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  • Published in Book Reviews

Eric Hazan’s A People’s History of the French Revolution is an attempt to provide a new narrative, but fails to show the importance of the revolution, argues William Alderson

A people's history of the French revolution

Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolution, trans. David Fernbach (Verso 2014), 432pp.

What exactly is ‘a people’s history’? Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States offered history from the perspective of ordinary people caught up in events. Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World aimed to make history comprehensible and accessible to a wide audience. Eric Hazan does neither of these things. On the one hand, he focuses on what was happening at the leadership level in the same way as any traditional history, and on the other, he fails to provide a sense of the overall dynamic of events which could make them comprehensible. For him the ‘heroic phase’ of the revolution gave way in October 1789 to ‘a long phase of ebbing of the revolution’ (p.89), but he does not explain how and why the forces of the ‘possessing classes’ and the peasants and sans-culottes worked on each other to this effect. In addition, whatever the nature of the original French text, the translator has not helped the English version to be accessible.

In order present the complex events which made up the French revolution, Hazan opens with a chapter setting out ‘How Things Stood’ followed by one on the lead up to the confrontation which started the revolutionary process. After that, each chapter deals with a few months at a time, ending with the death of Robespierre and an epilogue on ‘The Meaning of 9 Thermidor’. On the face of it, this seems an eminently sensible approach, but the fact that it is necessary for two pairs of chapters to heavily overlap in the periods they cover (chapters 8 and 9 and 11 and 12) shows that this has its problems.

It is also the case that within a chapter the same few months are often traversed again and again as a different sequence of events is considered, often giving the initial impression that the new sequence follows from the previous one, before one realises that Hazan has actually gone back to an earlier point. This process of ‘looping the loop’ chronologically, together with the short time-spans involved, prevents the reader getting a perspective and encourages a sense that the events exist in parallel but without any profound connection between them. When further dislocations are added within this pattern, the confusion becomes extremely wearing. A particularly good example is a section on ‘The general maximum on prices and wages’ (pp.283-5).

The section opens with a sentence summarising the subject: ‘During the weeks that followed, the Commune and the Convention shed ever more ballast under popular pressure, until they took the final step … the fixing of a “general maximum” on items of basic necessity.’ The second sentence starts a new paragraph with: ‘But before this, the Commune adopted a terrible measure, the law of suspects …’, and goes on to outline this law with a long footnote filling in important details. The reader is then abruptly returned to ‘the question of provisions’ in the third paragraph (also with a long footnote filling in the details), and no reason is given for combining these two subjects.

A certain amount of stability occurs when this process is interrupted by an ‘excursus’ on a particular issue, such as the colonial question in the Constituent Assembly; the Enragés; women in the revolution; Marat; or the notion of terror. Taking a larger chronological span, they at least provide an overview, though this is often explicitly Hazan’s personal interpretation, leaving one unsure of its general validity. The excursus on whether or not the French revolution was a bourgeois revolution, concludes that it is a question which has no meaning, but his reasoning raises concerns about Hazan’s views on class.

In this excursus he states that there are three principle reasons why it was not a revolution led by the bourgeoisie: firstly because ‘Louis XIV dealt the decisive blows’ against feudalism; secondly, because it means that the revolutionary peasants and sans-culottes were ‘working against the grain of history as they opposed the bourgeois establishment of capitalism’; and thirdly because the bourgeoisie did not exist as a class since the words ‘bourgeois’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ were highly uncommon in speeches, debates and newspapers at the time (p.83). Whilst this argument is directed against the Stalinist ‘stages’ theory of history, it sits uneasily with his claim that from October 1789 ‘the possessing classes and their representatives who controlled both the Assembly and the Commune de Paris did their utmost to keep the “low people” at arms-length’ (p.89).

Hazan’s argument also indicates a simplistic approach to class, which is exhibited elsewhere, such as when he states that ‘the nobility did not form a class, nor even a genuine order: it was a set of disparate castes, often mutually hostile’ (p.31). He goes on to detail distinctions between the noblesse d’épée, the noblesse de robe, the court nobility and the provincial hobereaux, and the higher levels of the clergy. The supposition seems to be that the existence of a class depends not on the material basis of its political role in society, but on it being a group with a single name and non-conflicting interests. The absurdity of this is obvious if we apply it to modern capitalism, since it would mean that the powerful owners of different big businesses based in different countries could not be called a ruling class because they too are ‘often mutually hostile’.

There is a lack of sophistication in Hazan’s politics in other areas too. He states that: ‘The storming of the Bastille is the most famous event in the French Revolution, and has moreover become its symbol throughout the world. But this glory rather distorts its historical significance’ (p.71). Strategically, the Bastille might not have been an important conquest, but its political and historical significance lies precisely in its symbolism, and it is worrying that Hazan does not seem to appreciate this. One is reminded, by contrast, of Trotsky’s recognition that a minor event can actually have enormous significance when he stated that the Russian Revolution ‘made its first steps towards victory under the belly of a Cossack’s horse’ [i].

There are times when the translation makes the book less accessible than it might be. There is an unevenness in what is translated and when, and whether the French appears in italics or not. Thus some terms appear in French only (e.g. Ferme-Générale, gardes-françaises,intendant, cens), some in English only (e.g. Estates-General, Committee for Public Safety, Controller-General), but some occur in French first, then in English (e.g. fermiers généraux – farmers general, réserve – reserve). Translations or explanations do not always accompany French terms on their first appearance (e.g. aides, gabelle), or at all in some cases (hôtels, journée, fronde), leaving the reader to infer the meaning from the context. There is no explanation of the difference between a faubourg and a section in Paris, or of the relationship between the livre, the sous and the écu. In one passage (p.50) prices are given in francs (‘5f.’ and ‘3f.’), but the ‘f’ must be a misreading of the eighteenth-century ‘s’ (for sous).

People are also occasionally mentioned some time before any explanation of who they are. For example, Necker is mentioned twice on page 21 but it is not until page 39 that the reader is told why he is important. In the case of the Philippe-Égalité, his unexplained first and only appearance (according to the index) is his execution on page 290! Of course, French readers are likely to be familiar with who these people are, just as they will have no problem with casual references to ‘Varennes’ and ‘Thermidor’, but for English readers the lack of timely information is frustrating.

Despite the fact that there are several maps, they are less informative than they might be. In particular, the two of the left and right bank of the Seine in Paris (pp.92 and 96) do not show how they connect with each other, and the map of the sections of Paris (p.314) seems completely unnecessary. Worst of all, the map of the disposition of the Vendéen forces around Nantes (p.264) not only does not accord with the text, but places Nantes itself in the middle of the river Loire!

The republican calendar is buried in a footnote (p.313), and on at least one occasion a pair of dates do not match (e.g. 10 Floréal = 10 May on p.382). The index separates calendar references under three headings: ‘calendar, republican, adoption of’, ‘revolutionary calendar’ and ‘Year I’. Other topics are similarly divided, so that there is a heading for ‘taxes and taxation’, but separate headings with different page numbers for some of these (e.g. gabelle, cens). In some cases the first appearance of a subject is not included in the index (e.g. Necker).

Finally, there are three simple additions which could have helped to make the book at least a bit clearer. A bibliography, with dates of the original French publication of texts, would have put the cited historians in context and avoided the bizarre situation where, because only the dates of the translations are given, Furet’s ‘commentary on Tocqueville’ (p.14) appears to be published 27 years before Tocqueville’s own work. A list of key figures with brief biographical notes would have allowed the reader to keep track of who is who. Most importantly, a diagrammatic timeline would have provided an essential framework to enable the reader to establish an overview of events and their relationship to each other.

Notes

[i] Leon Trotsky, trans. Max Eastman, The History of the Russian Revolution (London: Victor Gollancz, 1934), p.125.

Tagged under: Revolution History France
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