THE FRENCH REVOLUTION: Reviewed...
Was the French Revolution the best way to remove the oppressions of the Old Regime and to bring democracy to France? These days few - even in France -
seem to question that it was. But as in the proverbial sausage whose making should not be examined by those who eat it, close examination of the random
massacres, arbitrary charges, rampant destruction, etc. that in the short term resulted in... an empire, followed by a Restoration, might leave some doubts. Especially since England's democracy seems to have been firmly established earlier, and with far less death and destruction.
All this has no doubt been the subject of much discussion and debate, academic and otherwise. The latest entry comes from a review in the New York Times
this past Sunday of two new books on the Revolution:
David Andress, THE TERROR: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary
France, 441 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Ruth Scurr, FATAL PURITY: Robespierre and the French Revolution. 408 pp.
David Gilmour, the reviewer, makes his position plain from the start:
Between 1789 and 1958 France had more revolutions and changes of regime than any other nation in recent history. Its people were forced to endure two empires, three monarchies and five republics, in addition to a consulate, two directories and the ignoble government of Vichy... The
revolutionary slogan — "liberty, equality, fraternity" — ... encapsulated neither a truth nor an achievement. Liberty was not accorded to anyone who
criticized the revolution; fraternity was less prevalent than fratricide; and equality before the law had little meaning when no one, aristocrat, bourgeois or peasant, could hope for a fair trial. As Simon Schama wrote in Citizens,his vast and brilliant chronicle of the period, violence, not ideology, was the real motor of the Revolution.
By Gilmour's account Andress' book lays all this out in rather horrifying detail: "Nor does he shrink from the horrors of revolutionary repression,
describing in detail the executions of some 50,000 people by guillotine, shooting, mass drowning and even artillery fire" and yet.... defends the Revolution:
Andress generally aligns himself with the revolutionaries. He has little sympathy for the pathetic king; he claims that the men who attacked his palace and slaughtered his Swiss Guards were patriots, not a rabble; and he exhorts us "to maintain a sense of proportion" when considering the quantity of victims of the Terror. When writing about the September Massacres, in which perhaps 1,500 people were butchered in the Parisian prisons, he reminds us that these murders were committed at a time of "grave national peril," when there was much "fear of internal subversion," excuses that apologists for Stalin, Franco and other ruthless dictators have employed to justify their crimes.
Turning to Robespierre, he sums up Scurr's position as "reminiscent of the traditional gauchiste view of the Incorruptible: he was pure, he loved the
common people, he embodied the Revolution. What did it matter if a few people were wrongly sent to the guillotine?" Though he does say that "Scurr is too good and scrupulous a historian to try to absolve Robespierre of deeds like the persecution of the Dantonists and the Law of 22 Prairial, which made it
possible to execute a poor seamstress for exclaiming "A fig for the nation!"
And was all this worth it? Wasn't the ultimate effect of the Revolution, not only on France but on Europe, a profound and positive one? Gilmour's
Most of the positive aspects of 1789-95 had either been secured already by the English and American revolutions or evolved from them later on. France too could in due course have enjoyed the benefits of democracy without resorting to the guillotine, the Napoleonic Wars and the uprisings of 1830, 1848 and 1871... In fact the Revolution was the fount and origin not of our world but of the totalitarian era, an inspiration to future dictators who could adopt Rousseau's theory of the General Will as an excuse to avoid democracy and who could label their opponents counterrevolutionaries as an excuse to murder them without trial.
No one, I think, will accuse Gilmour of timidity. Readers' responses in the coming week should be well worth reading as well.