France's left will never accept the revolution is over

On the question that divided historians for most of the 20th century – “Was the French Revolution a bourgeois revolution?” – Jaurès and Hazan sharply disagree.

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For the left in France, the war over the French Revolution will never be over. A new, abridged translation of Jean Jaurès’s multi-volume Socialist History of the French Revolution (1901-1907) follows close on the heels of Éric Hazan’s People’s History of the French Revolution (published in French in 2012). These books, separated by over a century, are both narrative accounts of the revolution that pay particular attention to the role of Maximilien Robespierre and aim to rescue him from the calumny that has dogged his name since he was guillotined in 1794.

Hazan, a 79-year-old writer, publisher and surgeon born in Paris in 1936, has a socialist but not a Marxist vision of the revolution. His first book, The Invention of Paris (2002), traces the walls and administrative boundaries that have successively encircled the city down the centuries. Hazan describes Paris growing beyond her boundaries, like an enormous red tree, rooted in a revolutionary past. At the heart of the city, he locates “the geographical axis of political life” in the house on the rue Saint-Honoré in the first arrondissement where Robespierre once lodged. In the Sentier quarter of the second arrondissement, he notes the commemorative plaque on the Café du Croissant in the rue Montmartre: “Here on 31 July 1914 Jean Jaurès was assassinated”. Hazan’s latest book is like a conversation with the ghost of Jaurès.

Jaurès was born in Castres in Midi-Pyrénées in 1859 and became leader of the French Socialist Party in 1902. He was killed for his anti-militarist attempts to rally the working class against the looming catastrophe of the First World War. Within a Marxist account of the revolution, he defended Robespierre’s reputation, reasoning that he was a moderate who instigated the Terror as a temporary, emergency measure to save the new republic from its enemies. Robespierre, like Jaurès after him, was anti-militarist and argued passionately against war with Europe in 1792.

On the question that divided historians for most of the 20th century – “Was the French Revolution a bourgeois revolution?” – Jaurès and Hazan sharply disagree. At the beginning of his book Jaurès claims: “The French Revolution realised the two essential conditions for socialism: democracy and capitalism. But at bottom it represented the political advent of the bourgeois class.” Hazan gives three reasons for rejecting this Marxist interpretation.

First, it was not the rise of the bourgeoisie that destroyed feudalism: as Alexis de Tocqueville and, more recently, François Furet argued, the system was moribund before 1789. Second, in making the bourgeoisie the progressive element of the revolution, Marxist historians face an untenable dilemma: “In their struggle against the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary peasants and sans-culottes were working against the grain of history as they opposed the establishment of capitalism.” And third, Hazan points out that the words “bourgeois” and “bourgeoisie” were rare in late-18th-century France: “I have found ‘the rich’, ‘hoarders’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘plotters’, ‘mono­polists’, ‘rogues’, ‘rentiers’, but scarcely a single ‘bourgeois’.” He concludes that the question “Was the revolution bourgeois or not?” has no meaning.

Whilst explicitly ditching Jaurès’s Marxist framework and terminology, Hazan remains faithful to his socialist vision. In his introduction Jaurès writes: “Socialism is no longer divided into hostile and powerless sects. It is an ever-stronger living unity that is strengthening its hold on life. All the great human forces – those of labour, thought, science, art and even religion (understood as humanity’s taking control of the universe) – await their renewal and growth from socialism.”

Hazan ends his book with a socialist rallying call: “Let us keep memory alive, and never lose the inspiration of a time when one heard tell that ‘the unfortunate are the powers of the Earth’, that ‘the essence of the Republic or of democracy is equality’, and that ‘the purpose of society is the common happiness’.” Robespierre’s words and sentiments.

The role of individual political actors is always awkward for historians of the revolution on the left. In a grand narrative of economic forces and class consciousness, how come there are so many rivetingly flamboyant characters: disease-racked Marat, assassinated in his bath; Danton on the scaffold, asking forgiveness of God and man for his part in establishing the Revolutionary Tribunal; Robespierre on the way to the guillotine, the tumbril pausing outside the blood-splattered door on the rue Saint-Honoré?

Jaurès addressed the problem directly: “We will not mock the men of the Revolution who read Plutarch’s Lives. It’s certain that the great burst of inner energy Plutarch inspired in them did little to change the march of events, but at least the men of the Revolution remained upright in the storm.” He knew his readers might be shocked by the disparate names of Marx and Plutarch, but insisted that both (along with the historian Jules Michelet) were the inspirations for his own “modest history”. Jaurès argued that “the great workers of revolution and democracy” – Robespierre above all – are not accountable to posterity for a labour that it took several generations to accomplish. “To judge them as if they should have brought the drama to a close, as if history was not going to continue after them, is both childish and unjust. Their work was necessarily limited, but it was great.”

Hazan is slightly less forgiving. Although he insists that Robespierre was neither cruel nor a dictator, he criticises him for “bringing the popular movement to heel in the winter and spring of Year II [1793]”. During this time Robespierre worked to disband the Enragés, a more radical group, halted de-Christianisation, and was complicit in sending Danton and his associates to the guillotine. By these actions, Hazan argues, he contributed to the “freezing” of the revolution: “If there were a court of History, that would be the main charge against him.” Which is, to say the least, debatable.

Behind its abstractions and generalisations, Hazan’s is a deeply personal book, originally intended for his friends, especially the younger ones, “who have only a vague memory of the Revolution from school, a confusing mixture of blood and boredom”. He is aware that he might invite ridicule by attempting to follow in the footsteps of “Michelet, Jaurès and Mathiez, not to say of lesser historians”. Among that crowd of “lesser” historians is Furet, the leading figure in the rejection of the Marxist interpretation, who declared triumphantly in 1978: “The French Revolution is over.”

That is what the left in France will never accept. Since Furet’s intervention, the left has lost countless battles – over the facts, the terminology, the methodology, the historiography – but it refuses to abandon the war over the revolution and its meaning.

Ruth Scurr’s books include “Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution” (Vintage) and “John Aubrey: My Own Life” (Chatto & Windus)

Jean Jaurès’s Socialist History of the French Revolution, translated by Mitchell Abidor, is available now from Pluto Press (£25).

Hazan's People's History of the French Revolution is out now at Verso (£20)

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars