Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

3
Tost-Revisionism

Revisionism was largely an empirical process. Defenders of the classic tradition sometimes alleged, like Lefebvre in rebutting the first attacks of Cobban, that revisionists were politically motivated cold warriors. 1 The very word revisionism was a term of condemnation borrowed from Marxist political vocabulary. And it is probably true that Cobban and Taylor, the fathers of English-speaking revisionism, regarded Marxism as a pernicious system of lies about the present as well as the past. Their French counterpart, Furet, was a former Communist zealously determined to expiate his earlier errors. But most of those spurred to further research on ideas suggested by these pioneers had no conscious ideological purpose. They simply tried to follow the evidence where it led; even if that meant explanations laying unprecedented stress on contingency and accident. The failure, or unwillingness, of empirical revisionists to substitute some new structural context left more intellectually disciplined scholars increasingly uneasy. Out of their concerns arose what by 1987 had begun to be called post-revisionism. 2

It began in 1978. That year saw the publication in France of Furet Penser la Rivolution firançaise (translated in 1981 as Interpreting the French Revolution). Though reprinting the author's famous polemic of 1971 against the classic 'revolutionary catechism', it tried to move matters on, or rather backwards, by attempting to resuscitate the analytical reputation of two French historians who had written before the classic interpretation came together: Tocqueville ( 1805-59) and Cochin ( 1876- 1916). Renouncing the assertion he had made with Richet in 1965 that the Revolution had 'skidded off course' in 1791, Furet now asserted that it had an ideological unity which made the terror implicit in the liberal aspirations of 1789. Conservative abhorrers of the Revolution had argued this throughout the nineteenth century. In resuscitating Cochin, Furet also went back to another favourite conservative theme: the Revolution as the result of the Enlightenment. In paying homage to Tocqueville (long neglected in France, though never in English-speaking countries) he

-35-

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Origins of the French Revolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Prefatory Note vii
  • Contents *
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Writings on Revolutionary Origins Since 1939 3
  • 1 - The Classic Interpretation 5
  • 2 - Revisionism 10
  • 3 - Post-Revisionism 35
  • Part II - The Breakdown of the Old Regime 43
  • 4 - The Financial Crisis 45
  • 5 - The System of Government 54
  • 6 - Opposition 65
  • 7 - Public Opinion 76
  • 8 - Reform and its Failure, 1787-1788 91
  • Part III - The Struggle for Power 109
  • 9 - The Nobility 111
  • 10 - The Bourgeoisie 121
  • 11 - The Election Campaign, September 1788 to May 1789 131
  • 12 - The Economic Crisis 148
  • 13 - The Estates-General, May and June 1789 157
  • 14 - The People of Paris 166
  • 15 - The Peasantry 178
  • 16 - Conclusion: The New Regime and its Principles 189
  • Notes 197
  • Further Reading 226
  • Index of Authors Cited 229
  • General Index 233
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