Talking Point with Patrice Gueniffey – One more nail in the coffin of the French Revolution

Author(s) : GUENIFFEY Patrice
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A few years ago now, I noted in the preface to a new edition of Jaques Bainville’s Napoléon, that books can often age rather quickly, and badly at that. The passing of time is not always kind. Many books disappear, some become themselves historical documents, marked by the concerns of their times, or they speak a language no longer relevant to later ages. Bainville was conscious of this and remarked that, in the writing of history, every generation likes to use its own words.

Talking Point with Patrice Gueniffey – One more nail in the coffin of the French Revolution

Annie Jourdan’s Nouvelle histoire de la Révolution (A New history of the French Revolution, Flammarion, 2018) is in another world: that of books which, though the ink is barely dry, have already become a historical object. She tells the history of the Revolution using the words and ideas of yesterday.

It is a worthy enterprise, to be sure, since the aim is nothing less than the bringing back to life of a dead mythology. Nowhere anymore is the revolution a hoped-for event. The failure of every single revolutionary experience, without exception, and finally the inglorious collapse of communism killed an idea which nevertheless filled two centuries of our history.

The actors of the French Revolution, who inspired such passions on both sides, have faded like old photographs. Gone are Mirabeau, Barnave, Brissot, Danton, Desmoulins and the rest. Only Robespierre and Marat have escaped the march of forgetting. The former because he has been forever identified, rightly or wrongly, with “the Terror”, and the latter because he gave a style to an old French hobbyhorse, namely, envy and resentment. As for the rest, Charlotte Corday has won. As has Marie-Antoinette. And have the Vendéens. Even the remembrance of 1789 is not what it was. History is not always fair. That’s how it is.

Annie Jourdan, who was better inspired when she wrote on the “Monuments de la gloire” and on the Batavian Revolution, is indignant about this. In her desire to save what’s left of the heritage of the Revolution – and probably because soon there’ll be nothing left of that great event which relatively recently was still celebrated as the re-beginning of history and the starting point of a democratic process still awaiting completion – she goes at it hammer and tongs.

As for the tone, her history belongs to the 1970s (at the latest), a time when the Revolution possessed simple charms: the good guys on one side, forced by their enemies to perform unpleasant deeds, and the “bad hombres” on the other, who got precisely what they deserved. The “people” on one side, the “aristocrats” on the other. The class struggle leading to a civil war. This thesis has had some illustrious proponents since Louis Blanc, beginning with Georges Lefebvre. But not everyone can be Georges Lefebvre, not even Albert Soboul. Annie Jourdan is interested in the “people”. She mistakes a rhetorical figure for a sociological reality. Neither Lefebvre nor Soboul would have been so ingenuous. But Annie Jourdan cares nothing for nuances. The “people” exists, not because it thinks or desires, but because it senses and feels. For her, emotions are the prime mover of action. She has read Sophie Wahnich. With this book you suffer, you get angry, you clench your fists, you weep, you hope, you begin to believe, and then finally it all boils over. It has to come out, whether with big cudgel blows or simply needling.

We will never know what the suffering “people” wanted, other than not to suffer any more. This is pure Mélenchon. The same crass expressions, the same poverty of thought. In no way is this paying homage to the Revolution, its greatness, and the inexhaustible richness of its debates.

No time should be spent on this “Nouvelle histoire” — its already old. Passing from the ridiculous, to the grotesque and insignificant, it descends into the appalling when Annie Jourdan compares the assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday to that of the Charlie-Hebdo journalists by the Kouachi brothers.

It is not this book, at any rate, which will resuscitate the remembrance of the French Revolution. This is an old bouquet, and one not even composed of dried flowers. This pointless history has as much charm as the plastic flowers one sees from time to time on a gravestone. In this case, on the one under which lies the corpse of the French Revolution.

Patrice Gueniffey is a historian and director of studies (Directeur d’études) at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS).

9 February 2018 (English translation PH October 2018)

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