Review: A People’s History of the French Revolution, by Eric Hazan
An interpretation that allows us to look beyond crude stereotypes of demented dictators and bloodthirsty revolutionaries
Portrait of the arrest & wounding of Maximilien Robespierre. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
A People’s History of the French Revolution
In a game of word association French Revolution would rapidly be met with “guillotine”. Such is the event’s popular image, especially in Anglo-Saxon culture, where it remains characterised by guts and gore; its revolutionaries are usually perceived as dishevelled and uncouth.
This image of revolutionary France persists in an animated clip created to herald the latest instalment in the Assassin’s Creed series of video games, set in Paris after 1789. Over five blood-splattered minutes the viewer is thrown into a city of carnage: heads roll, eyes are gouged out, and the whole messy business is conducted under the watchful eye of Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the Jacobin faction and the figure most associated with the so-called Reign of Terror in France between 1793 and 1794.
But there are interpretations that allow us to look beyond these rather crude stereotypes of demented dictators and bloodthirsty revolutionaries. Supporters and opponents of the French Revolution all saw it as the beginning of a new world. In 1856 the French historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville, discussing the contents of the cahiers de doléance – lists of grievances that each locality sent to the Estates General convened in 1789 – commented that the sum total of these complaints and demands amounted to nothing less than “the wholesale and systematic abolition of all the laws and all the current practices in the country”.
With the events of 1789 and after, it seemed to many that this “wholesale and systematic abolition” was coming to pass. The revolution was a literal Year Zero, as enshrined in the Revolutionary Calendar introduced in 1793: it began with the foundation of the First French Republic, in September 1792.
Eric Hazan’s A People’s History of the French Revolution falls firmly into the latter camp in its interpretation and presentation of the events from the late 1780s to the fall of the Jacobins, in 1794. In this engaging account, Hazan, a founder of the radical Parisian publisher La Fabrique, ably conveys the tumult, excitement and danger of this crucial historical event.
This book is very much a people’s history. The big names in revolutionary France – the likes of Mirabeau, Marat, Danton and Robespierre – are prominent players, as one might expect. But it is “the people” who are the beating heart of the book. Throughout, the stories and revolutionary experiences of peasants, workers, soldiers, women and sans-culottes are interwoven with the debates and discussions taking place among the leaders of the revolution, whether in the National Assembly or the Committee of Public Safety, which controlled France from September 1793 to July 1794.
In this respect Hazan is the latest in a long line of historians of the revolution who have given considerable prominence to the central role, both literal and ideological, of le peuple, the mythical “people”, in French revolutionary and republican history. But Hazan is equally careful to acknowledge and explore the diversity of the amorphous mass of individuals often lumped together as the people and to highlight the limits of citizenship in revolutionary France.
He reminds his readers that, in spite of the omnipresent revolutionary rhetoric of fraternal unity, the revolution often excluded as much as it included. He uses the example of the exclusion of freed slaves in the French colonies, actors and Jews from citizenship in the early years of the revolution. It was not until 1791, for example, that all French Jews were awarded full citizenship rights.
There was no question whatsoever, in spite of their attempts to organise themselves and their activism on issues like the regulation of food prices, of admitting French women to the ranks of citizens.
Hazan is at his best when discussing popular revolutionary ferment and its outlets: the press, the political clubs and street agitation – not just in Paris but also in other French cities, such as Lyons and Marseilles. This is, perhaps, unsurprising given the nature of Hazan’s previous work. His most successful book to date, The Invention of Paris (2009), is a wonderfully evocative history of the city written from street level, examining Paris’s quartiers from a popular perspective.
This is an unashamedly left-wing history of the French Revolution, and Hazan is explicit about this in the book’s preface, where he expresses his hope that it will “stoke a flare of revolutionary enthusiasm”. He rejects the tendency to divide the revolution into good (everything up to the September Massacres of 1792) and bad (the guillotine and the Terror). Instead his approach reflects the argument made in 1891 by Georges Clemenceau, future president of the French republic, that “the revolution is a whole”.
of Robespierre Hazan presents a rather different version of revolutionaries who are often caricatured as madmen or bloodthirsty dictators – most notably
of Maximilien Robespierre. Controversy still surrounds Robespierre’s legacy, as seen in late 2013 when a French facial-reconstruction specialist presented a pockmarked, thick-set bust that he claimed was the “true face” of the revolutionary.
Many historians reacted angrily, not just to the impossibility of such a reconstruction – Robespierre’s body was buried in quicklime after his execution – but also to what they saw, in this “true face”, as yet another attempt to smear the reputation of both Robespierre and the revolution.
Recent work on Robespierre, such as Ruth Scurr’s 2006 biography Fatal Purity and Peter McPhee’s Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (2012), has sought to explore this figure, so often denounced as the architect of terror, in a more nuanced, human way. Hazan is no different. The Robespierre that appears in A People’s History is not a bloodthirsty maniac but a man driven by the idea of absolute equality, speaking in favour of giving citizenship to excluded groups like Jews and supporting the abolition of slavery well before it became law, in 1794.
Hazan does not excuse the violence that occurred in France during the period often described as the Terror but argues instead for the importance of setting it in its proper historical context: an extreme response to extreme times.
Some small changes might have made the book as accessible and enjoyable as possible for a general English-speaking audience. Certain parts of A People’s History still bear the hallmarks of having been written in French for a French readership, for whom names like Charlotte Corday and terms like the Estates General are at least vaguely familiar from school. At times one feels that, in translating the book into English, a little more context for the events – especially those before the revolution – and information about some of the figures mentioned in the text would have been helpful in allowing it to speak to as wide an audience as possible.
David Fernbach’s translation is generally good, but some unfamiliar terms for a general English-speaking readership are left in French without being explained, such as to the Archevêché, the Archbishop’s Palace in Paris. But these do not detract from the strength of Hazan’s narrative.
The book concludes with a call to recognise the sheer radicalism of the French Revolution at its height and to take inspiration from the sense of possibility shared by the members of the National Assembly and the Convention and the revolutionary people in the streets.
Eric Hazan’s history of the French Revolution is thus both an evocative narrative of a fascinating period and a passionate argument for the continued relevance of the revolution and its lessons.
Laura O’Brien teaches modern European history at the University of Sunderland