Book Review


The back cover blurb of François Furet’s Revolutionary France, 1770-1880 (1995) states that the work is “a testimony to the power both of ideas and of personality in the movements of the past.” This is true. Furet offers a political history from the perspective of ideas and personalities, and his endeavor is quite successful. Its success is due partly to the undogmatic nature of Furet’s “idealism”—for he does not completely ignore social and economic conditions or administrative structures—but, nevertheless, Furet demonstrates that ideas and powerful individuals do have great influence on history and cannot be wholly neglected in favor of “material” causes. The book’s analyses of ideological currents and the consequences of ideas are fascinating. Ultimately Furet does devote too little attention to society and the economy, and he overestimates the causal power of ideas, but his book remains a great achievement.


One of its most fruitful themes is that the Revolution was guided and misguided by tensions between its animating ideas. In particular, two legacies from the Enlightenment met and battled for hegemony: first, liberal individualism, “according to which the constituent element of the social pact is the free activity of men in the pursuit of their interests and their happiness,” and second, “a very unitarian conception of the sovereignty of the people, through the idea of the nation or ‘general will’” (p. 87). The revolutionaries of 1789 “made a fragile synthesis of them,” but the synthesis came apart under the impact of war and Terror. The liberal regime of law and individual rights was suspended in favor of a nationalist regime of the “general will” as embodied in the National Convention, particularly in the Committee of Public Safety. As Furet states, this regime “in effect constituted the application…of what was perhaps the French Revolution’s supreme principle: the absolute and indivisible sovereignty of a single Assembly, deemed to represent the general will stemming from universal suffrage” (p. 136). Because “the people had appropriated the absolutist heritage and taken the place of the king,” they had to be imagined as one entity, “independent of the private interests characterizing each of their individual members” (p. 140). The dictatorship of Robespierre was therefore implicit, so to speak, in the French Revolution’s ideology. It was an inherent possibility from the beginning, and the ideology in a sense led to it. Or so Furet argues.


One might almost say that the central feature of Revolutionary France is its continual unearthing of new “tensions” that propelled French history forward. For instance, Furet argues that “it was the tension between the idea of democracy and the extent of inequality retained by the Constituent Assembly in the new body politic which formed the mainspring of the Revolution” (p. 99). Similarly, he refers to the “tension between philosophical abstractions and political realities” (p. 87), as manifested for example in the repeated resort to arbitrary power despite the Revolution’s ambition to create a society of law, liberty, and equality. This was related to the tension between France’s absolutist heritage and its modern Enlightenment fixation on republicanism, liberalism, and democracy.


Other tensions include that between the Revolution’s nationalism and its universalism; the career of Napoleon is a perfect illustration of this, given, on one hand, the nationalist pride he evoked in the French and, on the other, his serving their desire to liberate all Europe from tyranny and spread democracy around the world. Even before the Revolution, however, tensions proliferated. A particularly pregnant one was that between the monarchy’s modernizing tendencies—its administrative centralism and reform, its “subvert[ing of] the traditional social fabric by levelling its ranks under general submission to a sole authority, and breaking up the hierarchies of birth and tradition” (p. 9), its progressive stripping of the power of the nobility and clergy—and its deep “solidarity with aristocratic society” (p. 13). The result was that “royal action [throughout the eighteenth century] oscillated between despotism and capitulation” (ibid.), and the monarchy gradually lost the support of both the nobility and the broader society. This loss was manifest in the evolution of “public opinion,” which became a “counterbalance to despotism, developed by men of letters… It constituted a public tribunal, in contrast with the secrecy of the king; it was universal, in contrast with the particularism of ‘feudal’ laws; and objective, in contrast with monarchic arbitrariness: in short, a court of appeal of reason, judging all matters of state, in the name of public interest alone” (p. 17). “Public opinion” became fixated on the revolutionary idea of establishing a “monarchy of reason” on the ruins of the feudal/absolutist monarchy. Furet returns again and again to this notion of public opinion and its solid opposition to arbitrary executive authority. The reader is left, rightly or wrongly, with the impression that public opinion is the one underlying constant in this era, the element of stability in a time of upheaval, the most consistent manifestation of reason and moderation, and the centripetal influence on wildly fluctuating political affairs, to which in the long run they inevitably tend.


In short, the book is extremely rich and cannot be summarized in two pages. A final critique, however, can be offered. Furet’s analysis is intriguing in its discernment of a “logic of ideas,” a dialectic of ideas and their interaction with social conditions, behind the seeming chaos of the French Revolution and its aftermath, but ultimately it is not ideas that primarily make history. An alternative analysis would focus on economic movements, on the people and institutions with the most resources and power, on the play of interests as opposed to the play of philosophical abstractions in their encounter with reality. Also, Furet’s emphasis on personalities is in tension with his emphasis on the “dialectic of ideas and reality,” since personalities introduce contingency into a discussion that tries to find necessity wherever it can. Revolutionary France would have been an even greater book had its author thought more carefully about his methods and assumptions.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright