Of Anglo-Saxons and Revisionists: A New Interpretation of the French Revolution Emerges

By Hanley, Wayne | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Of Anglo-Saxons and Revisionists: A New Interpretation of the French Revolution Emerges


Hanley, Wayne, The Midwest Quarterly


WHILE THE PHRASE "paradigm shift" has become so overused as to lose virtually all meaning, perhaps no phrase can better describe the dramatic changes that have occurred in the interpretation of the French Revolution in the last two decades. Unfortunately these transformations have been missed by non-specialists who do not have the time to keep up with the latest changes in every field of interest; yet understanding this paradigm shift is crucial to understanding the immediate and long-range impact of the events of the French Revolution. Prior to the 1960s, historians were positive they knew exactly what had happened in 1789: it was a classic playing-out of a Marxist bourgeois revolution, the victory of a repressed bourgeoisie over an entrenched aristocracy. So widespread was this belief that many historians saw their role as merely rounding out the established picture of the Revolution.

In 1964, however, English historian Alfred Cobban launched a devastating frontal assault on this orthodox interpretation. In his The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, Cobban argues that even the preeminent Marxist historians, such as Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, tended to overlook "facts" that did not support their thesis, raising serious questions of the validity of the Marxist paradigm. This debate was quickly joined by such historians as Elizabeth Eisenstein and George V. Taylor who attacked the very heart of the Marxist argument: the role of class conflict in France during the ancien regime. Eisenstein, for example, specifically challenged Lefebvre's notion of a bourgeois revolt in 1788 primarily by turning Lefebvre's thesis against him, while Taylor's work showed that far from the existence of a class during the last years before the Revolution, the "bourgeoisie" and the nobility were in reality part of the same moneyed, elite class. Over the next three decades additional assaults witnessed the further erosion of the Marxist edifice, worn down argument by argument. Perhaps Charles Tilly best summarized the impact of this anti-Marxist assault: "The pamphleteering Marxist account of the French Revolution, with its transfer of power grounded in a straightforward succession of ruling classes and modes of production, lies in tatters after a generation of critical flailing" (169).

Although new research had demonstrated the increasing untenability of the Marxist paradigm, the Revisionists (as they came to be called) proved unable to put something in its place. As Lynn Hunt noted: "The primary defect of the revisionist accounts has been their failure to offer a plausible alternative to the Marxist version. In their concern to combat the Marxist interpretation, many critics argue against the thesis of `bourgeois' revolution without offering anything convincing in its place" (Hunt, 178). Without an overall interpretation, the Revolution remained a great event in history, but it had become a purposeless event. Even Taylor himself recognized the serious problem posed by the lack of an effective paradigm: "Who will give us the clear, simple, self-activating, systematic, inexorable explanation we so desperately need[?]" (qtd. in Censer, 296). This plea for a new interpretation can be seen repeatedly throughout the field's literature.

A partial answer to these pleas came in 1978 with Francois Furet's Interpreting the French Revolution. While not based on any new historical "discoveries," the work draws its inspiration from the "re-discovery" of two often overlooked nineteenth-century historians, Alexis de Tocqueville and Augustin Cochin. In his study of Tocqueville, for example, Furet found that the "origins" of the Revolution offered a key to understanding what occurred later: "The year 1789 is the key to what lies both upstream and downstream. It separates those periods, and thereby defines and `explains' them" (Interpreting, 3). This statement is indeed the key. Instead of a radical break with the past, Tocqueville found that the Revolution was in reality a continuation of the ideologies and trends of the ancien regime: "It [the Revolution] has completed the work of the monarchy.

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