Just when you thought you'd got the revolution pinned down

The French Revolution
March 1, 2002

Once upon a time it was simple. The French revolution was a bourgeois revolution - a key moment in the shift from a feudal Europe to a capitalist one. Not until the 1970s did revisionism have a significant impact on historians within France, and this was primarily through Francois Furet's criticism of the "revolutionary catechism".

Since Furet, and the collapse of the Soviet empire, the old orthodoxy has unravelled. The causes and the content of the revolution are open for debate, and the new controversies are spiced with Foucauldian notions of power, gender and linguistic turns.

This collection of ten readings, brought together by Ronald Schechter, is not the first of its kind. It will not be the last. While the main emphasis is the origins of the revolution, the book provides a useful introduction to the impact of Furet's iconoclasm and the directions in which debates have swung in books and historical journals.

After a short taste of Furet himself there is an extract from Keith Michael Baker's assessment of ideological origins, which includes an attempt to define the purpose of intellectual history. Readers are then plunged into the clash between Roger Chartier and Robert Darnton over cultural origins and how far books, and ideas gleaned from books, engendered action in late 18th-century France. A similar clash is engineered between Colin Jones and Sarah Maza, with the former suggesting that there was a new bourgeois public sphere established by a developing capitalist mode of production, while the latter argues that introducing the notion of a middle-class consciousness into pre-revolutionary France is anachronistic and potentially misleading.

Revolutionaries spoke in universalist terms about the rights of man and citizen. Gender studies has emphasised the extent to which these rights applied essentially to white male citizens. An essay by Joan Wallach Scott on the feminist activist Olympe de Gouges suggests how the revolutionaries'

universalist political theories fostered many of the ambiguities attacked by their feminist critics. Drawing particularly on Freudian concepts, Lynn Hunt develops a different perspective on the male politics of the revolution, arguing that, once they had rejected the father figure of the king, the revolutionaries saw themselves as a band of brothers - and portrayed themselves that way. Women played an allegorical role in this portrayal, while those who sought a role in politics were considered to be foolishly denying their sex.

Religion and the sacred are issues that did not much figure in old orthodox surveys of the revolution, but here they are central to the final section of the book. An essay by Dale Van Kley concentrates on the controversy occasioned by the Actes of the Gallican Clergy , published in 1765. These prefigured many of the debates of the revolution and reveal Enlightenment ideas to have been as useful to conservatives as to their opponents. An extract from Mona Ozouf's monograph on festivals explores how far revolutionaries consciously, and in some measure successfully, sought to expropriate ideas of the sacred to their own ends.

As editor, Schechter proves a good guide through the material. His introductions to each of the extracts pinpoint key arguments. The collection is stimulating, but it is not for the novice. Readers must know an assignat from an arrondissement , a Girondin from a Jacobin. The introduction aside, the readings also presume that the reader is aware of the old orthodoxy and the problems wrought by its demise.

Clive Emsley is professor of history, Open University.

The French Revolution: The Essential Readings. First edition

Editor - Ronald Schechter
ISBN - 0 631 210 1 and 211 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 344

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