Duncan Kelly reviews Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, by Jonathan Israel.
According to this hefty new study of the French Revolution by Jonathan Israel, a professor of history at Princeton, what such events really show is the motivating power of ideas in guiding and transforming events. In his terms, the French Revolution was a “revolution of ideas” before it became “a revolution of fact”; indeed, it was three revolutions all at once.
Ideas about political equality, anticlericalism and modern republicanism grounded in “reason” motivated Radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet and Thomas Paine, while they clashed with the “moderate Enlightenment constitutional monarchism” embodied by more pro-royalist factions (the Feuillants) and aristocratic supporters such as Lafayette. Both struggled against Robespierre’s “authoritarian populism”, which for Israel prefigures modern fascism.
The radical compound in this instance might have been uniquely French but its impact spread widely. The resounding Declaration of the Rights of Man, writes Israel, was a “manifesto entirely incompatible with all ancien régime notions of social, racial, and religious hierarchy”. Revolution lent support to Caribbean struggles for black emancipation such as that of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, memorably described in CLR James’s 1938 classic The Black Jacobins. James’s book, however, is an odd omission in Israel’s otherwise compendious bibliography.
Historians have often criticised Israel for flattening out all the differences between these radical ideas except those he wants to retain and, when applied to the French Revolution, his arguments can feel like the inverse of some 19th-century Marxist schema. Instead of subterranean economic determinations, it is Radical Enlightenment that provides the means by which everything from press freedom to de-Christianisation can be slotted into a matrix requiring little in the way of extra interpretation.
What you get from such a focus on subversive editors, disenchanted priests and materialist philosophers has much in common with a more conventional account: food shortages, public debt crises and social grievances from Paris to the Vendée, combined with a plethora of radical ideas about press freedom, absolute equality, political liberty and radical democracy. Yet the vaulting ambition to ascribe such a momentous transformation to one cause still feels hubristic. The obvious parallel in this year of all years would be the thought that there might be a single idea or singular complex of ideas behind the outbreak of the first world war. Can you imagine such a claim commanding general assent?