Lefebvre’s French Revolution

They don’t write books like Lefebvre’s anymore. As one of the two or three twentieth century experts on the French Revolution, Lefebvre was entitled to give a definite interpretation of the Revolution. But actually, his certainty of analysis and representation comes from a different era of history writing – the era before the rise of post-structuralism, with its emphasis on contingency and uncertainty. None of that wishy-washiness (or sophistication, if you prefer) for Lefebvre. For him, the French revolution was a bourgeois revolution, no ifs or buts about it. In his classical marxist interpretation, the revolution passed through a series of phases, as social power moved increasingly towards those at the bottom of the social scale. Thus it began with an aristocratic revolt. The first revolution – of 1789 – was one of the ‘nation’ as a whole, led by the bourgeoisie. The second revolution – of 1792 – was led by those who represented the lower classes, the Girondists and the Jacobins, who represented the sans-culottes (the mob composed of petit-bourgeoisie, aritsans, proletarians). For Lefebvre, this is not so much an analysis as a series of facts immanent in events. It’s not so much an interpretation as the only way to read the revolution, not so much born out as inscribed in the facts themselves, such as when the National Assembly stated its aim was to destroy the feudal regime in its entirety. How else might one read this? It’s a reading that’s almost impossible to challenge, though a whole generation of historians (particularly in the 1980s) did in fact challenge it. These claimed that the revolution was not a bourgeois revolution, but a democratic one – erasing the class dimensions – or in some cases not a revolution at all.

Distressingly, Lefebvre’s book ends with the Girondists in power, just before the rise of Robespierre, the most fascinating of the leaders. We’re thus left half-way, the revolution in full flight and not yet at its zenith. The second volume is difficult to find in English, and so the whole experience is both enriching and frustrating. Lefebvre is one of the greats, but here we have only half of his story (less if we include his ‘Napoleon’, thankfully available). Still it’s half of a terrific story and Lefebvre is singularly suited to telling it.

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