William Doyle applauds a long-awaited English translation of a landmark French history of the Revolution
Interpreting the French Revolution, by François Furet
(240pp. Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de I'Homme/ Cambridge University Press.)
Publishers usually take so long to commission translations of scholarly books that they are often out of date when they appear. No doubt this one will get out of date in time, too, but it will remain a milestone in the historiography of the French Revolution and so is assured of a certain immortality. All the more credit, then, to Cambridge University Press and that indefatigable translator of modern French historians, Elborg Forster, for producing a good English version so soon after the original appearance of Penser la Revolution Française in 1978. For nobody who is seriously interested in the French Revolution can afford to ignore what François Furet has to say.
His importance is that he was the first French scholar since the war to offer a serious challenge to the rigid left-wing orthodoxies which had dominated learned interpretation of the Revolution for most of this century. First blast of the trumpet came in 1965 when, with Denis Richet, he produced a two-volume history of the Revolution which dared to suggest that the Jacobin Republic of the Year II and the popular movement with which it was bound up were not a logical or necessary part of the Revolution at all. In 1792, in fact, the Revolution was blown off course. The guardians of orthodoxy were outraged, but were able to dismiss these subversive opinions as mere captions in a picture book. And the abridged English translation which followed in 1970 was just that, with little remaining of the challenging quality of the original. In 1971, however, Furet expressed his opinions more pointedly in a famous article in Annales, in which he denounced the 'revlotionary catechism' of the Marxist historians as illogical, inconsistent, not supported by the evidence, the product in short of a 'poverty- stricken... resurrection of scholasticism... dearth of ideas... passionate obstinacy disguised as Marxism.'
A somewhat amended reprint of this polemic forms the second chapter of Interpreting the French Revolution. It is preceded by an appeal, entitled 'The French Revolution is over', for historians to view the Revolution dispassionately. Instead of defending or attacking ideologically preconceived notions of what it was about, Furet appeals to them to stand apart from the Revolution and try to interpret it without the myths it created about itself and which subsequent historians have perpetuated. The other two chapters in the book are essays on French historians who tried to do this, and paid the price in the neglect into which they fell – Tocqueville and Cochin.
Tocqueville, according to Furet, is 'more cited than read', and it is here that English eyebrows may be raised. Is he unaware that every new history student in the world's oldest English-speaking university must read and be examined on Tocqueville in his very first term? How far, indeed, is he aware of what the world outside thinks about the French Revolution at all? It is good to see at last an occasionaI commendatory reference to Alfred Cobban from a French historian, but Furet takes no real measure of the way Anglo-Saxon historians have transformed the history of the Revolution during the last generation. He calls upon his fellow Frenchmen to abandon their proprietary attitude to the Revolution in order to stand outside it and try to interpret it more objectively. Those with no proprietary national interest have already been doing just this for decades, but scant acknowledgement they get, even from Furet. For him too, the Revolution remains in the last analysis far more the property of Frenchmen than he likes to claim, and this book is one more example of the insularity of French intellectual life. A translation offers outsiders a window into the hothouse world, but time may have already overtaken Furet's basic message. In the high noon of Giscardian technocracy, when this book first appeared, the Revolution perhaps did seem to be over, no longer relevant. The sudden revival of French socialism in 1981 may yet, however give a new lease of life to the tired left-wing pieties that Furet was still trying to bury in France so long after the rest of the world had abandoned them.