Newsletter #45: Reading the French Revolution Today, with Laura Mason
By Michal Schatz
Historical arguments about the French Revolution have long been deployed as proxies for contemporary political debates. The Marxist analysis of the revolution, most famously developed in Georges Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution, argues that the French revolution was a bourgeois revolution in which the emerging capitalist class’s overthrow of the ancien régime ushered in capitalist modernity. Against this “social interpretation,” a large body of “revisionist” (read: liberal) interpretations arose, first popularized by Alfred Cobban’s The Myth of the French Revolution (1955) and canonized by François Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution (1978), imbued with anxious Cold War–era resentment of revolutionary proclivities.
In my first year of grad school, I read Rebecca Spang’s 2003 historiographical essay on the French Revolution. Spang wrote her article at the height of the “linguistic turn,” a trend owed largely to Furet’s work, which purported to put politics (as opposed to class struggle) at the center of the revolution’s history. What it really did, as Spang points out, was to privilege political language, transforming the revolution from a material phenomenon into an intellectual problem.
Yet despite revisionist historians’ claims to have escaped its narrative grip, the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution continues to haunt the analytical framing of contemporary historical debates. Listening to this week’s Dig interview with Laura Mason, I was transported back to Spang’s essay through Mason’s suggestion that we need to spend more time thinking about how the revolution ended.
Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig **here.**
Regardless of political alignment, French Revolution historical literature has been overwhelmingly preoccupied with origins. Deviating from twentieth-century histories’ focus on the early stages of the revolution and the Jacobin terror, Mason argues that today, in the face of debstabilizing democracies and rising fascism, the revolution’s collapse may be a more productive historical reference. During the interview, I found myself wondering whether looking at how the revolution ended might change how we understand its origins.
The French Directory’s farcical conspiracy trial against François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf serves as a lesson in how a centrist government’s fear of the people can erode democratic legitimacy. Focusing on the end of the revolution also helps us think beyond some of the traditional historiographical paradigms that have framed debates surrounding the revolution and therefore break free of some of its baggage to see the revolution anew.
Further Reading As Dan mentions in the episode, the literature on the French Revolution is vast, and it can be hard to know where to start if you’re unfamiliar with the topic. For a broad overview of the historiographical landscape, you can’t do better than to start with Georges Lefebvre, Alfred Cobban, and François Furet. To learn more about Marxist interpretations of the French Revolution, the late George Comninel’s Rethinking the French Revolution is an old but still helpful tool.
No education of the Marxist interpretation is complete without Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution. For the linguistic turn, you should check out Lynn Hunt’s Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Darrin McMahon’s Enemies of the Enlightenment details the right-wing reactionaries’ anticipation of and later opposition to the revolution. And, of course, you should check out Laura Mason’s new book, The Last Revolutionaries: The Conspiracy Trial of Gracchus Babeuf and the Equals for her full study of Babeuf and the Directory.