Leesfragment: Revolutionary Ideas

27 november 2015 , door Jonathan Israel
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21 maart verschijnt Jonathan Israels Revolutionary Ideas. Op Athenaeum.nl alvast een voorproefje. 'But the French Revolution was a rupture with the past so complete and dramatic, the scale of the departure from ancien régime society, culture, and politics so total and far-reaching, the transformation so foundational for subsequent Western and eventually also non-Western developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that arguing there was no major social structural cause-only a tableau of, in themselves, relatively minor ones-is not just unconvincing, it is not even remotely plausible.'

Historians of the French Revolution used to take for granted what was also obvious to its contemporary observers - that the Revolution was caused by the radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Yet in recent decades scholars have argued that the Revolution was brought about by social forces, politics, economics, or culture - almost anything but abstract notions like liberty or equality. In Revolutionary Ideas, one of the world's leading historians of the Enlightenment restores the Revolution's intellectual history to its rightful central role. Drawing widely on primary sources, Jonathan Israel shows how the Revolution was set in motion by radical eighteenth-century doctrines, how these ideas divided revolutionary leaders into vehemently opposed ideological blocs, and how these clashes drove the turning points of the Revolution.

Revolutionary Ideas demonstrates that the Revolution was really three different revolutions vying for supremacy - a conflict between constitutional monarchists such as Lafayette who advocated moderate Enlightenment ideas; democratic republicans allied to Tom Paine who fought for Radical Enlightenment ideas; and authoritarian populists, such as Robespierre, who violently rejected key Enlightenment ideas and should ultimately be seen as Counter-Enlightenment figures. The book tells how the fierce rivalry between these groups shaped the course of the Revolution, from the Declaration of Rights, through liberal monarchism and democratic republicanism, to the Terror and the Post-Thermidor reaction.

In this compelling account, the French Revolution stands once again as a culmination of the emancipatory and democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. That it ended in the Terror represented a betrayal of those ideas - not their fulfillment.

Chapter I


French Society in 1789

Historians working on the French Revolution have a problem. All of our attempts to find an explanation in terms of social groups or classes, or particular segments of society becoming powerfully activated, have fallen short. As one expert aptly expressed it: "The truth is we have no agreed general theory of why the French Revolution came about and what it was - and no prospect of one." This gaping, causal void is certainly not due to lack of investigation into the Revolution's background and origins. If class conflict in the Marxist sense has been jettisoned, other ways of attributing the Revolution to social change have been explored with unrelenting rigor. Of course, every historian agrees society was slowly changing and that along with the steady expansion of trade and the cities, and the apparatus of the state and armed forces, more (and more professional) lawyers, engineers, administrators, officers, medical staff, architects, and naval personnel were increasingly infusing and diversifying the existing order. Yet, no major, new socioeconomic pressures of a kind apt to cause sudden, dramatic change have been identified. The result, even some keen revisionists admit, is a "somewhat painful void."
Most historians today claim there was not one big cause but instead numerous small contributory impulses. One historian, stressing the absence of any identifiable overriding cause, likened the Revolution's origins to a "multi-colored tapestry of interwoven causal factors." Social and economic historians embracing the "new social interpretation" identify a variety of difficulties that might have rendered eighteenth- century French society, at least in some respects, more fraught and vulnerable than earlier. Yet these factors, all marginal when taken individually, hardly suffice to fill the explanatory gap left by the collapse of every general argument, such as the Marxist thesis of class struggle or the once widely held view that impoverishment and falling real wages created a severe subsistence crisis with deteriorating living standards for most. The latter contention, if correct, would assuredly provide a concrete, compelling argumentation, a comprehensive explanation of why a generalized revolt occurred and possibly why so many major changes were subsequently introduced. There would be a clear logic to accepting that the Revolution was a response to misery and deprivation caused by receding living standards. But the evidence shows that no such crisis occurred. Per capita income in France actually grew over the eighteenth century as towns expanded, along with commerce and industry, shipping, and overseas trade. Agriculture prospered. What then moved the French urban affluent, and the urban poor and peasants, usually considered the main active agents of the Revolution?
"The Revolution," affirms our present academic consensus, "had many origins." Losing all prospect of a compelling narrative in terms of social groups and mechanisms, social and economic historians have in recent years focused on the unbalanced character of the general expansion. France's population grew from around twenty-one to twenty-eight million between 1700 and 1800, an increase of roughly one-third. But the accompanying growth in activity and prosperity in the towns outstripped that in the countryside, where 80 percent of the population dwelled. Consequently, agricultural output only just, and only erratically, kept pace. Narrow surpluses in some years alternated with mild or severe shortages in others. Lack of food and intermittent price surges were, of course, nothing new, but they were undoubtedly relevant to shaping the Revolution at crucial moments.
As elsewhere in Europe the main French cities grew impressively during the eighteenth century, expanding by between a third and a half, with Bordeaux more than doubling to 111,000. Paris swelled by a third, reaching around 650,000. Small towns often increased by more than half. Until 1789, the crafts flourished, especially those producing luxury goods for the wealthy and for export. Real wages rose overall.
Nevertheless, most townsfolk remained poor and unskilled and for many laborers and artisans, combined demographic pressure and uneven economic growth caused real wages to fluctuate during the 1770s and 1780s, with a downward tendency affecting some by perhaps around 10 or 12 percent. Expansion, as frequently happens, occasioned fresh collisions of interest with certain groups losing ground. Some resentment may have been caused by the tax burden on the slowly expanding agricultural sector, taxes on land and food output growing somewhat as a proportion of the whole. The burden on the commerce and crafts generating most of France's growth correspondingly fell slightly. But the imbalance was marginal and developed against a background of prior heavy fiscal overemphasis on trade and towns so that this change could be viewed more as a corrective than a tangible grievance. If agricultural output represented around two-thirds of the French economy in 1788, land and agriculture still accounted for only 56 percent of royal revenues.
What the "new social interpretation" plainly demonstrates is that there was no major crisis troubling late eighteenth-century French society of the kind apt to generate serious destabilizing discontent across society. Certainly, there was extensive poverty and misery but within an entirely familiar and traditional format. There was a growing affluent urban bourgeoisie, slowly expanding in side, wealth, and ambition, that entered into increasing competition with the privileged elites for government posts, prerogatives, and honors, but both the nobility and these upwardly mobile strands of the bourgeoisie remained politically, socially, culturally, religiously, and, in general outlook, intensely conservative. For the rest, the "new social interpretation" yields only a few relatively minor tensions affecting particular groups. The economic gap between aristocratic bishops and parish curates widened. With the general economic expansion, demand for and ability to pay for ennoblement, dignities, and high office outstripped the rise in prosperity, causing the fortunes of poorer noble families to deteriorate relative to recently ennobled newcomers and possibly a degree of frustration and resentment among the uppermost strata of the mercantile and professional classes, although this is hard to document. In any case, the overall impact of such factors on the Revolution cannot have been great.
The nobility, broadly defined, had long comprised live or six distinct elite strata all continually jostling for power, influence, and advantage. There were the court and higher military nobility, recently ennobled wealthy bourgeois (the annoblis), municipal oligarchies, the episcopate, the often quite poor rural gentry, and the noblesse de robe, or urban judicial aristocracy staffing the country's regional high courts (parlements). But none of these fissures presented anything at all new.
Claiming "multiple, overlapping origins of the French Revolution" may initially sound promising but proves inadequate when all the factors identified are too long-standing, slow-moving, marginal, and insufficiently specific to apply convincingly to the actual political clashes, crises, and debates driving the Revolution. In any case, how economic and other material factors could directly cause such a dramatic shift, as the Revolution rapidly entailed, to democracy, freedom of thought, expression, and the press, human rights, secularism, sexual liberation, gender and racial emancipation, individual liberty, and equality before the law, no one can really say. "The prime defect of the revisionist accounts," as one historian relevantly remarked, "has been their failure to offer a plausible alternative to the Marxist version."
At most, the "new social explanation" authorizes us to claim that "what pushed the Revolution forward was the willingness of disenfranchised robe nobles, alienated parish priests, and ambitious professionals to challenge the old order." But such an explanation, even if possessing a considerable background validity as it does, cannot easily be applied to the revolutionary process itself since none of these groups figured prominently among the revolutionary leadership. By and large, as we shall see, the principal organizers, spokesmen, and publicists of the factions that forged the great changes of the Revolution in legislation, institutions, and practices prior to Robespierre's coup d'état in June 1793 were not robe nobles, parish priests, or ambitious professionals. There was never a greater or more rapid transformation in the shape, values, and politics of any society. We can only know for sure that a given factor directly contributed to this vast vortex of change when the evidence of the primary sources proves particular grievances or tensions motivated, inspired, or induced key groups or individuals to initiate the actual transformation of institutions, laws, and culture constituting the Revolution.
Only one major, tangible, material factor directly linked causally to the revolutionary foreground can be pointed to: the royal financial crisis of 1787-89. In terms of timing, the political revolution unquestionably began with the French Crown's chronic financial difficulties of the mid- and later 1780s and the ensuing attempts at fiscal reform. In 1787, faced by overwhelming deficits made worse by feverish speculation in French government bonds on the international market, Louis XVI was forced into political moves that eventually triggered the revolutionary process. From the Crown's (and soon also the aristocracy's) standpoint, matters spun out of control under the energetic reforming minister Charles-Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802), a high official and robe noble of the parlement of Douai, who by trying to tackle the deficits destabilized just the monarchy and then the country. "O my dear Calonne!" mocked one of the most republican-minded of the young revolutionaries of the years 1788-89, Camille Desmoulins, later Danton's right-hand man. But even fully allowing for the gravity of the financial crisis and Calonne's errors, neither the subsequent breakdown of government nor, still less, the vast revolutionary process that followed are really explained by it.
How and why Calonne's abortive reform program, designed to remodel the ancien régime monarchy on the basis of new taxes, including a universal land tax, while fully accommodating the existing elites, turned into a broad-based campaign to emasculate the Crown, suppress all the country's pre-1789 institutions and obliterate nobility, clergy, and the noblesse de robe (judicial aristocracy), has never been adequately explained, and cannot be in terms of financial factors or the wider economic context. About this there is a remarkable consensus. Even those stressing the financial crisis most concur that in itself the king's financial predicament does little to dispel what some historians, in evident frustration, have called the "mystery" of the Revolution's origins and subsequent course. "Why did an apparently traditional fiscal crisis engender the massive transformation of an entire social order?"
Today scholars abandoning economic interest-class, class struggle, and economically defined social groups-as the key to unraveling the Revolution often seek a more sociocultural form of explanation, basing their interpretation on changes in cultural context, identifying elaborate networks and changing patterns of human relationships, and especially examining "fields of discourse" along with their attached ceremonies and symbols. This intense preoccupation with "discourse" has proved extremely valuable in providing background, and assumes several forms. One useful approach invokes "an enlarged and renovated public sphere of sociability and debate" that created a wider arena of action for "professionals." This line of investigation builds on what we know of the expansion of elites in pre-1789 France and locates the Revolution's chief motor in a mix of lawyers, medical men, and other professionals closely tied through their occupations to the urban market and other social groups. There was, undeniably, a strikingly high pro portion of lawyers, more than three hundred in the National Assembly in 1789 and subsequently.
But however helpful such research is, it does no more than enrich the background: there is little sign lawyers played a particularly significant role in forging the democratic Revolution prior to Robespierre's takeover. Rather, as one would perhaps expect, lawyers and other professionals mostly preferred to stick to existing norms and were conspicuously absent among the orators, publicists, editors, and political leaders dominating the committees and shaping revolutionary legislation before 1793. If focusing on "professionals" tells us little about the main actors in the Revolution, even more unhelpful is focusing on the attitudes of entrepreneurs and men of business. In the capital, as in the great ports-Bordeaux, Nantes, Marseilles, and Saint-Malo-merchants and bankers mostly avoided involvement with the Revolution, remaining as politically neutral as possible. Thus, a wide variety of different social groups subscribed to pro-Revolution newspapers from 1789, but the subscription lists show that the proportion of their regular readership consisting of businessmen was strikingly low compared to other groups, virtually negligible.
Admittedly, for historians subscribing to a brand of "revisionism," popular in the 1980s and 1990s, our apparent inability to and a "major cause" scarcely matters. Perhaps great new developments in history do not have "big" causes. Some argue that the English Revolution of the seventeenth century demonstrates that great changes can follow from relatively small and insignificant causes. Arguably, the true interpretation of the French Revolution is precisely that there is no overarching, grand interpretation, a suggestion that strongly appeals to some philosophers as well as historians. But the French Revolution was a rupture with the past so complete and dramatic, the scale of the departure from ancien régime society, culture, and politics so total and far-reaching, the transformation so foundational for subsequent Western and eventually also non-Western developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that arguing there was no major social structural cause-only a tableau of, in themselves, relatively minor ones-is not just unconvincing, it is not even remotely plausible.
The reconstitution of the legal, religious, educational, cultural, and political foundations of French society, along with the general emancipation of all minorities and the abolition of slavery, were interlinked, simultaneous, and comprehensive. The Revolution denied the validity of ideas, customs, institutions, or laws inherited from the past absolutely and totally. Furthermore, this undeviating repudiation and discrediting of all previously accepted values, moral codes, laws, and practices transpired with astounding speed between 1788 and 1793, despite being opposed or uncomprehendingly regarded by most of the population and even most of the National Assembly. Indeed, the transformation occurred despite a lack of popular support for many key changes, such as giving equal rights to Protestants, civil divorce, suppressing the old regional high courts or parlements, emancipation of the Jews, ending the slave trade, and abolishing the old provinces-Brittany, Normandy, Provence, Alsace, and Languedoc-with their separate identities and privileges.
A reexamination of the actual leadership of the Revolution seems called for as a way to build on the emerging sociocultural approach, and, especially, more effectively integrate social history with intellectual history. This present study attempts to establish new empirical endings by quarrying the main primary sources, above all, the amazingly detailed record of the debates in the successive French national assemblies that spoke for the Revolution, the corpus known as the Archives Parlementaires. Consulted together with other key records of decisions and debates, such as the discussions in the Paris city government and records of the meetings of the Jacobin Club, much of it verbatim, the debates in the legislature provide a solid basis for reconsideration. Additional light emerges from the extraordinarily rich contemporary newspaper coverage for the years down to 1793, and then again from 1795 to 1800. All this material takes on a new significance once the socioeconomic assumptions that steered research for so long are set aside, and the sociocultural approach is combined with the lessons of intellectual history. The Revolution's preoccupation with laying down fundamental new guidelines not only helps define its significance but also delimits its beginning and end. The Revolution was above all a process of emancipation, democratization, and fundamental renewal on the basis of human rights-ruthlessly interrupted in 1793-94 and progressively aborted in 1799-1804. The epoch-making egalitarian, libertarian, and democratic ideals of 1789 were rendered moribund, at least in terms of immediately foreseeable possibilities, politics, and international relations, when the Life Consulate, embodied in the Constitution of the Year X, assigned unlimited dictatorial powers to Napoleon on 3 August 1802. This finally terminated the tumultuous search for fundamental new criteria and categories that had previously gripped France for fourteen years. Breaking with the Revolution, Napoleon first imposed a qualified amnesty allowing émigré nobles living outside France to return and, in April 1802, a comprehensive amnesty, permitting all but members of the royal family and the most committed counterrevolutionaries to reintegrate.
Freedom of the press and expression, even if sorely dented between 1789 and 1799 at times, was not really suppressed until 1799-1800. Until 1799, press freedom always remained an intensely live issue and immediate possibility, and much of the time it was a reality. The universal principle of equality embraced in competing ways by all ruling factions between 1789 and 1799 was only really discarded as the basis of citizenship and men's rights with the new Constitution of 1799. This also discarded the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which in successive formulations had been fundamental to the Revolution throughout the momentous years from 1789 to 1799. Linked to this, black slavery, abolished by the Revolution in principle in 1794, was reintroduced by Napoleon in 1802. The Napoleonic regime fell back on a quasi- hierarchical vision of society, fostering a new ruling elite comprised of a mix of recently elevated notables and rehabilitated old nobles. Likewise, from 1802, most revolutionary innovations in marriage and family law were canceled. Under the new civil code of 1804, woman's legal subordination to her husband within marriage and subordination to paternal authority before marriage were reaffirmed. The 1804 code replaced the Revolution's incipient gender equality with an openly discriminatory double standard for processing adultery suits, applications for divorce, and property rights. However, the circumstances driving these setbacks to basic human rights-the post revolutionary regime's unrelenting authoritarianism, Napoleon's overweening personal authority, and rejection of the legislature's supremacy over the executive and the judicial arm-all commenced with the new Constitution of 1799. Effectively, this marked the end of the Revolution.
That the Revolution ended with Napoleon's rise to dictatorial power is also reflected by developments in religion. Before 1788, church and state in France, as everywhere in Europe, were closely intertwined. During the Revolution this pattern was fundamentally transformed in stages. Stripped of all political and legislative authority, the Church also suffered expropriation of its lands and revenues by the state. A comprehensive religious toleration prevailed (except under the Terror during 1793-94) and Catholicism was no longer the authorized, public church. The state as such, and in intention also public education, became essentially secular. However, this bitter struggle between revolution and religious authority ceased after 1800, and at Easter 1802 Napoleon, as First Consul, formally ended the rift between France and the papacy by restoring the old episcopate and recognizing its power to appoint and control the lower clergy and exercise an unhindered spiritual authority over French Catholics and much of primary education.


In short, key general assumptions about the French Revolution, everywhere frequently repeated and long accepted by both philosophers and historians, turn out to be fundamentally incorrect, leaving us with an uncommonly urgent need for some very sweeping and drastic revision.


© Jonathan Israel


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