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Thirteen Transformations in the Historiography of the Revolution
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In the last thirty years the whole of the social interpretation of the French Revolution has progressively unraveled—not just in its Marxist form but also in its earlier, classically bourgeois and liberal form, as it first appeared with the historians of the Restoration. The Marxist version, it is true, had weakened the explanatory value of this interpretation by associating the idea of the bourgeoisie with precise historical conditions, like the prior victory of a capitalist economy. And the leftish, Leninist version of Marxism rendered the concept of the bourgeois revolution even more problematic by superimposing 1917 on 1789 and glorifying the dictatorship of Year II, the Revolution's most voluntarist episode. As a result, the social interpretation of the Revolution has continuously lost its relevance with the addition of specific, supplementary characteristics imputed to its necessity.

This point can be clarified by an examination of precisely these conditions, this time by going back over the course of the history, while considering the Leninist, the simply Marxist, and the original, liberal-bourgeois interpretations respectively.

In the case of Marxism-Leninism, the problem is to situate the Revolution's least bourgeois period—characterized by the provisional domination of the sans-culottes, a state-controlled economy, and a terrorist dictatorship directed not just against the aristocracy of birth, but of wealth as well—within the overall necessity of the Revolution's bourgeois nature. Why was the bourgeoisie's political ascendancy accompanied by episodes that are its negation? The contradiction is all the more difficult to resolve as greater emphasis is placed on the Revolution's unfolding than its results and, in particular, on the dictatorship of 1793 that supposedly "anticipates" the conditions of the revolution to come, that of 1917. In this version, what is appreciated above all else is the revolutionary character of 1789, rather than its bourgeois character. And it is difficult, when celebrating the rupture between democracy and the law, and the inability of the men and principles of 1789 to establish durable political institutions, to uphold the bourgeois na-


ture of the Revolution as one's central interpretative thread. In order to do so one must resort to the idea of an aristocratic counterrevolution that forced the bourgeoisie into an alliance with the people and led to the extended use of violence. But the reasoning here proves circular, for resistance to the Revolution, which was almost nonexistent in 1789, was in fact conditioned by the Revolution's radicalism and cannot be explained in terms of class interests.

Now it is true that one does not find this hypervoluntarist conception in Marx. He insisted on the objective factors that led to 1789 and, in particular, the maturity of the French bourgeoisie as the socially dominant class prior to its conquest of power. But as Marx linked this social dominance with that of the capitalist economy, he led the historian before another impasse, one that was underscored in the 1960s by the English historian, Alfred Cobban:[7] at the end of the eighteenth century, the French economy, being based largely on agricultural production and a multiplicity of small rural plots, was not capitalist, as can be seen if compared to the English economy of the same period. And the bourgeoisie of 1789—the bourgeoisie that, for example, filled the Third Estate's seats in the Estates-General or, a little later, the administration of the departments—was not a capitalist bourgeoisie. If it included a certain number of shopkeepers and merchants (but practically no "manufacturers"), its vast majority was composed of legal practitioners—lawyers, judges, prosecutors—an entire world that owed more to French absolutism and the state-bureaucratized society of the Ancien Régime than to the "Manchester" spirit. Furthermore, if one judges the French Revolution not by its actors but by its objective results, one cannot speak of it in terms of capitalism; for the French economy remained more than ever, if compared with England, of a preindustrial type. The Revolution and the Empire democratized the bureaucratic and military values of the old French society, giving the people access to a domain once reserved for the aristocracy. Far from having transformed these national values, the revolutionary period gave them new roots.

If one must hold on to the idea of a bourgeois revolution, then it would be better to endow that revolution with that indeterminacy which it had for the Restoration historians, and make it the tip of a much larger movement, designated somewhat vaguely as the progress of "civilization." From this perspective one can delimit a series of long-term conditions of 1789, such as the quantitative growth of the economy, the progress of communications and exchanges, the decline in mortality rates, improvements to the domestic and urban environments, and the modernization-unification of the kingdom by state action—all things with which the men of the eighteenth century were very much concerned. The French Revolution was a child of growth and not of stagnation. But the historian gains nothing by making the bourgeoisie alone responsible for such progress, since he cannot situate the bourgeoisie, at the end of a long historical process, as the sole actor or beneficiary of the


Revolution. And so the historian finds himself having to renounce the idea that there exists, for the explanation of 1789, some royal road around which all the causal series could be arranged, and whose centerline would be formed by the bourgeoisie, the central actor in the development of civil society.

Now, such a renunciation need not detract from the Revolution's historical dignity—on the contrary. By ceasing to be the product of a class, it appears all the more as at the origins of modernity. Indeed, one is now in a position to rediscover the role attributed to it, for better or worse, by its most perceptive witnesses—Sieyès, Benjamin Constant, Burke, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel: that of bringing forth a world of autonomous individuals, entrusted with reconstructing the City on the basis of their free wills. The latter is not a specifically bourgeois project, since it continues to define the efforts of even those who seek to go beyond the bourgeois horizon, according to socialist doctrine. It encompasses all the attempts undertaken since 1789 to form a political community out of the atomized social universe of the modern individual. In this sense, both the bourgeois universe and the socialist claim to succeed the latter are its progeny. And it remains our point of departure for understanding what separates us from the Ancien Régime, whatever our views relative to the future of modern society. In other words, for today's historian the enigma of 1789 remains intact: it constitutes both a rupture and an origin. It remains our principle figure of historical discontinuity and cannot be domesticated within the terms of the short- or long-term domination of a class, in accord with some preassigned future.

By uncoupling 1789 from the bourgeoisie, one rediscovers something of the mysterious indeterminacy of these celebrated events. One gives the historical actors back their freedom of action—actors who wanted above all to be free, that is, to be able to transform the course of history by an act of will. And the best indicator that this liberty has been restored is the importance given to the Revolution's political dimension, that is, to the way the actors themselves thought and expressed what they were doing. The names they assigned to things are the best signs of the passions they experienced. When a period is obsessed with its political divisions, to the point of using them to define a radical rupture with the past and create a completely new language relative to man and society, it hardly seems reasonable to reduce the period to the advent of an economic form. The French Revolution was, above all else, a laboratory of modern politics. It offers an exceptional wealth and complexity of political materials, as well as many intelligent actors and penetrating commentators. In order to approach its true historical reality, one must give up viewing history as though people in the past were submerged in an opacity that only the historian (or philosopher) can illuminate. One must return to what in history was explicit, which, in the case of the French Revolution, is to be found in its political history, as marked out by an extremely


important historico-philosophical tradition. The latter is as old as the Revolution itself (for it begins with, for example, Sieyès or Burke[8] ), moves beyond France's frontiers (since German philosophy provides a fundamental contribution), and is enriched throughout the nineteenth century, notably as a result of the French intelligentsia's obsessive relation with—and consequently, its intellectual enthrallment to—the last ten years of the preceding century.

In truth, the French Revolution is so vast an event, and so rich and deep, that it has become central to an analysis of the specificity of modern democracy in relation to the ancient world, as well as to the nation-state assembled by the absolutist monarchy. This line of investigation did not begin post factum but during the Revolution itself, and by its own actors. For example, an examination of the parliamentary debates at the beginning of the Revolution—in the year 1789—reveal that the great figures of the Constituent Assembly were aware of and discussed at length the problems they would have to face: the relation between what was designated as a "revolution" and the preceding centuries, the complexity of the articulation between the rights of man and positive law, the inalienable character of the people's sovereignty and the indispensability of delegating it, the organization of the sovereign into different powers, the compatibility of the legislative power of the sovereign Assembly with the derivative executive power retained by the formerly absolute monarch, and so forth. We have not ceased to pose the same questions in the very terms they were conceptualized by the actors and their contemporaries—and as such, they remain questions basic to our own time. Now all these debates soon converged onto a single, obsessive theme, that of "ending the Revolution"—which twentieth-century historiography has dismissed as due merely to reactionary fears, when it concerns a central problem of modern politics with which we are still very much occupied.

The same applies to what, a little later, was called the "Terror." The Thermidorians, or at least certain of them, were more subtle analysts of the phenomenon than Mathiez or Soboul,[9] even though they specialized in this period. Benjamin Constant, in particular, had an infinitely richer line of questioning than Mathiez.[10] Of course Constant "knew" fewer of the details, but the questions posed by the young Swiss Thermidorian, beginning the year after Robespierre's fall, are far more interesting than those of the communist historian more than a century later. One more proof, amongst so many others, that neither chronological distance nor archival research suffice to guarantee any gains in comprehension, when these supposed advantages are accompanied by a decline in the substantiality of the hypothesis or in the quality of the minds. In many regards, the task of today's historian is to rewrite the Revolution's history within the lines of questioning elaborated by the nineteenth century, but with the enriched documentation bequeathed by the twentieth century.


In this rediscovery of the importance of politics—and of the nineteenth century—a particular place must be reserved for Alexis de Tocqueville, an author who remains essential, at least for the French historian. If, as I believe, the French Revolution was truly what it claimed to be, namely, the empirical form by which the world of free and equal individuals appeared historically, then Tocqueville was probably the person who studied the implications of this epoch-making project with the greatest persistency. He considered the latter in its deepest sense, for "democracy" in his intellectual system does not designate a type of political regime, nor even a state of society, but the condition of modern man, required to view his fellow citizens as his equals. True, Tocqueville saw the victory of democratic principles as the product of a providential design, and thus as the very meaning of universal history. But in his eyes democracy can be subject to very different destinies, since equality can just as easily give rise to the citizen's liberty as the state's despotism.

Now the French Revolution illustrates both possibilities. In 1789 the entire nation rallied against despotism to give birth to democracy, since aristocratic liberty combined with democratic liberty to render the revolutionary explosion governable within the framework of free institutions. But what then followed, with the legislative and the Convention, provided a glimpse of the potential, in the new world of individual equality, for an infinitely more comprehensive despotism than the power of the former absolutist kings. Moreover, the French Revolution only ended with the establishment of a new absolute monarchy, which recreated in an infinitely more authoritarian and centralized form, the administrative state of the Ancien Régime. What Tocqueville sought to discover was the secret link that ties the egalitarian individualism of modern democracy to the tentacular expansion of the centralized state. As he did not have time to write his projected volume on the French Revolution proper, we will never know how he would have analyzed its history in detail; but at least it is possible to know how, with regard to its philosophical foundations, he viewed the question of the drift toward despotism.

By contrast, as regards the other fundamental problem posed by the Revolution, that of its radicality, or in different terms, that of the origins of its rationalist voluntarism, Tocqueville left us his L'Ancien Régime .[11] The entire book is devoted to answering the following question: How can one explain the nonhistorical character of the Revolution, its rejection of the past and its abstract constructivism, in terms of what preceded it? He responds by citing two tendencies operating in the Ancien Régime, and which formed its very substance. On the one hand, the absolute monarchy's destruction of aristocratic society and every political tradition of liberty. On the other hand, the elaboration of a philosophy of the "tabula rasa," which one can already find preformed in Turgot and Condorcet at the height of their power and in-


fluence in 1774–1776. The Ancien Régime gave democratic radicalism both an instrument for the total subversion of authority, through the centralized state, and an education in such subversion, through the citizens' alienation in a world of pure ideas. As such, L'Ancien Régime was not so much a preface to the Revolution or repertory of its origins, than a first revolution predating that of 1789. There lay a tradition concealed behind the rejection of tradition, which would weigh on the Revolution's course and lead to a rediscovery of the centralized state, in a far more perfect version than under the former kings.

One can, moreover, imagine Tocqueville's analysis of the hidden continuity between absolutism and the Revolution being enriched by extending it to the national political imaginary. The monarchy had developed its power as an incarnation of the nation, as the head of a political body conceived of as immemorial, constitutive of social life (l'être ensemble), and as represented by the king of France—"represented" in the earlier sense of the term, that is, as identical to what it reproduced (reproduit à l'identique). It is this totality that the Revolution smashed, on the one hand, by breaking up the organicist society of bodies into free individuals, and on the other, by separating the nation from the king. Now the deputies had to "incarnate" the nation, but from within an atomized society. A difficult task in the best of cases—particularly when undertaken for the first time—but in this case almost impossible, since it was a matter of joining the radical individualism of 1789 with a no less radically unitary conception of the nation.

This can be seen, for example, during the first great constitutional debate of 1789, at the end of August/beginning of September, when the deputies were organizing the transfer of the king's absolute sovereignty to the people—a transfer that began on the seventeenth of June when the assembly of the Third Estate rebaptized itself as, simply, the "National Assembly," and thereby carried out the first, most basic act of the Revolution. In this fundamental debate, the right wing of the revolutionary camp, the first moderates of the Revolution, pleaded for sovereignty in the English manner, with a king and parliament composed of two chambers. But the idea of tying the Revolution to the national past by sharing power between the old monarchy and the new national representation proved impossible for two reasons. First, the "monarchists" were appealing to a tradition and monarchy that did not exist, or no longer existed, if it ever had even the beginnings of an existence in the French past. And then the attempt to "restore" this monarchy, accompanied by a second chamber that would have revived the phantom of aristocratic power after two centuries of absolutist rule, appeared all the more unreal given the radical condemnation as "feudal" of a principle that threatened to survive the absolute monarchy after having preceded it.

In this sense, the radical camp had a more traditionalist understanding than the moderate party: it appropriated the sovereignty developed by abso-


lutism, while the monarchists sought to reinvent it in a form it never had. The radicals gave the Constituent Assembly the sovereign power to reconstruct the political body. But the peremptory affirmation of chronological discontinuity on the part of the patriotic party, which gave new meaning to the word revolution , was inseparable from the reappropriation of a conception of political sovereignty that owed its character to absolutism. The people took the place of the king, but the place remained the same. In effect, pure democracy had replaced absolute monarchy. And just as the earlier conception had left no room for anything but the monarch, the new sovereign power could not consent to anything that was not of the people or its "representatives." As such, the idea of the Ancien Régime being formed in August-September 1789 implied the symbolic and practical overturning of the throne and was proclaimed as such by a large majority of the Constituents, despite being masked by the king's new position as the nation's first functionary.

In this way one can, without referring to the history of ideas or the confrontation of social classes, cast new light on the radical character possessed by the Revolution since the beginning, when the counterrevolution did not yet have a social base or any real force. The Ancien Régime and the Revolution formed a couple, radically disjointed yet inseparable.

At this point I do not want to illustrate by further examples how one might renew the history of the Revolution, conceptualized in terms of both the actors' freedom of action and their situational constraints. Indeed, the latter enables one to give them back their extraordinary historical initiative, while simultaneously restoring the Revolution to the historical continuity with which it wanted to break so passionately. By following both these paths the historian can understand the tremendous collective overinvestment in politics that marked the revolutionary years, the difficulties in taming its explosive force, and its latent messianism. The demonstration of the inconsistencies of the social interpretation of 1789 has liberated political analysis from the tutelage of the economic infrastructure, and returned to the center of historical interest the enigma identified by the most penetrating minds of the revolutionary era: How can one form a body of people out of modern individuals, who define themselves by what separates them? The opposition between political and social rights which has fascinated so many generations of commentators is itself simply a variant of this same question, which the Revolution posed at first triumphantly, then tragically.

After almost a hundred years of a historiography obsessed with going beyond the French Revolution—or what amounts to the same, with the limits of the latter—we are now, by contrast, in the midst of rediscovering that the problems posed by the French events of 1789 still form the substance of our present political civilization. I am tempted to stress this point today more than ever, during this fin de siècle , when the bankruptcy of all the attempts to resolve the contradictions of the era of free individuals appears so


clearly. And when the evidence suggests, now more than ever, that democracy's dynamics are based on the idea of a political body formed of individual wills and pledged to guarantee and constantly extend individual rights. In this sense we still remain within the world of 1789, and with the problems posed during that celebrated year by an Assembly that had been convoked for other purposes, but which still speaks to us today as if it were only yesterday.

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