Celebrated with great pomp at the end of the last century, the bicentenary of the French Revolution (1789-1989) did not fail to rekindle debates and controversies over the interpretation of the event. Many French intellectuals and academics were still dreaming of the “blessed” era when Clemenceau invited them to take the “Revolution as a bloc.” After all, it was justifiable or excusable for them to pass over in silence the Terror, the Vendée “genocide,” the terrible treatments inflicted by the Republic and its leaders on “monsters,” “sub-humans,” the “execrable race,” that it was appropriate to “exterminate” or “purge” the nation.
Under blows from foreign authors, in particular English-speaking ones, it had to be admitted that the “heroes” of the revolutionary gesture could not escape historical research. The corruption of Danton, the intrigues of Mirabeau, the paranoid delirium of Robespierre, the fanaticism of Saint-Just, the violence of Marat, the deceit of Hébert, the villainy of Barras were very troublesome. These men hardly corresponded to the idealized image that Republican education (primary and secondary school) had long given of this period to legitimize the foundations of a regime that had become uncertain. How many already seemed old and outdated, such as, the Robespierrolatry of a Laponneraye (1842), or the hagiographies of Danton by Quinet (1865), of Saint-Just by Hamel (1859) or of Hébert by Tridon (1864). But on the whole, the myth of the Revolution as a veritable monolithic bloc still held firm. No one imagined the magnitude of the earthquake that a group of researchers and academic historians would cause in the late 1980s.
For nearly two centuries, the theories of interpretation of the Revolution have opposed each other and clashed. But justification, advocacy, and respect for the vulgate remained the rule of research and higher education – a strict, imperative prescription that no reasonable researcher could break without risking his career.
Diverse and contradictory, the theses and interpretative theories of the French Revolution can be grouped into three categories. Of course, the historiography of the subject cannot be reduced to these three antagonistic schools, but this classification at least has the merit of clarity and convenience.
The first school of thought sees the Revolution as a mythical phenomenon, as a revelation of absolute values pushed onto the stage of history under the pressure of Justice, Liberty and the People. Suddenly enlightened and responding to the call of revolutionary divinities, the People spontaneously revolted against tyranny. The archetype of this dogmatic literature is the Histoire de la Révolution française by Jules Michelet, published from 1847 to 1853. It is perpetuated, to varying degrees, in the spirit of primary and secondary education textbooks and in cultural news delivered by the mainstream media. We find it sometimes in the liberal-Jacobin form, sometimes in the socialist form, the latter mainly deriving from L’histoire socialiste de la Révolution française, by Jean Jaurès (1901-1904).
A second school, to which most academics are closely or remotely attached, sees the Revolution as a mechanism, a social phenomenon. This positivist, sociological interpretation inspired classic Marxist historians from Georges Lefebvre to Albert Soboul (and later Michel Vovelle), but also historians of socialist (Blanc), radical (Mathiez), radical-socialist (Aulard), Jacobin- republican (Reinhard, Godechot), liberal-conservative (Mignet, Thiers, Guizot, Tocqueville) and nationalist-republican (Edgar Quinet) alliance.
One of the main representatives of this interpretation, Hippolyte Taine, who published from 1875 to 1894 Les origines de la France contemporaine, saw the Revolution as a process of degeneration and dissolution. His thesis was then systematized by Augustin Cochin (La Mécanique de la Révolution, 1926) who gave a remarkable description of the fundamental role of the Societies of thought (Sociétés de pensée) in the genesis and development of the Revolution. His teaching would later be taken up in terms of the reconstruction of facts and events, by Pierre Gaxotte in his Révolution française (1928).
Finally, a third school, that of the “traditionalist” or “counter-revolutionary” current (Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald) considered the Terror as the fruit of the principles of 1789 and, more generally, that revolutionary logic inevitably leads to terror. One part of this approach, the supporters of a conspiracy theory, refers primarily to the works of the Jesuits Augustin Barruel and Nicolas Deschamps, or to those of Crétineau-Joly and Monseigneur Delassus. According to them, the French Revolution was the fruit of a triple conspiracy hatched by Jansenism, Masonry and other sects such as the Illuminati of Bavaria. This conspiracy theory has been the subject of fierce criticism from pro-revolutionary historiography, deeming it fanciful and untrustworthy. However, it received an unexpected reinforcement from Marxist or socialist historians, like Albert Mathiez, and Freemasons, like Albert Lantoine and Louis Blanc, who, without using the term “conspiracy,” insisted heavily on the “project” and on the “plan” of the Jacobin group and of the Masons, which could not be fully realized, solely because of the lack of maturity of the masses and their ignorance.
The proponents of this third school of thought point out that for the most conscious protagonists of the Revolution, the revolutionary movement was imagined and executed against Christianity, against the Church and in the last analysis against God. This is the thesis set out in the works of Louis Daménie, La Révolution (1970), and Jean Dumont, La Révolution française, ou, Les prodiges du sacrilège (1984), for whom the Revolution was persecuting and oppressive of the Church and the people, of God, because it was anti-Christian, capitalist and bourgeois.
Since the 19th century the various currents dominating French political life have not ceased to oppose and tear each other apart on the subject. On the right, for the Orleanists, the Bonapartists and soon the nationalists, 1789 is sacred, 1793 is hated. For legitimists and traditionalists, the distinction is not appropriate: 1789 announces 1793. With them, Maurras’s Action Française placed a heavy responsibility on an Old regime that had been contaminated for too long. On the left, they chose 1793. The left said, “No” to so-called human rights that it stigmatizes as individual, formal and bourgeois rights. The fascists of the 20th century followed suit. Drieu la Rochelle explained that Hitlerites and Mussolinians wanted to break with the legacy of 1789, which was liberal, but not with that of 1793, which was Jacobin and totalitarian.
For more than a century and a half, the battles of the Revolution, like its internal struggles, were an inexhaustible fuel for the political battles and ideological quarrels of the time. Under Louis Philippe (1830-1848), after the adventures of the Revolution and the Empire, French liberalism drew lessons from the double experience. It refocused on the right. The golden mean, eclecticism, compromise, seeking the middle ground were now the watchwords. A moderate historiography was forged by Thiers (Histoire de la Révolution, 1827) and Lamartine (Histoire des Girondins, 1847). But gradually the official discourse was radicalized on the left.
At the turn of the 20th century, outside of the usual minority, the “Revolution” was taboo. Its protests were sometimes seen as unpleasant, but it was also seen as the necessary step in achieving universal equality, freedom and prosperity. The basis of the consensus rested on a few words: “Let us forget, and do not question what is achieved.”
The first specialized chair in the history of the Revolution was created at the Sorbonne in 1866, on the initiative of the Council of Paris. It was occupied by Alphonse Aulard. The act was clearly political. Aulard until then taught only literature and philology. On the other hand, he was an ardent republican, appreciated by the authorities and by Clemenceau. Radical and aggressive, he was soon overtaken on his leftism by his pupil and rival, Albert Mathiez. The master was radical and anticlerical, the disciple was radical-socialist and Robespierrist. The two antagonists imposed their truth on the Sorbonney.
Allied to communism in 1917, Mathiez presented himself and imposed himself for succession to Aulard in 1926. To his posterity belonged primarily Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, Michel Vovelle and Claude Mazauric – and later, in the 2000s, the pure Jacobins, Jean-Pierre Jessenne and Michel Briard. All were or had been militants, sympathizers or “fellow travelers” of the Communist Party. They reigned almost unchallenged over the French University for more than forty years. “The Revolution,” historian Pierre Chaunu would say, “was the privileged place of ideological manipulation padlocked by a Sorbonicole nomenklatura from Mathiez to Soboul… Masters who knew the way, ensured the scholastic self-functioning in a vacuum closed by the monopoly of recruitment.” They have thus built “one of the most beautiful monuments of institutionalized stupidity” (Le Figaro, December 17, 1984).
After the Second World War, the ideological and cultural hegemony of Marxism oriented and directed official historiography. In the 1960s, Albert Soboul still appeared as “the great specialist whose work is essential.” Intellectual terrorism marginalized or condemned to silence the independent, non-conformist researcher. The revolutionary catechism mechanically identified revolutionaries with the capitalist bourgeoisie.
This catechism made 1789 the first step in a process of which 1917 and the Russian Revolution was the final step. This thereby legitimized the Jacobin=Bolshevik equation.
But times and fashions change. The 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s were marked by a major break. English-speaking historians, little suspecting of espousing the quarrels of French academics, were the first to open the breach. Let us take two titles among others. The first, The Debate on the French Revolution, 1789–1800 by Alfred Cobban, was published in 1950 and translated into French in 1984, after the author’s death. This incisive book helped shake the commonplaces and conventionalisms of the Marxist vulgate, destroying the simplistic thesis of a bourgeois and capitalist revolution which would have replaced an old feudal regime.
Not everything is memorable in Cobban’s work. Thus, he is wrong when he insists on the population explosion. Pierre Chaunu demonstrated, with Jacques Dupâquier and Jean-Pierre Bardet, that France was the country in Europe where the population had increased the least (from 22 to 28 million in a century), and whose demographic dynamism was broken, everywhere, twenty years before 1789. But we must nevertheless salute in Cobban the first truly operative iconoclastic approach.
A second English, quite remarkable, should be cited – The French Revolution and the Poor by Alan Forrest, 1981 (translated into French in 1986), in which the author masterfully dismantles the mechanism of the evils of revolutionary ideology, the deadly refusal of realities on the part of revolutionary leaders.
François Furet and Denis Richet took up where these two English-world authors left off. In La Révolution française (1965), they tackled the already old thesis of the slippage from a first liberal revolution of the elites to a second Jacobin revolution. From a position that was still on the left, since they refused to take the plunge and to think that 1793 could have been contained to a certain extent in 1789; or, in other words, they refuse to think that the logic of the revolution carried massacre, extermination and genocide within it. Nevertheless, they did undermine Marxist dogmas.
A former communist (1947-1959), François Furet did not yet distinguish clearly enough between Jacobin liberalism (Latin, essentially egalitarian), from English liberalism (essentially elitist or even aristocratic). But in 1978, in Penser la Révolution, he rehabilitated the forgotten and proscribed analyses of Tocqueville, of Taine, even of Augustin Cochin. Notably absent in his book is Edmund Burke, the brilliant Irishman who differentiated 1793 from 1790. Furet’s work was later continued by Patrice Gueniffey (see, La politique de la Terreur: essai sur la violence révolutionnaire, 1789-1794). But it may also be useful to recall the words that Pierre Chaunu confided to me: “When Furet and I discuss in private the origins, causes and consequences of the Revolution, know that we are 90% in agreement.”
An important point must be stressed – the reflection initiated by French academic historians on revolutionary terror comes at the very moment when Marxist ideology is experiencing its first major cultural setbacks. At the top of the state (François Mitterrand was then president), reactions were quick to come. Max Gallo, spokesman for the socialist government, was sounding the alarm bells.
Gallo, historian, novelist and essayist, a former Communist who joined the PS in 1981, then reacted as the guardian of the temple. He left the Socialist Party and supported Sarkozy’s UMP in 2007, but in the 1980s, he was at the forefront of the political and cultural struggle of the Mitterrandist left. Censoring the new Muscadins in an Open Letter to Maximilien Robespierre, he churned out articles and virulent statements against them in the media. The politically condemned academics were accused of nothing less than Vichyism, even Nazi nostalgia. They were “guilty,” he said, of spreading a “right-wing” vision of the Great Revolution. Behind him were the ex-fellow travelers of the communist organizers, responsible for more than 100 million deaths around the world. All shamelessly set themselves up as masters of republican morality. Ridicule is not fatal!
It did not matter to Gallo and his political friends at the time that non-university historians, such as Jean-François Chiappe or Jean Dumont, published anti-revolutionary works. What was unbearable and unacceptable to them was “the betrayal of the University.”
One of the main targets of the socialist authorities was Pierre Chaunu, professor at the Sorbonne, member of the Institut de France (of the l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques). The prestige of this Protestant historian was considerable. Renowned Hispanist (author with his wife Huguette Chaunu of Séville et l’Atlantique, 1504-1650, in 11 volumes), specialist in classical European civilization (La civilisation de l’Europe classique), and enlightenment civilization in Europe (La civilisation de l’Europe des Lumières), founder of “quantitative history,” he was one of the outstanding figures of French academia.
But Pierre Chaunu was not the only intellectual blacklisted. There was no shortage of targets for government hostility. In the disorder let us mention Frédéric Bluche for Septembre 1792: Logiques d’un massacre; Jean Baechler, for his Preface to the reissue of L’esprit du jacobinisme by A. Cochin; Jean-Joël Brégeon for Carrier et la terreur nantaise, and co-editor with Sécher of La Guerre de Vendée and the depopulation system of Gracchus Baboeuf; and finally, Reynald Sécher for La Vendée-vengé. Le génocide franco-français ,and Du génocide au mémoricide, supplemented in 2017 by the work of Jacques Villemain, Vendée 1793-1794. The latter cited documents that leave no room for doubt – the Committee of Public Safety wanted to exterminate the entire Vendée population.
The genocide thesis was supported by Reynald Sécher first in 1986 and 25 years later in Du génocide au mémoricide. The Robespierrist point of view, denying the genocide, is still developed in particular by Jean-Clément Martin. The losses are estimated at a minimum of 100,000 souls from a total population of 800,000 inhabitants.
To this incomplete list of “reprobate authors,” we must add the names of Jean Tulard, co-author of Histoire et dictionnaire de la Révolution française and responsible for the university edition of La Révolution française by Pierre Gaxotte; Émile Poulat for Liberté, laïcité: la guerre des deux France et le principe de la modernité; Stéphane Rials for Révolution et contre-révolution au XIXème siècle; Florin Aftalion for L’Économie et la Révolution française; Jean-François Fayard for La Justice révolutionnaire; René Sédillot for Le coût de la Révolution; François Crouzet for De la supériorité de l’Angleterre sur la France; Jean de Viguerie for Christianisme et révolution and Histoire du citoyen; Xavier Martin for Naissance du sous-homme au cœur des Lumières and Régénérer l’espèce humaine; and finally a whole host of young academics who, at the turn of the 21st century, are at the dawn of their careers. Among them Philippe Pichot Bravard, author of a quite remarkable overview, La Révolution française (2014), has to be mentioned.
Clearly, the death of Lenin-Soviet eschatology has done immense damage to the Marxist and crypto-Marxist historiography of the French Revolution. The simplistic idea, popularized by vulgar Marxism, that the French Revolution is a bourgeois revolution which destroyed feudalism and replaced it with a new, essentially capitalist regime, is totally questioned. The objections are significant.
Professor Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie, himself a former Communist, sums them up in these terms: “The first is that the bourgeoisie which made the revolution is not a capitalist class of financiers, traders or industrialists, who were then ‘apolitical’ or ‘aristocrats.’” The bourgeoisie was thus juridical; it was composed of officers, civil servants, lawyers, doctors, intellectuals, whose role and action could not consist in giving birth to an industrial revolution. Second objection, the example of England shows that in a rural society, like 18th century France, the evolution towards agricultural capitalism passed through the great seigniorial domain. On the contrary, the Revolution tended towards the fragmentation of farms and further retarded their technological progress. Finally, the third objection, “it put a definite halt to big capitalism, that is to say, colonial capitalism, foreign trade and big industries.” Foreign trade did not regain its high level of 1789 until 1825. The Revolution “represented in a sense the triumph of the landed strata of society, conservatives, large and small, including many former nobles… a landed bourgeoisie… and finally small peasant owners” (Le Figaro, December 17, 1984).
The revolutionary explosion of the summer of 1789 appears to be the culmination of the contradictions of the Ancien Régime, which was unable to reform in time. At the origin of the Revolution there was the financial crisis – the debt had become too heavy a burden for the finances of the kingdom. The expenses of the American War were too great. After forty years of economic expansion and prosperity, the situation deteriorated in the 1780s. A succession of bad harvests, the great drought of 1785, and a particularly harsh winter increased the difficulties.
At the same time, an “aristocratic reaction” from the traditional nobility and the nobility of the robe challenged absolute monarchy and demanded parliamentary control, which would allow it to better retain its privileges and prerogatives in the face of the rise of a bourgeoisie that desired its share of power. To this can be added the evolution of ideas, the social critiques of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the encyclopedists, the determining role of “Sociétés de pensée.” Finally, we must also take into account the errors of Louis XVI, who was undoubtedly a good man, but who was not on top of things.
Scientific history has shown that the Revolution ruined France; that it broke its economic momentum; and that it downgraded it. This is the conclusion of the most serious studies. Le livre noir de la Révolution française, published in 2008, leaves little room for doubt. But while academic research has shed all kinds of light on the horrific gray areas of the French Revolution, its results still needed to be accessible to the general public. Pierre Chaunu achieved this objective, thanks to a comprehensive, rigorous and attractive work, Le grand déclassement (1989), about which it is appropriate to say a few words.
Republican, Protestant and Gaullist, hardly suspected of sympathy for the “complex of counterrevolutionary sensibilities,” Pierre Chaunu (1923-2009) has undermined the sacrosanct myth of the two revolutions, one liberal, the other authoritarian, centralizing, liberticide – striking head-on one of the pillars of official historiography. And he got it right.
Let us sum up his argument. In 1789, France was roughly fifth in size, in Europe; but in power, it commanded nearly a third of available resources. Overall, she was pretty much the first. An example – the literacy rate was higher in England, Scotland and a few provinces of Prussia, but France had many more literate people than England, Scotland, Prussia and practically as many as the rest of Europe. Between 1710 and 1780, the number of those who reached the stage of independent reading and fluent writing tripled and quadrupled. After the great ebb that the Revolution brought about in this area, in which progress did not resume until 1830.
In 1789, France had at least 28 million inhabitants. Its population growth rate of 0.5% per year was one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in Europe. 16% of the population was urban. The distribution of the population was relatively more equitable than in the rest of Europe. Two million households owned 40% of the land (with some 5% of communal property). The rest of the land belonged to the nobility (25%). Finally, 10% was Church property, and 25% bourgeois property. The Third Estate therefore owned 65% of the land and the so-called “clergy” were, in large part, social assets, that supplied schools and hospitals. Peasant property was encumbered with seigneurial rights, but they were more irritating and vexatious than limiting. Common land was more expensive on average than noble land.
Overall, seigneurial rights were less heavy in France than anywhere else on the continent, except in England. Nowhere else was peasant ownership so widespread.
England broke the record in the West for the concentration of land in a few hands. But in France, the Revolution would not change anything. Since taxes were generally heavier afterwards, the levy on the peasant mass was roughly the same in 1815 as in 1789. Social upheavals affected only one tenth of the population at most. The Revolution only distributed a tenth or a fifth in value of a good part of the land, and therefore brought wealth and prestige to just a minority of its apparatchiks and associates. It was all really restricted to a few permutations at the top.
In 1758, the tax burden per capita was double in England, being around 190 in 1789, while France was at 100. At equal wealth, from the second half of the 18th century, the English paid at least one and a half times as much as the French. France, a tax haven, would nevertheless engage in a rotating strike. Almost 15% of the GNP and 3.5% of the population were in the service of the state. The King of France had 10 times fewer men on hand to control his capital than the King of Prussia, or the British Parliament.
The entire 18th century was driven by the halt that the Parliaments, recklessly reestablished in their prerogatives by Louis XVI, brought to the ministerial reform initiative. Here was the drama of the monarchy. From 1774 to 1789, the Parliaments, where only the privileged strata of society were to be found, were the winners across the board. The Ancien Régime was paralyzed by the encroachment of the law. Parliaments do not represent society, either in their composition or in their thoughts. The court was never less costly, yet its usefulness never less evident. The system was jammed, unable to match its resources to its needs; it was considered tyrannical when it was only powerless.
In 1789, most French people were Catholics and most were devout – 97 to 98% of the French people believed in God, more than 80% were attached to their Church. On the intellectual and moral quality of the clergy and on their generosity, which redistributed a good half to the poor and a share to hospital and school assistance, there was no real criticism, no bad marks. Better, the almost unanimous claim of the register of grievances is that the priests, who were well-loved and whose worth was widely felt, should be give more.
Finally, no one died had of hunger since 1709. It was not until 1794-1795 and run-away inflation that the specter of famine loomed again and that people died from it as before. In the 1780s, faced with a population growing at a rate of 0.5% annually (a growth rate lower than the English rate), production increased at a rate of 1.9%.
Paradoxically, in general, it is prosperity, not misery, that carries the risk of revolution. French society remained sufficiently open. France lived, changed, evolved. The state was jammed, motionless, paralyzed. Between the two, tensions continued to grow.
The Revolution began with a plunder, the easiest – that of the property of the Church. Monastic France was soon sold. The finest jewels of Romanesque and Gothic art were broken. They were removed, disassembled, sawed apart, broken, looted. The artistic rampage was immense. No modern war has destroyed so much wealth.
The Revolution was not the mass phenomenon that they want us to believe. There were 50,000 Parisian sans-culottes, 80,000 profiteers of national property and 200,000 onlookers. The number of angry, hateful and guillotinous dechristianizers hardly exceeded 40,000. But you only win and lose if you convince the small active number.
When, on July 12, 1790, the civil constitution of the clergy was adopted, only 4 bishops out of 136 agreed to swear to the constitution. 44% (40% after withdrawals) of the clergy swore. This is not much, because not to swear meant the loss of employment, of all resources, misery, the threat to freedom and life, banishment from the community. Since dozens of episcopal seats had to be filled all at once, Talleyrand, “a pile of shit in a woolen stocking” as Napoleon called, devoted himself to the task. He was the only one of four bishops who accepted to carry out coronations. All those poor jurat priests, some of whom claimed to have rediscovered the simplicity and rigor of the primitive Church, would know by the end of the winter of 1791 what the words of the constituent deputies were worth – a reprieve for the guillotine.
Thanks to the assignat, famine and the ruin of the economy, people died as much and more than from the guillotine during the winter of 1794-1795. The famous paper money assignat was criminal folly. To pay off its promises, fuel its fantasies and finance the war of aggression against a peaceful Europe, the Revolution had only one means – inflation, the most unjust tax.
The mortal sin of the Revolution was, after religious persecution, gratuitous war. The war allowed murder to be legalized, any internal opponent being equated with foreign enemies.
For the period 1792 to 1797, losses amounted to at least 500,000 men. Disease killed more than bullets (3 to 4 times more). If we add the civilian losses, men, women, children (mainly in Vendée), the losses of the revolutionary period came to cost nearly 1 million human lives. The Empire would add a second million to the first. In total, 4.5 to 5 million dead, in a Europe of less than 150 million souls. The responsibility, all the responsibility for the outbreak of war rests with the revolutionary power. It deliberately chose war; it provoked, attacked, invaded.
The war broke France’s growth; it slowed it down everywhere else, even in Great Britain, but in which case the slowdown only affected consumption. In the France-England equality ratio, we go to a gap of 10 to 6. France had, per capita, caught up with England in 1789; it was in the ratio of 100 to 60-65 in 1799. Ten years of assignats and the great massacres definitively downgraded France. The gap would no longer be made up.
Let Pierre Chaunu conclude in a concise manner: “While all the work of history released from the myth establishes that the chaotic process which created the revolutionary vortex was the effect of chance – September (1792), Fouquier Tinville (public accuser of the Revolutionary Tribunal), ruin by the assignat, and the war, the destruction of the artistic, moral and religious cultural heritage, the depopulation and the devastation of the demographic impetus, the genocide-populicide of the Vendée and the populicides of Lyon, Toulon and elsewhere – all this follows implacably from the most implacable revolutionary logic. Once the Revolution is born, it kills. Death is its profession, annihilation its end.”
Product of chance, execution of a deliberate project, direct or indirect consequence of one or more social factors, the debate on the interpretation of the Revolution is not about to end. But one point is clear – for rigorous and serious history, the Revolution led France to a terrible moral, social, economic and political collapse.
Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.
The image shows, “The Zenith of French Glory: The Pinnacle of Liberty. Religion, Justice, Loyalty & all the Bugbears of Unenlightend Minds, Farewell!”. A satire of the radicalism of the French Revolution. A picture by James Gillray. February 1793.
Translated from the French by N. Dass.