With visions of the Bastille being stormed as I write this and the refrain of “La Marsellaise” echoing in my head, I take a look at two books that discuss two important moments in French revolutionary history. It’s a history, most of us know, that has several such moments. Each revolutionary upsurge has been an attempt to broaden the ideals of the revolution of 1789 to all French residents and destroy the existing aristocracy–from the monarchy to the bourgeoisie.
It’s a rare occasion that a book comes along that redefines the genre it represents. It’s an even rarer occasion when that book is a history book. Mark Steel’s recently 2006 history of the French Revolution, Vive la Revolution,is such a book. Steel, a British comedian and activist has not only rewritten the French Revolution, he has reinvented it in an incredibly humorous and radical way. Gone are the royalist sympathies one finds in so many of the period’s histories. Gone too, are the dishonest portrayals of the Jacobins as nothing more than a bloodthirsty minority of leftists.
Although he honestly describes the revolutionary excesses of the Jacobins and their allies, Steel just as honestly describes the comparable excesses of the royals and their cohorts, from the Prussians to the Girondins, who despite their desire for a change in the power structure, had much more in common with the royals they helped displace. Unlike the Jacobins, the Girondins wanted to share the nobles’ power with the hope of eventually gaining most of it, whereas the Jacobins wanted to end it immediately and forever. Indeed, one thing Steel makes clear in this history is the the French Revolution was a war about class. Furthermore, if it hadn’t been for the workers and peasants along with their intellectual leaders, the revolution would not have been as revolutionary as it was. Where the US war for independence left off is where the French revolution began, at least for the most radical elements of the revolution. Jean Paul Marat and ? Danton wanted a complete reversal of society, not just a shuffle from monarchist to bourgeois rule. Unfortunately, murderous revenge fueled by class paranoia got in the way and the Jacobins have been relegated to the role of guillotine crazed murderers.
Naturally, part of the reason this role has been hung on their necks is because they did not write the history books. After all, it’s not like the royals or the conservative Girondins were without blood on their hands. When it came to the royals, that blood was exponentially more, but as it happens after every social clash, the victors of the revolution were the ones who wrote the histories. The Girondins won the battles between them and the Jacobins (in part because of the paranoid excesses of the radical Jacobins) after the king and queen were killed, so it is their myth that has become fact. Steel understands this better than most and reminds the reader throughout the book of this fact, lifting quotes from other histories of the period and poking deserved fun at their often ridiculous assumptions and portrayals.
Vive la Revolution is fun to read, but it’s not just fun and games. The story of the revolution’s transformation from a reform minded movement trying to convince the French nobility to share its power to a truly revolutionary situation is educational for anyone interested in how social change of this magnitude occurs. The serious student of social change can learn from the lessons Steel puts forth as eh comments about the events he describes. Poking fun at the way establishment media often portrays mass sit-ins and other forms of direct action as the work of a minority, Steel points out that all actions in history–by the state and against the state- are usually the work of a committed minority. It’s when those actions represent the will of the majority, however, that they are successful. “After the Battle of Britain,” writes Steel, “Winston Churchill didn’t say, ‘Oh typical, just a handful of activists with big mouths and airplanes.'”
Besides the mass action described in this book, Steel’s descriptions of the major players in the Revolution are lively and sharp. He turns these men and women into human beings: Robespierre the calculating puritanical revolutionary. Danton, the carousing, hard-drinking radical and Marat the enigmatic and incredibly popular rabble rouser. Although Steel’s sympathies seem to lie with the radicals, he fairly represents the “moderate” Girondins and the Royals and the positions they took. This in itself is unlike most every other book I have read on this topic, all of which had a side to take, a point to make; and none of them making many points in favor of the radicals.
This text is great history. It is also great fun to read. I read most of it while taking public transit to work and garnered at least a few stares as I led out the occasional loud laugh, thanks to Steel’s uproarious writing. Like I told a friend, it’s as if The Daily Show was reporting the French revolution and the writers were all sans-culottes and Jacobin sympathizers. If I were a teacher trying to teach my students about the French Revolution, this is the book I would use. Who knows, those students might even begin to like history.
Cue the song composed during the Paris Commune–“La Internationale.” As part of its ongoing look at French revolutionary history, Haymarket Press just re-released The Women Incendiaries– a classic text on the role of women during the Paris Commune. This book is classic because it deals explicitly with the much-disparaged role women played in that shortlived workers government in 1871. The author Edith Thomas is also the author of a biography of Louis Michel, who is probably the Commune’s most well-known woman. Like Bob Dylan once said about his song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna’ Fall,” this text is really a number of books put into one. Each woman that Thomas profiles could easily have a volume written about her life and her participation.
The Commune was, of course, a continuation of the revolution begun in 1789. Like Marat and the rest of his Jacobin freres, the Commune was not satisfied with the French bourgeoisie’s replacement of the aristocracy with their own version of oppression. Beyond that, the role of women in both revolutionary upsurges was important to the proletarian aspect. By taking the double oppression of working class women as her jumping off point, Thomas draws a picture of working class Paris in 1870. It is a picture where women and girls work for nothing, pay rents that take most of their paychecks with little money left for food, and occasionally find themselves forced to turn to prostitution to make ends meet. The Church and the bourgeoisie in all their hypocritical morality, condemn these women forced to sell their bodies to survive in the world capitalism has made. The revolution of 1789 and its 1848 sequel are meaningless to the working class and the poor. Political rights tend to mean less when one’s family is hungry.
It was these conditions that convinced the Parisian working class to take back their city from the Empire. In one of history’s most inspiring attempts to institute a working people’s government, the Parisian proletariat and its allies governed the city of Paris for three months in 1871. Like most episodes in human history, however, the majority of the published histories only tell the story of the Commune from the victors viewpoint. Edith Thomas’ text provides one of the few English language histories of this moment that is written from a supportive (yet critical) viewpoint.
The role of the International is explored here, along with the parts played by other clubs and groups that made up the rebellion. The struggles faced by women organizers and fighters within the revolutionary organizations is detailed and the neverending battle for dignity these women fought against heavy odds is a big part of her story. It was a dignity not easily obtained, even among the revolutionary women’s male compatriots. Why? Because the emancipation of women was an idea that was more revolutionary than the emancipation of the working class. For those women in the vanguard of the Commune, however, the emancipation of the latter was not possible without the emancipation of the former. This remains as true to day as it was then. Thomas’ book details the efforts of those women who organized and fought with this principle foremost in their hearts and minds.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com