1789 and All That: Dancing on the Grave of Revolution

By Singer, Daniel | The Nation, February 6, 1989 | Go to article overview

1789 and All That: Dancing on the Grave of Revolution


Singer, Daniel, The Nation


Long live the Revolution -as long as it is dead and buried with no prospect of resurrection. That thought springs to mind as the French begin to celebrate the bicentennial of their Great Revolution. The program is most impressive. Books and documents published or reissued for the occasion run into the hundreds. In Paris alone fiftysix conferences devoted to the subject are scheduled for this year, not counting the massive exhibition on Europe and the French Revolution, various smaller exhibits and innumerable plays, operas, concerts and other shows (including 1789, a Maurice Bejart ballet based on Beethoven's symphonies). Provincials and Parisians alike are already flocking to La Libertif ou la Mort, a spectacular play that reconstructs the most famous scenes from the Revolution. But the climax will come, naturally, on July 14, when French President Francois Mitterrand will be accompanied by such iconoclastic sans-culottes as George Bush, Maggie Thatcher and Helmut Kohl - a party that appears more suited to honor Marie Antoinette than commemorate the storming of the Bastille.

This is not the only irony of history. The paradox begins with the very patron of this revolutionary jamboree. Mitterrand's new claim to fame is to have "normalized" his country and brought it into the realm of compromise and consensus-in other words, to have deprived it of its revolutionary heritage, the belief in the possibility of radical change through political action. No wonder, then, that the media should have promoted the historian Frangois Furet as the oracle for this year's ceremonies. His book La Revolution is a sort of funeral oration: Its subtitle might well be "And the Worthy as Well as Difficult Means of Bringing It to an End." His 1989 is the French Revolution as celebrated by the Thermidorians, the gravediggers of the Revolution who took over after the fall of Robespierre and his companions on July 27, 1794 the ninth of Thermidor.

Furet's commercial success is in a sense puzzling. His is not a moving description of the great upheaval, a lyrical narrative like that of Jules Michelet, which carries the reader along in spite of its errors and omissions. Furet's Revolution is really an essay, a commentary on French history from 1770 to 1880 that requires from the reader a fairly good knowledge of events. Such books do not as a rule do well. Furet's has been on the best-seller list for ten weeks now, and there are two possible explanations. One is that the French, like anyone else, buy their coffee-table books to look at, not to read, and Furet's Revolution, a most handsome book that costs a most handsome $70, is sumptuously illustrated. The other reason is that the media do in fact have real influence, and Furet provided just the message they were looking for.

Furet's main thesis is that the age of revolution is over. From the very start, his sympathies are with those, beginning with Mirabeau, who try to arrest the course of events. Yet it still takes ninety years in Furet's version for the revolutionary process to come to an end. It takes the massacre of the Communards in 1871, exorcising for a time the ghost of revolution, as well as a deal between their murderer, Adolphe Tillers, and moderate Republicans, for a Royalist assembly to proclaim the Third Republic and for July 14 to become France's national holiday -as it did in 1880. "The French Revolution," the author concludes, "had come into harbor." Or, to put it another way, the bourgeois Republic was firmly established at last (although to maintain his thesis of a completely finished process, Furet has to drop the adjective "bourgeois").

Some historians, influenced by rather primitive Marxism, may well have tended to analyze the Revolution in too crudely economic terms. Furet and his friends, however, are all-political. In his other contribution to the occasion, a critical dictionary of the Revolution coedited with Mona Ozouf, there is no entry for Robespierre's young companion Saint-Just (famed, inter alia, for his contention that "happiness is a new idea in Europe"). …

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