A Revisionist View of the French Revolution. Using a dictionary format, this cultural history sheds new light on the events of 1789. BICENTENNIAL
THE CRITICAL DICTIONARY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION Edited by Fran,cois Furet and Mona OzoufSkip to next paragraph
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Paris: Flammarion, 1,009 pp. 396 francs
AMERICANS have always hailed their Revolution of 1776 as the dawn of democracy. In contrast, the French have seen their Revolution of 1789 as the culmination of a long struggle between a declining aristocracy and an ascendant bourgeoisie.
Now, in honor of the French bicentennial, historians are constructing a new view of the Revolution. It celebrates a democratic legacy that resembles its American cousin.
Leading the revisionist school are Fran,cois Furet and Mona Ozouf, professors at the prestigious 'Ecole des Hautes 'Etudes in Paris. They have directed the writing of a mammoth tome, running more than 1,000 pages, entitled ``The Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution.'' Assembling 99 entries by 24 authors, Furet and Ozouf have erected a veritable monument to the Revolution of 1789.
It has become a smash hit. The authors appeared on Bernard Pivot's influential French literary television talk show, ``Apostrophes.'' After only two months the book has gone through a second printing. More than 30,000 copies have been sold, an astounding number for a serious academic book that costs $65.
Clearly the effort to make the book readable, and to include magnificent reproductions of engravings from the revolutionary period, paid off in what was probably a Christmas gift for many a Frenchman. It is expected to be popular in the United States also, where it will be published by Harvard University Press this spring.
The dictionary's new interpretation of the Revolution is the culmination of years of work. In the 1970s Furet launched his attack on the Marxist, class-bound interpretation in an aptly titled article, ``The Catechism on the French Revolution.'' This long and polemical article criticized the single-minded interpretation for its failure to explain either the instability of the revolutionary government, which led to the Terror under Robespierre, or the revolutionaries' creative and extravagant project to construct a new society based on rational, republican principles.
The Marxist historians' preoccupation with class struggle has prevented them from explaining the radicalization of the Revolution between 1789 and 1793. According to Furet, the struggle between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie was over early in 1789. Yet tensions and violence continued to mount as the government suffered a series of coups.
How, Furet asks, can this radicalization be explained in class terms when the groups in competition - the Girondins, the Feuillants, and even the Montagnards - came from the bourgeoisie?
In a series of articles assembled in ``Interpreting the French Revolution,'' published by Cambridge University Press in 1981, Furet argued that this answer must come in ideological terms. If the Revolution did not stabilize, it was because the revolutionaries shared a radical, and inherently unstable, conception of democracy. This conception of democracy was as absolutist as the monarchist regime the revolutionaries had just deposed. The revolutionary government had to represent the will of the people ``unanimously.'' Dissent was impossible. ``Loyal opposition'' was inconceivable. Coups against dissenting groups were necessary because they seemed to threaten the very survival of democracy.
In a recent interview, Furet explained the second, more creative aspect of the Revolution, which Marxist historians have ignored. ``The Revolution, what was its principal project? To reject the old regime as corrupt, gothic, and irrational, and to found a new city, a new society based on reason.'' This extravagant project was behind the revolutionaries' legislative effort to transform the everyday lives of Frenchmen.
In her book, ``The Revolutionary Festival,'' published by Harvard University Press in 1988, Mona Ozouf explored this effort, focusing on the example of the republican calendar. This calendar was conceived to replace the ``irrational'' Christian calendar. Seven-day weeks were replaced by 10-day ``decadis.'' Saint days were replaced by festivals celebrating the historic events of the Revolution.
Two famous 19th-century historians, Jules Michelet and Alexis de Tocqueville, were impressed by the revolutionaries' project to create a new republican culture. Until now their views have had little impact on the historiography of the Revolution. Furet and Ozouf's emphasis on this creative aspect of the Revolution therefore represents a rediscovery of these important authors.
Furet and Ozouf chose the form of a dictionary to present their new ideas. But this is no ordinary dictionary. It is neither exhaustive nor encyclopedic. It is not intended to provide all of the answers. Instead it poses new questions. It is ``critical,'' conceived to spark and to broaden discussion.