Publication Date

April 1, 1990

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • Europe

For over twenty years whenever I offered courses on the French Revolution to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin, my lecture halls and seminar rooms filled to capacity. Naturally, I should like to attribute these audiences to my stellar qualities as a teacher. Honesty requires me to admit that other courses I have taught have not had the same enthusiastic following. The obvious inference is that the subject, not the professor, is the magnet.

I am the more willing to make this confessional as I too have long been under the spell of the Revolution. I first felt its compelling power at Vassar College in the inspiring classes of Evalyn Clark, surely one of the great teachers of her day and of my youth. If I did not progress from there to Harvard and the seminars of Crane Brinton, it was only because of the dictates of high finance. The University of Pennsylvania offered me two hundred dollars more in scholarship, riches I could not turn down. Fate, as it turned out, could not have been kinder; for there I encountered another great teacher: Lynn M. Case. Unusually in those days, he was willing not only to accept but to encourage female graduate students. Under his demanding but kind tutelage I progressed toward the doctorate and first book—on the Second Empire. Still, the French Revolution beckoned. I was a révolutionnaire manqué. If I did not make it the focus of my scholarly research, always I kept abreast of its historiography; always I taught it with enthusiasm.

Whence this fascination? The Revolution’s drama, passion, heroism, villainy, ultimately its mystery, envelop the greatest of human experience. Even more is its continuing relevance today. Francois Furet reminds us: “The year 1789 is the key to what lies both upstream and downstream. It separates those periods, and thereby defines and `explains’ them. … [I]t is our contemporary history.” In other words, if you lecture on the French Revolution, you must immediately show your colors in a way not required by many other historical subjects. It is possible to discuss the Visigoths or the Merovingians, Furet noted, without arousing the slightest debate. Venture an opinion on Maximilian Robespierre, however, and you are immediately labeled: according to your view you are either a counter-revolutionary reactionary, a republican liberal, or a Marxist. As the Revolution passed from its moderate beginnings to a radical republic it threw up leaders and opponents who covered the political gamut from extreme Left to extreme Right. The barbarian tribes have lost much relevance; but the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 and the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety of the Year II (1793–94) represent principles and values debated passionately today. From China to Central Europe, they are the headline makers.

How to convey these controversies to students? We should, I believe, keep firmly in mind a fundamental premise of good teaching: start with the known and build to the unknown. A good jumping off place, therefore, might be our own Revolution, with which all American students should have at least some degree of familiarity. Are they happy that it took place? Of course. Few would desire to be British subjects, and few would find quarrel with “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” And we won, didn’t we? We twisted the lion’s tail. The United States went on to become one of the superpowers and leader of the western world. Instinctively, they believe that revolutions are a GOOD THING.

It is then but a short step to ask if the French Revolution ended so satisfactorily. Many will know, if somewhat vaguely, that it involved a period of repression known as the Reign of Terror and ended in a military dictatorship and defeat on the battlefield at Waterloo. Ask also if France became a greater or a lesser power vis-a-vis Europe and the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Was she, relatively speaking, a greater power in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries than she is in modern times? Here the answers are also obvious, and they provide an opening into the controversy. The Revolution did not of itself transform France into a stable and powerful nation. Chronologically, it marks the end of its dominance, the beginning of its relative decline and political instability and divisiveness. Because of its dubious results, criticisms of it will be more understandable.

These questions make possible a view of the Enlightenment with which most American students are unfamiliar. For them the basic principles underlying the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of Rights of Man are taken for granted: “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” But how would a Frenchman of the early nineteenth century, say, who had lost relatives to the guillotine, been forced to emigrate, and seen his family farm confiscated view these principles? They were, he would reply, “satanic.” They killed. Voltaire, Rousseau, the philosophes—they were the guilty ones. For they had “unleashed the tiger” of reason that had destroyed altar and throne and killed a body politic. The Frenchman in question you will have recognized as Joseph de Maistre, that uncompromising critic of the Enlightenment who blamed the philosophes for everything. Or, to take another example, how might a Frenchman of the late nineteenth century who had lived through the defeat of France by the Prussians and the horrors of the civil war of the Commune feel about the Enlightenment? Using a metaphor that was to become famous, Hippolyte Taine described the ideas of the philosophes as a poison, a poison that destroyed the traditions, laws, and morality of the Old Regime. Not surprisingly, when the French partook of it, they and their society died.

The counter-revolutionary Right, then, cherished the traditions of the absolute but benevolent monarchy and the truths of the Roman Catholic Church: Throne and Altar. These were the twin pillars on which the Old Regime had rested and on which French greatness had seemingly depended. The Revolution swept them away and left men foundering with only their feeble reason to rely upon. The result was first chaos, civil and foreign war, and then tyranny, so they said.

With varying degrees of volume and pitch, the counter-revolutionary Right has been singing this refrain ever since the Revolution. Maurrassian thought and Action Francaise had their roots not only in the Dreyfus affair but in hostility to the ideas of the Enlightenment and to the Revolution. Discredited by collaboration with Hitler and the Nazis during its government at Vichy, the Right suffered a seemingly irreversible defeat. Today, however, echoes of this refrain may be detected in the ideas and program of Jean-Marie Le Pen, France’s contemporary leader of the far Right. With his insistence on French traditions and his fear of foreignness, he can be seen as offering, in a slightly altered vocabulary, the reactionary themes of the Counter Revolution.

Moreover, 1989, the bicentennial year, called forth a host of furiously anti-revolutionary books. In France those attacking the Revolution focused on the repression of the counter-revolutionary movement in the VendSe by the armies of the Republic. They have labeled this suppression French genocide (with deliberate allusion to the Holocaust and the Cambodian massacres). And Simon Schama’s recent Citizens endorses this counter-revolutionary view of the VendSe while deploring almost everything else about the Revolution. So, it would appear, the denunciators of the Revolution, once the monopoly of the Catholic reaction, are far from silenced.

Now, to return again to the known, let us examine the ideas of the socialist Left. Students are aware of the rise of capitalism and the rapid industrialization of the western world, prominent features of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. France developed a capitalist economy and in time became an industrial power. The big question, as we know, is whether she did this because of, or in spite of, the French Revolution. This question provides an entrSe into the basic tenets of Marxism and the Marxist interpretation of the Revolution as the bourgeois victory over feudalism. Exploration of Marxist philosophy will provide students with still another view of the Enlightenment and the Revolution with which most of them will have been unfamiliar. It will enable students to understand why to socialists the Revolution was incomplete. It benefited only a rising capitalist class who would proceed to exploit the urban masses—the emerging proletariat. This scenario would seemingly be little cause for cheer. But, of course, it was not the last act of the drama. Marxists see a linear history of human emancipation: feudalism, capitalism, socialism. Capitalism was to be a mere phase, a necessary one, in the inevitable progression toward socialism. Students will learn to comprehend why in Marxist thought the Jacobins were the ancestors of the Communists. While the French Revolution cleared the way for the victory of capitalism, it also inspired the socialism that would subvert it. In short, if the French Revolution were capitalist, then the socialist revolution could not be far off. This view, although of course with infinite shadings and reservations, had been behind the interpretation of the French government in the recent bicentennial commemoration. We are all familiar with its official logo: the three red, white, and blue birds. And we known it is no accident that those birds are flying toward the Left.

As historians we are also well aware that the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution as bourgeois took deep root in scholarship and classrooms across the globe—so much so that it became known as the “classic” or “orthodox” interpretation—and has been taught by a generation of professors, many of whom themselves were by no means Marxists or Communists in their own political persuasions. We also are well aware that for the last twenty-five years or so this interpretation has come under a severe and sustained attack and has lost, or is losing, its preeminence of place.

A review of these ‘revisionist’ assaults affords still another opportunity to return to ground familiar to students, and this ground will be the most familiar of all: the Republican tradition (on this side of the Atlantic, confusingly enough, it would be labeled conservative or even libertarian). This line of thought accepts the Revolutions as a “good thing” that ushered in individual liberties and civil equality for all. True, it went temporarily ‘off course’ in the Reign of Terror and the military dictatorship of Napoleon. But soon thereafter France returned to the liberal guiding principles of 1789 to which, with varying degrees of success, it has adhered ever since.

The ideal is government by contract. The people delegate to the government the necessary authority to preserve the order and to protect the liberties of the citizens. The people are sovereign. If the government should violate that contract, the people have the right to take matters into their own hands: preferably by the ballot box but by stronger measures if necessary. These are the guiding principles known to American students as cherished by the Founding Fathers. From the time of Thomas Paine, Americans have proclaimed this doctrine of popular sovereignty. King George III, they said, had broken his contract with the colonists through his tyranny; hence their right to rise against him. Nor was it an accident that the leaders of the American Revolution were regarded as heroes by the French revolutionaries of 1789.

In this line of thought the civil liberties proclaimed in 1789 benefitted all classes of citizens, not just the rising bourgeoisie as the Marxists would have it. And the revisionist attacks on the Marxists interpretation of the Revolution as a class struggle have demonstrated that literate, enlightened elites from all three estates—not just the bourgeoisie of the Third—participated in the Enlightenment, led in the early Revolution, profited from it, and came together in the nineteenth century to govern France for many decades. In this view the Revolution signified neither the replacement of feudalism by capitalism nor the triumph of a capitalist nobility over a feudal nobility but rather an amalgam of elites: men who in the Old Regime had been separated from each other only by the legal distinctions of the three orders became the “Notables” of the post-revolutionary society. A new political culture of representative, democratic government had been born.

Now to recapitulate. It seems to me that a university course on the French Revolution should view it as a microcosm of the wider world. As was said repeatedly during the bicentennial celebrations: the French Revolution belongs not just to the French and to the eighteenth century but to the entire globe. To teach the French Revolution and to ignore the controversies swirling about it is to miss its essence. It affords an opening for students into the great issues of our day. Monarchism as opposed to republicanism, of course, is passS; but socialism as opposed to capitalism is certainly not. The events that have been taking place in Central Europe with such dizzying speed are in themselves an invitation to study the Revolution in the context of our own times. The dissidents of the East bloc—whether in the Baltic Republics, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, or the Ukraine—are speaking the language of 1789—that people everywhere are born with the same rights. And in May and June 1989 we heard the same ideals from the voices of the students massed on Tianamen Square. Above all, the Revolution puts dictatorship on trial. Can it ever be a desirable form of government even if in theory, as in 1793 in France and 1917 in the USSR, it is undertaken for and in the name of the people?

I have said nothing about the logistical problems, and they are many, of teaching the French Revolution in this fashion. They will vary enormously from campus to campus depending on, among other things, the academic level of students, size of classroom, library facilities, and so forth. Certainly they will leave the professor less time for straight lecture and leave the students with an incomplete set of “facts.” Assuredly, this type of course does not lend itself to “true and false” quizzes and other short-answer devices. But for me the trade off has always been well worth it.

I well remember the first graduate seminar I offered on the French Revolution. It was in 1969 at the very height of campus revolt, and the atmosphere was electric. Enrolled in the course was a young man who, we soon learned, was a prominent leader in the national organization of SDS. Once he missed a class and the next week we all saw his face in Time magazine. During the semester had been taking what I had regarded as an ominous interest in the workings of the government of the Year II: the operations of the Committee of Public Safety, its committees of surveillance, its agency on mission, it terrorist legislation, its revolutionary tribunals. Clearly for him my course was a lesson in mechanics. The dictatorship of the Year II was his model, which he scrutinized for its dynamics and its imperfections. But fortunately for me and for the students, he was not only intense and serious but, perhaps rare among dedicated revolutionaries, good humored as well. The resulting class was one of the most successful that I have ever given. For he already understood, and by his demeanor easily conveyed to the others, the passion of the Revolution and its significance for our times. They in turn immediately sensed the implications of his goals and what they would portend were they realized. I had little to do but offer bibliographies to feed the intellectual fires and sit by while the controversy raged. By the end of the semester all well understood why the Revolution is still la mére de nous tous.

Nancy Nichols Barker is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin where she has taught courses on French history since the 1960s.