CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — WHAT gives the French Revolution its remarkable significance is that it created the modern idea of revolution, of an enormous upheaval sucking the entire nation into its maw, criticizing everything, creating forces and elites, and offering a model for radical change to a world both attracted and repelled. Far more than Americans, whose revolution was in essence a war of national independence, the French first implemented, then internalized, and then disseminated the revolutionary ideal, bestowing it on a - presumably - grateful world. Ideas sometimes become obsessions, however, dominating thought. Is the difficulty that pragmatic, middle-of-the-road political parties have faced in France largely due to that obsession? Does it still continue? Or have attitudes changed?
These questions emerged in interviews with French and US historians at a recent Harvard conference on the French Revolution, one of many scheduled for this bicentennial year. A consensus emerged that the Revolution now rouses more skepticism than passion, with the French at last disposed to take it in stride, treating it with healthy realism as a historical event, rather than as their great gift to civilization.
Charles Maier of Harvard and Jacques Revel, a prominent French historian, both linked this new realism to the fragmentation and disillusionment of French leftist intellectuals in Fran,cois Mitterrand's '80s, as expectations of a leftist upsurge were dashed by economic austerity and political pressures. That a leftist regime should discard (betray?) a leftist agenda has caused much soul-searching about the relevance of traditional leftist doctrines, not least those regarding the events of 1789, whose symbols Mitterrand often invokes.
This has combined with a growing awareness, intensified by Mikhail Gorbachev's critique of Soviet history, of the human cost of revolution. Violence - be it the guillotine and the terror of 1792-4, or Mao's Cultural Revolution and Stalin's purges - once was excused as the necessary and even inevitable price of historical progress. Solzhenitsyn's ``Gulag Archipelago'' helped reverse this view among French intellectuals. ``What Stalin did was certainly known to everyone,'' says Revel, ``and all the books and data were there, but people just weren't ready to draw conclusions from them - until now.''
So there has been some acceptance of the scathing criticism of the events of 1789 and after being leveled from the right by the well-known historian Pierre Chaunu, most prominently in the mass-circulation newspaper Figaro. Chaunu delights in profoundly ahistorical and sensational metaphors - linking the Terror, for example, with that of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia - which stir criticisms from serious-minded historians who despise mere headline-hunting. But there is substance to his charge that the Revolution caused immense bloodshed, not merely because outsiders attacked France, but because of sheer repression. Consider, for example, the bloody counterinsurgency of 1793-94 in the Vend'ee, the western districts near the mouth of the Loire.
Here was a Vietnam in miniature conducted by revolutionary troops and officials against those who resisted the revolution: Some 400,000 were killed on both sides. And there still exists, according to Daniel Roche, another French scholar at the conference, an association of descendants of these victims of the Vend'ee repression; they doubtless will speak out during the bicentennial.
That the Revolution indeed represented class conflict, the struggle of an ambitious, rising bourgeoisie against a decadent nobility, has been the conventional, quasi-Marxist wisdom. But not anymore. Charles Maier remarked that ``you can feel the influence of Braudel's `Annales' school, with its stress on attitudes, thinking, feeling, rather than traditional class conflict.'' Patrice Higonnet of Harvard joked that anyone whose library is encumbered by the works of Albert Mathiez and Albert Soboul, leaders of the class conflict school in decades past, could strip those shelves: Current research shows how simplified were their views.
What political spin will the bicentennial celebration represent? The commemoration of 1889 was, after all, entangled in brawling over General Boulanger, a would-be Napoleonic figure and man on horseback; that of 1939 was overshadowed by the struggle against an onrushing fascism, both French and international.
As to 1989, the conference participants assumed that both left and right in France will compete for the emotional and intellectual inheritance of 1789. But neither aggressively nor vindictively: Today's mood is that of high-tech (Mitterrand himself visited California's Silicon Valley), economic growth, individual liberty, and ideological skepticism. That classic slogan - ``France, eternal and unchanging'' - deserves modification: France is changing.