From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution

By Thomas E. Kaiser; Dale K. Van Kley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Enlightenment Idioms, Old
Regime Discourses, and
Revolutionary Improvisation

Keith Michael Baker

Politics is about the definition of the situation. This is to say that it is about the process by which individuals and groups create, maintain, and change their collective world and their position within it. In this process (consensual or conflictual in varying degrees) individuals and groups make claims for themselves and on others, and they deploy these claims in their efforts to uphold, enforce, manipulate, or alter a given situation or a particular state of things. It follows that we are unlikely to understand the politics of any period or place unless we can grasp the fundamental elements of its political culture, which I take to mean the assumptions underlying the manner in which the collective situation is defined, the ideas and values thus brought into play, the logic of the arguments that actors frame in relation one to another, and the ways in which all of these may remain relatively stable, develop over time, or change quite abruptly.

Considered from this perspective, the French Revolution must be understood as a radical transformation of the political culture, a shift in the basic conceptions and rules structuring political and social life, a rearticulation of the body politic and of the terms of the collective existence of individuals and groups within it. The meanings underlying French public

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