Thoughts on reading Jonathan Israel: On the origins of the French Revolution

Never one to hide his light under a bushel, Jonathan Israel comes out swinging in his recent work, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the ‘Rights of Man’ to Robespierre (Oxford and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).  As stated in the Introduction and restated frequently throughout, Israel’s goal is to prove that, contrary to the work of virtually every historian of the French Revolution, no one has yet understood its origins.  This situation leaves us in terrible straits, he claims, “with an uncommonly urgent need for some very sweeping and drastic revision” (p. 29).  The Revolution was not caused by social, economic, political, or cultural forces but rather by intellectual trends:  dangerous ideas foisted on the French by the most radical and anti-establishmentarian of the eighteenth-century philosophes. As he states: “Neither classical republicanism . . . nor Rousseau’s deism underpinned the democratic thrust behind the most comprehensively radical and revolutionary writings of the late eighteenth century.  The true underpinning was the confident secularism pronouncing philosophical reason the engine of universal human emancipation deriving from the encyclopédistes and, earlier still from the radical thinkers of the late seventeenth-century Enlightenment.” To prove this point, Israel enlists a massive array of evidence but it all winds down to a list of ten books, of “the major textual sources that shaped this democratic republican political culture after 1750″ (707).

Among the Top Ten are: 1. Diderot’s political articles and exposition of the volonté générale in the Encyclopédie; 2) Rousseau’s Discourses and Social Contract; 3) the Histoire philosophique (1770); 4) D’Holbach’s La Politique naturelle (1773); 5) D’Holbach’s Système social (1773); 6) Helvétius’s De L’homme (1773), and 7-8) Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) and Age of Reason (1793) along with 9) Condorcet’s political writings, and 10) Volney’s Les Ruines (1791) (707).

Although there is much to admire in Revolutionary Ideas, this central argument grates.  I wondered at first if it was only me.  But since reviewing the book a couple months ago, I have had the interesting experience of finding yet more scholars whose claims on the “origins of the French Revolution” Israel should have consulted before throwing his opinions into the world.

In my review, I point out that despite the vehemence of his argumentation, Israel’s  claims on the readability and powerful impact of philosophical texts such as Rousseau’s Social Contract are erroneous.*  There is a well-documented, deeply  thoughtful body of scholarship on the whole “history of audience reactions to The Social Contract” issue; one need only think of the findings that great historian-critics such as Robert Darnton and Daniel Mornet showed us years ago, on the reading tastes of eighteenth-century Frenchmen.  It all discounts Israel’s claims.

And just last week I found more evidence that runs counter to Israel’s claims, in the fascinating work on economics in the eighteenth century.  It would have been good if Israel had thought to read Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (2008), as well.  Ferguson claims that, instead of Rousseau or D’Holbach, it was the early eighteenth-century financier and one-time Controller General of France, John Law, who caused the French Revolution.   As he writes, “John Law was not only responsible for the first true boom and bust in asset prices, he also may be said to have caused, indirectly, the French Revolution by comprehensively blowing the best chance that the ancien régime monarchy had to reform its finances” (126).

Hmmm…   what to think?

* Review of Politics, forthcoming, Spring 2015 Volume 77 Issue 2

On money, assignats, Benjamin … and a Valentine’s day suggestion

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I’ve started thinking and reading a lot about economics in the 1700s, and the meaning of money, credit, work, in the eighteenth century and revolutionary era.  A friend in South Bend, Jeff Schneider, is actually a member of the Bank Note Society and has been generously giving me assignats for a few years now, knowing that I show them around in my classes.  Students love seeing this old money.. They are so interesting!  (And apparently not terribly expensive, if you are looking for a Valentine’s gift for your favorite revolutionary.)

For the aficionados of assignats, here is a link Jeff S. passed along; it is extremely detailed and impressive,   http://assignat.fr/

Now, if I could just get my hands on some billets de banque from the Law Scheme…

Work in progress:  “Did the ‘Ill Wind’ Blow No Good?  The Law Scheme in French Economics, Linterature, and Art, 1721-31,” for the special no. of L’Esprit créateur issue on “Paris’s Imagined Capital: Early Capitalism and Modernity in France (17th-19th centuries).”  Thinking about money changes everything.  Hmmm.

Here is a less-quoted epigram by Walter Benjamin:

“A descriptive analysis of bank notes is needed.  The unlimited satirical force of such a book would be equaled only by its objectivity.  For nowhere more naively than in these documents does capitalism display itself in solemn earnest.”

Benjamin, “Tax Advice”

(Thanks to Marc Shell’s fabulous book Art and Money, for that must-quote.)

More to come!  Anybody else out there inspired by Thomas Piketty and the Hoffman, Postel-Vinay, Rosenthal team?–Capital in the 21st Century and Priceless Markets are well worth the sometime technical language for the parts about French literature, art, culture.  Piketty does a better job on César Birotteau.   But Priceless Markets was so surprising to read; I feel like I learned a ton from watching the way they think.  Their attitude on the Revolution was very unlike most of what I’ve read to date!

Crime or revolution?

While browsing through a Paris used book store in October, I stumbled upon an odd little reference book called Le Crime et la criminologie.  This quirky taxonomy of crimes is extremely well documented, which allows readers to appraise the state of European social science research circa 1960.  Particularly curious for me were articles on “astuce,” victimology, and the mindboggling variety of swindling schemes. Also intriguing is the article “Economic factor” and this  pithy definition of revolution:

“Prepared in advance, organized as well as possible, and executed by the mass of working people in an open and audacious manner, it is called Revolution; but if it is carried out by one or some individuals in haste, with fear and in the dark of night or benefiting from chance circumstances; it is called crime.”

I think this is food for thought, especially given recent efforts–in Spain and echoed in the USA–to project Lenin as a role model for modern youth.  https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/pablo-iglesias-podemos-left-speech/ *

Just as a revolt does not a revolution make; the slogan “bread and peace” is more ominous than some folks may recall.
____________________________________________________________________________________

“Préparée à l’avance, organisée autant que possible, et exécuté par toute la masse ouvrière d’une façon ouverte et audacieuse, elle s’appelle Révolution; mais exécuté par un ou quelques individus de façon hâtive, avec peur et sous l’ombre de la nuit ou des circonstances propices: elle s’appelle crime.”   Yamarellos et G. Kellens, Le Crime et la criminologie, 2 vols. (Verviers, Belgium: Marabout Université, 1970), 177.

*Thanks to Dave Andress for bringing the Jacobin article to our attention.  As he notes: “Is it conceivable he thinks Lenin won an election, as opposed to closing down the 1918 Constituent Assembly by force on the first day it met?”

On Eric Hazan, French turmoil, and doing something to keep the spirit of 1789 alive

Check out the latest interview with Eric Hazan on the Verso website, then read on.

What can you say of a man whose work is sometimes inspiring, and whom you’d like to admire for his long and principled life, but …  I have to admit I have a problem with people like Hazan who don’t vote and claim it is some sort of civic act.  Or incite people to think of making others “vanish.”  Revolution did happen so you could vote! And so we could avoid violence in public affairs.   Democracy demands that we believe it matters, remain informed, and make elections count. France does have deliberative processes by which change can happen without violence. When Hazan speaks of “thinking about the means of insurrection,” and dismisses the ‘intermediate stages’ such as “election of a constituent assembly etc.,” what exactly is he encouraging?   The ambiguity is irresponsible.

After reading the Verso interview, I think it only fair to give a “tip of the hat” to a group in France which is trying to bring about change from within the system, using the tools inherited from the revolutionary past, for the better.  They are called Association pour une Constituante:  www.pouruneconstituante.fr .

A personal note:  My admiration for the ideals of the Fr Rev (plus having kids come of age) has led me to start teaching a weekly class of writing for children, which I’ve been doing since 2012. It seems so puny and insignificant next to the “revolutionaries” calling for “insurrection” or “vanishing” of institutions.  But equality is my personal dream, and giving underprivileged kids a way to speak and be somebody is my chosen method.  My wish for all of us is peace, and to have a chance.   What is yours, readers?

Eric Hazan and Sebastian Budgen respond to David Bell

I keep going back to this piece because it makes for riveting reading, so I’ll pass along the tip to you here.
Eric Hazan, French writer and activist, published A People’s History of the French Revolution, and it appears that Prof. Bell did not approve.

Thanks to Dave Andress and his blog: The French Revolution Network, for bringing us up to speed on controversies among French historians such as this one.
I felt sort of sad to hear Princeton’s History department skewered for being right wing and out of touch, because in my day it was probably the best department at Princeton, with faculty such as Natalie Zemon Davis, Robert Darnton, Jerrold Seigel, Christine Stansell, and sometimes Joan Scott from the Institute.

The Politics of Revolutionary Art Today: what news is really newsworthy?

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Today’s New York Times carries two splashy articles of interest to revolution-watchers, but a third, short piece buried in section C makes the most useful commentary on the way things are. The first article details the backlash of the Parisian intelligentsia to a new video game set during the French Revolution; the second article reviews Jennifer Lawrence’s role as leader of a people’s revolt in the Hunger Games series (Mocking Jay, Part One). Neither of them will surprise you much. The video game has incited anger because of its inaccurate portrayal of the Revolution, and especially its sympathetic depiction of the royal Bourbons. Reporter Dan Bilefsky suggests that such outrage is misplaced, given other more important issues facing the country, and dismisses the whole event in ironic ridicule, announcing: “only in France could a video game provoke an earnest philosophical debate over the decadence of the monarchy, the moral costs of democracy, the rise of the far right, and the meaning of the state.” Describing the sequel to the Hunger Games franchise, Manohla Dargis notes that the heroine’s “very survival has made her an existential threat to Panem” and that her bellicose actions in this installment “serve as a rebuke to the Capitol,” until the end at least. It appears that the film winds down to a rote handling of gender and war, where “Katniss Everdeen stands gaping at the rescue, with widening and watering eyes.” If it is unsurprising that an American reporter would scoff at the French outrage over the memory of the First Republic, it is also unsurprising that a Hollywood film would treat its heroine like “the girl.” Both media, the snide NYT reporting on French culture and politics, and the Hollywood film industry’s treatment of young women, can be counted on to perpetuate those stereotypes.

HAACKE-GALLERY6-superJumboFor a bracing wake-up call on the people’s power to change the world (or rather our impotence), readers have to look a little deeper into the paper. I suggest you look into the work of Hans Haacke, reviewed by Ken Johnson on page C24. Haacke’s work foregrounds the role of money, notably the money of the billionaire Koch brothers, who have helped conservative causes rise to unprecedented prominence in American affairs. It does so by making novel use of artistic media, such as the 13-foot-tall “Gift Horse” sculpture (soon to be displayed in Trafalgar Square in London), whose leg is harnessed to the London Stock Exchange. Or consider “Circulation,” which operates through a system of transparent tubes piping water–and power–across the gallery floor. As Johnson notes, this kind of art provides “sane thinking about the real world and its interwoven systems.”
Haacke’s exhibit at the Paula Cooper gallery is unlikely to lull observers into a feel-good sense of our superiority. It will most likely gnaw at your consciousness by reminding you of your insignificance.

And for that reason, exactly, it deserves our attention.

The Reason for their Success (of New York and of the French Revolution): Taking Care of Land and Water, Together

The success of New York city may seem unrelated to the success of the French Revolution. But the central reason for the former (according to Russell Shorto’s article in today’s NYT)—that stewardship over the land and water are crucial to the creation of a cohesive, successful community—is also a cornerstone of the latter.

The source of New York’s greatness, according to Shorto, is a tolerant spirit and an entrepreneurial energy married to a collective concern for the water and land of the island. As he writes: “The Dutch [founders of New Amsterdam] maintained the balance between the individual and the collective out of necessity, for water management continued — and continues to this day — to be vital to protecting their country. Funnily enough, because of climate change, the rest of us are all in that same place today. We don’t just need to rebuild infrastructure to guard against flooding. We need to embrace concepts like regional planning, to acknowledge that there are issues in which individual and even municipal autonomy have to be sacrificed to the greater good.”

What is the connection to the French Revolution? I would have been stymied to explain, had I not spent the weekend in the company of an excellent guide: Jean-Laurent Rosenthal‘s book, The Fruits of Revolution: Property Rights, Litigation, and French Agriculture, 1700-1860 (Cambridge UP, 1992).

Rosenthal explains that medieval institutions were remarkably resistant to change, because the people involved—that is, the individuals, groups, and the king—would have had to bear the redistributional consequences of land and property reform. And they preferred not to. Despite the efforts by King Louis XVI and his ministers, nothing changed…. until 1789.

“The high degree of uncertainty in Old Regime property rights ensured that, in the absence of reform, conflicts over the ownership and control of land and water would no doubt have continued to monopolize the energies and resources of landowners. Because of the very uncertainty of property rights, however, reform could not have occurred without dramatic redistribution. Since redistribution of property was contingent on political change, it is impossible to separate the Revolution’s economic reforms from the Revolution itself” (179). So it was worth it, for the good results produced by the Revolution could not have come about any other way.

The Dutch have known it since time immemorial. The inhabitants of New York realized it in the 17th century. The French were forced to admit it in the 19th century. And the rest of the Western world is now waking up to the fact today: we will not survive unless we work together to protect our land and natural resources. How can such a mentality take hold? Through an engaged citizenry who can see beyond private interest for the public good. Are we ready for that challenge? One can only hope…

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