In the opening pages of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke expressed a profound disquiet over events across the Channel. "Every thing seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity..."; for the observer "the most opposite passions necessarily succeed, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror". But above all, for Burke, horror. The year 1789 exploded with a force that threatened to shatter the foundations of all that was ancient and good. The masterminds behind it, and their English followers, the "gentlemen of the Old Jewry", would "never depart an iota from the authentic formulas of tyranny and usurpation". Formulas that for Burke necessarily meant that revolution would lead to nothing other than terror.
Burke's cataclysmic account of the coup against the Bourbon monarchy contributed significantly to the manner in which a host of 19th-century thinkers from Joseph de Maistre to Thomas Carlyle viewed the events of 1789. Contrary to the conservative caterwauls of his 19th-century brethren, Alexis de Tocqueville offered a considerably more sober account of the historical forces leading up to 1789. His wise and effulgent The Ancien Regime and the Revolution (1856) proffered the thesis that the revolution should not be understood so much as a rejection of the ancien regime but rather as a confirmation of some of its most profound tendencies. That thesis has found a modern-day ally and eloquent advocate in the historian Peter Jones, and his Reform and Revolution in France: The Politics of Transition, 1774-1791 is its exemplary defence.
Designed primarily as a textbook, it presents a pellucid and persuasive picture of the revolution itself. It is a superb example of clarity, intellect and historical sensitivity.
As in his The Peasantry in the French Revolution, Jones sets out to attack two dominant perspectives on the revolution. The first views the revolution as above all else a political revolution, as the "birth of political modernity". The second sees the revolution as a point of rupture, a moment of discontinuity. Both perspectives are combined and most powerfully espoused by Francois Furet - a curious fact for one who so reveres Tocqueville.
In the first chapters of Reform and Revolution in France, Jones supplies a solid account of France's economy, society, and government in the second half of the 18th century. These chapters support the rest of the text, which furnishes a more broadly narrative account of the politics of administrative reform, a politics impelled by the ideology of physiocracy, one put into practice by a succession of Louis XVI's ministers and frequently resisted by peasants, the clergy and the seigneurial nobility, but for radically different reasons. This account clearly presents a complex intermingling of social, economic, and political factors. Their combination weighed heavily on these reforms, resulting in the stop-start administration and politics that plagued Louis's reign. Nevertheless, the momentum behind these reforms was sufficient to bring about what Jones aptly characterised as a transition from "administrative" to constitutional monarchy.
Reform and Revolution in France is a first-rate work of synthesis. Clearly presented, with fluid prose, it is essential for anyone wishing to make sense of that period in which "every thing seemed out of nature".
Michael Drolet is an honorary research fellow, department of history, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Reform and Revolution in France: The Politics of Transition, 1774-1791
Author - P. M. Jones
ISBN - 0 521 45322 4 and 45942 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 5