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An "Internalist" Interpretation of the French Revolution?

Interpretations of the French Revolution may always have been intimately intertwined with the significance attached to subsequent social revolutions in world history, yet many historians surely will agree with Lynn Hunt in her effort to set aside all such ways of situating the French Revolution in crossnational perspective. In Hunt's view, comparativist approaches (ranging from the Marxian to the political modernization views) offer overly "externalist" theories that treat the French "Revolution merely . . . as the vehicle of transportation between long-term causes and effects."[9] Hunt proposes to substitute for previous accounts of the French Revolution a radically "internalist" interpretation. She focuses strictly on the actors and symbols of revolutionary dramas between 1789 and 1794 and argues that the "chief accomplishment of the French Revolution was the institution of a dramatically new political culture."[10] This new political culture was inspired but not caused by the Enlightenment. The new political culture, along with the new political leaders who came to the fore in the midst of the conflicts of 1789–1794 to espouse and be shaped by the emergent political culture, advocated the recreation of the French people along universal, national, and rationalistic lines through "the mobilizing potential of democratic republicanism."[11]

Indeed, Hunt's provocative book, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution , represents a strong challenge to any crossnational, structuralist reading of the logic of revolutions, for it argues that the French Revolution's "origins, outcomes, and nature of experience were distinctively French."[12] Hunt unabashedly draws us away from looking for uniformities across social revolutions in modern world history, and into probing the meanings-for-theparticipants of a few pivotal years in the singular history of a unique French nation. At the same time, however, Hunt wishes to retain a certain claim that the French Revolution had world-historical significance. This she does by asserting that the "Revolution . . . gave birth to so many essential characteristics of modern politics"[13] —characteristics such as ideological contention, democratic participation, and political party organization. "Once revolutionaries acted on Rousseau's belief that government could form a new people," Hunt claims, "the West was never again the same."[14] But by this


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she does not mean that the French Revolution could, or should, be understood as parallel to other revolutions. She means that new possibilities for democratic politics were loosed on the world, to be interpreted in many alternative ways ranging from socialist to authoritarian, but not in the future to be ignored.

Admirable as Lynn Hunt's tour-de-force of an interpretation may be, it can be questioned from various standpoints. Most problematic from our point of view is Hunt's attempt to decouple the French Revolution's "internal" political processes from what Alexis de Tocqueville correctly identified as its most striking and enduring structural accomplishment: the rationalization, bureaucratization, and further centralization of state power in France.[15] Furthermore, going beyond Tocqueville, we see many powerful links between the "internal" patterns of political mobilization during the revolutionary years in France and a set of "external" dynamics. These external dynamics were not constituted by the "emergence of capitalism" or the abstract march of "political modernization." They were very concrete challenges of international warfare faced by France in the late eighteenth century.

Let us briefly suggest how patterns of "internal" French revolutionary politics—including the revolutionary rhetoric so effectively dissected by Hunt—can be linked to the "external" geopolitical challenges France faced from the beginning to the end of the Revolution. Geopolitical challenges contributed fundamentally to the outbreak and the distinctive rhetoric of the French Revolution in 1787–1789, to its radical crescendo in the Year II (1793–1794), and to its culmination in the peculiar Napoleonic dictatorship that emerged after 1799. In resonant response to these geopolitical challenges, the Revolution unshackled the French state's capacities to wage war. The Revolution completed and infused new popular energy into organizational transformations in the French military, changes that were launched under the Old Regime but not brought to successful fruition until the advent of the Republic and the subsequent extension of the Republic's armies and martial achievements by Napoleon.


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