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Ferenc Fehér


The historiography of the French Revolution has been traditionally and rightly regarded as the major yield and the ultimate confirmation of the golden age of historicism, a success story in which every representative paradigm of writing history has had its own share. From Jaurès to Lefebvre and Soboul, the Marxist chronicles transpired as proof positive of the validity of their master's paradigm. The liberal partisans of the thesis of "limited but infinite progress" thrived on an apparently inexhaustible treasure trove of the hagiography of the "Republic." In their accounts, an indestructible and constantly resurrected republicanism signaled "progress," and the surreptitiously surviving and occasionally reemerging "ultramontanism" or "royalism" meant "regression." The advocates of historical decay, from Bonald and De Maistre to Maurras, found their explanatory principle continually confirmed by their nation's intermittent loss of gloire and its incessant internecine strife. Prior to Nietzsche, the mythology of the superman demonstrated its seductive power through the exploitation of the material of the French Revolution in Carlyle's celebrated work. And the particularly French branch of "skeptical liberalism," initiated by Tocqueville, continued by Cochin, and inherited by Furet, felt itself confirmed by every new disastrous turn of a permanently shaky French democracy.

And yet, in the postwar domestic research of the French Revolution, unmistakable symptoms of the decline of the traditional interpretations have been emerging for decades, the sole exception being Soboul's classic on the sans-culottes of Year II and the direct democracy of the Paris districts. Put bluntly, the domestic narrative became tediously self-repetitive. Until the publication of Furet's Thinking the French Revolution in the second half of the


1970s, which has become a turning point for friend and foe alike, innovating impetus came exclusively from outside. The Anglo-American "revisionism" successfully questioned the relevance of the major explanatory devices of the Marxist school, at least in the actual form in which they had been used. Via the accumulated experience of sociological research, the new American "social history" or "historical sociology," whose paradigmatic works were Tilly's The Vendée and Skocpol's States and Social Revolutions , gave an important stimulus to that particular style of writing history, which had been captive too long to a dubious method of "typology." In her celebrated, as well as hotly debated, On Revolution , Hannah Arendt has drawn such a sharp contrast between the "American" and "French" models of revolution that the after-effects of her challenge or provocation have been reverberating ever since in historical consciousness. Of the contributors to the present volume, Higonnet with his most recent Sister Republics is thoroughly indebted to Arendt's provocative gesture. English and Scandinavian New Leftist historians were the only worthy sucessors to Guérin's and Soboul's pioneering explorations into a hitherto unknown continent of anonymous militants (I have in mind the works by Cobb and Tönnesson). The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity , emerging from a special bicentennial issue of Social Research (the theoretical journal of the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research) and with a majority of its contributors coming from outside of French research, tries to live up to the already very high standards of the new tradition.

A very serious trend, at once historical and philosophical, lurks behind the decline of the French domestic narrative. The end of World War II marked the simultaneous collapse of the great paradigms of nineteenth-century historicism, which, without public recognition, had been philosophically eroded already for a long time. The Hegelian-Marxian paradigm of a progressive conclusion of (pre)history was hard, later outright impossible, to maintain in the face of the Holocaust and the Gulag. Paradigms of historical decay had profoundly compromised themselves by their often close association with the "heroic" efforts of Fascism and Nazism to "overcome decadence." The paradigms of limited (mostly technological) progress, which had for a while fared best, ran into the insurmountable hurdle of the apparently ineliminable poverty of the postcolonial world and the skeptical "ecological consciousness." Although on the academic scene of "mass society" historical research has expanded to an incredible extent; although its methodological selfawareness has been immensely refined and its tools sharpened; although the walls of national segregation have been pulled down within the global institution of academe, historians have been increasingly at a loss concerning the extra muros relevance of their research.

In the meantime, however, a beneficial change has begun to develop in


the professional-historical consciousness under the impact of the widespread acceptance of hermeneutics in the social sciences. This acceptance has influenced the historian, whether or not the historian was consciously preoccupied with philosophy. The nineteenth-century paradigms of history operated with the concept of an objective, uniform, homogeneous and coherent process comprising its "meaning" (which was to be "scientifically" deciphered by historians). They often used the hypothesis of objective historical laws, and they ascribed an unambiguous (although divergingly explicated) direction to the integral process. True enough, several constituents of these theories, above all its "objectivity," had already been profoundly questioned in the nineteenth century, primarily by Nietzsche. The methodological consequences of this challenge, however, dawned on the historian with excessive delay. But now we are living in an age of "hermeneutical consciousness," the spirit of which, transpiring in the present volume, can be summed up in a term that none of the participants uses and some of them would object to: posthistoire .

Posthistoire , a term coined in the process of exploring "postmodernity," seems to be a particularly inept category for the use of historians if it is meant in the facile and misleading sense of "history having come to a standstill." But there are other possible interpretations of the term. If "postmodernity" is understood not as an epoch subsequent to modernity, but as a position and attitude within modernity which confirms modernity's "arrival," its final settling-in, while at the same time making inquiries into modernity's credentials and efforts to render meaning to it, the concept posthistoire will emerge from a taboo and a barrier for the historian into a stimulus. In this understanding, history will transpire as a text that we read together, but each of us in his or her own individual way. This collective, at the same time personal, reading does not recognize any "distinguished" reader. (Such a position could only be achieved by the absolute transcendence of our common world: modernity.) But although there are only myths of and arrogant claims to a "distinguished position" and "absolute transcendence," there is indeed a shared core in the reading of the same story by every community of readers.

Despite the conspicuous—theoretical, methodological, and political—differences between the contributors to The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity , the "shared core" of the story read and recounted by them, individually and collectively, is palpably present. It is comprised in the title of the volume, and it provides this collection of papers with a strong internal cohesion. The shared core is the authors' recognition that after several crucial antecedents and preludes, modernity has been born out of the French Revolution; further, that modernity "is here," it has arrived; and, finally, that it has to be given a meaning. It is at this point that the often heated debate between the seemingly isolated papers in the volume begins.



The first complex issue, about which there is a considerable degree of disagreement among the authors, but discussed in the "subtext" rather than in the text itself, is the question of whether the process of birth of modernity had actually come to an end or whether it is still a delivery-in-progress. This "merely" subtextual issue is of crucial significance. Its evaluation will ultimately decide the tone, the method, and the style of the contributions, the distance that has been taken in them to the collectively recounted story. Put briefly, this will define whether the subject matter of the narrative, to use a wise category that Agnes Heller coined in her A Theory of History , is "the past of the present" or past pure and simple, which, as such, is dead.

As is well known, Furet holds the view that the French Revolution has already come to an end and therefore has to be treated as a "cold issue" by the historian. In this context, it will suffice to assert about this regularly misread aperçu that it is not a hostile statement against the Revolution and that the thesis of the fait-accompli character of the Revolution is not an obstacle to Furet in participating in the "shared core" of the story, in "rendering meaning to modernity." On the contrary: it is precisely on this basis that he can formulate what he regards as the main message of our age. For my part, I have insisted in The Frozen Revolution that at least in one respect, concerning its inexhaustible and still active energy of generating Jacobin and neo-Jacobin blueprints, the revolutionary process should come to a halt (which by definition means that as yet it has not). In my contributions to this volume, I have repeated this warning. Higonnet has also been thinking along similar lines. His paper reconsiders the historical-cultural causes of the threat of what he calls "the universalist illusion" of French radical revolutionaries, which is for him evidently still topical. Other contributors to the volume clearly understand the French Revolution as a process still active, at least in its aftereffects, and, as such, uncompleted. Both in Tilly's and Skocpol's understanding, the Revolution was about the immense reinforcement of the nation-state, a process that, as Tilly stresses and proves in his paper, had been underway since the mideighteenth century. Moreover, the process has just commenced in certain areas of the world, as Skocpol pinpoints with regard to Iran. The alternative views of our present, as either a dead or a merely extinguished volcano—that is, in a less metaphoric language, as either the consolidated end result of revolutions no longer in need of major change or of the aftereffects of a still lively revolutionary dynamic generating constant change—are undoubtedly crucial with regard to what kind of meaning is rendered to modernity.

The second major issue of controversy among the contributors concerns the terms of interpretation. Of them, Hobsbawm is the only eloquent champion of the traditional understanding in terms of "class," whereas the rel-


evant parts of Furet's paper serve as the most articulate refutation of the traditional position. Without rehashing their arguments, it has to be stated that, first, the "revisionist" thesis set forth primarily by Cobban decades ago seems to have broken through and now stands uncontested. Marc Richir's aperçu concerning the French bourgeoisie as the result, rather than the cause, of the Revolution, has in this volume been accepted by Furet and Wallerstein alike, although they hold widely divergent political views. Furthermore, the precise class identification of the actor has in the meantime lost a considerable degree of its topicality, unless someone regards the present as a mere prelude to the real drama. The major term of explanation can equally be "the nation-state," which is Tilly's option, "the world system" (this is Wallerstein's explanatory device, whereas Skocpol picks a bit of both), or the capability of a revolution to generate "master narratives" that, in turn, trigger the generalized learning processes of modernity. (The latter is the framework in terms of which both Higonnet and this writer understand the afterlife of the Revolution as well as its lasting impact on the present.) It goes without saying that the different key concepts imply different readings of the "text of history" and thus different meanings rendered to modernity. But in each case, they are selected and used with a view to the "shared core" of the readings.

The genuine clash among the authors, one which sheds a dramatic light on the nature of modernity, is the conflict between the "purely political" and the "social" interpretation of the Revolution. The latter is represented in several different versions in the volume and is in turn criticized both by Higonnet and Furet. Without claiming the position of umpire, it is this writer's conviction that only a combined interpretation, in which neither the political nor the economic (the "class") factor plays the role of primus movens , would uncover the unique achievement of the French Revolution, namely, the creation of a universal framework of political action in result of which the French Revolution has remained the master narrative of modernity. The lasting character of this achievement was for a long time covered by the bloody confusion of the revolutionary decades, the actual collapse of the French Revolution, and the complicity of a long line of history-writing that generated and circulated narratives of the great event not less one-sided and blindfolded than the actors' own accounts had been. But now, in the process of "rendering meaning to modernity," the framework resurfaces from under the debris of history. And the various contributions to The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity , taken in their entirety, provide sufficient clues to the understanding of the framework.

The initial steps of the French actors were characterized by a surprising degree of both political naiveté and arbitrariness. They were naive insofar as they innocently believed that the sole, albeit gigantic, task awaiting them was the deed of a merely political reconstruction. Once the "fact" (more properly:


their revolutionary projection) that "every man is born free" had been recognized; once la nation , the new universal which is preexistent with regard to both individuals and corporations, had been established; once the state is "free" insofar as it proclaimed a new type of (collective) sovereign; once everyone was recognized as equal before the law, their task was done and completed. Like the American Cincinnati, they thought they could return to their homes. This belief in the cure-all character of the primary act of emancipation was extended by them to the economic domain as well. One of the as-yet-unwritten stories of the Revolution is the initial volte-face of even those economists who had been brought up in the school of an enlightened but firm state regulation of the markets during the last decades of the monarchy. This turnabout appears in light of Tilly's account of the increase in the direct rule of the state, accelerated by the Revolution, as sheer illusion. But in the early atmosphere of general enthusiasm, even the former étatistes became partisans of the complete deregulation of the markets.

The revolutionaries were also excessively arbitrary. On certain counts, in particular concerning the victims of religious prejudice, their generosity seemed to have no bounds. Gary Kates tells here the story of Jews having been turned into Frenchmen almost overnight. If slowly and inconsistently, they still did incomparably more for the emancipation of the slaves than the American founding fathers, exalted to high heavens by Arendt, had ever considered to do. On other counts, their record was appalling from the start. Their electoral system was drafted in the spirit of a patronizing and authoritarian Enlightenment; as a result, a considerable part of the poorer strata of the populace was excluded from it. The women's issue, as a problem to be addressed, was never put on their agenda. And in a pathbreaking study, Richard Andrews has shown quite recently that their first penal code contained such limitations on the freedom of speech that the government during the Reign of Terror needed very little imagination to amplify its rigor.

Naiveté could have been overcome and arbitrariness rectified, however, had it not been for the monumental and bitter surprise caused by the unruly behavior of the newly emancipated crowd. Both Singer's analysis of the centrality of the crowd's violence with its specific claim to popular justice and Skocpol's emphasis on mass mobilization make the crucial role of this "unruly behavior" of the crowd in the whole process sufficiently clear. Once recognized as citizens, the crowd seemed to be exclusively preoccupied, above all on the urban scene, with such vulgar issues as the price of bread. And at a well-known, crucial point, the urban poor proposed and imposed the total abandonment of both political and economic freedom in "putting the terror on the agenda" and forcing the introduction of le maximum général .

With this, the initial naive harmony of the first days exploded, never to return again. The Revolution embarked on the fateful course of navigating between the Scyllae of a strong, often terroristic state whose actual socioeco-


nomic policies varied (hence the legitimate stress on the state in Tilly and Skocpol) and the Charybdis of the wish to return to the self-regulatory mechanisms of a market system (which has remained a pious or impious wish of French politics for a long time but which has never regained the position it had enjoyed and abused in the early days of the Revolution). And it is thus that the framework of modern politics, the extremes between which it has been moving for two centuries and the space between them wherein modernity worked itself out, have been created.

However, the "homecoming of modernity"—the historical moment in which "the rendering of meaning" can be undertaken—is to be achieved only if the two inherent trends of this cycle, political freedom and the management of the "social question," were reconciled at least to the degree of a peaceful cohabitation. For this, two requirements had to be met. First, the primacy of political freedom, the principle of the free state, had to be maintained. Neither the dialectical idea of a "tyranny of freedom" nor a streamlined form of tyranny pure and simple can solve "the social question," or, for that matter, any social issue. But they can eventually destroy modernity. It belongs to the greatness of the French Revolution, as long as it had remained a revolution and had not yet been turned into an autocratic-charismatic rule, that at least the principle of freedom and popular sovereignty was never abandoned by any of its representative statesmen. Robespierre gave a short symbolic expression of this reluctance to transcend the threshold in the famous question of Au nom de qui? on the last night of his life. And Saint-Just, before being silenced by the Convention for good, emphasized that twothirds of the legislative work of the Assembly during the most lunatic days of the Reign of Terror had been aimed at strengthening, instead of extinguishing, civil society. This hesitation before the fateful threshold elevates the story of the French Revolution to the rank of modernity's master narrative over the Bolshevik "second and expanded edition."

The second requirement of "the homecoming of modernity" has been formulated by Furet in a paradoxical manner. In a lecture given at New York University in October 1988, he set forth the postulate of democracy "forgetting its origins." The prosaic meaning of this dictum reads as follows: the bitter struggles, which had torn asunder the initial harmony of the great Revolution and had propelled its actors as well as its successors onto a cycle of permanent civil wars, must come to a halt in an act of reconciliation, or else modernity will be destroyed. I am in complete agreement with Furet's postulate, but I deem it feasible only on the basis of creating a legitimate space for the constant renegotiation of "the social question" on the basis of political freedom as an absolute precondition.

Three major issues of the political culture of the Revolution have been discussed in the volume, each in turn contributing considerably to the present physiognomy and "meaning" of modernity. The first is the problem of


"the republican legacy," dealt with in the papers by Smith, Furet, and this writer. The issue at stake is far more than purely terminological in nature. Whether democracy would tendentially move toward the Kantian res publica noumenon or remain the rule of the majority pure and simple (or even, as Sieyès feared, a facade for a new oligarchy) was perhaps the most crucial alternative the Revolution had to face. The "terminological hairsplitting" aiming at the definition of the new state formed an organic part of the bitter internal struggles of the epoch. The second issue, the "resacralizing" of the political sphere after it had been thoroughly secularized and rationalized, as recounted by this writer, has been joined and complemented by Miguel Abensour's analysis of the "cult of heroism" in the Revolution. On the surface, it transpires as a purely French story having no continuation in the political history of the continent. In fact, both the resacralizing of the political sphere and the cult of heroism, separately and conjointly, were the prelude to that major nightmare haunting modernity ever since: charismatic rule. Finally, the issue with which revolutions have never ceased to be associated since the French drama, namely the violence of the crowd as a constitutive part of political action, is, in its whole complexity, the subject matter of Singer's paper.

This political culture was "domestic," intrinsically and often chauvinistically French. At the same time, it was universalized in the (intentional as well as unintentional) efforts of the Revolution to impose itself on what it understood as the modern world. To regard the Napoleonic Grande Armée as the exclusive vehicle of this conquest would be an error and a simplification. From a certain aspect, modernity can be viewed as an aggregate of representative narratives that, as a rule, spread far beyond national borders and served as blueprints for, and thus implicitly conquered, other nations and national imaginations.


The cultural legacy of the French Revolution is heavily represented in this book, but once again exclusively with regard to its impact on the future culture of modernity. This impact is twofold. On the one hand, the Revolution gave the strongest possible impetus to the rise of the golden age of philosophy of history. On the other hand, it triggered the birth of the "objective" science of society. Both issues have been dealt with in this volume by the contributions of Furet, Mitchell, Smith, and this writer.

The impetus given by the Great Revolution to the grand narratives of the philosophy of history was direct. There was nothing pragmatic in the representative actors on the Paris scene. From the fall of the Bastille till Thermidor and even after, the most liberal as well as the most illiberal ones among them shared the conviction, albeit in different orchestrations and varying


interpretations, that the Revolution had not only grown out of philosophy but that it had been assigned the task, as Robespierre put it most poignantly, to fulfill the promises of philosophy, to conclude the prehistory of humankind and complement the revolutions in the physical world by a moral world revolution.

But the watershed event was too close to the body of its actors for them to cast a glance at it from the distance necessary for philosophical speculation. No wonder, then, that the representative philosophies of history, whose specific content can be regarded as a response to the dilemmas posed by the French Revolution, were born outside the French context, primarily in Germany. (This is why the analyses of Kant and Hegel play such a central role in this volume.) Nor was this external fruition of the cultural yields of the Revolution restricted to philosophy. The immortal music of revolutionary enthusiasm—an emotion crucial for both Kant and Robespierre—found its ultimate expression in Beethoven's singular combination of an endless harmonic material with the titanic melody of "fraternity" and the emergence of the motif of the Hero. The single great historical drama written on the Revolution is Büchner's Danton's Death . Only revolutionary painting came of age on the domestic scene through the brush of that bizarre combination of an artist, as genius and individualist, and a security police chief, namely Jacques-Louis David.

Revolutionary (and immediate postrevolutionary) France's own contribution to this great intellectual transformation was the "science" of the new society, which immediately split and went in two different directions. With Saint-Simon, it concentrated on the critique of the society born out of the turbulences of a quarter of a century. Socialism was born as the critical science of the society created by the Revolution, one which applied revolutionary principles to the end result of the revolutionary process. With Comte, social science accepted the new society as an incontrovertible fact and went about the understanding of its mechanics with great equanimity.

Philosophy of history, growing out of the "philosophical revolution," focused on such issues as were, without exception, painful and ultimately unresolvable dilemmas for the revolutionaries themselves. What is the "meaning" of a revolution? Does it imply a complete break with the past, a total tabula rasa as the actors themselves had believed, or does it have a continuity with the past that had remained hidden for the actors in the fever of enthusiasm? Is the revolution a "solemn" act, a moral "surplus" the generated energy of which has to be preserved for the republic to survive? Or is it rather a "relapse into the state of nature" or perhaps the combination of this relapse and a signal of "progress in nature"? Should revolution be continued permanently, or should it come to a halt at some point while building its results in the body of the new society? What is the character of history created by this cataclysm? Is history from now on "determined" and predictable, oper-


ating according to moral or scientific laws? Or is it precisely its unpredictable and "chaotic," that is, indeterminate, character that had opened up in the great event? These and similar questions were asked by the philosophy of history under the direct impact of the French Revolution. And the questions themselves, together with the answers given to them then and there, (both being sufficiently analyzed in the contributions to this book, primarily in that of Harvey Mitchell), have never left us.

Posthistoire , under the aegis of which the present book was born, is not distinguished by having the "ultimate" answer to these old dilemmas. Rather, it is distinguished by recognizing the (obviously not identical) relevance of the varying answers given to the dilemmas, that is, by the spirit of hermeneutics. The book concludes on a seemingly modest note in Furet's rereading of the paradigms in terms of which historiography, in other words, every new present, tried to cope with its past: the Revolution. However, the yield of this hermeneutical voyage is important. For in the carefully worded questions addressed to the text, in the tentative answers the text and the reader together supply to the questions, a major turn has been negotiated. In the historical hour of the crisis of Bolshevik self-identity, the French Revolution, by removing layers of "the Russian interpretation" imposed on its text by generations of interpreters, reclaims its primogeniture as the authentic master narrative of modernity.


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