Classical revolutionary historiography and revisionist endeavors

Albert Soboul
La Pensée
Fall 1974

The French Revolution has often been presented as the crowning achievement of the century of the Enlightenment and thus essentially as an ideological act.1 It still appears as such in the work of François-Alphonse Aulard.2 Jean Jaurès was the first who wanted to see in it a social phenomenon and thus of economic origin.3 Not that Jaurès had denied any importance to the philosophical movement. “Just as it would be vain and false,” he writes in the introduction to his Socialist History of the French Revolution, “to deny the dependence of thought and even dreams on the economic system and the concrete forms of production, so it would be puerile and crude to summarily explain the movement of human thought solely by the evolution of economic forms.” It is not solely by the force of things that the Revolution was accomplished; it is also “by the force of men, by the energy of consciousness and will.” It is nevertheless true, and Jaurès notes it vigorously, that the Revolution itself was the result of a long economic and social evolution that made the bourgeoisie master of power and the economy. The historiography of the French Revolution has remained at that point: Albert Mathiez reedited the work of Jaurès in 1922; Georges Lefebvre acknowledged Jaurès as his master.4

Actually, the Jaurès interpretation is not new. From the period of the Restoration, historians of the liberal school, even if they were hardly interested in the economic origins of the social movement, had strongly emphasized one of the essential characteristics of our national history: the appearance, growth and final triumph of the bourgeoisie; between the people and the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie had slowly created the framework and clarified the ideas of a new society of which 1789 was the consecration. Such is Guizot’s essential idea in his course on The History of Civilization in France.5 Such was also the conviction of both Tocqueville6 and Taine.7

From the period of the Revolution, however, Barnave had pushed the social analysis further. In his Introduction to the French Revolution, written in 1792, after having posited the principle that property influences institutions, Barnave states that the institutions created by the landed aristocracy impeded and slowed the arrival of a new era. “Once the arts and commerce succeeded in penetrating the people and created a new means to wealth to aid the laboring class, all was ready for a revolution in political laws: a new distribution of wealth produced a new distribution of power.”8 It is to this line of thought that the 1847 Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx, and then the first volume of Capital in 1867, subscribe. Thus the social interpretation of the French Revolution plunges deeply into our historical past. From the beginning, this interpretation alone, through its scholarly demands and critical reflection, established itself as truly scientific: compare the work of Guizot — or even that of Thiers — always concerned with documents, even if they were official ones, to that of Lacretelle.9 This interpretation was gradually perfected, in order to realize the complexity of the Revolution. Philippe Sagnac, in the last volume of The History of France published under the direction of Ernest Lavisse, and even more strongly Albert Mathiez, have clarified what was in the eighteenth century the aristocratic reaction that culminated in 1787-1788 in the nobiliary revolt.10 Yet it is not enough to distinguish between the revolt of the aristocracy and the revolution of the Third Estate. First Jaurès and then Mathiez after him have insisted on the rapid disintegration of the latter.

Antagonisms were quickly manifested between the various bourgeois categories and between the bourgeoisie and the popular masses, accounting for the complexity of revolutionary history and the progression of its various stages. Following in the same spirit with his study of the peasant masses, Lefebvre demonstrated the existence, in the general framework of the Revolution, of a peasant current possessing autonomy and specificity in its origins, procedures, crises and tendencies. This same approach has been applied by several of his students to the study of the popular urban masses.11

Thus the social interpretation of the French Revolution was gradually perfected through a long development, secular to say the least. By its constant recourse to scholarly research (“Without scholarship there is no history,” Lefebvre repeated), by its critical spirit, by its efforts at theoretical reflection, by its global vision of the Revolution, it alone merits to be considered truly scientific.

This deepening of the social interpretation of the Revolution has progressed to the rhythm of history itself. It would be banal to recall here that the vision of history is shaded or modified by each generation of historians: it is under the weight of lived experiences and real history that history is also written. The history of the French Revolution could not escape this law. For almost two centuries, each generation in its turn, through its hopes and dreams, studied the Revolution, matrix of our history, either to exalt it or reject it. Not without results. The movement of history has gradually revealed to each generation new aspects, more and more numerous factors and a more and more complex interaction. Thus new meanings, up to then masked by the very complexity of the phenomenon, have been brought to light. It is significant that it was in Kiev, in that Ukraine where the peasant had just been freed from serfdom, but without gaining property, that Loutchisky became that first to be attracted to the study of the agrarian question during the French Revolution; in 1897, he published Small Property in France before the Revolution and the Sale of National Lands. It is significant that it was during the First World War that Mathiez understood the economic necessities for conducting a great national war and the requirement of a controlled economy; he then wrote the studies that formed, in 1927, The High Cost of Living and the Social Movement during the Terror.

Thus the social interpretation of the French Revolution progressed at the same rhythm as history. And if, in the middle of our century, the attention of its historians is focused on the popular urban masses, wouldn’t it be because the world has entered an era of mass movements? These movements don’t exist without frightening the ruling classes; this leads, in the opposite direction, to those vain efforts to deny the French Revolution its historical reality or its social and national specificity, a vain precedent. Consequently, a revisionist line confronts the classical social interpretation. Thinking to discredit it, certain revisionists have baptized the classical interpretation “Jacobin historiography” of the Revolution, a description we do not challenge, understanding by that, as Lefebvre has taught us, the understanding and faithfulness to the cause of the people, but without the historian abandoning any of the essential requirements of the scholarly method and critical spirit. Let us say more precisely, a progressive tradition of revolutionary historiography, from Jules Michelet to Lefebvre, passing through Jaurès, Aulard, and Mathiez, and whatever may have been the shades of difference and divergences among these men — the only tradition which, in its principled progression, has been and remains scientific. Continue reading