Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France since the Eighteenth Century

September 8, 2011

More than two centuries after the revolution of 1789, the identification of the French nation with its republican institutions and values represents one of the most powerful myths in modern history; and yet the origins and implications of this strong identity have never ceased to be a source of puzzlement and controversy.

When France first became a republic in 1792, few of the protagonists of the revolution had wished for, let alone anticipated, this outcome. What had been generally expected was the transformation of the absolute rule of the Bourbons into a constitutional monarchy modelled on that of England. In fact, the republic was established more by the occasional concurrence of circumstances than by design. At the time its chances of survival seemed very slim - and yet survive it did, notwithstanding a formidable sequence of popular insurrections, military coups and attempted monarchical and imperial restorations.

Time, and these historical vicissitudes, have exposed and amplified the contradictions that inhabit the myth of the French republic. There are obvious tensions between the republic's strong nationalist vocation and its claim to represent universal principles; between its defence of bourgeois values such as property and the radical egalitarian aspirations of its revolutionary heritage; between the forceful imposition of a laic state and the unresolved religious conflicts that return at intervals to haunt French society. Critics have also frequently ridiculed the way in which French republican institutions eagerly imitate the pomp and grandeur of the monarchy they so gleefully and spectacularly destroyed.

The question of the intriguing relations between revolution and republic are at the centre of Jeremy Jennings' reconstruction of modern French political thought. The form in which he has chosen to address it is not that of a narrative - a chronological presentation of authors and intellectual movements - but rather the transversal discussion of a series of topics: rights, religion, socialism and so on. In his introduction, Jennings makes it clear that the purpose of his work is to produce a broad compendium of his subject, rather than promoting a particular perspective or suggesting any firm conclusions.

Accordingly, for each theme the book sketches a set of questions, offering an outline of the different approaches to these set forth by the main interpretative traditions. The result is an impressive historiographical tour de force, packed with scholarly references, which proves, on the whole, easier to consult than to read. Unlike most historians of revolutionary France, Jennings is not guided by the passionate, near-fanatical attachment to the subject that seems to be the mark of the trade; instead he shows a certain detachment, not to say perplexity, in the face of the surprising twists and turns of French ideology. There are obvious merits in this critical distance, as in Jennings' reluctance to take a firm stand on the ferocious political disputes that still dominate the field; and yet such restraint can be frustrating for the reader, who, 500 pages later, is left to draw her own conclusions.

Should we believe in the terminal decline of the French republican model - and if not, why not? What makes the myth of the French republic still so resilient, in a historical context that bears no resemblance to the one that generated it?

In the aftermath of the revolution of 1789, the liberal writer Benjamin Constant accused the French Jacobins of having tragically confused two different types of regime: they had wished to recreate the egalitarian, civically virtuous, militarised republic of the ancients, while what France needed was a modern republic able to grant individual freedom and prosperity to the citizens of a large commercial nation. While this ambiguity, which lies at the heart of the French republican myth, had dramatic consequences at the time, it is also, in retrospect, one of the main reasons for its lasting success. Through the centuries it has made it possible for deeply antagonistic visions of French society - bourgeois and socialist, chauvinistic and internationalist, authoritarian and libertarian - to identify with it, providing a common ground across ideological divides.

Another crucial factor in its success is the claim to novelty that characterises the French republican myth, in all its different versions, Jacobin and liberal alike. All nations cultivate some heroic self-image as part of their historical identity. Yet seldom are these self-representations so vigorously projected into the future as the image of the young republic striding onwards among the ruins of the past: the first European state to sweep away the ancien regime, inaugurating a new age for the entire world. No doubt Nicolas Sarkozy's France is not very different from any other European democracy, and shares in the uncertainties and troubles of its neighbours. Yet it is difficult to imagine any political party in France gaining significant popular support outside the long shadow that the republic continues to cast over the country's future: a two-century-old legend, condemned by its own stubborn magic to remain forever young.

Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France since the Eighteenth Century

By Jeremy Jennings, Oxford University Press 560pp, £95.00, ISBN 9780198203131, Published 16 June 2011

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