragement of the peasant cooperative movement, the general extension of primary and secondary education to women (all of which were bitterly opposed by the right) were significant landmarks of popular empowerment. A juxtaposition of republican France and Wilhelminian Germany speaks mountains. Nonetheless, the fact remains that in the


end, the Republic's voice was not one of those it chose, for its own reasons, to protect. The function if not the ostensible purpose of the republican scholarship system (of whom Daladier was a typical product) was more to coopt popular talent into the bourgeoisie than to provide a voice for the nation's popular majority.

The evolution of industrial capitalism in France was, by Anglo-American standards, unusually slow. The history of department stores is more relevant to the history of French capitalism than was the creation of mines and factories. But in spite of this muted and facilitating tempo in the realm of things, in spite of its emphasis on capitalism as a system of consumption rather than of production, the progression in France from liberalism-to-welfare-state in the realm of politics was unusually painful and disputed and, revealingly, when it finally occurred, Catholics on the right played a greater role in its inception than did the Socialists on the left.

In a parallel (non)development, the political emancipation of women was more quickly achieved in Britain than in France.

The Republic's premier Radical Socialist party certainly managed to ensconce itself after 1870 in the loyalties of a republicanized French peasantry that was close in spirit to the "petite-bourgeoisie" of urban France, but the existence of this popular audience in the countryside did not affect the social and procedural conservatism of its chosen representatives. Ominously, the obsessive assertion by French liberals of the nation as the only legitimate political and social entity, implied that the doctrines of the moderate left could never hope to secure in France the durable allegiance of the urban working class.

On the one hand, race, as a working political concept, was excluded from postrevolutionary discourse in France: though French more than German civil society seemed to be in 1895 a promising seedbed for anti-Semitic horrors, national French racialist complicity in the Holocaust was not as horrendous as might have been imagined: foreign Jews were disgracefully abandoned to their fate by the Vichy regime, but Jews of French nationality were fitfully protected. The French Revolution and its concept of citizenship, though socially limited, was not a cipher. In that protective and important sense, the French Revolution was an undoubtedly progressive event.

On the other hand, sex and class, like race, were also excluded by the ruling republicans as matrixes of political action. The strikingly mixed legacy of the French Revolution was to make of class and gender the cornerstones of a repressive social life (i.e., to engrave the feared memory of 1792–1795 when male and female sans-culottes had dared to raise their voices) and to deny the relevance of these concepts to public political life (i.e., to reinscribe in the nineteenth century the universalist, classless memory of 1789, but in the eviscerated and readjusted form that had served the socially conservative goals of the Directory in 1795–1799).

The failure of the fraternal Revolution split French society into social


fragments that its anticorporatism was designed precisely not to heal, and this fragmentation ran deep. The ecumenical feelings of 1789 did not last. But the reverse most certainly could be said of the bitter class memories of 1792–1795 and of the attendant near-panic of the possessing class. The failed political application in 1793–1794 of an antecedent cultural and universalist upheaval engendered a divisive social earthquake that drastically altered French and even European social life for nearly two centuries to come.

Struck by the violent resolution in 1793–1794 of its innermost cultural contradictions, deeply alarmed by the anti-individualist drift of Jacobin communitarianism, the French possessing class that had accepted republicanism in 1792 developed, after 1800, a new and countervailing detestation of any politicized communitarian statement, however feebly generous it might be. The Rousseauistic and literary urge to privatize the experience of women now found explicit institutionalization in law and politics. (French women were not granted the vote until 1945.) The day-to-day fear of the urban poor that the French elite had begun to experience in the practice of daily life before 1789 but which could not be fully articulated at that time, was, with the failure of the French Revolution, violently stated in 1795 as the bourgeois detestation of the buveurs de sang, soon to become in the 1840s the celebrated "classes laborieuses, classes dangereuses."

In some material sense, by retarding French economic growth and by strengthening the hold of two precapitalistic groups—the landed, professional middle class and the peasantry—the great Revolution of 1789 did momentarily arrest the drift toward a modern society of classes. The inability of peasants (those celebrated potatoes in a sack) to think in class terms is well known, as is Robespierre's detestation of banks and money. But in the larger scheme of things, the French Revolution dramatically sharpened class and gender lines. The terroristic breakdown of the Revolution deployed class consciousness in France as would never have occurred in a more placid context. If one of its short-run effects was to reduce the condition of women to a level that in many significant ways was inferior to the one they had enjoyed in the last decades of the Old Regime, so was one of its long-run effects to set the stage for the republican massacres of the weak in 1848 and 1871. "La République is very fortunate," mused Louis-Philippe in exile. "It can afford to shoot the people."

The French Revolution created the bourgeoisie and, countervailingly, so did it help to create a doctrinally intransigent working class. From the seed of sans-culottism, and largely by reaction, working-class consciousness emerged as well. After the dramatic precedent of 1789, the theater of politics spontaneously produced the fruitless revolutions of the left in June 1848 and March of 1871. Proudhonism yielded to Marxist theories of class war and revolutionary violence. History, wrote Jean-Paul Richter, is the "Place La Morgue where everyone seeks the dead kinsmen of his heart."



Was the failed, terrorist, and class-bound denouement of the Revolution a fated event? Was Jacobinism doomed to failure? Ought we to speak of causes rather than of mere origins? The temptation to conclude affirmatively on this issue is quite strong. To be sure, in the newly created United States, some compromise was reached in much the same years between the Radical Whigs' communitarian ideology of virtue and the fearsomely individualist and capitalist nature of American social life. But the newly independent Americans were a profoundly religious people with a sharply defined communitarian, Golden Past that they yearned to recreate in a secularized republic. They were, after their war of Independence, convinced antimonarchists, with no historical reason to fear the variegated and unpredictable implications of pluralistic liberalism. Almost miraculously, the shape of American history during the last decades of the eighteenth century made possible in that new country the very synthesis of private gain and public good that proved to be so illusive in France.[22]

The ingredients of political catastrophe in the Grande Nation were by contrast very numerous, ranging as they did from a fabled and Tocquevillean incapacity for self-government to an atavistic neoreligious yearning for ideological, social, and political unity. These were great liabilities, compounded as they were by the incomplete nature of French economic change in the eighteenth century: the foundations of economic individualism in France were too weak to check after 1791 the drift toward holistic and terroristic virtue. Had the French Revolution been a social revolution, whose political discourse corresponded to some social bedrock, the ideological dérapage of revolutionary politics could hardly have occurred as it did. But it was, as it were, an antisocial revolution whose trajectory hinged on the inner logic of Jacobin ideology, and on the unavoidable if gradual realization of its inner contradictions.

Thermidor, as has been said, was aptly described by François Furet as the revenge of social forces over politics. We can extend this insight to prerevolutionary France as well. Jacobinism failed because its connection to the fabric of French social life was too weak. The origins of Jacobinism, of l'esprit révolutionnaire, were in a prerevolutionary cultural upheaval whose connection to new commercial and economic forms had been peripheral or even negative. More relevant to its genesis were ultimately ephemeral institutional mutations. The origins of Jacobinism were not in the development of capitalism within the framework of the Old Regime but in the categorical (and unstable) cultural rejection of traditionalist institutions by the propertied elite.

Simultaneously meritocratic and nationalist, the enlightened reader could no longer make his peace with the historicist particularism of the Old Re-


gime, but he was not, for all that, prepared to construct a pluralist polity. The breakdown of revolutionary Jacobinism is implied by the divided, schizophrenic nature of antecedent French and enlightened thought, which was unable to sort out the rights of the individual from the responsibilities of the citizen. Its failure was embedded also by the setting of this mixed political culture in the tolerant but deceptive social void of a decaying Ancien Régime, when the older constraints of corporatism no longer seemed necessary but where the newer tensions of a society of class had not yet appeared.

Carlyle was right, then, if for the wrong reasons. In the late 1780s, the French Ancien Régime was, just as he wrote, doomed to bloody death. But the Revolution was to be no more able to avoid bloodshed and self-destruction than the Ancien Régime had been able to adapt itself to the needs of modern life.

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