Les Cordeliers. Les Montagnards. Danton, Robespierre, and Marat. King Louis VI and Marie Antoinette. The Rights of Man and the sans culottes.
The French Revolution is the baseline of all subsequent political revolutions. Its place in history continues to be argued, analyzed, enhanced and disparaged. From Edmund Burke to Karl Marx and from Charles Dickens to Peter Weiss, the French revolution that began in 1789 has been examined and fictionalized perhaps more than any other revolutionary event. The primary perceptions in current discussions tend to consider the events a classic bourgeois revolution. In other words, the feudal order was overthrown and the aristocracy sent on its way, to be replaced by a new ruling class composed of small businessmen, landowners and bureaucrats. Depending on one’s politics, this outcome was both a good thing and the nineteenth century version of Fukuyama’s “end of history” or it was an incomplete revolution that was either manipulated to keep the poor oppressed or it was the logical scientific step on the path towards a communist revolution and an eventually classless society.
Those who believe the revolution was incomplete inevitably find elements of a class struggle within the revolutionary forces. This struggle sharpened as the counterrevolution intensified. Questionably relevant debates evolved into arguments defining one’s position on the revolutionary government and trajectory itself. As revolutionaries like Robespierre and St. Just became central figures in the government itself, their positions on certain issues tended to modify as they struggled to achieve a viable government under fire from foreign invaders aligned with the counterrevolution and popular elements to their extreme left. It is this contradiction which is so often cited by many Marxists when discussing the class nature of the revolutionary movement in early 1790s France.
Eric Hazan, whose 2012 A People’s History of the French Revolution was published in an English translation in 2014, avoids the class struggle question entirely, choosing instead to attribute events like the outlawing of the (usually extreme left) popular societies in late 1793 by the revolutionary government as necessary to insure the Revolution could win the wars it was engaged in. In fact, it is Hazan’s contention that these wars of conquest are a primary reason for the revolution’s inability to maintain its forward momentum. The costs in death, disruption, incurred debt and cash outlay were too much for the young government. This reality insured the revolution’s eventual compromise with the monied classes, who like those individuals whose politics tended to the right, were overly concerned with the protection of their property “rights.” Of course, when property rights are paramount, all other rights become secondary and subject to dismissal by those in power.
Some so-called people’s histories tend toward oral history written and edited to create a popular and alternative perspective. Hazan’s is a narrative that genuinely tries to present the political factions, the individuals on all sides, and the various popular movements in a manner that explains how these elements combined to create the historical shift that was the French revolution. It is untarnished by a specific ideology or preference for a particular class narrative, although the very nature of the revolution insists on a history that rises from the streets, the people’s salons and peasant villages.
Hazan has the advantage of historical hindsight and uses it carefully. Although it is never exactly stated, the shadows of subsequent revolutions—in France, Germany, Russia, China, and elsewhere—provide a context unavailable to historians who wrote about the events in Hazan’s text in earlier times. This makes some of the Revolution’s excesses seem less so when considered in the context of this future history. Simultaneously, it also renders some of the pressures from the extreme left in a light that reaffirms the outlook of those whose politics tend towards the center of the spectrum.
Despite Hazan’s decision not to frame the revolution in Marxist terms, the history he provides is cognizant of the role played by class. Consequently, it is rooted in an understanding that the demands and hopes of the revolution’s left flank were the essential elements of the revolution. Simultaneously, he includes enough detail about the various personalities, their conflicts and their alliances, to provide a feel for the dynamics among the forces involved. Together with class struggle, it is usually a combination of politics, money and personalities that creates history. Those books that relate history based solely on personalities miss crucial elements. So do those histories that break everything down into financial details. A history that somehow combines all of the aforementioned elements can honestly be called radical. A People’s History of the French Revolution is such a history. It is a radical history in virtually every sense of the word. It is also a damn good read.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.