Objects of Study or Agents of History – the continuing academic and moral conundrum of the violence of the French Revolution
Given at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of French History, Durham, 11 July 2014
Today I’d like to talk about the question of how we talk about violence in the French Revolution. This is of course a perennial question over the last 225 years. However, it is also one that repeatedly tends to gravitate towards what are, I’d argue, particularly problematic types of answer. Violence in revolutionary situations is fundamental to our understanding of those situations, of their participants, and of their attitudes to the disruption and reconstitution of sovereign power. Too often, however, this direct attention has been, and continues to be, diverted into two opposing over-simplifications: violence as morally repugnant and shocking, on the one hand, and violence as the normalised exercise of power, on the other. Continue reading
Our colleague Annie Jourdan reviews Marisa Linton’s Choosing Terror, focusing on the key themes of the dilemmas of individual friendship and the duties of a virtuous public life.
I am delighted to say that interest in Maximilien Robespierre continues unabated. A new generation of historians has been reassessing his life and political contribution. Gavin Jacobson, a DPhil student at Balliol College, Oxford, and a contributor to this network, has reviewed two new collections that bring together some of the current thinking on Robespierre. The review essay appears in The English Historical Review.
It’s intriguing to note that making revolutionary demands remains in fashion amongst the Western intelligentsia – this is just one of a stream of publications one could point to – but none of them answer the fundamental question of how a fully socially-transformative “revolution” is supposed to achieve its goals in a complex and globally-dependent economy without starting by causing total collapse, mass starvation, and a spiral of violence.
That, after all, is what the great social revolutions of history all did.
“The age of revolution is not over: its fruits are just unevenly distributed around the world”.
The noted scholar of imperial and global history, David Armitage, offers some reflections on the continuing significance of R.R. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution in a foreword to a new edition; here excerpted in the Times Literary Supplement.
Lapham’s Quarterly has just published, in print and partially online, an edition devoted to texts from historical revolutions. In the editor’s introduction, Lewis Lapham vents his spleen – with an unquantifiable admixture of irony – on the devaluation of ‘revolution’ as a term and concept that ought to be so very apt for deployment in the contemporary world. While perhaps overly focused on the US scene, he neglects to discuss the very contemporary situation of Ukraine, where many observers thought they were seeing the next in a very long line of recent ‘revolutionary’ happenings. There, instead, and on a very much shorter timeframe than, for example, in Egypt, we have seen once more that calling something a revolution has only the most limited of effects on its actual outcomes.
This piece of blog-journalism illustrates very neatly how difficult many contemporary commentators find it to separate their internalised assumptions about what ‘revolution’ ought to mean from an effort to analyse real situations. Headlined ‘Libya: The Revolution That Never Was?’, its opening sentence ends with the statement that, after Gaddafi’s death ‘another Arab Spring revolution appeared to be secure.’ Going on to discuss in depth the actual destabilised condition of the country ‘after the revolution’, the author wonders ‘Libya’s revolution has splintered, to be sure, but how might it be reconstituted?’
Ultimately, the piece appears to posit that ‘Libya’s 2011 revolution produced more problems than solutions’ in a fragmented and tribalised polity: ‘The revolution only introduced more hardship and violence than ever before.’ Yet the ultimate conclusion swings drastically away from this pragmatic evaluation: ‘Thus, Libya’s revolution remains postponed – its destiny in the hands of those who might envision and create an authentic, historical alternative.’
A revolution that both was, and is not yet… A contradiction strikingly typical of the contemporary discourse.
Our friend Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley has begun a new project to effectively ‘live blog’ his exploration of the French Revolution collection at Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Some very informative close readings are sure to follow…
A comment piece from the UK Guardian newspaper, making some valid if slightly oversimplified points about the difference between a ‘revolution’ that topples a regime, and the work of constructing a changed future. Perhaps most interesting is the stream of comments which follow after, revealing both how discussion of ‘revolutionary crowds’ still animates present-day internet folk, and the savage disagreement about what makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ revolution this can produce.
A piece by our colleague Charles Walton, available in both French and English, comparing issues of economic justice and redistribution in the French Revolution and the current situation in Egypt.
“Et si l’économie était la grande oubliée des révolutions ?…”