A Revisionist View of the French Revolution. Using a dictionary format, this cultural history sheds new light on the events of 1789. BICENTENNIAL

By , Sheryl Kroen, a Chateaubriand Fellow, is doing doctoral research on the French Revolution in Paris.

THE CRITICAL DICTIONARY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION Edited by Fran,cois Furet and Mona Ozouf

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.

Recommended: Default

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.

The entries are divided into five sections: ``Events,'' ``Actors,'' ``Institutions and Creations,'' ``Ideas,'' and ``Historians.'' Each entry corresponds to a decisive or enigmatic event (the Night of 4 August, the Flight to Varenne, the Trial of the King, the Terror...) or to a central ideal (the traditional Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality, but also the more innovative Souveraintet'e, Esprit Public, R'eg'en'eration...).

ACTORS include individuals (Louis XVI, Necker, and Robespierre) as well as groups (Girondins, Thermidorians, and sans-culottes). Also finding an important place in the Dictionary are significant creations of the revolutionary years (the revolutionary calendar, the Civil Code, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy) as well as important interpreters of the Revolution (Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Karl Marx).

Each entry offers a complex and well-written analysis of the subject, accenting its more controversial aspects. The bibliography and the long list of cross-references at the end of each entry offer an intelligent guide through this unorthodox dictionary. Of the 99 entries, the two main authors contributed 43. The remaining 46 entries were divided among 22 collaborators: 14 fellow philosophers and historians at the 'Ecole des Hautes 'Etudes, and eight other French and foreign scholars who share the new political interpretation of the two main authors.

The choice and organization of entries - exclusions, inclusions, the amount of space allotted to some entries and not to others - reveal their revisionist interpretation. Within the section ``Actors'' there are no entries on the social classes ``Bourgeoisie'' or ``Peasantry.'' But groups defined by their political positions enjoy long and interesting entries: ``Thermidorians'' (15 pages), ``Girondins'' (12 pages), ``Montagnards'' (14 pages).

The authors' new interpretation is most telling in their treatment of subjects that preoccupied Marxist historians. The article on the sans-culottes is a good example. In a Marxist dictionary this entry would be very long and draw on the important work of the Sorbonne historian Albert Soboul. It would emphasize the ``working class'' nature of this group and its central role in voicing the social demands of the laboring classes. But in the ``Critical Dictionary'' the sans-culottes receive seven meager pages. Soboul's writings are mentioned, but the primary concern of the article is to show how the sans-culottes helped shape Jacobin political ideology.

ANOTHER telling entry is that on the ``Aristocracy.'' The aristocracy does not merit an entry in the section ``Actors'' (as it certainly would in a Marxist dictionary). It is discussed instead in its capacity as an ``Idea.'' For ``aristocracy'' came to represent everything that was in opposition to the Revolution and its goals. The Revolution was good and moral, and represented the hope of the future. The aristocracy was selfish and represented a past that had to be destroyed. This idea became particularly powerful and mobilizing once the war began, as real aristocrats joined the king and foreign armies in trying to destroy the Revolution.

The most innovative sections of the Dictionary are ``Institutions and Creations'' and ``Ideas.'' Here the authors focus on the Revolution's creative spirit. Entries on the republican calendar or revolutionary religion evoke the extravagant project to create nothing less than a ``new people.'' This is intellectual history at its best.

Ideas motivate revolutionary legislation that changes the everyday lives of Frenchmen. These sections have provoked debate and will inspire generations of historians to come. They point to a whole chapter of history that remains to be written - the cultural history of the Revolution.

The authors claim their new interpretation is primarily political and ``cultural.'' To this reader, the Dictionary instead is a rich and suggestive intellectual history from above. The primary political actors are Parisian. Theater, music, art, and other cultural forms do not merit entries. Revolutionary festivals are studied as a ``project'' of those in power. Ideas such as ``regeneration,'' ``republic,'' or ``sovereignty,'' are important insofar as they shaped the action of this limited, if important, group of political actors.

But at the end of the 18th century communication was slow and France was a large country. If revolutionaries in Paris were legislating new kinds of cultural practices such as festivals, it was not easy to make sure their new laws were being carried out. More often than not, despite repeated requests for information from local officials, the central actors in Paris were unaware of how their various ``projects'' fared in the countryside.

What is needed now is a cultural history of the Revolution from below. To appreciate the ways in which this founding event transformed political culture in France, we must move outside of Paris, outside the corridors of power, and into the homes and lives of average citizens who helped shape a democratic political tradition. It is here that we will find the true democratic legacy of the Revolution.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...