A Radical Reassessment of the French Revolution – By Sinéad Fitzgibbon

Sinéad Fitzgibbon on Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre

Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre , Princeton University Press, 2014, 888pp., $39.95
Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre , Princeton University Press, 2014, 888pp., $39.95

If ever there were a phrase synonymous with the French Revolution, surely Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” is it. That the Austrian-born wife of Louis XVI in all probability never uttered these words has not prevented the story being repeated ad infinitum. The appeal of the tale is two-fold. It perpetuates the irresistible, if erroneous, impression of Marie Antoinette as a cold, fickle queen who lacked both awareness and human sympathy, and in doing so allows us to place a veneer of barely-examined justification over her execution. The other reason for the longevity of the “Let them eat cake” narrative stems from the fact that it has become, in the words of the author and historian Antonia Fraser, “a handy journalistic cliché”; or, to put it another way, the phrase worked as an effective shorthand description that neatly encapsulated the Marxist hypothesis, which prevailed for much of the 20th century and explained the French Revolution as the result of class conflict, aggravated by poverty and oppression by the absolute Bourbon monarchy.

In recent decades historians have moved away from the belief that tension between the various strata of French feudal society, which pitted the bourgeoisie against the monarchy, the aristocracy, and a corrupt Catholic Church, was the main driver of events in revolutionary France. The collapse of this causal theory renders the “Let them eat cake” story entirely impotent — it is no longer fit for purpose. And neither, according to Jonathan Israel’s latest book, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, is the current post-Marxist thinking on the issue. “Historians working on the French Revolution have a problem,” he asserts in the opening paragraph of this wrist-wearying, lengthy tome. We must fill the vacuum left in the wake of the class conflict theory, yet “all of our attempts to find an explanation in terms of social groups or classes, or particular segments of society becoming powerfully activated, have fallen short.” The currently-fashionable view holds that there was no one major cause behind the proletarian unrest that gave rise to the Revolution of 1789instead there were many minor social and economic components which came together in a stars-aligning kind of way to spark the French Revolution into life. Israel maintains that this view is wholly incorrect. These “numerous small contributory impulses […] all marginal when taken individually, hardly suffice to fill the explanatory gap left by the collapse of every general argument, such as the Marxist thesis of class struggle or the once widely held view that impoverishment and falling real wages created a severe subsistence crisis with deteriorating living standards for most.” These factors merely provide a socioeconomic background without explaining “why French society, politics and institutions came to be transformed suddenly and dramatically in every way.”

With this battle cry still ringing in the air, Israel proceeds to put forward a new and hugely interesting alternative argument. There was one major cause of the French Revolution, he insists; historians have simply been looking for it in all the wrong places. If we shift the focus from social, cultural, and economic history to intellectual history, we see that the libertarian ideas of the Radical Enlightenment lie behind the revolts of late-18th century France. It was la philosophie of the Radical Enlightenment, particularly the works of Hélvetius, d’Holbach, Diderot and Raynal, that liberated the intellect of men from the chains of religious superstition and credulity. In doing so, Israel claims, it furnished the Revolution’s early leadership with the clarity of thinking required to destroy all existing ancien régime institutions and societal structures, and in its place to establish the world’s first genuine democracy. Or, to refer to the title of another of Israel’s books on the Radical Enlightenment, the French Revolution was a direct consequence of a revolution of the mind.

Over the next seven hundred pages, Israel retells the events of 1788 to 1799 purely from an intellectual perspective. There were, he says, no less than three revolutions during these years. The first of these, from 1788, was a liberal constitutional monarchist revolution based on the British system. Inspired by the philosophy of Montesquieu, this was a moderate movement that sought to develop a new democratic governmental structure that would allow the French royal family to remain in situ but stripped of all autocratic power. The constitutional monarchists’ position was greatly damaged by Louis XVI’s unsuccessful and unhelpful attempt to flee the country (which became known as the Flight to Varennes). This action, which shattered any illusion that Louis supported his subjects’ democratic wishes, precipitated the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy in the insurgency of August 1792. As a result, a new kind of revolution took hold — a democratic republican revolution which could now wholeheartedly devote itself to the utopian Enlightenment ideals of liberté, egalité, and fraternité without having to make allowances for the existence of a monarchy which was, even in constitutional form, completely at variance with the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This, in turn, was superseded by a third revolution — this time a populist authoritarian movement orchestrated by the Montagnards which gained traction following the rise of the Paris Commune and which saw Maximillian Robespierre take power by means of a brutal and bloody coup d’état in June 1793.

Aside from the abolition of the monarchy, the most striking changes the French Revolution provoked were those meted out to the Catholic Church. Of all the ancien régime institutions, Catholicism was singled out for the most far-reaching and controversial reforms. By the late 18th century, the church was widely perceived to be complicit with the monarchy and the aristocracy in the exploitation of the ordinary French citizen — that is, it was thought to have gained its enormous wealth, power, and influence by preying on the most vulnerable in French society. The exponents of the early Revolution achieved this overhaul primarily through the introduction of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy on July 12, 1790. As a result of this legislation, clergy were no longer chosen by God; they were instead to be elected like any other civil office. And crucially, the authority of Rome was no longer recognized in French religious affairs. This civilianization of the church was, according to Israel, a “final and total ecclesiastical defeat.” A few months earlier, any monasteries not engaged in charitable or educational work had been disbanded, an action eerily reminiscent of Henry VIII of England’s Dissolution of the Monasteries undertaken some 250 years earlier during the Protestant Reformation.

Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794. Image via Wikimedia Commons

This was not the end of the Catholic Church’s humiliation. In order to secure the Revolution, the revolutionaries overhauled the system of education. Schoolchildren no longer learned catechism and Catholic doctrine; instead, the reformists implemented an entirely new secular and state-supervised curriculum focused on the values of the Enlightenment. As the Revolution progressed, the process of de-Christianization accelerated. They adopted a new calendar on October 5, 1793. Years were no longer dated from the birth of Christ, the new year being the advent of the French Republic, 1792. They purged feast days and saints’ days and no longer permitted Sunday religious observance. This calendar would remain in place for twelve years until Napoleon abolished it in 1805, although the drive for de-Christianization lost steam much earlier. Interestingly, it was Robespierre who brought the process to a halt, recognizing the need to bridge the gap between the Revolution’s philosophy and the teachings of Rousseau, who accepted the necessity of religion despite his own deist beliefs.

Throughout this book, Israel attempts to rehabilitate the Revolution’s now-tarnished reputation by maintaining that only the Revolution’s early leadership — which included the likes of Mirabeau, Brissot, and Condorcet — were the true architects of the revolution, their motives being wholly anchored in egalitarian l’esprit philosophique, and therefore pure. This group of radical, left-wing writers, editors, journalists, and disaffected aristocrats bravely sought to lessen the dual stranglehold of an absolute monarchy and an exploitative Catholic church, not for their own benefit but for the betterment of all French citoyens. In direct contravention of long-held societal norms, these men fought for a lessening of press censorship; equal voting rights for all, including women; abolition of slavery; dissolution of the aristocratic classes; and, regardless of their personal deist leanings, freedom from persecution of all religious minorities.

Conversely, the rise in 1793 of the authoritarian populists in the shape of Robespierre, Marat and the Montagne deviated from authentic philosophique principles and therefore corrupted the Enlightenment agenda. Israel insists this distortion deserves to be seen as what it is: a horrific perversion, a complete anathema to true revolutionary principles and a betrayal of the early revolutionary leadership. Indeed, he likens the Montagnard regime to modern fascism, an analogy supported by his portrayal of Robespierre as a Hitler-esque orator bent on manipulating the uneducated, illiterate masses with rabble-rousing Rousseau-inspired rhetoric.

For the most part, Israel’s argument is convincing. He deftly recounts the endlessly shifting sands of factional allegiances and carefully unravels their often-competing philosophical motivations. He draws on a prodigious bank of research and quotes a dizzying array of references, which in lesser hands would have mired the book in academic turgidity. But thanks to Israel’s engaging narrative style, this is an accessible and entertaining, yet hugely informative read. His all-consuming passion for the proponents of the Radical Enlightenment is obvious, as is his belief that it has long been denied its rightful place in the historiography of the French Revolution. The fact that the French Revolution is now almost universally defined by the Terror and its aftermath, which was in effect a disintegration of these libertarian ideals into an orgy of blood-letting and power-grabbing, sits not a little uncomfortably with him.

This passion, however, could also be seen as the book’s Achilles’ heel. The philosophers of the Radical Enlightenment are not so easily pigeon-holed as Israel seems to suggest. The tenets of these much-referenced philosophers — Voltaire, d’Holbach, Diderot, Rousseau, and Helvétius, among others — often directly contradicted each other. Rousseau, for example, was a committed misogynist who would never have advocated equal rights for women, a stance that would have put in him complete disagreement with The Declaration of the Rights of Man. In the same vein, Diderot, d’Holbach, and Voltaire, while favoring monarchical reform, did not support the abolition of monarchy. These and many other fundamental discrepancies allowed the various revolutionary factions to cherry-pick whichever philosopher or teaching supported their argument; this inevitably fostered discord and guaranteed a splintering of the revolutionary cause. For all his zeal in promoting the Enlightenment philosophers as the architects of the true French Revolution, Israel fails to recognize that they also contributed, in large part, to its demise. With so many competing philosophies, an Enlightenment-inspired revolution was, it could be argued, doomed from the outset

In his indefatigable pursuit of such a narrow philosophical focus to the exclusion of all other economic, social, and cultural considerations, Israel also perhaps over-simplifies. Equally, in presenting the early Brissotin leadership as a largely benign influence, and the later Montagnards as evil usurpers, he adopts a monochromatic, black-versus-white history of the French Revolution. The truth is rarely so clear-cut.