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George Rude, 1910-1993

George Rude, 191 0-1993
George Rude belonged to that remarkable florescence of post -war
British Marxist historiography which has played a major part in
shaping the methodological and substantive agendas of contemporary historiography. The intellectual and political formation of
that generation, whose prominent figures include Rodney Hilton,
Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson and E. J. Hobsbawm, was
indelibly marked by the overarching events of the century: the
Russian Revolution and the experience of Stalinism; the rise of
fascism and Nazism; the cold war; and the prolonged inter-war
crisis of capitalism and its largely unexpected boom in the postwar years. And Rude’s work shared some common concerns with
others of that formation, not least in his rejection of cruder
versions of base and superstructure – although he evidently
wished to retain much of the basic theory – and a stress upon the
salience and rationality of ‘the people’ in history. (Like many
others formed in the Communism of the 1930s-1950s, Rude’s
work carried many of the tensions and ambiguities around notions
of ‘class’ and ‘people’.)
Although Rude’s writing ranged into Australian and North
American history, his most enduring and substantive work was on
eighteenth-century Britain and the French Revolution. The Crowd
in the French Revolution (1959) was and remains a remarkable
achievement. In it he established for the first time the nature of
‘the crowd’ who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and who had a
determinate role in making the French Revolution until 1795. In
this he followed in the footsteps of the great marxisant historian
Georges Lefebvre, and complemented the more orthodox Marxism of Albert Soboul (whose own work on the Parisian sansculottes retains its place as a major, if politically and historically
controversial, study). What Rude’s work did was to establish, or
at least argue for, the profound moral and political rationality of
the Parisian’ menu peup/e’ , within an understanding of the Revolution as bourgeois.

Both these notions have, of course, been called into question
– indeed always were in question. There was and remains a
widespread belief that the actions of’ the crowd’ (or of rioters, ‘the

mob’, etc.) can only produce violence and irrationality and must
be subject to a kind of ‘pure contingency’. And the notion of the
Revolution as bourgeois has been constantly attacked. (Indeed
there has been a continuing debate within Marxism about the very
notion of the bourgeois revolution.) Such a reaction was hardly
surprising but what has been new in recent years, notably in
France itself in 1989, is the pitch of dismissal of the Revolution.

It was not only the Marxists who were consigned to supposed
irrelevance (or worse), but even those who wished to argue for the
Revolution as important, its legacy profound, tended to be
dismissed. It became common currency to see the Revolution as
an unfortunate, violent and unnecessary episode which really
shouldn’t have happened. Thus work such as Rude’s synthesis,
The French Revolution (1988) could be patronisingly discharged
as being out of date.

Rude’s work on eighteenth-century Britain was similarly
pioneering. It is difficult to recall now just how barren a field
eighteenth-century social history was until quite recently. Most
Marxist and radical historians were attracted to more ‘exciting’

episodes, such as the English Revolution or the formation of the
working class in the early industrial revolution. Rude’s Wilkes and
Liberty (1962) and his many essays on popular crowd activities of
the so-called ‘pre-industrial’ period, available in his The Crowd
in History (1964), Paris and London in the 18th Century (1970)
and elsewhere, did huge amounts to uncover the social composition, beliefs and forms of activity of ‘the people’ and to establish
the salience of these activities within politics. In doing so he
offered a rebuttal to those historians who, following the lead of Sir
Lewis Namier, appeared to conceptualise politics as essentially
the’ circulation of elites’. If some of Rude’s work has now been
superseded in important respects, notably in recent work by E. P.

Thompson, Peter Linebaugh and others, there is no question that
it had a crucial place in establishing a richer history of a period too
often suspended as merely transitional.

Rude’s accomplishments in these fields were large and they
were achieved despite that quiet McCarthyism which stole through
the academy in the late 1940s and 1950s. He was kept out of
university jobs in Britain by being blacklisted by Alfred Cobban,
a major antagonist in the debate over the French Revolution. For
many years Rude was a schoolteacher (of modern languages)
before finally getting university teaching jobs from the early
1960s in Australia and then Canada. Of course, he was neither the
first nor the last to suffer in this way: one thinks, for instance, of
Isaac Deutscher.

Fortunately, Rude was able to get the work done, and there
was a lot of it. What remains is a corpus of writing much of which
will still be used even where its arguments, its evidence and its
theoretical underpinnings are transcended. There are of necessity
new emphases, not least in the impact of feminist and gender
studies or in the effects of post-Foucauldian discourse theories on,
among other things, the historiography of the French Revolution.

And if the historical moment which produced a Marxist like Rude
is now passing, this is no good reason to reject the work, but rather
to absorb and surpass it.

Keith McClelland

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

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