Fifty Years of Rewriting the French Revolution: John Dunne Signposts Main Landmarks and Current Directions in the Historiographical Debate. (the Unpredictable Past)

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Each age, we are often told, rewrites the past in its own image. In the case of the French Revolution, this is an understatement. In the second half of this century the scholarship has seemed to be in a state of almost permanent revolution as historians have taken up one interpretative or methodological approach after another. Some of the story of this historiographical roller-coaster ride may be known to readers, thanks to William Doyle's best-selling text book Origins of the French Revolution, which begins with a long and detailed survey `Writings on Revolutionary Origins since 1939'. Although still the most widely read account of the scholarship in the English language, it was written as long ago as 1979, and a vast amount of water has flowed under the bridge since then. My main concern in this essay is to draw attention to important developments which have occurred in the scholarship -- on the Revolution as a whole, not just its origins as in Doyle's book -- over the last twenty years. However, let me start by briefly revisiting the territory already mapped by Doyle.

The `Marxist' paradigm

Before the 1960s there had long existed a large measure of agreement within the academic community, not just in France but worldwide, about the causes, nature and meaning of the events of 1789 and the following decade. Ultimately these were to be understood in terms of the aspirations and grievances of an emerging class of wealthy town-dwellers, whose growing economic importance had not been reflected in their position within the social hierarchy or political system of the ancien regime. Belief in the Revolution's essentially `bourgeois' character did not imply a denial of the role of other social groups in the unfolding of the Revolutionary drama. In his celebrated textbook The Coming of the French Revolution (Eng. translation, 1947; original French edition, 1939), Georges Lefebvre placed great stress on the aristocratic offensive which effectively launched the Revolution by forcing Louis XVI to call the Estates-General. At the same time the best research efforts of Lefebvre and fellow-Marxist historians were directed at uncovering the part played by others in the bourgeois revolution: the peasantry in Lefebvre's case, the ordinary people of Paris in Albert Soboul's The Sans-Culottes (originally 1958) and George Rude's The Crowd in the French Revolution (1959). If until the middle of 1793 popular activist groups exercised increasing influence over the course of the Revolution, they never actually held the reins of power, which after the nobility ceased to play a major role on the national stage were left firmly in the hands of middle class professionals.

Since it fell from favour, historians have wondered how this `Marxist' paradigm enjoyed such wide acceptance for so long. Part of the attraction surely lay in its great clarity and coherence: the same theory claimed to explain simultaneously the Revolution's origins, internal dynamics and long-term consequences. Perhaps more importantly, though, it was less `Marxist' in an exclusive sense than is often thought. On the one hand, some of the insights it took from Marxist theory -- such as the notion of economic interest guiding political action -- had become part of the common intellectual property of the age. (Much the same happened with Freud's ideas.) On the other, much of the interpretation derived from earlier, non-Marxist historiographical traditions. Liberal and republican historians had always attributed the Revolution to the inequalities and inflexibilities of the ancien regime. Equally, insofar as it removed such obstacles to political and economic development -- at whatever cost -- they also viewed it as a `progressive' event.

The Cobban `consensus'

The first challenge to this long-established orthodoxy came in 1954 when the British historian Alfred Cobban delivered his inaugural professorial lecture on `The Myth of the French Revolution'. …