Who Made the French
An Essay on Current Historiography
In his most approachable work, The Coming of the French
Revoiution,2 Georges Letebvre, the authoritative marxist historian of the Revolution, sub-divided it thus: an aristocratic
revolution (the reform effort by the monarchy) which failed; a
bourgeois revolution which succeeded, with the help of a
popular urban revolution; and a peasant rural revolution,
which was suppressed by the bourgeois state. All the players
in this history are social classes, operating through political
transformation or insurgency. But the overall course of history is with the bourgeoisie, who were to impose their ascendancy upon the political structure and the aristocratic status
The growth of commerce and industry had created …
the bourgeoisie … it proved highly useful to the monarchical state in supplying it with money and competent officials …. It had developed a new ideology …. The
role of the aristocracy had correspondingly declined;
and the clergy found its authority growing weaker.
These groups preserved the highest rank …. The Revolution of 1789 restored the harmony of fact and law.
The transformation spread in the 19th Century throughout the West (pp. 1-2).
This is still the common understanding of the Revolution held
by those on the Left who are not historians. The French
Revolution was ‘the arrival of the bourgeoisie’:3 one of those
moments when, via the rise and decline of social classes, the
material world, in classical, marxist terms, imposed a new
This view of the Revolution attributes to the social classes
involved in the process a very real role as agents consciously
bringing about the course that history is pre-disposed to take.
As Letebvre put it: 4
Between historical realities and economic and social
ones, there is the human spirit, which must become
conscious of the second in order to bring about the
first. It is all the same true that the Revolution was only
the crowning of a long economic and social evolution
which made the bourgeoisie the mistress of the world.
Many difficulties in this ‘classic’ French marxist account
have been exposed over the last three decades by various
‘revisionist’ historians. The English, with successful historical studies to their name (notably Alfred Cobban and Richard
2 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989
Cobb) , rubbished the Marxist view some time ago; while
more recently a sophisticated strand of cultural history in
France (represented by Fran~ois Furet) has also undermined it
from a standpoint which, for all that, owes much to Marx.
These might well trouble non-historians on the Left. Two
hundred years after its outbreak, the great European liberal
and democratic revolution still matters politically as well as
theoretically. In this essay I shall review the challenge made
first by English and secondly by French opponents of the
classic Marxist account. Then I shall consider what scope
there is to salvage some sense that there are, within the
Revolution, human agents who are free, active and progressive. The overall sense of my argument is that a shift away
from socio-economic terms and towards analysing culture or
ideology produces an account that is more plausible, given
what we know. Yet it is perfectly amenable to a realistic
version of the Revolution quite compatible with the Left’s
political perspective on progress.
It is as well to remember that it is a French marxist view
which has structured much of the debate even outside France.
The special status and destiny of France, and of the Left in
France, is at stake in the ‘classic’ marxist view. Jaures and
Mathiez, from whom Letebvre took much, advanced specifically socialist accounts of the Revolution. The French communist party, from its inception in the ’20s had an interest in
emphasising their country’s seniority in the business of making effective mass revolutionary movements. All that is natural enough, perhaps. B ut the Revolution can easily come to be
seen as France’s peculiar gift to the cause of human progress.
Moreover, because the political experience of the Left in
France has been one of occasional incursions into a predominantly right-wing, centralist state, the model of the masses
combining to invade the seat of power has possessed a peculiar symbolic force. The storming of the Bastille, the ‘Great
Fear’ or similar mass movements have sometimes become a
model of all progressive political action.’ Witness the extensive use of the storming of the Bastille in Sartte’ s Critique of
Dialectical Reason. 6 This historical experience mayor may
not properly belong in the perceptions of social change and
revolution that make sense in countries other than France.
The empirical difficulties in the classic French marxist
account are these. The active ‘bourgeois’ takeover in the provincial cities and in the ‘National Assembly’ was short-lived
in the first place, and in any case disputable. Even in 1790,
Edmund Burke could demonstrate that the Assembly consisted first and foremost of lawyers. (It was the Assembly
which, in 1789, began the Revolution by declaring itself rather than the king – to be sovereign.) The economic outcome of the Revolution was industrial decline (partly the
result of chronic warfare) and the installation of a bloc of
backward-looking peasant agriculture. Politics turned rapidly
to international war and ‘the Terror’ of the early 1790s. The
state, ruled by power-seeking factions and pressured by the
popular ‘sans-culotte’ movement, with menacing urban
crowds behind them, fell into a pattern of arbitrarily arresting
and executing enemies, suspects and rivals. All this was
followed by chronic political uncertainty from 1795, only
brought to an end by a military dictator (Napoleon) who
installed himself at the head of a highly centralised state,
imposing order and dispensing patronage. Napoleon’s time in
charge (from 1799 to 1815) dwarfs any spells of bourgeois
power (or sans-culotte struggle). What kind of a bourgeoisie
would have wanted to make a revolution like that?
Letebvre himself, together with other marxist historians,7
tackled these difficult empirical areas without departing from
the orthodox concept of class conflict, in his classic on the
peasant violence, The Great Fear.8 This employs voluminous
data on the insecure economic and social conditions of the
peasantry to account for the crucial disturbances, which hastened the Revolution by undermining the legitimacy of the
rural property structure at the very moment that the National
Assembly was deliberating. Albert Soboul, the doyen of
French marxist revolutionary history after Letebvre, showed
the peculiar urban sociability of the Parisian Sans-culottes. 9
In 1792-3, this mixed bag of Parisian petty-bourgeois and
proto-working classes temporarily challenged bourgeois
power in the form of representative democracy.
But the integration of these discordant empirical elements
into the classic marxist account is not entirely satisfactory.
Letebvre describes peasant responses to what were often
mistaken rumours of roaming brigands and reactionary aristocratic plots. His case is at its weakest where he then tries to
construe the Great Fear as ‘startlingly obvious’ ‘class solidarity’ amongst commoners (p. 204). They appear more as
catalysts by default than agents or beneficiaries of the
revolutionary process. In order to account for the failure of
the more radical classes to hold on to power, in his larger
survey of the history of the Revolution,lo Soboul seems
inveterately thrown back upon the loose notion of class
betrayal. Soboullatterly re-defined the ‘bourgeois’ revolution
as a ‘bourgeois-peasant’ revolution, in order to incorporate
the impact of the peasantry on the bourgeoisie’s success. ll
Yet, this ‘bourgeois-peasant’ revolution can only incorporate
the peasantry over their heads, as it were: emphasising their
objective role in breaking up the large land-holdings to make
way for the capitalisation of land.
There is, I would contend, no getting away from the theoretical aspect of the difficulties that confronted the marxist
account of the Revolution. If we look behind those difficulties, they amount to this: In what sense can it be said that the
bourgeoisie, the sans-culottes, the peasantry, the people or
anyone made the Revolution? The empirical difficulties challenge the role of the bourgeoisie as the primary agent of the
Revolution. They suggest rival agents in other classes, whose
character and capacity to act need to be determined and
explained. Or they point to forces beyond social classes and
even deliberate intentions altogether: political institutions
independent of class, the momentum of war, the destructive
driving force behind the Terror.
Such forces appear to override the ‘agency’ of all the participants: that is to say, their capacity to act in some sense as
effective, free agents in the process of revolutionary transformation. In due course, I shall argue that a qualified notion of
‘agency’ in the Revolution is coherent. But it requires us to
integrate into our concepts the efforts of putative agents, as
individuals or as members of a group, to identify themselves
as agents, through a culture or an ideology. This last, along
with other ‘conditions not of their own making’ (as Marx
called them) are a given in their historical situation, which
they absorb or adapt in the process.
One classic 19th-century interpretation of the Revolution
hangs over the debate. For de Tocqueville,12 the Revolution
did not lead to outcomes intended by its so-called agents, but
in due course to the mere re-assertion of the Ancien Regime’s
long-term evolution towards oppressive centralisation. That
view poses the question starkly: Was the Revolution at most a
temporary breakdown in the historic course of the state, rather
than any change in society’s direction?
and Its Unexpected Benefits
The predominant long-standing English style of historical
writing is staunchly empirical and suspicious of global theses,
preferring to build modestly from particular research – in a
word, it is ‘particularist’. Just as idolisation of the masses has
roots in French historical experience, so particularism in
English historical research has roots in British history. The
now discredited ‘whig’ history of democracy’s gradual rise
and world-wide dissemination was our equivalent of the revolutionary destiny of France. Whereas the French hankered
after grand theses, it used to be said, Britain had done very
nicely on gradual, small-scale evolution. In historical studies
of the French Revolution, particularism has produced effective attacks upon two weak points in the classic marxist idea
of the Revolution: the claim that the state changed at the
bidding of classes in society at large; and the supposed role of
the bourgeoisie’s lower-class rivals for power. But, at the
same time, it has produced alternative accounts which, if
interpreted with some theoretical awareness, may not really
be incompatible with some kind of marxist account.
When he published his The Social Interpretation of the
French Revolution,13 Alfred Cobban was already known for
his attacks on the ‘myth’ of the Revolution: that is, the
interpretation of it as the arrival of the bourgeoisie in power.
In his view, the Revolution was a financial crisis of the
Ancien Regime allowing ‘officials and professional men to
move up from the minor to the major posts in government’
Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 3
(p.l06).14 It was a ‘revolution of place-holders’ , then, anxious
to re-establish the kind of secure state power that benefitted
them. Using a contemporary terminology, we might call it a
crisis of ‘elite legitimation’. In The Social Interpretation,
Cobban pitches his attack at its most general level: a Popperinspired critique of sociological concepts in historical
explanation, and a Tocqueville-inspired emphasis on the longterm continuity of power in France.
The Revolution emerges as a specifically political struggle
over the particular interests of opportunists and functionaries,
whose greatest wish was open access to careers in a state that
would provide for them and, of course, sustain its own power:
… a struggle for the possession of power and over the
conditions in which power was to be exercised. Essentially the revolution was the overthrow of the old political system of the monarchy and the creation of a
new one in the shape of the Napoleonic state …. The
supposed social categories of our histories – bourgeois,
aristocrats, sans-culottes – are all in fact political ones
Furthermore, far from being progressive in the Marxist sense,
the Revolution is ‘against and not for the rising forces of
capitalism’ (p. 168). In Cobban, particularism is pre-disposed
to dissolve social movements and make them the creature of
political calculation. IS
Perhaps the greatest- and most influential of the English
particularist historians is Richard Cobb. Cobb has concentrated on the lower classes. He is quick to spot divergences
between the detailed picture and the available marxist views
of class struggle, in which the lower classes are active contenders for power. But his work has been so subtle, thorough
and sympathetic to his subjects that he ends by suggesting almost in spite of himself – a new complex of coherent social
movements actively pursuing goals within the revolutionary
Cobb’s first point of entry into the history of the Revolution was the most organised manifestation of the sans-culotte
movement: the ‘revolutionary army’, recruited during the
Revolutionary wars to requisition food from the countryside.
His classic The People’s Army16 examined the establishment,
personnel, organisation and activities of the ‘army’, with a
devoted attention to the details of individuals, grounded in
4 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989
both methodological preferences and a self-effacing, affectionate style. After countless stories of the careers of individuals, an analysis of the spatial deployment and organisation of the army, and exhaustive accounts of attitudes within
and towards it, he concludes Book Two with a display of
modesty vis-A-vis any big historical questions. He has, he
writes (p. 512), only ‘tried to let the actors speak for themselves’ and ‘illustrate life as it was’, drawing himself merely
negative and imprecise conclusions.
Insofar as the actors do speak in the book, however, it is
through a number of barely acknowledged categories of cultural explanation which, with a different interpretation from
Cobb’s own, can constitute out of the ‘army’ a component of
the Revolution as a coherent, if complex social movement.
Cobb is never afraid to use an effortless common-sense empathy to interpret his subjects: their inextinguishable enthusiasm for the cause; their naive self-importance, laced with the
grandiose language of equality; their townies’ boredom, suspicion and gullibility in the countryside; their fear of famine;
their ‘habits of real soldiers throughout the ages: those of
eating and drinking without paying’ (p. 130); their ‘small
consumers’ prejudice against the dealer in foodstuffs’ (p.
132). This common-sense manner of interpretation is capable
of enlightening the reader and of embracing non-commonsensical categories, such as the psychological meaning of the
moustache (p. 129) or the anxiety brought on by rural empty
space. But Cobb’s weakness is to play with genuinely illuminating categories of interpretation without admitting how he
is doing so, or what their significance or limitations might be.
This is anthropological history, or ‘histoire des mentalites’,
without the name – and without the encouragement to view
the material at the psycho-cultural level.
Cobb’s affectionate description of the militants17 sounds
like a pretty damning view of the autonomous agency of the
urban lower classes – and a well-substantiated one, at that. So
much, it seems, for the autonomous action of that protoworking class, called the ‘sans-culottes’ and so beloved by
marxists. If, however, we consider explicitly the implications
of Cobb’ s engagement with the culture of the lower classes in
the Revolution, we can see how he is merely describing a
more complex version of the struggle of the lower classes in
the revolutionary process – even though his explicit statements appear to undermine it altogether. Why, indeed, should
we not interpret Cobb’s erudite and sympathetic account of
the lower orders so as to see them as the embodiment of one,
or more likely of a number of lived ideologies? These come
into conflict in the historical conjuncture of the Revolution.
As Cobb himself says – albeit sarcastically – ‘the essence of
sans-culotte “thought'” was ‘something behavioural rather
than doctrinal.’ 18
In such a re-interpretation, the first aspect to be altered
would be the over-arching fear of famine. This would not be
seen as an inchoate trans-historical force, but as a site of
interaction between people and state, mediated by historically
specific representations of reality. That would place a new
emphasis on the ideological conflict, going back half a century, between the long-established practice of food management by the absolutist regime and the advocacy of a free
market in subsistence goods. When the conflict is described in
these terms, the participants do not break down along simple
class lines, with the bourgeoisie opting for the market and the
rest favouring the old dirigisme. Class conflict can be seen but not simply as the opposition of one specifiable social
group to another. Rather, class conflict takes place through
ideological shifts within given groups and movements. Secondly, the sans-culottes’ struggle would be seen taking place
internally to the movement as well as externally. It took the
form of trying both to obtain some power in a setting determined from outside, and to constitute themselves as a movement. This they had to do via diverse representations, some
(such as new, ‘bourgeois’ notions of equality and representation) drawn from outside their immediate level of society. As
we shall see in a moment, there is separate evidence for this.
Let us see how these re-interpretations would affect the
issue. Cobb shows how sans-culotte politics was monopolised by long-drawn-out struggles for power between local
leaders. Certainly, this refutes Soboul’ s impression of a seamless, convivial ‘mass movement’ (pp. 122-26); but it does not
demonstrate that there was no ‘movement’. It simply emerges
as a movement of thousands of political beginners, who operated with the many ambiguities of their own ideology and of
the symbolism of democracy; who had an utterly naive grasp
of their role, ambitions and personal interests; and who suffered political pressures from the central government which
they could hardly imagine. From this kind of re-assessment of
Cobb’s cultural analysis, the sans-culottes are not shorn of all
their autonomy as agents in the Revolution. Rather, they
appear in more realistic terms: trying (inadequately) to determine their own identity in a movement made up of contradictory elements, beseiged by contending and contingent currents, and stumbling into temporary success only to fall back
after a spell. The story is all very human, one might say.
Two other English historians who were writing at the time
of Cobb are worth mentioning under this heading: they are
Georges Rude and Norman Hampson. They give undogmatic
sense to social movements as agents in the Revolution, and to
that extent sustain a re-assessment of English historical writing on the Revolution.
Rude acknowledged the help of both the classic marxist
historians and Richard Cobb for his 1959 study of The Crowd
in the French Revolution. 19 In it he re-constituted from police
records the make-up of the crowds, which from time to time
crucially intervened in the political process of the Revolution.
He ingeniously combines both personnel, ideology and psychology in his picture. The crowds, made up of small traders,
wage-earners, workshop masters and domes tics, commonly
gathered first at familiar places of assembly such as wine
shops or markets. Prompted by a combination of rumour,
progressive ideology filtering down from the literate sections
of society, and well-founded panic-fears for their economic
security or survival, they then passed to public demonstrations and, on occasion, to riot. Rude’s book is a classic
because he manages to combine objective and subjective
elements to show the particular and actively evolving character of the crowds. ‘Without the impact of political ideas,
mainly derived from the bourgeois leaders, such movements
would have remained strangly purposeless,’ he observes, for
example (p. 209); but, on the other hand, ‘had the sansculottes not been able to absorb and adapt these ideas,’ they
would have had far less impact. The sans-culottes emerge as
convincing historical actors precisely because their identity is
established in a fluid combination of conditions, action, and
Hampson’s A Social History of the French Revolution20 is
a pluralistic account of the phases of the Revolution, each
witnessing competition between political groupings to grasp
and direct political power on behalf of various social classes.
Classes emerge as agents in the Revolutionary process, therefore, but only through the articulation given their aspirations
by political institutions and personnel. Links between social
groups and political figures are shown in two ways. Hampson
identifies the class origins of political actors. But he qualifies
this by portraying their actual deeds as position-play intended
to gather a coherent constituency of supporters from society
Hampson himself indicates his underlying conception of
agency within the Revolution with an enlightening metaphor
(p. vi). In a social revolution, the ‘evolution of the historical
landscape’ is broken by a sudden ‘fault line’ along which
‘political action becomes more closely involved in the process of accelerated social change’. There is no crude mechanical causation here. Social classes are agents whose aims are
concentrated and translated through political in-fighting. The
picture is realistic, not least because individual ambitions are
included. On the other hand, as was the case with Cobban and
Cobb, one can see a certain inherent statism in the conceptualisation. For the approach favours that which has been explicitly articulated, hence that which exists in the central
(usually Parisian) political sphere. Hampson’s work concentrates on the representative assembly as the privileged site of
action in the revolutionary process.
In sum, when they confronted the previous marxist orthodoxy, what I have called English ‘particularist’ histories challenged the account of class struggle in the Revolution quite
fundamentally. But, far from destroying the possibility, they
may simply have shown how the role of classes as agents in
the revolutionary process can be more subtly described in
terms of interlocking groups, institutions and ideologies.
There have been a considerable number of valuable new
works on the Revolution in English since those that I have
examined from the 1950s and 1960s. These have opened up
two new areas in particular: the long-term effect of the lower
classes’ resistance to the Revolution; and the growth of new
political institutions. 21 In addition, one recent, intriguing discussion from George C. Comninel22 has proposed a materialist account of a specifically ancien regime system of expropriation. Whilst remaining ostensibly marxist;this would
spike an attack a la Cobban because its categories are not
anachronistic. However, in the ’70s and ’80s, the debate over
the classic marxist view began to open up again in France. A
new style of analysis, focussing on the psycho-cultural, came
to prominence there and also, to some extent, in North America. This development had the effect of recasting the issue of
agency in the revolutionary process.
Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 5
Classes or Representations:
the French Debate
The most trenchant contribution to the French debate was
Fran~ois Furet’s dense essay from the early 1970s: ‘The
French Revolution is over. ’23 This was written originally as a
post-hoc defence of the book that Furet had published, with
Denis Richet, in 1965.24 In the essay, he claims that the
marxist view, in arguing that the Revolution installed bourgeois power in France, reproduces the revolutionaries’ own
perception of themselves as creators ab initio of an historically necessary new political order. It has merely added the
gloss of ‘bourgeois state’ to this perception. An objective
history, by contrast, would distance itself further from the
revolutionaries’ self-perception. In fact, it would distinguish
the causal nexus that brought about the Revolution from ‘the
Revolution as a mode of change, a specific dynamic of collective action’ (p. 18). In invoking a requirement to stand back
from the historical subjects’ form of action (so as to identify it
and theorise objectively), Furet aims a forceful barb against a
certain tone of hero-worship in the writing of the French
marxists about the contending bourgeois, sans-culotte and
Furet goes on to construct his own analysis at the psychocultural level. The Revolution’s dynamic of collective action
is contained within its representations of politics and of society. It is these that steer it towards the Terror and the war, both
factors which in due course played into the hands of Napoleon.
There was behind that crescendo of events something
never clearly conceptualised, unrelated to the circumstances, existing apart from them, though evolving
with and through them. That force, which the historian
calls an increasingly ‘popular’ power, because it manifested itself in that form, had no objective existence at
the social level, it was but a mental representation of
the social sphere that permeated and dominated the
field of politics (p. 63).
Furet undertakes explicitly to embrace representations in his
explanation of the Revolution.
But there is more in this than meets the eye. Analysed as
they are by Furet, the ‘mental representations’ of the Revolution are so fundamentally divorced from reality that its nature
‘can be defined as dialectic between actual power and a
symbolic representation of it … whose chief outcome … was
the establishment, with Napoleon, of a democratic royalism’
(p. 78). Furet’s startling account of the Revolution incorporates a scepticism about the ability of the discourse of democratic politics to make any contact with reality. This not only
explains the drift into Bonapartism, but makes it inevitable. It
is an un stated part of Furet’s acknowledged legacy from de
Tocqueville (with his scepticism regarding democracy). It
pre-determines that the ‘democratic’ revolution will in the
end fall into the hands of autocracy.
Let us look more closely at the mechanisms operating, according to Furet, in the revolutionaries’ representations of
politics. The Revolution derived from the Enlightenment an
aspiration for society to be freed from institutions, mechanisms and strategies of power – in short, from what is (for
Furet) the essence of politics. They believed this would leave
the way clear for history to be shaped by collective human
action (pp. 24-25). Their idea of ‘democratic politics as a
national ideology’ (p. 28) spread rapidly with Jacobinism to
occupy the vacuum created when traditional, monarchical
power collapsed. But, according to Furet, its inspiration is not
6 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989
politics properly speaking, but a seamless unity:
a kind of spontaneous equivalence between the values
of revolutionary consciousness -liberty and equality the nation that embodied those values, and the individuals charged with implementing or defending them.
Indeed, it was this equivalence that ipso facto transformed those isolated individuals into a collective entity, the people, making the people the supreme source
of legitimacy and the Revolution’s sole agent (p. 29).
In other words, liberty and equality were erected as shared
values. As such, they gave an illusion of active, transparent
unity obligatory for all those identified as members of ‘the
nation’, and shaped the revolutionaries’ xenophobic obsessions with unmasking and punishing spies and traitors. The
marxists regarded the Terror and the inass participation in the
war as the ‘radicalisation’ of the Revolution. According to
Furet, it was really the articulation of a dynamic inherent in
the Revolution’s manner of construing political action.
Furet’s account has enormous strengths as regards those
awkward aspects of the Revolution that undermined the classic marxist interpretation. It explains how there could be an
outcome which no class would have aimed for, since it ran
counter to the manifest interests of all of them. It explains
why the state was the final beneficiary of the process: the new
kind of political sociability required to ground politics in
society was unsustainable. More broadly, in analysing the
dynamics of the culture embodied in the Revolution, it appears to reveal something of the reality as experienced by
But one can understand the offence caused to those more
sympathetic to the professed spirit of the Revolution. The
explanation of the Revolution’s outcome is bought at the price
of pre-supposing the impossibility of its enterprise. ‘It was,’
writes Furet (p. 7), ‘a pledge that no event could fully redeem.’ Furthermore, whatever their political preferences, can
historians fairly do justice to historical experience with such
an explanation? From the start, it ghettoizes seemingly autonomous historical actors within the very culture through
which they try to realize themselves as agents. Their representations were apparently pre-set to make no effective contact
with the other levels of the reality in which they exist.
Furet’s was the first comprehensive account of the Revolution to focus so explicitly on the psycho-cultural level.
However, around that time and since, others have analysed
particular aspects of the Revolution on the same level. Jean
Starobinski’s 1789: Les Emblemes de la Raison (1973)25
discussed the efforts of high art to embody in an abstraction
the growing aspiration towards the secular unity of society.
The Revolution’s extraordinary public festivals attracted two
classic studies: Mona Ozouf’s La Fete revolutionnaire, and
Les Metamorphoses de lafete en Provence de 1750d 1820 by
the marxist historian Michel Vovelle (both 1976).26 Festivals
were held in the Revolution to celebrate everything from the
foundation of the Republic to local heroes of the civil war.
These studies demonstrated how Enlightenment and statist
conceptualisations of the public arena jostled in the festivals
with the culture of ordinary people. Maurice Agulhon ‘s M arianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in
France, 1789-1880 (1979)27 analysed the trend to personify
the Republic in the figure of a woman from its origin in the
The trend towards psycho-cultural analysis has been
evident in North America, too. In 1983, Ronald Paulson’s
Representations of Revolution (1789-1820)28 argued much as
Starobinski had, but covered French and English romantic
perceptions of revolution. In her inventive essay, Politics,
Culture and Class in the French Revolution (1984),29 Lynn
Hunt complemented insights from Ozouf and Agulhon. She
provided a literary-psychological analysis of how the
revolutionaries conceived the ‘plot’ of their own history, plus
a political sociology about the diffusion of Jacobinism in
different regions of France. Finally, Brian Singer’s Society,
Theory and the French Revolution (1986)30 embraced the
Lefort-Castoriadis concept of the ‘imaginary’31 to revive the
Talmon thesis that mass democracy tends to develop into
totalitarianism. Singer argued, in a post-structuralist tone,
that the discourse of the Revolution must fall foul of its own
concept of legitimacy – a finding that in some ways resembles
How did French marxist historians react to this trend to
undermine the role of classes from a psycho-cultural perspective? Even though the leaders of the school were perfectly
capable of analysing cultural movements on this level,32 they
have usually condemned it. Soboul had to reject Furet and
Richet’s notion of a bourgeois-liberal Revolution that went
off the rails once the dynamic of national unity manifested
itself in war and Terror (pp. 338-43).33 To his way of thinking, that contradicted the fundamental idea of the classic
Marxist account: that the Revolution produced, in the final
analysis, the political and social regime that the bourgeoisie
wanted. He regarded an account suggesting determination in
some other direction as no determination at all. However, we
can ask whether, given the inherent strength and subtlety of
Furet’s psycho-cultural account, it really is necessary to set
aside that type of account in order to defend a theoretically
viable role for classes as agents in the Revolution.
Taking up the torch from Soboul, Claude Mazauric has
strengthened the notion of the ‘bourgeois’ revolution, by
employing a more complex view of the relations between the
various levels of analysis. This yields a more scientifically
articulated account of the Revolution. Specifically, Mazauric
adopted from Althusser the idea of the relative autonomy of
the political. From Gramsci, he took the idea that in the events
of political history we see the ‘social formation’ integrating a
new mode of production with its associated balance of class
forces. Finally, he adopted Foucault’s idea of ‘discursive
formation’ , a concept very close in spirit to Furet. Bringing all
these strands together, he advocated an analysis of the content
of the discursive formations of the Revolution, of their functioning in institutions, and of their ‘mode of insertion’ into the
mode of production’s gradual historical emergence in specific
Drawing on these ideas,3s Mazauric can arrive at the fol-
lowing conclusions. The Revolution is ‘bourgeois’ in the
sense that, over a four-year period, it ’embourgeoisified’ all
property. This was true even though the unstable political
‘front’ (p. 85) – or ‘revolutionary bloc’ (p. 90) – that achieved
the change was based on an unworkable compromise, adopted
in a period of weakness, which fudged the issue of how
property held under feudal terms would be converted into
bourgeois property. As they stumbled over this ambiguity,
both the aristocracy and the peasantry rapidly abandoned the
political front. The urban poor were driven by a food crisis to
challenge it at the same time (pp. 81-84). In Mazauric’ s view,
this account, rather than giving Enlightenment culture the
predominant role (like Furet and Richet), shows how ‘revolutionary politics’ was
a concrete and continuous creation, the realisation of a
mode of government and of action in a complex situation, … not mechanically reducible to the ideology
which founded it or the principles that informed it. The
development of social struggles created an objective
logic into which was inserted the political action of an
elite imbued with the ideology of the Enlightenment
Michel Vovelle adopted a different course from Soboul or
Mazauric. He embraced psycho-cultural history with confidence. He followed up his early work on the revolutionary
festivals, religiosity and perceptions of death36 with more
comprehensive studies of the Revolution as such, which have
made him the most interesting and authoritative marxist to
respond to Furet and the history of mentalites. Vovelle recognised that the history of mentalites had something to offer
marxist history. He brushed aside fears of mystification and
idealism, arguing that history of mentalite indicates the
‘complex mediations’ between ‘real life’ and the life ‘of
images’ .37 His account of the Revolution is gathered together
in La Mentalite revolutionnaire of 1986.38 There he uses the
history of mentalites without losing the reality of the Revolution in a long-term evolution or turning it into a process predestined to futility by the re-surgence of hidden, primitive
strata in the popular mentality. 39
Vovelle’s work is an account of the revolutionary mentality rather than a deliberate explanation of the Revolution.
Nonetheless, it does intersect with the explanation given by
Furet. Crowd vandalism, mass violence and the Terror (manifestations of the popular revolutionary mentality that have
been crucial in the polemic) are considered by Vovelle. They
emerge as the product of a complex of many things: a genuine
need for self-defence; cruelty learnt from the society of the
Radical Phllo8ophy 52, Summer 1989 7
day; popular resistance to dignity and authority; subversive
humour; and an urge for renewal expressed in destruction, but
modified by native soft-heartedness (pp. 86-95).
At first glance, this version of the psycho-cultural forces at
work in the Revolution appears to concede almost everything
to Furet. However, the direction taken by the Revolution in
Vovelle’s account is not, as it was in Furet’s, the product of a
self-enclosed dynamic. It arises from interactions within the
psycho-cultural- notably, that between ancient elements deep
in the psyche and the diffusion of a new ideology.40 What is
more, it arises also from interactions of the psycho-cultural
with material changes in the social order outside: demographic and economic changes, for example, which dissolve
the older peasant society and its forms of sociability (pp.
52-53). In fact, the conflict between ideology and the pre-existing mentalite represents the invasion of the psycho-cultural
by evolving material conditions which are structuring social
relations between classes. On Vovelle’s account, the political
ideology of the Enlightenment would not just carry into the
Revolution the contradictions of a certain conception of politics. It would manifest the difficult attempt to represent social
life while adapting to a class-related economic transformation. This does not avoid the sort of contingency that marxists
like Soboul criticised in the explanations of their non-marxist
adversaries. But Vovelle’s history of mentalites anchors the
Enlightenment representation of political life it la Furet to
material, class changes beyond the psycho-cultural sphere.
Intention, Action and Outcome
In the Revolution
Over the last several decades, historical writing on the Revolution has substantially undermined the classic marxist account, according to which social change fundamentally beneficial to the bourgeoisie was actively pursued by that class and
others. But my analysis of this trend in historical writing
indicates that, though the Left has understandably relied upon
the classic marxist account, it can be modified without loss.
The psycho-cultural level, incorporated untheorised by Cobb,
damaged Letebvre’s and Soboul’s version of classes as
agents. But, understood in different terms, it is by no means
fatal to a quite convincing alternative conceptualisation of
how social classes were active in the Revolution and the net
outcome progressive – if not unambiguously so. That is why
Vovelle can give an uncompromising, marxist account of the
intertwining strands of psycho-cultural and material levels in
the revolutionary process. Properly incorporated, the psychocultural elements make the role of groups as agents in the
transformation more realistic, more understandable, and perhaps easier to emulate, too.
In fact, when they incorporated ideology into the history
of the Revolution as a moment of social progress and class
conflict, historians shadowed a shift in marxist thinking;
namely, that which, with the growing influence of Gramsci,
placed ideology centre stage. This influence is particularly
evident in Mazauric.41 In this shift, ideology, as a site where
political blocs form and negotiate over the transformation of
the mode of production, has readily become an autonomous
historical factor standing between classes and the outcomes
of events. A class does not have to rise economically or
socially during, or as a result of a revolution, in order to
demonstrate that the revolution was either instigated by it, or
congenial to it, or undertaken on its behalf. Nor does a class
have to be directly involved politically: the politicians or the
intelligentsia may work to bring forward the new social environment that will accommodate the class. Finally, there is no
8 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989
need to assume that a class rising with the mode of production
will have a clear-cut victory in a revolution: rather, some
more or less temporary compromise is likely.
This new emphasis upon the political and intellectual
struggle over how society is to be organised can obviate many
of the difficulties posed to the older marxist version of the
French Revolution. It makes the realization of what is in the
interests of a social class an indirect and far more hazardous
business. Social classes no longer appear straightforwardly as
agents re-organising society politically in their own interests.
The uncertain course of political changes, the role of subgroups such as public servants and intellectuals, and the
ambiguous outcomes of the Revolution: all were cited as
empirical difficulties for the classic marxist account. Given
the newer view, none of these need any longer contradict the
interpretation which takes the underlying direction of the
Revolution to be the transformation of society along lines
arising from the growth of the bourgeois social environment.
Those empirical difficulties merely suggest that, as agents,
the bourgeoisie (like other classes) interacted in a complex
fashion in their specific social, political and historical context.
But this complex picture of their action is no reason to
deny that classes can be agents of social change. It describes
their situation in terms which we have no difficulty in understanding when it comes to individual agents. It is common
enough for individual human beings to act with an indistinct
sense of their own character or interests, to fail to see what
they ‘really’ want. Often, they wind up with something approximating their original aim: a product of their action and
their circumstances which they come to regard as acceptable.
They may even believe it to be what they were aiming at in the
first place. Rather than being grounds to deny that these individuals are agents, all those complexities merely help to show
how agency is articulated.
To determine a social group’s efforts to giasp its own identity, the concept of a ‘social imaginary’, as developed by
Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort,42 can come to our
aid. It denotes the total of representations that are available in
a given society as means to understand society in its relationship to itself, to historical change and to reality outside of it. It
is, as it were, the equivalent for social groups of the cultural,
cognitive and emotional resources an individual acquires
from the environment. And, like them, it does not so much
invalidate the idea of the agent as flesh it out.
It is true that, on this account, the bourgeoisie must follow
a particularly convoluted path to the realisation of ‘their’
aims. Yet there are grounds in Marx’s own writing on the
Revolution for arguing that the relationship of the bourgeoisie
to the social imaginary is bound to be peculiarly paradoxical.
For Marx took over from Hegel the idea that contemporary society had adopted a deceptive notion of individuality. Independent ‘individuals’ were constituted in bourgeois society,
and then had to overcome their supposed autonomy via a
specious, abstract political unity. This political mechanism of
illusion was called for precisely to offset the ideology of
individualism in private market relationships. But in reality, it
is the individual as an atom of society that is an illusion. As
Marx wrote in The Holy Family, from the start social life
transforms the supposed ‘absolute vacuum’ of these atoms
into a social network of interests.43 According to Marx, the
Revolution abstracted political life from actual, so-called
‘private’ social relations – a step that was needed to contain
atomisation by uniting individuals in the political sphere.
Claude Lefort has adduced a further consequence.44 In the
social imaginary of the modem world political utterances
have to be abstracted from the historical identity, power and
interests of those who make them.
It is more than plausible to expect, then, that a political
order amenable to any class at any time would have to be
realized through various psycho-cultural by-ways I have discussed. The French Revolution, insofar as it was directed
towards an order adapted to the bourgeois individualist society, was bound to abstract its professed objectives so as to
hide their social basis.
One final point. There are general and specific reasons for
adopting the psycho-cultural view as I have set it out, with
various agents arriving circuitously at the outcome of the
Revolution. But might we not, for political reasons, regret the
loss of an inevitable progress in history? If we abandoned the
idea of classes straightforwardly pursuing the transformation
of society – and being assured of achieving it – how can anyone feel encouraged to pursue social transformation? This
fear would seem to underlie some of the attachment to classic
marxist accounts of the Revolution as class conflict: to confuse the link between consciousness and realisation, or to
undermine the historical inevitability of certain participants’
success might sap the confidence of proponents of change.
But, I would argue, this is to seek a false security. Quite apart
from the more complex view’s greater subtlety and accuracy
in describing the historical events, the account of how agents
achieve what they do corresponds far better with the experience of ordinary human agents, trying to identify themselves
and their aims in life. Confidence and success in one’s actions
(not to mention tolerance of opposition) are not obtained by
telling oneself – unconvincingly – that failure and the unexpected are simply impossible.
This essay is closely based upon sections of my Portrayals
of Revolution: Images, Debates and Patterns of Thought in
representing the French Revolution (Hemel Hempstead,
Harvester, forthcoming). Thanks are due to Ionathan Rk,
Russell Keat and Mike Sonenscher for their comments on an
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947 (translation of
Quatre-vingt-neuf, Paris, 1939).
The title given by Lefebvre to Book 2 of his La
R[acutelevolution FraTlfaise (Paris: Presses Universitaires
de France, 1957) – translated as The French Revolutionfrom
its origins to 1793 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,
Ibid., p. 246.
Tony Iudt argues in Marxism and the French Left (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1986) that the paradigm of politics as a succession of transforming ‘joumees’ is definitively out-dated
with the long-term decline of former communist support and
its integration into mainstream political processes, as signified by the election of Mitterand in 1981. A particularly affectionate (and for that reason misguided) account of mass
movements in the Revolution and their defeat or betrayal can
be found in Daniel Guenn’ s Lutte des Classes sous la premiere republique: bourgeois et ‘bras nus’ 1793-7 (Paris:
Gallimard, 1946, 1968).
Paris: Gallimard, 1960, Book 2 (‘Du groupe a l’histoire’),
We should note that Marx himself soon became aware of the
difficulties of attributing the French Revolution to the bourgeoisie. Particularly after 1852, and the further defeat of
parliamentary democracy by dictatorship, he tended to accept that the state in general had an autonomous life and that
the Revolution was not the passive hand-maiden of the
bourgeoisie, so much as an enterprise it took on blindly and
had, in due course, to entrust,faute de mieux, to Napoleon. A
fuller discussion of Marx’s view is not possible in this
article, but its theoretical potential is discussed below.
La Grande Peur (Paris: Colin, 1932); trans. London: New
Left Books, 1973. See also Lefebvre’s Les Paysans duNord
pendant la Revolution FraTlfaise (Paris: Colin, 1924).
Les Sans-culottes parisiens en I’ an II: mouvement populaire
et gouvernement revolutionnaire (Paris, Clavreuil, 1958);
trans. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964. Soboul gives a fuller account of the classes and sub-divisions of classes in conflict
during the Revolution in ‘Classes et luttes de classes sous la
Revolution’, La Pensee, 53 (1954), reprinted in his Comprendre la Revolution (Paris: Maspero, 1981).
Precis d’ histoire de la Revolution Fran~aise (Paris: Editions
Sociales, 1962); translated as The French Revolution
1787-1797 (London: New Left Books, 1974).
This is derived from the role of the peasantry as interpreted
in an original, but still entirely marxist way in the Russian
study by A. Ado: Krest’yanskoe dvizhenie vo Frantsii vo
vremya velikoy burghiaznoy revoliutsii konstsa XVIII veka
(Moscow: 171). For commentary, see Soboul, ‘Georges
Letebvre: historien de la Revolution Fran~aise’ (Annales
Historiques de la Revolution FraTlfaise (1975) No. 1; reprinted in Comprendre la Revolution), and T. C. W.
Blanning, The French Revolution: Aristocrats v. Bourgeois?
(London: Macrnillan Education, 1987), pp. 51-52. According to Ado, even though, subjectively, the peasantry conceived of their political purposes as quite different from
capitalism, objectively they were contributing to the bourgeois revolution by attempting to break up the system of
large aristocratic proprietors, such that a capitalist market
would begin to operate.
The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution (1856), trans.
Brogan (London: Doubleday, 1955; Fontana, 1966).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 196:4.
The Myth of the French Revolution (London: University
College, 1954), reprinted in Aspects of the French Revolution (London: Cape, 1968), to which page numbers refer.
Cobban’s Popperian critique does seem effective against
any blinkered social science inserted into history. In The
Social Interpretation, he argues that ‘the sociological historian’ corrupts ‘the criterion for the selection of relevant
historical facts’ with a global theory of the nature of society
which cannot be tested because it is ‘holistic’ (ch. 2, esp. p.
13). Thus, Marxist and other ‘sociological’ interpretations
have failed to test their contention that specific classes are
rising or falling in the Revolution. As for the social movement in the towns, the sans-culottes are too diverse to be
drawn together by anything but political manipulation at the
time and the enthusiasm of Leninist historians since (chapter
11). Applied more generally to history, this critique would,
however, cast suspicion on any social categories that are
used in historical analysis, other than ones contemporary to
the period (chapter 3, esp. pp. 16-17). Hence, Cobban may
be challenged, with – ironically – an almost Popperian argument: he employs an inflexible assumption which makes it
inevitable that political categories and state power must be
imposed from above. Because his theoretical scepticism
excludes any social category without a contemporary designation, it is bound from the start to filter out from consideration any that lack an explicit identity – which is to say, in all
probability, a political presence. The conscious, political
arena is tautologically likely to impose upon society at large,
and social conflict to disappear behind political manoeuvering.
Originally published asLes armees revolutionnaires: instrument de la Terreur, avril1793 -floreal An II (Paris: Mouton,
Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 9
1961 and 1963), the English translation by Marianne Elliott
(New Haven and London: Yale University Press) appeared
in 1987. Amongst the worthwhile Cobb-inspired work that
should be mentioned are AIan Forrest’s The Revolution and
the Poor (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981) and Maurice Hutt’s
Chouannerie and Counter-revolution. Puisaye, the princes
and the British government (1983).
See also Cobb’s better known The Police and the People:
French Popular Protest, 1789-1820 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970). This is a longitudinal study of the personnel of the whole sans-culotte movement, taking it as one
instance of popular protest against the state. By the time he
wrote this, Cobb was himself well aware of a ‘histoire de
mentalite aspect to his writing, which he discusses on pp.
The Police and the People, p. 132.
Oxford: Oxford University Press. The writer who has most
clearly followed in Rude’s footsteps is R. B. Rose. His Les
Enrages (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1965)
and The Making of the Sans-culottes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983) show how the sans-culottes developed workable applications of direct democratic principles.
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963; 1966. Hampson’s
subsequent studies of political leaders (Robespierre, London: Duckworth, 1974) and Danton (London: Duckworth,
1978» show an almost personal sensitivity to the interaction
of individuals with their institutional, ideological and contingent environment, while he remains generally as hostile
as ever to anti-empiricism in politics and insistent upon the
autonomy of politics, ideology and the economy (see Will
and Circumstance (London: Duckworth, 1983».
See, for example, D. M. G. Sutherland’s The Chouans: the
Social Origins ofPopular Counter-Revolution in upper Brittany, 1770-1796 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982) and France
1789-1815 (1985»; and T. C. W. Blanning’s The Origins of
the French Revolutionary Wars (London: Longman, 1986).
Re-thinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge (London and New York: Verso, 1987).
Comninel directs his keenest theoretical attack against the
structuralist strategy which, in his view, merely aggravates
with theoretical subtleties (not always correctly applied) the
tendency to read back the presence of capitalism into the prerevolutionary past.
Reprinted in Penser la Revolution Frallfaise (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), translated as Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1981).
La Revolution Franfaise (Paris: Hachette). This reflects the
same emphasis on the culture, with its inheritance from the
Enlightenment, plus the crucial role of Terror and war in
diverting the course of the Revolution. Richet himself sepa. rately argued the case for the Enlightenment roots in his
‘Autour des origin~s idoologiques lointaines de la Revolution fran~aise: elite~ et despotisme’, Annales E.S.C. (1969).
An Italian edition appeared in 1973 from the Instituto Editoriale Italiano at Milan. French edition Paris: Flammarion,
Paris: Gallimard, and Paris: AubierIFlammarion respectively. Ozouf’s book appeared in English as Festivals and
the French Revolution (Paris: Flammarion, 1979). English
translation Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1984.
The term has been developed theoretically by Castoriadis
and Lefort. See below.
10 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989
Apart from Lefebvre’s Great Fear, see, for example, his
‘The Murder of the Comte de Dampierre’; Soboul’s 1957
essay, ‘Religious Sentiment and Popular Cults during the
Revolution’ (both reprinted in I. Kaplow (ed.), New Perspectives on the French Revolution: Readings in Historical
Sociology (New York: Wiley, 1965); and Soboul’s chapter
on the popular mentalite in his La Civilisation et le Revolution Franfaise (Paris: Arthaud, 1982), vol. 2, pp. 217-37.
‘Historiographie revolutionnaire classique et tentatives
revisionnistes’, La Pensee, No. 177 (Sept.-Oct. 1974), reprinted in his Comprendre la Revolution: problemes politiques de la revolutionfranfaise (1789-1797) (Paris: Maspero, 1981), to which my page numbers refer.
See ‘Peut-il y avoir des evenements non politiques?’, in
Actes des colloque ‘L’ evenement’ (Aix-en-Provence: Universite de Provence, 1984) reprinted in Mazauric, Jacobinisme et revolution (Paris: Messidor/Editions Sociales, 1984),
esp. pp. 134-35 and 138-40.
‘1974: Quelques voies nouvelles pour l’histoire politique de
la Revolution Fran~aise’, in Voies nouvelles pour l’ histoire
de la Revolution franfaise (Paris: Comite d’histoire economique et sociale de la Revolution, 1978), reprinted in
Mazauric, op. cit., to which page numbers refer.
Piete baroque et dechristianisation en Provence auXVlllme
siecle: us attitudes envers la mort d’ apres les clauses des
testaments (Paris: PIon, 1973), Religion et Revolution, La
Dechristianisation de l’ an 11 (Paris: Hachette, 1976), Mourir
autrefois (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), and La Mort en l’ Occident de 1300 a nos jours (Paris: Gallimard, 1983).
Ideologies et mentalites (Paris: Maspero, 1982), pp. 12-26
(translated as Ideologies and Mentalities (Cambridge: Polity, 1988».
Paris: MessidorlEditions Sociales.
Ibid., pp. 9-13.
In general, Vovelle claims, history of mentalites is a ‘study
of the mediation and the dialectical relationship between
objective conditions of human life and -the way humans
describe and even live it. At this level, the contradictions
between … ideology on one side and mentalite on the other
dissolve. Mapping out (prospection) mentalites, far from
being a mystificatory procedure, … broadens the field of
research’ (Ideologie et menta lite, p. 17).
Op. cit., p. 101. For Gramsci’s own account of the Revolution, see Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. Q. Hoare
and G. Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart,
1971), pp. 77-82. For discussion of his views see A. Tosel,
‘Gramsci face a la Revolution fran~aise: la question de
jacobinisme’, in Tosel (ed.), Philosophies de la Revolution
Franfaise (Paris: Vrin, 1984), and Alain Goussot, ‘Gramsci,
la Revolution fran~aise comme revolution culturelle’, in
proceedings of the conference ‘La Revolution fran~aise et le
processus de socialisation de I ‘homme modeme’ (Rouen,
IRED, University of Rouen, 1989).
See L’lnstitution imaginaire de la societe (Paris: Seuil,
1975) and The Political Forms ofModern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy and Totalitarianism (Cambridge: Polity,
Marx and Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and
Wishart, 1975), Vol. 4, pp. 120-21.
Lefort, op. cit., esp. pp. 187-88.