Preferred Citation: Fehér, Ferenc, editor. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1990.

Thirteen Transformations in the Historiography of the Revolution


The French Revolution was first interpreted in terms of class struggle, before Marx, by the liberal historians of the Restoration. The mechanics of Marx's explanation of history would remain similar, though the outcome and actors were different. He continues with the idea of class conflict but extends it to the proletariat and bourgeoisie, and turns their conflict into the last act in the history of human alienation, since the proletariat is said to bear within itself the end of class society. But this new "end of history" does not prevent him from interpreting, like his bourgeois predecessors, the causes of the French Revolution in terms of the middle class ascendancy—an ascendancy slowly achieved at a social level in the last centuries of the Ancien Régime and crystallized in 1789 when the bourgeoisie came to political power.[1]

The problem with this sort of interpretation, even before Marx, is its inability to account for the modes by which power is taken and held: for it analyzes the contents of the revolutionary event, not its forms, and still less its duration. This can be illustrated by a brief look at the French liberals. Guizot, for example, works out in great detail the idea of the historical rise of the middle class, tied to the entire march of civilization. He examines its economic dimension: the growth of production and consumption, the progress of the market, the rise in living standards, the wealth of the cities and the extravagance of the wealthy; its social dimension: the increased role of the middle class that, freed from feudal domination with the increasing emancipation of the Communes, had become central to the construction of national unity; its moral dimension: the conquest of individual autonomy, both in relation to God (Protestantism) and the City (citizenship as the individual's participation in human history); and lastly its political dimension: the con-


stitution (or reconstitution) of law and the public sphere—which had been fragmented under feudalism and reincarnated by the monarchy in the name of the nation. Civilization —a term that Guizot took from the eighteenth century to express less a state than a process, that by which European society becomes "civil"—encompasses at one and the same time the growth of the economy and liberty, the progress of the individual and administrative unity, the Reformation and the nation-state. Its secular dismantling of the feudal system culminated with 1789, which finally allowed modern society and its deus ex machina, the middle class, to appear in the full light of history. "When periodizing revolutions," he notes in his lessons of 1820–1821, "one must begin with the day they burst forth—it is the only precise date one can assign them. They do not, however, take place within such a time framework. The tremors that one terms 'revolution,' are less a symptom of what is beginning than the declaration of what has happened."[2]

But the problem now becomes how to explain the frenzied course of events after 1789. For if the Revolution expressed a necessity of history, a history that had been all but realized prior to it, then it is the revolutionary event itself, its "shadows" and "tempests," to use Guizot's revealing vocabulary, that becomes opaque. And this for two reasons: first, the event displays a strange discrepancy between its rationale, that is, the ensemble of causes that brought it about, and its course, which would lead to its excesses. Instead of establishing representative government, which was to crown and complement the new society, the Revolution followed an erratic trajectory that placed it in conflict with its own principles—since neither Robespierrism nor Bonapartism are compatible with liberty. Second, the uncontrollable character of that trajectory suggests that the middle class, though supposedly victorious in 1789, did not really control its course. There was something truly anarchic about the Revolution of 1789, more powerful than any individual or class strategy, something that would swallow up all of its actors and for a long time render impossible the formation of a stable government. But as Guizot never wrote on the French Revolution itself, he left neither an in-depth analysis of the revolutionary course of events as such, nor a commentary on the difficulties involved in conceptualizing the necessity of 1789 along with all the seemingly contingent events it inaugurated.

These same difficulties can be found in Mignet, himself an author of a history of the Revolution,[3] but one who was no less convinced of the necessity of revolutions in general, and of that of 1789 in particular. As with Guizot, he viewed 1789 as having been completed prior to its actual occurrence. "All the Estates General did was to decree a Revolution that had already been completed." It was, therefore, irreversible. Still, it had traversed tumultuous periods, which appeared incompatible with the seemingly self-evident character with which it had first been greeted. Nonetheless, this same chaotic movement was "almost inevitable" (Introduction, p. 4). In order to demon-


strate this claim, Mignet does not have recourse to a "ruse of reason" type of reasoning but resorts instead to a series of interconnected actions deliberately intended by the actors themselves. If the Revolution was necessarily so long, bloody, and complex, despite being inscribed in what preceded it, it was because it had such powerful enemies who reoriented its direction. In their struggle against the Revolution, these enemies provoked the passions of its most extreme partisans. Thus, following the middle-class revolution, there was the people's revolution of 1792, and then, once the nation was saved, the pendulum swung back with the Thermidorian reaction. If there was indeed something necessary about the course of the revolutionary events, it was of a secondary order, deduced from the primary necessity that gave birth to modern society under the guidance of the middle class.

Thus Mignet saves his philosophical reading of the revolutionary events at the cost of logical inconsistencies. The year 1789 was inevitable, an event prepared beforehand by the entire evolution of the Ancien Régime; yet it provoked tremendously hostile reactions on the part of individuals and classes with enough strength and freedom of action to oppose it. The "second revolution," that of 1792, made by the "multitudes" against the middle class, does not possess the dignity of the first, since it did not correspond to any larger necessity of history. It could not, by definition, create institutions or laws since its violence was entirely defensive; and yet it too was inevitable, if only temporarily, as a provisional line of defense for the first revolution. In this manner the determinist interpretation is able to encompass all the detours of revolutionary politics in the name of a grand design, as in Joseph de Maistre,[4] though in a completely different sense. Even those struggles most closely tied to personal rivalries draw their raison d'être from the two provisional ends of the Revolution, to destroy the Ancien Régime and push back the enemy, in order to restore it to its normal course, its original social base and project, the establishment of the rule of law. The dictatorship was a parenthesis necessary for the establishment of liberty; the rule of the people was the necessary instrument of middle-class government. What appears as the most improvised is still determined by social groups, in accord with the Revolution's nature.

Marx read Mignet's History , along with all the literature on the subject, during his one-year stay in Paris in 1844. But his understanding of the French Revolution remained indebted to the Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Right .[5] Hegel had elaborated his theory of the state via a critique of the Revolution, and Marx, in his turn, criticized the Hegelian philosophy of right by turning its theory of the state upside down—without, however, losing sight of the French Revolution, the privileged and almost obsessive example of the period. For Hegel the state lies atop society, as the supreme substance of that history which is to close the characteristically modern gulf between the public and private spheres and realize man's liberty. With Marx, the


young Marx of 1843–1844, the opposite holds true: civil society has primacy over the state. And modernity is characterized above all else by a market society—with the extension of market relations throughout the spheres of production and distribution, and the removal of all obstacles to economic activities—and by the private individual, a monad enclosed in his work, interests, calculations, and pleasures, separated from his fellow man and indifferent to the community and its concerns.

Now, 1789 was a product of this modernity. In effect, with the French Revolution bourgeois society appeared in its nudity, liberated from its feudal chains. After Guizot and Mignet, Marx also provided a social interpretation of 1789, if in modified terms. He too claimed that the bourgeoisie, which had already mastered society, crowned its domination by seizing political power. And in this regard, the bourgeoisie established a representative democratic state, the successor to absolute monarchy. That is to say it established a public sphere that appears autonomous—radically separating the political from the societal realm—but which remains dependent. This state appears autonomous because its representative character expresses the separation of society from the state, and its democratic character (its universality) expresses the abstract equality of the citizen relative to the individual's real situation in civil society. This autonomy, however, is a lie: the state is merely the communitarian mask for a social reality marked by private individualism; a simple alibi that provides the illusion of equality in an inegalitarian world. The separate individuals of modern civil society have alienated themselves within the imaginary community of the state.

This dialectic between the social and political realms provided Marx not just with a general interpretation of the Revolution but with elements for charting its course. As an exemplary expression of modern politics, the French Revolution disclosed with exceptional clarity what Marx called "the state's idealism." This was the significance of 1789, but even more so of 1793 and the Jacobin dictatorship, during which period the revolutionary spirit was revealed in its most radical form. But in this unequal contest, where the social man was the real basis of the imaginary, political man, civil society ended up recovering what the Revolution had temporarily usurped. If 1793 had been the apogee of the citizen's emancipation, Thermidor 1794 was its truth. Yet the revenge of the real on the idea was short lived, since it was followed by the Bonapartist dictatorship. For although Napoleon certainly takes bourgeois interests into account—he was, after all, responsible for the Civil Code, the true social foundation of the postrevolutionary world—he imposed on the bourgeoisie a dictatorial state that had other interests, that had its own ends, and was indeed itself its own end. In this sense, Napoleon reinvented the Terror even as he gave it a different content, that of conquest instead of virtue. The imperial dictatorship was an administrative version of the Terror, achieved at the cost of a change in objective. Here Marx returned


to a theme dear to liberal historiography: the elaboration of a relation between Robespierrism and Bonapartism in terms of the state's domination of society.

But as a result, he too ran into the problem common to every social interpretation of the Revolution, that posed by the multiplicity of political forms. It may be easy to conceptualize the transition from 1789 to 1793 (from the constitutional monarchy to the Republic) in terms of the radicalization of men and ideas, but how does one explain the fact that the government established in Thermidor 94—this time a truly bourgeois regime—would also slide out of control and end up in 1799 in a new version of the absolutist state? The first Bonaparte already raised the same difficulty for the young Marx that the second Bonaparte raised for the mature Marx: that of a state established by the bourgeoisie and partially in its service, yet independent of it. Both bourgeois and nonbourgeois—what did Robespierre represent? and what does Napoleon represent? Although the mature Marx never returned to the Revolution as systematically as in his "youthful" writings, it is not hard to see from his writings on the Second French Republic and the rise of the second Bonaparte that he had never resolved the enigma already present in his analysis of 1789 in The Jewish Question or The Holy Family . If the "illusion" of the modern state is simply a mystification by which the bourgeoisie disguises its undivided class rule, why was there this seemingly endless series of revolutions and coups d'état, all presumably in the service of this same power? Marx is most promising when, as in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte , he reintroduces the idea of the state's independence relative to society. But he never followed through with this idea, as suggested to him by France's history. For it was constantly being eclipsed by the opposite idea: the state as an instrument of the dominant class and as such tied to the latter's fortunes—triumphant in its rise, condemned during its decline. The prisoner of a determinist philosophy not unlike that of the liberals, Marx found himself in the same impasse for having interpreted France's political history in terms of the development of its civil society and economy.

Perhaps this impasse prevented Marx from writing the history of the Convention about which he dreamed during his youth, but it did not stop his successors. For the historiography of the French Revolution during the twentieth century has been dominated in most European universities, beginning with the Sorbonne, by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Leninism. The first appeared, at the time, to constitute the social revolution prophesied by Marx, which was to follow France's political revolution. Once power was consolidated, the prediction appeared to be confirmed, and the Russian revolution was situated in an almost natural line of succession with 1789—and all the more plausibly as the Russian Bolsheviks did not cease to claim the Jacobins as their predecessors. As for Leninism, that most subjectivist variant of Marxism, it enabled a glorification of the disruptive, creative, and


almost demiurgical aspect of the concept of revolution, not just as a privileged form of action, but as its only valid form—at the expense of a concern for the objective conditions behind the historical events.

This explains two features of the Leninist interpretation of 1789 which push Marx's analysis in a leftward direction. Marx had always upheld the idea, developed by the French historians of the Restoration, that the absolute monarchy's power was autonomous relative to society, the arbiter between the nobility and Third Estate; but twentieth-century "Marxist" historiography[6] sees the absolutist state as aristocratic, governing in the interests of a formerly feudal class that still retained its social dominance. This claim cannot be found in Marx and is a projection onto the past of Leninism's intransigence relative to the class content of the modern capitalist state—the instrument of monopoly capital, whatever its "formal" procedures. And this claim changes the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution, since for Marx eighteenth-century French society was already largely bourgeois.

At once the French Revolution no longer appears the same. If it still remains, in the last analysis, a product of capitalist development, in its Leninist version it now appears borne by a twofold necessity; for it also had to overturn and uproot an aristocratic society and a state that would defend themselves tooth and nail. In this domain as in others, Leninism privileges the voluntarist side of Marxism. More than simply the advent of the bourgeoisie, the French Revolution appears as the epic drama by which the bourgeoisie revealed and created itself, as a succession of regimes punctuated by violent acts in which the bourgeoisie struggled with and triumphed over a formidable counterrevolution. In contrast to Marx, the Leninist historian of the Revolution celebrates the course of the Revolution more than its results. This explains the greater emphasis placed on 1793 than 1789, and the preference for the Jacobins over the Constituents, to say nothing of the Thermidorians. With the men of 1793, the historian who admires October 1917 finds himself on familiar ground, since the Soviet experience also illustrated the necessity of dictatorship and Terror. He shares with the Jacobins and Bolsheviks the belief that revolutionary action can and must change society: the very same belief that Marx had analyzed as characteristic of the political illusion that the social revolution was to have buried and overcome.

The superimposition of the image of the Russian on the French Revolution gave rise to new and original works of research and erudition, most notably with regard to the study of the popular classes and their actions during the latter part of the eighteenth century. At the same time, however, it inevitably deepened the problems presented by the social interpretation of the revolutionary events since Mignet and Marx had written in the nineteenth century. Both had already found it extremely difficult to conceptualize the Revolution's character in relation to its course. If the bourgeois revolution culminated in what is nonbourgeois (and "anticipates" the rev-


olution to come), why call it bourgeois? But here the contradiction, which inheres in Marxism, between historical necessity and subjective voluntarism, is taken to extremes. On the one hand, it is incarnated in two collective actors who had contradictory interests but were harnessed to the same historical mission. And on the other hand, the bourgeoisie, though it had reached maturity, continuously demonstrated its inability to realize the task to which it had been assigned. In effect, the bourgeois government of 1789 proved the least stable of governments, since it cleared the way for state forms that the bourgeoisie did not control, such as the dictatorship of Year II and Bonaparte's despotism.

Thirteen Transformations in the Historiography of the Revolution

Preferred Citation: Fehér, Ferenc, editor. The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1990.