Sunday, 15 November 2009

A Socialist History of the French Revolution-Jean Jaures -Pluto Press-Abridged -2015- 288 pages- ISBN-13: 978-0745335001

“Every revolutionary party, every oppressed people, every oppressed working class can claim Jaurès, his memory, his example, and his person, for our own” - Leon Trotsky

Despite the passage of time the popularity of the French revolution has not diminished. Aside from the abridged translation of Jean Jaures’s multi-volume Socialist History of the French Revolution, the last decade has seen a significant output from writers like Éric Hazan’s People’s History of the French Revolution (published in French in 2012) and several other high profile books.

The French Revolution was an event of world historical importance. It would not be an overstatement to say that it changed not only European history but world history. The Revolution also changed the way future generations saw revolutions. Historians still argued about the processes of historical change that were thrown up by the revolution.

This new abridged version of the writings of Jean Jaures painstakingly put together by translator Mitchell Abidor is a welcome addition to an already crowded market. Jaures’s original work filled several volumes.

Jaurès was born in Castres in Midi-Pyrénées in 1859. He became a leading international socialist who was later assassinated for opposing the first world war. He was also the celebrated leader of the French Socialist Party leader. His history of the revolution was published in 1914.

His work has stayed fresh and has endured the rigors of time. It is one of the most important and influential accounts of the French Revolution. Mitchell Abidor’s much-anticipated translation brings Jaures’s work to an English audience for the first time. Jaures application of the historical materialism method will help students, academics, and the public to a greater understanding of this complex event.

Jaures account of the revolution is not without controversy. Throughout his work on the revolution, he defended Robespierre’s reputation.

Jaures believed that Robespierre acted out of necessity and in the words of one writer “to save the new republic from its enemies. Robespierre, like Jaurès after him, was anti-militarist and argued passionately against war with Europe in 1792.

Jaures use of narrative history makes his work very readable without lowering political or academic standards. Despite Jaures concern to portray ordinary people in his work this is not a “history from below”.

Despite the working class appearing on the scene, Jaures was careful enough not to portray this revolution as a proletarian revolution while the working class may have stormed the bastille this was firmly a revolution in the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

Per Jaures “The Revolution's origins were so profoundly bourgeois that a few weeks after July 14, when the National Assembly, freed by the people from the court's attacks, set up the electoral regime and excluded millions of the working poor from the vote... not even the most democratic of them remembered that at the Bastille the workers of Paris had conquered the title of active citizens for the poor of France.[1]

Jaurès continues “that the proletarians were neither bold enough, conscious enough, nor organized enough to substitute their revolution for the Revolution, they marched light-heartedly against the chateaux and turned against the ancien régime the weapons they'd seized... We can see that there was a kind of conservative movement of contraction, or tightening, which was followed by a revolutionary expansion. Under the fear of the unknown and before the uprising of the have-nots, the communities of the villages withdrew into themselves, elected men of whom they were sure, established a militia, and, having thus guaranteed the order of property within the Revolution, attacked the feudal system”. The contradiction between the entry of the working class onto the stage of history and the bourgeois nature of the revolution is at the heart of Jaures work on the revolution.

Henry Heller in his introduction is correct in one sense to point out that Jaures saw the French revolution as the first struggle of socialists to overthrow capitalism. Given the abridged nature of the book Heller’s introduction takes a more important role than is normal for an introduction.
As Jaurès writes “Perhaps it wasn't possible for one generation alone to bring down the ancien régime, create new laws and rights, raise an enlightened and proud people from the depths of ignorance, poverty, and misery, fight against an international league of tyrants and slaves, and to put all passions and forces to use in this combat while at the same time ensuring the evolution of the fevered, exhausted country towards normal order and well-ordered freedom”.

The Bourgeois Revolution

Jaures was an astute enough writer to know the French revolution was not a chemically pure revolution. The bourgeoisie was not a homogenous class and was made up of factions who were still integrated into the social and economic structures of the ancient regime.

Other sections of the middle class who were unable to profit under the old regime established new forms of production undertook a revolution to profit from it. As Jean Jaures said the finance bourgeoisie represented a hybrid social force at the crossroads of the ancient regime.

The reaction to the revolution of the European bourgeoisie was one of fear and horror. Best summed up by Edmund Burke “France has always more or less influenced manners in England; and when your fountain is choked up and polluted, the stream will not run long, or not run clear, with us, or perhaps with any nation. This gives all Europe, in my opinion, but too close and connected a concern in what is done in France. Excuse me, therefore, if I have dwelt too long on the atrocious spectacle of the 6th of October, 1789, or have given too much scope to the reflections which have arisen in my mind on occasion of the most important of all revolutions, which may be dated from that day, I mean a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions”.[2]

The French revolution was the catalyst for national revolutions to follow. The 18th century was a century of crises for various European regimes. The French revolution was not the only one to take place, i.e. the French heavily influenced the American Revolution. Therefore, it is not surprising that this time was called “The age of democratic revolutions”.

Having said this the bourgeoisie in France and in Europe for that matter were not opposed to scupper democratic norms when they got in the way of making money.

As the Marxist writer, Ann Talbot shows us “The imperatives of private property and profit were not about to stand still, and the Jacobins had no alternative form of social organization to offer. Robespierre did not need to imagine conspiracies. They arose in plenty. Just across the Channel, the emerging capitalist power of Britain could afford to finance the armies of the surviving ancien regimes and uprisings such as that in the province of La Vendée. The domestic opposition was produced by the war profiteers and grain merchants, who exploited the continuing shortages of grain”.

Jaures was clear that this most dramatic of revolution was certainly the most politically significant within Europe. While there are some parallels with the English revolution this was unlike any other previous revolution.

In Britain and America Tom Paine was an extremist in France he was a moderate. Per Ann Talbot “Paine’s life story reflects the experience of a new social type: self-educated men from poor backgrounds who were making their way in industry, science and, in Paine’s case, politics. He was the most brilliant example of this new phenomenon. The country of which he had become a citizen was menaced from within by aristocratic conspiracies and from without by aggressive neighbors, as intent on furthering their own interests as restoring the ancient regime. France was isolated; its economy and currency were collapsing. These facts colored the history of the revolution. The French revolutionaries were increasingly forced to create an emergency wartime regime and take drastic measures. The Great Terror grew out of the Great Fear".[3]

Reasons for revolution

Like many things regarding the French revolution, the reason for its outbreak has little or no agreement amongst historians.

The crisis began in 1787 the trigger being the king's attempt to stop state bankruptcy. Coupled with this was the fact that France had been involved in a significant number of wars on an international scale.

Deregulation of agriculture began to hit the poor the most. Hostility against the excess of the clergy and the nobility who had creamed off most of the money. The advent of the humanist and scientific development produced the ground for the philosophers to challenge the monarchy. Many thinkers came from the bourgeoisie who sought to undermine the aristocracy.

The position of the peasantry had been growing worse for over 20 years. France had run up huge debts during the war in America. The Revolution was started by the assembly of notables demanded an extension of their privileges. The revolution was not led by a formal political party with a systematic program. The revolution did have a striking consensus amongst its leader’s. At its heart was a new capitalist class, who had enlightened thinkers who were confident of their ideas. Although the revolution would have happened without them. They made sure that when the regime broke down something could replace it.

Their demands were laid down in the declaration of the rights of man, men are born equal but some are more equal to paraphrase George Orwell. Their regime would, however, constitute the will of the people and to represent the French nation. A national assembly was constituted to enshrine the power of this new class. Absolutism was at an end, Mirabeau was to declare to the king “sire, you are a stranger in this assembly, you have not the right to speak here”[4]. The new assembly had a broad base and represented the laboring masses and peasantry.

A Bad harvest had turned things nasty and open revolt occurred. The king refused to accept the status quo’ the next stage of the revolution saw the storming of the Bastille. July 14. What began as peasant uprising sparked a wider movement? Feudalism was abolished in1793; the middle class finally consolidated its regime.

The middle class had to deal with both the conservative right and left-wing who were determined to pursue their own agenda? This brought two groups to the fore, the Jacobeans and the Sansculottes both represented the small middle class. Small farmer’s artisans whom were being squeezed by the new larger middle class. The sharp changes brought about in France stirred fervent actions outside its borders, as monarchies grew fearful that it could be repeated elsewhere. The purpose of the revolution was to usher in a new class.

The bourgeoisie, however, unstable this was to be the subsequent revolutions were an attempt by the various contending factions to gain power at this the working class did not constitute and independent class yet sided and was led by one section of the middle class. In much respect, the history of this revolution determined the history of Europe.

HISTORIOGRAPHY – Classical and revisionists

It is not within the realm of this review to discuss every single revisionist trend about the revolution. There is a similar theme amongst all of them in that the French revolution was not a bourgeois revolution.

Eric Hazan, author of numerous books of the revolutions in France claims that Marxist historians have exaggerated the presence of the bourgeoisie in France “In their struggle against the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary peasants and sans-culottes were working against the grain of history as they opposed the establishment of capitalism.”

Hazan continues “that the words “bourgeois” and “bourgeoisie” were rare in late-18th-century France: “I have found ‘the rich’, ‘hoarders’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘plotters’, ‘mono­polists’, ‘rogues’, ‘rentiers’, but scarcely a single ‘bourgeois’.” He concludes that the question “Was the revolution bourgeois or not?” does not mean anything.[5]

Amongst the more classically minded historians was Alfred Cobban (24 May 1901-1 April 1968) also opposed a historical materialist understanding of the French revolution. Amongst the historians of the French classical school like Cobban wrote an article entitled the Myth of the French revolution Basic premise was to deny the anti-feudal and bourgeoisie nature of revolution. the Revolution saw the revolution as the high point of the Enlightenment.

Albert Soboul sought to defend a materialist method of understanding the cause of the French revolution. He believed that even within the liberal school of historians the revolution was a social act that paved the way for the bourgeoisie to come to power. That the revolution had been prepared ideologically had prepared its ideas, which undermined the existing feudal regime.


Per Lefebvre “Without scholarship there is no history”. It is clear the revolution itself was the result of complex changes in inside France and Europe. Each generation of historians has added immense understanding to this event.

It also must be stated that the attack on a historical materialist understanding of the revolution has done great damage. Despite this, there will be a thirst in the coming period for a materialist understanding of past revolutionary events.

In this context, the work by translator Mitchell Abidor should be a tremendous service to increasing one’s knowledge of the complex historical event. While the problem with any abridgment is that it must m choose what to leave out, it will hopefully push readers into reading far more on the subject than they had intended which mean that some readers might want to read further on the Revolution.

Jaurès “We will not mock the men of the Revolution who read Plutarch’s Lives. It’s certain that the great burst of inner energy Plutarch inspired in them did little to change the march of events, but at least the men of the Revolution remained upright in the storm.” To judge them as if they should have brought the drama to a close as if history was not going to continue after them, is both childish and unjust. Their work was necessarily limited, but it was great.”

This book deserves a wide readership. Hopefully, it gets the readers it deserves.


2.       Jean Léon Jaurès (full name Auguste Marie Joseph Jean Léon Jaurès; 3 September 1859 – 31 July 1914) was a French Socialist leader.
3.       Citizen of the world: a brief survey of the life and times of Thomas Paine (1737-1809) By Ann Talbot30 September 2004
4.       “Edmund Burke was a Whig politician and political propagandist. He was a friend of Paine’s. Paine had often dined with him and wrote to him enthusiastically while on a brief trip to France. Burke had spent most of his political life on what would be thought of, in modern terms, as the left of politics. If he had died at 60, history would have remembered him as a radical who supported enfranchising Catholics and dissenters, wanted home rule for Ireland, opposed slavery, impeached Warren Hastings for plundering India, favoured Parliamentary reform, attacked governmental corruption, tried to curb the power of the monarchy, and backed the American Revolution. But during his 61st year, Burke wrote Reflections on the French Revolution, the book on which his reputation rests, and in which he denounced every principle of the revolution and the Enlightenment, especially social equality. He particularly feared its internationalism. He would, he said, “abandon his best friends and join with his worst enemies,” to prevent the contagion of French ideas spreading to Britain. And this was exactly what he did. He split the Whigs and broke with the friends of a lifetime who continued to support the French Revolution. Paine was one of them”.
6.       J. Meyer, Colbert (1981)
7.       “In 1954, Alfred Cobban used his inaugural lecture as Professor of French History at the University of London to attack what he called the "social interpretation" of the French Revolution. The lecture was later published as "The Myth of the French Revolution", but his seminal work arguing this point was The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1963). The main point he made was that feudalism had long since disappeared in France; that the Revolution did not transform French society, and that it was principally a political revolution, not a social one as Lefebvre and others” insisted

[1] Jean Jaurès, History of the French Revolution. 1901-
[2] Reflections on the Revolution in France-Burke
[3] Citizen of the world: a brief survey of the life and times of Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
By Ann Talbot -8 June 2009-
[4] Age of Revolution: 1789-1848- By Eric Hobsbawm
[5] France's left will never accept the revolution is over-Ruth Scurr-
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