Friday, March 15, 2013

Reading Readings of the French Revolution

The following was my attempt at the end of my 1988 seminar on the French Revolution to sum up what interested and intrigued me about the readings for the class, namely, the theoretical approaches to the French Revolution that had become standard operating practise in the sub-discipline since the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century. I think my interpretation of the dominant theoretical strains through which academics "read" the French Revolution has stood the test of time, perhaps the best test there is, quite successfully.

The French Revolution has been of central theoretical concern to social scientists since the mid and late 1800s. Indeed, the frameworks which guided the interpretations of this event were, in large part, established by the early 1900s as were the theoretical frameworks that have come to dominate academic social sciences and humanities. The frameworks or interpretive scripts that became the foundations of academic analysis of the French Revolution were the analyses of the Revolution offered by Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, the so-called fathers, perhaps better fore fathers, of modern insititutional sociology and social scientific thought in general. These four intellectuals have, for better or worse, set out the terrain of discourse on the French Revolution on which scholars afterwards have by and large trod.

De Tocqueville in his book on the Old Regime in France asserts that the revolutionaries completed what was begun by the monarchs of the ancien regime, namely the centralisation or rationalisation, and bureaucratisation of the French political and economic domains. This centralisation and bureaucratisation took place at the expense of the aristocracy whose power, authority and political, and, though not to the same extent, economic privileges, declined relative to those of the king. This decline of the nobility left a gap in the political and public opinion formation and guiding arena, one that was filled by the group of notables, aristocratic and bourgeois, influenced and joined together by a commitment to the ideologies of the philosophes. It was this group who came to power during the French Revolution. In de Tocqueville's tragic account of the history of this period, it is the decline of the old nobility with its political, economic, and status rights, as well as their political and economic obligations which these rights entailed embedded as they were in a community with specific rights and obligations, which de Tocqueville decries.

Karl Marx, like de Tocqueville, saw the French Revolution as completing the centralising and bureaucratising tendencies of the Old Regime. Unlike de Tocqueville, however, Marx concentrates on economic classes. For Marx the Revolution's political and economic centralisation was guided by the industrial and commercial bourgeois class. The final form of this centralisation reflected the interests of this particular class. For instance, by eliminating feudalism, freeing the peasants from the land, land now became a commodity able to be bought and sold. The free capitalist market was, of course, a notion central to the economically determined ideology of the bourgeois capitalist class. For them everything was to be available to be freely bought and sold on a free market in which price was determined by the free and conflicting interests of buyer and seller. Thus, feudalism with its classes of lord and peasant, each of whom had traditional obligations toward each other predicated upon differential control of the means of production, in this instance land, was overtaken and subsumed by a different mode of production, capitalism, in which the means of production was embedded within ownership and control of capital, machinery, commodified land, and so on. This transformation, for Marx, was positive and progressive as it allowed greater productive capacities. Its drawback lay in the inequalities it created between its two classes, the bourgeoisie or capitalist class, those who owned and controlled the means of production, and the proletariat, those who sold their labour-power to the capitalist on the free market, and who worked the means of production the capitalist owned and controlled.

Max Weber likewise emphasized the role the Revolution played in the centralisation and bureaucratisation of France. He explores how political, economic, religious, institutional life in general was transformed to one predicated upon traditional-patrimonial forms of legitimation and authority to one founded upon bureaucratic-rational forms of legitimation and authority given the continuous movement toward formal rationality, i.e., the most developed and calculable forms of means-end utility. Ironically, the centralising and rationalizing procedures begun under the monarchy undermined the very basis of the kings form of legitimisation, the traditional, in which justification and rationalisation was predicated upon the ideology of it is done this way because it has always been done this way because god wills that it be done this way. Rational efficiency became, under the rule of the revolutionaries and during the dictatorship of Napoleon, dominant. No longer was “it is traditional” the rationale for why society was ordered the way it was. Now it was the proverbial "he makes the trains run on time". For Weber, this movement toward rationality was not purposive or teleological. Nor was it developmental for within each form of authority, charismatic, traditional, or bureaucratic, were other forms though one form was predominate. Bureaucratic authority was the most rational, the most efficient, solely because it was the least personal. Rational bureaucratic authority was based in the bureaucratic office not in the individual holding that office. The bureaucratisation of institutional life was thus not "directed" by any specific domain such as (for Marxists) the economic. It occurred in all institutions of the western world. Unlike Marx who saw the movement to capitalist modes of production in a positive light, Weber did not emphasize only the positive aspects of bureaucratisation (i.e. efficiency). Weber foresaw the negative consequences of this transformation as well likening the dehumanisation necessitated by an impersonal bureaucratised world to an iron cage within which moderns are trapped.

Emile Durkheim took a different approach from de Tocqueville, Marx, and Weber. Durkheim saw social life in religious terms. In order for social formations to produce consensus or stasis out of the dynamic conflict of everyday life, society has to sacralise itself, make itself holy, claimed Durkheim. It did this by marking off what was sacred or holy from that which was profane, from that which was not holy and sometimes evil. For a Durkheimian the French Revolution, by striking at the heart of and ostensibly (trying to) eliminate that which was coded as holy under the ancien regime, had to develop new symbols, ceremonies, and rituals which sacralised its political culture and institutions. Such an attempt at sacralisation can be seen in the coding of such phenomena as the liberty cap, the tricolour cockade, liberty trees as sacred. It can be seen in the ceremonies of the cult of the supreme being held under the regime of Robespierre; which were held to be sacred. It can be seen in the foregrounding of the goddess Liberté as sacred. It can be seen in all of these sacred expressions of the new revolutionary political culture.

These four scripts, the de Tocquevillian, the Marxist, the Weberian (though less so than the others), and the Durkheimian, set the scripts analysts have drawn on ever since to explain the French Revolution. They were the frameworks on which succeeding scholars drew, supported, adapted, or overturned. They, whether consciously or unconsciously, set the language of French Revolutionary historiography.

George Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, for instance, offer Marxist readings of the French Revolution. Both interpret the French Revolution as led by and benefiting the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie. Long-term factors such as urbanisation, indrustialisation, and commercialisation, all beneficial to the expanding bourgeoisie, are seen as movements from feudalism to capitalism. Lefebvre is somewhat more flexible here seeing this dynamic quality in more particularistic terms than the more schematic Soboul. Both recognise the importance of the interaction of these long-term factors with such short-term phenomena as the rise of grain prices, the decline of the grain supply, and the pressure brought on political leaders by the masses due to these economic actualities, pressure that led the bourgeois political elite to take certain actions (e.g., the restoration of economic controls, an action opposed to bourgeois capitalist ideology). For both of Lefebvre and Soboul them, the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. It was guided by and economically and in turn politically benefited the industrial and commercial middle class.

This Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution dominated French Revolutionary historiography academically and popularly from the 1930s to the 1970s. In the 1970s this paradigm began to break down, however. Perhaps the individual who has most contributed to the destruction of the Marxist, or as he calls it, "Jacobin" version of the French Revolution offered by Soboul, has been Francois Furet. Furet offers a neo-de Tocquevillian and Durkheimian (through his reading of Augustin Cochin) interpretation of the French Revolution. Like de Tocqueville, Furet sees the Revolution as completing the centralisation and bureaucratisation of France begun under the monarchy. The Revolution was not, then, an altogether new phenomenon as the Jacobins and their major contemporary spokesman, Albert Soboul, maintain. It was, on the institutional level, a completion of something begun under the ancien regime. To this de Tocquevillian script Furet adds a neo-Durkheimian analysis of discourse and its codification of sacred and profane. Fitting the ideology of revolution (coded as sacred and good) versus counterrevolution (signified as profane and evil) into a naturalised us/them pattern Furet deals with the phenomenon of the purges and the "counterrevolutionary" wars in a much more satisfactory way than does Lefebvre and Soboul where they are seen either as figments of the popular and political elite imagination deriving from contemporary interpretations of economic factors such as the grain shortage or high bread prices, or as interpretations of actual threats. Like de Tocqueville, Furet regards the Revolution in tragic terms: from it springs all ideologies of totalitarianism and authoritarianism whether communist or democratic for each of these are moved along by the ideological dynamic of us/them or sacred/profane.

Carol Blum also offers a neo-Durkheimian approach, one in which one specific component of this sacred/profane revolutionary discourse is isolated, namely the Rousseauvian discourse of virtue. Blum asserts that this Rouusseauvian language of virtue guided the Rebespierrists in their categorizations and coding of the sacred and the profane. The general or popular will was regarded by the Robespierrists as sacred and virtuous. The Robespierrists saw themselves as virtuous and hence sacred because they were the voice of this sacred general will. Any opposition to it and hence them, was due to a lack of virtue, hence to depravity and profanity. In order to assure the completion of the virtuous revolution the profance had to be destroyed. Thus the Terror and the wars against external enemies. Ideology and political culture, as in Furet, is here emphasized, not economic classes and economic modes of production.

A further neo-Durkheimian approach to the French Revolution is that offered by Lynn Hunt. Hunt isolates and examines the symbols, images, and representations of the French Revolution. One can see the attempt of the revolutionaries to sacralise their respective political cultures (the participatory democracy of the early years, the radical voice of the people "democracy" of the Terror, for instance) in the creation of and cooption of often popular images like Liberté and Hercule and in such symbols as the liberty tree and tricolour cockade. To this "poetics" she adds (non consciously) a Weberian and non-economic reductionist analysis of urbanisation, institutionalisation, political geography, and the growth of voluntary rational bureaucratic associations. These last, she claims, were the breeding grounds of the new revolutionaries themselves geographically, politically, and bureaucratically marginal. In a very sophisticated way she delineates how the "poetics" and this latter "sociology" interacted and brought about changes in the political culture of this new France, a change which can be discerned by a sensitivity to changes in the symbols, images, and representations of the Revolution.

Other interpretations of the French Revolution have been offered over the years. D.M.G. Sutherland, in reaction to Marxist economic reductionist interpretations of the French Revolution, serves up a social reading of the French Revolution by concentrating in political, economic, and religious factors by placing emphasis on the first. His neo-de Tocquevillianism strips the Toxquevillain interpretation of its tragic dimension—the decline of the nobility—while at the same time foregrounding a new sort of tragedy—the revolution led directly to the rise of the horrible dictatorship of Napoleon. In his analysis the Revolution is moved along by the dynamic dialectic of revolution versus counterrevolution whether defined by political, religious, or economic phenomena.

Another interpretation offered is that of R.R.Palmer. Palmer takes a biographical-psychological approach to the period of the Terror during the French Revolution. He explains the various actions of this period by reference to the specific actors on the political stage during this bloody epoch. Revisionist biographical approaches to the French Revolution are evident in the work of Richard Cobb and Simon Schama who broaden this approach out by emphasising culture.

The discourse on the French Revolution has, as is evident, been guided by the support of, use and adaptation of, or opposition to four specific academic French Revolution historiographic scripts: the de Tocquevillian, the Marxist, the Weberian, and the Durkheimian. This state of affairs will undoubtedly continue given the bureaucratisation of academia and academic knowledge and its emphasis on socialisation to and enculturation to specific modes of theory and practise. Modes that must be followed in order to gain a higher degree, the credential of competence and expertise, from these large scale academic bureaucracies.

De Tocqueville, Alexis; The Old Regime and the French Revolution
Marx, Karl; Selected Writings
Weber, Max; Economy and Society
Weber, Max; From Max Weber
Durkheim, Emile; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
Alexander, Jeffrey (ed.); Durkheimian Sociology
Lefebvre, Georges; The Coming of the French Revolution
Soboul, Albert; Short History of the French Revolution
Furet, Francois; Interpretation of the French Revolution
Blum, Carol; Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue
Hunt, Lynn; Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution
Sutherland, D.M.G.; France 1789-1815
Palmer, R.R.; Twelve Who Ruled

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