Few events have so fascinated historians as the French Revolution. How could such a momentous and frightening experience, leading to the public execution of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror, be explained? Jonathan Israel’s bold thesis is that, for the most part, the views of contemporary historians are “fundamentally incorrect”. The “strangest misconceptions” and “utterly unfounded myths” plague their accounts. There is, he therefore concludes, “an uncommonly urgent need for some very sweeping and drastic revision”.
The culprits are easy to identify. They are those historians — the late François Furet would be the prime example — who have recently argued that dictatorship was implicit in the Revolution from its beginings and thus that the Terror was not an accidental phase or deviation from the Revolution’s true goal but its most complete expression. On this view, and as many a 19th-century writer also observed, the Revolution died when Robespierre died, for he, more than anyone else, gave voice to its most authentic message.
Jonathan Israel will have none of this. Robespierre, he writes, was not the icon of the Revolution but its contradiction. Like the Terror itself, he stood for the general suppression of all the Revolution’s essential principles. Under his leadership, Jacobin ideology was a form of “moral puritanism steeped in authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, and xenophobia”. As such, it was a prefiguration of modern fascism.
But this raises the question of what the essential principles of the Revolution were. Israel is unambiguous in his reply. The French Revolution, he believes, was three revolutions in one. There was first a revolution which, drawing inspiration from Montesquieu and the British model, aspired to create a constitutional monarchy; second, a democratic republican revolution; and third, the revolution of Robespierre’s authoritarian populism. These three distinct positions were politically and ideologically incompatible and fought ferociously for supremacy throughout the revolutionary decade; but, Israel contends, it was the second that from 1788 onwards shaped the basic values of the Revolution and that constitutes the Revolution’s true legacy.
Anyone already familiar with Israel’s work will easily guess where this argument is coming from. In a series of monumental volumes stretching back to 1995, Israel has traced the evolution of a body of thought he has defined as the Radical Enlightenment. From Pierre Bayle and Benedict Spinoza onwards, this tradition challenged ecclesiastical authority and defended freedom of conscience and expression, doing battle with both the forces of reaction and with Enlightenment moderates prepared to make compromises with the powers that be. Not unimportantly, Israel’s is also an account that places Jean-Jacques Rousseau as an impassioned adversary of Enlightenment.
Who then were the advocates of the authentic Revolution? Men such as the Abbé Sieyès, Mirabeau and, above all, the philosopher Condorcet, who saw that a democratic republican revolution was only possible once the people had been educated. What were its core values? Reason, equality, human rights, freedom of expression and the sovereignty of the people. How were these expressed? In the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 and the democratic constitution of 1793.
In sum, the French Revolution was “the first sustained attempt to establish a secular, educated, welfare-oriented, human-rights based modernity”. And of course it is this that explains why Israel believes that it has to be defended from its many critics, past and present. The Revolution, he believes, is of unique centrality and relevance to the challenges of our time.
Will this wash? Like all of Israel’s previous volumes, Revolutionary Ideas is a work of astonishing breadth and erudition. If there are some notable omissions from the bibliography, Israel has delved deep into even the most obscure revolutionary pamphlets and publications, rescuing from obscurity men who might better have deserved to be forgotten.
From him we learn that priests were not only unfrocked but forcibly married and that, under threat of imprisonment, Paris bakers were allowed to sell only one kind of bread, le pain d’égalité. The murderous logic of the Terror is explored brilliantly. So too are the exclusion of women from the public realm and the crushing of intellectual dissent. Above all, with typical boldness Israel invites us to reconceptualise our very idea of the Revolution.
The difficulties lie elsewhere. Most obviously, if Israel accepts that there were numerous causes of the Revolution, he has to elevate the ideas of what he calls Radical Enlightenment into its “one ‘big’ cause”. It alone, he writes, “offered a package of values sufficiently universal, secular, and egalitarian to set in motion the forces of a broad, general emancipation based on reason, freedom of thought and democracy”.
And yet, on Israel’s admission, these ideas were either “opposed or uncomprehendingly regarded by most of the population” and even by those who sat in the National Assembly. Despite taking exception to the claim that virtually no one challenged the principle of monarchy in the summer of 1789, he nevertheless writes that “most Frenchmen during the early Revolution assuredly had little thought of rejecting monarchy or embracing revolution.”
So Israel has no alternative but to argue that the Revolution — or at least the “real” Revolution — was the work of what he describes as “the ‘radical’ wing” of a revolutionary leadership firmly committed to republican principles from the outset. If this has the advantage of enabling Israel to explain why the basic values of the Revolution were not consolidated — the Revolution of the Mind was simply outgunned by the populist and Rousseauian Revolution of Virtue — it also sounds implausible.
This account also produces a disconcerting periodisation of the Revolution. According to Israel, the Revolution only gets back on track after the fall of Robespierre, in what is known as the post-Thermidor period of the Directory. This was when the Republic’s commitment to secularism and anti-clericalism again came to the fore. But this is precisely the moment when the Revolution started to turn away from the claims of popular sovereignty and freedom of expression. For all Israel’s praise of Radical Enlightenment, perhaps the two are not unconnected. Revolutionary vanguards have a habit of imposing their views on the ignorant and credulous masses. And there is no doubt as to whose side Jonathan Israel is on.