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Four Cultural Upheaval and Class Formation During the French Revolution
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IV

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


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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


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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


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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."


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