William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution — January 14, 2014

William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution

An oil painting, presumably by someone like David, of someone holding a bow and arrow.I was looking for a book about all the things that everyone is supposed to already know about the French Revolution. What, exactly, is a Jacobin, for instance? How about a sans-culotte? Well, now I know. (Those are essentially the Jesuits of the French Revolution, and the Tea Party, respectively.)

Given that the middle 80% of the book — and hence the middle 80% of the French Revolution — was essentially one group massacring another group until the tables turned and the first group was massacred, I can’t say that I *entirely* understand what happened. That’s not Doyle’s fault, and I’m not entirely sure it’s mine, either; I think it may be the Revolution’s fault. The fact that no one could keep track of who was in power, and that a lot of people’s heads literally rolled between 1789 and 1802, likely explains a lot of why Burke and friends were so vehemently anti-French, and why those who disliked Jefferson *really* disliked Jefferson. (They thought Jefferson a Godless Communist before that term had crystallized.) The French Revolution was a devastating, paralyzing, anarchic, at times hopeful, often disappointing, polarizing, world-historical unleashing of forces, and it drew violent support and violent derision.

Doyle is very focused on serving the needs of people like me, who need to know the basic timeline and the most important actors, which doesn’t really allow him to linger on any one topic very long. I wanted to know much more about Robespierre, for instance. He may well be a tragic figure in all of this — Doyle pretty clearly thinks so — though I think the Brits normally look upon him quite differently. In brief, Robespierre was the proto-Jacobin — an idealist of the Revolution, perhaps its main ideologue, and apparently a splendid orator. He was also, seemingly, one of the main architects of the Terror.

To be honest, it’s hard for me to distinguish between one endless episode of bloodletting (90% of the Revolution, seemingly) and an even more orgiastic one (the Terror). Much of the bloodletting during the Revolution was seemingly just a concerted attempt to end the anarchy by trying to establish a monopoly on violence. Then there were what we’d call “purges” if we were describing the Stalinist era: people killing off the “counterrevolutionaries”, where by “counterrevolutionary” we mean “the other guy.”

From the modern perspective I think it’s one of the main questions we’re going to run up against: how earnest were the revolutionaries and the various bands of counterrevolutionaries? That is, when they were slaughtering the others in droves, did they really believe they were the true bodyguards of the Revolution and that the other side wanted to bring about a return of the Bourbon monarchy? Did the later terrorists really believe, for instance, that Robespierre was going to destroy the Revolution? Or was it all just a convenient way to kill someone while seeming noble?

Some British reactionaries (a term, like “terrorist”, that the French Revolution created — there was nothing to react against before there was a revolution) foresaw from the beginning that all this democracy would become anarchy, which would be swept aside by a charismatic general who would establish a monopoly on violence. That did, indeed, come to pass, starting with Napoleon’s coup on the 18th Brumaire. (Brumaire was one of the months of the Revolutionary calendar. Now I understand a historical allusion in the title of an essay by Marx. I assume everyone in the 1850s understood the allusion without the aid of a Doyle.) Of course Napoleon is a mind-bogglingly fascinating story on his own, which Doyle can only just touch on.

I’m left with more questions than answers. Napoleon seemed to conquer Europe unimpeded — nearly magically; how did that happen? How did one man possess legitimacy that all the Jacobins and republicans before him had lacked? And indeed, how does legitimacy even work? It’s a social process: everyone believes that the king is the legitimate source of all authority, so he is; as soon as people stop believing that, legitimacy can fall apart quickly. Understanding legitimacy means understanding groups (the “legitimators”, let’s call them) rather than understanding the thing being legitimized (the “legitimee”?).

That’s why I really need to learn about the French Revolution from the perspective of someone living in the middle of it — something like the Pepys of Paris. I need to understand how the bulk of humanity — the peasants, say — experienced it, and whether the separation of Louis XVI’s head from his body was a cataclysmic event that suddenly shifted everyone’s understanding of how power and authority worked.

Louis didn’t actually lose his head until 1793, by the way, three-plus years after the Bastille fell. He’d been a virtual prisoner in his palace in the intervening years, delicately negotiating with the republicans and occasionally trying to foment royalist rebellion. In retrospect it can seem like the king’s days were numbered just as soon as the “internal logic” of the Revolution started to spin out, but it’s really hard for me to believe that there *is* any such logic, [foreign: a priori]. In any case, I had never really solidly grasped that the king’s death came a good long while after the 14th of July, 1789. There are a lot of facts like that which are now much clearer to me, thanks to Doyle. The timeline from the French Revolution to the present day that I’m building in my head slowly comes into focus. Roughly:

A couple years prior to 1789: the Bourbons lose control of their finances, with their rock-star finance minister, Jacques Necker, periodically brought in as the savior who can fix the debt and end the people’s starvation.

Soon thereafter: Necker finally falls, there are bread riots, etc.

1789: the Bastille falls

1792 – 1795: the National Convention rules

1793 – 1794: the Terror

1793: the king is decapitated

1795 – 1799: the National Convention is replaced by the smaller Directory

1799: Napoleon Bonaparte seizes power from the Directory

1802: Napoleon is made First Consul for life, and the Revolution effectively ends (and with it many of the Revolution’s ideals)

1802 – 1815: Napoleon conquers large parts of Europe and, among other things, ends the Holy Roman Empire

1815: Napoleon finally defeated at Waterloo. Congress of Vienna establishes tentative 19th-century order in Europe.

1815-1848: Monarchy restored in France.

1848: Revolution all over Europe. Second Republic declared.

1871: Franco-Prussian War leads to Napoleon III being captured. Monarch overturned, Third Republic declared.

1871 – 1941 or so: Third Republic

1941 – 1945: Vichy France

1945 – 1958: Fourth Republic

1958 – now: Fifth Republic

The final chapter of Doyle’s book puts the Revolution in breathtaking world-historical perspective. The whole book is worth reading just to understand the chaos of the Revolution, but the final chapter seems necessary for anyone who wants to understand how we’re still, today, living in the world the French Revolution created.

__P.S.__: in an appendix, Doyle writes that “Scornful British contemporaries … rendered [the months of the Revolutionary calendar]: Slippy, Nippy, Drippy; Freezy, Wheezy, Sneezy; Showery, Flowery, Bowery; Heaty, Wheaty, Sweety.”

__P.P.S.__: Lots of books that Doyle cites in the bibliography go on the to-read list:

* “The classic treatment [of the Revolution’s origins] is G. Lefebvre, [book: The Coming of the French Revolution] (Princeton, 1947), the best general work by the other great twentieth-century master whose detailed researches underlie much of what subsequent scholars have achieved.”
* “The most up-to-date, well-researched, and stimulating general survey is at present D.M.G. Sutherland, [book: France 1789-8115: Revolution and Counter-Revolution] (London, 1985).”