Speaking Volumes: The Parisian Sansculottes and the French Revolution

October 25, 1996

Deian Hopkin on Albert Soboul's The Parisian Sansculottes and the French Revolution .

In retrospect, the rattling 19th-century garret high above Cardigan Bay seemed the perfect setting for listening, one howling afternoon in 1965, to Albert Soboul and Richard Cobb debating the significance of the sansculotterre with our tutor, Gwynne Lewis. I am not sure that the four of us students fully appreciated the logistics that enabled us to have a near one-to-one with three of the most remarkable historians of France in a remote sea front at Aberystwyth. On the other hand, none of us had any lingering doubts about the relevance of the sansculottes.

Six months earlier Gwynne Lewis's splendid translation of Soboul's path breaking reconstruction of the revolutionary sections of the Paris faubourgs in 1792-93 had been published as The Parisian Sansculottes and the French Revolution. This work restored the claims of the journeymen, shoemakers, wine merchants, tailors and hairdressers to an equal place with the lawyers and pamphleteers in the forging of a new revolutionary mentality. The French revolution may have been directed from the salons of Paris's Hotel de Ville, and its topography might consist most obviously of the Champs de Mars or the Tuileries, but its soul lay in the over-crowded faubourgs in the east and southeast of Paris such as St Antoine or Saint Marcel. Here the menu peuple developed a terrifying system of summary justice predicated on a permanent anticipation of treachery. A network of popular societies, revolutionary committees and section assemblies began to construct an entirely new form of politics where the test of loyalty was enthusiasm for the idea and practice of revolution itself.

The sansculotterre, on reflection, must have appeared to their victims and adversaries as the Khmer Rouge or Taliban of their age, tearing at the moral as well as the political culture of aristocratic and haute bourgeois France. In the Year II also, there was constant uncertainty and fear, oiling the wheels of the overworked tumbril.

All of this was a revelation. What Soboul explained, in a rather clinical way, was the organic nature of revolution. Suddenly the French revolution felt different. I was always suspicious of the claims of biographers and Al-evel examiners that eminent politicians were the makers of so much of our history. Somehow it did not ring true that Robespierre could have made it all happen, any more than Bismark united Germany. Then, under Gwynne Lewis's inimitable guidance, I encountered Marat and Danton, the Jacobin labyrinth, the radical splinter groups, the Hebertistes and the Cordeliers and finally the "passives" and enrages. Through the pages of Pere Duchesne and Revolution de Paris a terrifying new world appeared where, little by little, the vestiges of conventional politics were torn apart. In the provinces, in Lyon and Marseilles, mirror images of this radical force were created, spreading the revolution through example.

Some decades later, having experienced something of a Year II myself in recent times, I cannot honestly pretend to recall every detail of Soboul's book. I do not possess a copy nor have I seen one in a library recently. I wonder moreover how many current students encounter Soboul in any shape or form. Modular programmes have many advantages - but I doubt my inchoate and disproportionate Special Subject experience could be easily accommodated in the highly focused present-day curriculum. Nor do I imagine many departmental budgets would stand entertaining Cobb and Soboul for very long nowadays. And yet, for me, the sansculotterre remain vivid and relevant to so much of my own sense of history.

There is one more thing, arising from that unforgettable afternoon. Soboul could not speak English and therefore he conducted his tutorial in a rather dense regional French dialect, engaging Richard Cobb and Gwynne Lewis in animated and impenetrable exchanges. The rest of us sat more or less dumbstruck, occasionally prompted by Gwynne to venture a question or, God forbid, an observation in our rudimentary French. It was then I began to empathise with the others, the countless victims of that revolution who, in the end, probably never understood a word of it.

Deian Hopkin is vice-provost, London Guildhall University.

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