In defence of the Jacobins

A review of A People’s History of the French Revolution, by Eric Hazan. A riveting piece of revisionist history by a dyed-in-the-wool communist

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

A People’s History of the French Revolution Eric Hazan, translated by David Fernbach

Verso, pp.368, £20, ISBN: 9781781685891

The French Revolution ushered in not only a revolution of rolling heads but of talking ones too. ‘Speech-making was a new political instrument,’ writes Eric Hazan. ‘The King of France never gave speeches and neither did his ministers.’ Indeed Louis XVI’s lack of eloquence, or more specifically his egregious line of sentimental claptrap, had fatal repercussions for him in the court of public opinion.

He was certainly no Mirabeau, whose speeches, printed in their thousands, were heard right across the country. Travelling in France at the time of the Revolution, the English writer Arthur Young noted how the Parisian coffee houses were alive with speech-making: ‘Expectant crowds are at the doors and windows, listening à gorge déployée to certain orators, who from chairs or tables harangue each his little audience.’

It was in this spirit of self-affirmation that Hazan says societies and local clubs mushroomed in the winter of 1790 and in the same coffee houses that the people who would soon be called the sans-culottes — so named because they wore cloth trousers instead of the silk breeches and stockings of the aristocrats — acquired their political education.

It is this kind of fine eye for the mechanics of the French Revolution that Hazan brings to bear in his riveting popular history. A dyed-in-the-wool communist who was once a ‘suitcase carrier’ for the Algerian FLN, the French-Jewish Hazan makes no bones about his revolutionary partisanship, but he is not a boring dogmatist either. He even finds something nice to say about Edmund Burke, describing Burke’s tone in Reflections on the Revolution in France as ‘poetic, violently conservative and sometimes crude’.

The rhetoric of the French Revolution with its overriding message of equality at any cost is clearly deeply important to Hazan, and he has gone back to the original sources of many of the most telling speeches, such as Robespierre’s Oeuvres Complètes and the Procès-verbaux de la Commune de Paris. Much of the time Hazan lets the Revolution’s protagonists speak for themselves, cleverly interweaving their respective arguments.

It is interesting to note that lawyers were the most prominent group among the intellectuals who played leading roles in the Revolution. Their number included Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins and Vergniaud. There was much sound and no little fury. Not for the last time Hazan quotes the French historian Jules Michelet who got more than he bargained for when he questioned an old man who had come from Bordeaux to Paris in a public coach full of leading Girondists.

‘They were men full of energy and talent,’ the old man said of the Girondists. ‘Yet despite this,’ Michelet wrote, ‘he soon noticed that they were very ignorant, strangely inexperienced and fickle; they were talkers and controversialists, dominated by the habits of the bar, which reduced their invention and initiative.’

All this is given admirable snap and crackle in its English translation by David Fernbach, who also did a good job on Hazan’s previous book, The Invention of Paris, which brought the various strains of the French capital’s revolutionary past vividly to life. Now aged 78, Hazan came to writing history relatively late in life; one suspects that he felt he still had a few revolutionary scores left to settle.

‘Nothing is more absurd than the idea of “Jacobinism” as an authoritarian and meddlesome Paris dictatorship,’ Hazan writes. ‘That is an interpretation handed down by Thermidor, as lasting as hatred of the Revolution.’ Hazan goes on to denounce ‘the heirs of the Thermidorians’ who he accuses of rewriting history in a concerted effort to besmirch the reputations of Marat, Danton, Saint-Just and above all Robespierre.

Tackling Robespierre’s enduring reputation as ‘a blood-drenched tyrant’, Hazan writes that as ‘as far as “tyrant” goes, Robespierre was never a dictator. All the major decisions of the Committee of Public Safety were taken collectively… As for “blood-drenched”, there are many instances when Robespierre intervened to save lives.’

Hazan might have added, but didn’t, that Robespierre’s retrospective shafting was more or less par for the revolutionary course. After all it was Saint-Just and Robespierre who orchestrated their old pal Danton’s trial. Hazan himself describes the accusation against Danton of having been a traitor from the start of the Revolution and the emergency law voted to silence him during his trial as ‘one of the blackest moments in the whole history of the Revolution’.

They were not a pretty bunch by any stretch of the imagination.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • MikeF

    There are some striking parallels between the modern left and the Jacobins. A preponderance of lawyers is one of them. An antipathy to Christianity is another – the Jacobins invented their own religion of a worship of the ‘Supreme Being’, the modern left…well we know what the modern left have done in that regard. Most fundamentally, though, there is the utter authoritarian intolerance that derives from a debased form of Enlightenment rationalism that manifests itself the attempt to create a ‘perfect’ world based on what they regard as abstract principle but which is in reality unrestrained narcissism. Roll on our Thermidor.

    • Kaine

      Nonsense. The idea of social improvement is profoundly Christian, essentially a form of Postmillennialism. This stems from the fact Christianity itself, with its notions of pacifism, universal brotherhood and rejection of temporal power and traditional social structures is a revolutionary creed except in those areas where it is co-opted by the existing power structure.

      Now personally I prefer Odin as a role model, but the proletarian from Nazareth had some good points,as every British socialist from Tressell to Benn has attested.

      • MikeF

        The left doesn’t like the idea that any other belief system that may prove a more credible vehicle for social improvement – that is why from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks a vicious, often literally murerous, anti-Christianity has been one of its constant features. The fact that a few woolly-minded socialists have thought otherwise from time-to-time is neither here nor there. By the way a craftsman like a carpenter is probably a step-up from a proletarian – more a petit-bourgeois.

        • Kaine

          There is no such thing as ‘the left’. There are liberals and socialists and communists and anarchists (to name some of the bigger groupings to which that term has been applied) each with thousands of subgroups, shadings and disputes. What exactly does a Gladstonian Liberal have in common with a Posadist?

          And it’s not “a few wooly-minded socialists” (you’ve clearly never read Tressell, who as a plasterer had little time for such), it’s the entire British labour movement going back to at least the Diggers, through the Chartists and Owenites, the trade unions with their banners blessed by local clergy, Orwell having an Anglicanism to the end and Attlee wrestling with his faith. Your attempt to put this tradition in the same mold as Continental revolutionary movements demonstrates nothing but the shoddiness of your taxonomy.

          And no, a carpenter would be proletarian, classic artisan class, unless you can show he owned the shop.

          • MikeF

            If there is no such thing as the ‘left’ then I hope you would also agree that there is no such thing as the ‘right’. As for George Orwell I tend to find that today’ socialists hate him because of the way that he refused to kowtow to the pro-Soviet mindset that was common in his day way beyond the confines of the Communist Party – the analogy with anti-democratic, conformist nature of their ‘political correctness’ is one they prefer not to admit. I can understand your affinity for Odin – he only had one eye and would therefore have lacked a degree of perspective. Pax Vobiscum.

          • Kaine

            Of course there is no such thing as ‘the right’. The fact we’re still using these terms is testament to the stolid nature of political debate.

            Yes there are some pro-Soviet individuals who hate Orwell, and some liberals who have a problem with his views on race, and some socialists who think a lot of what he did was simply voyeuristic in the ‘Common People’ sense. On the other hand you’ll struggle to find anyone who calls themself a socialist who hasn’t read him.

            And Odin’s attraction is in being a god of poetry, and paying for your knowledge in suffering. Christ hanged from a tree for a few hours, Odin for nine days.

          • Ged Byrne

            Happy Woden’s day Kaine. Swapping an eye for wisdom was a sign of true suffering for Odin/Wotan/Woden.

            Orwell was a great writer who sought for himself what was real and what was not. He didn’t sit in an ivory tower and pretend to know, he went and found out, and in that sense he was akin to Odin. He hung himself, a sacrifice unto himself, on the ‘one tree’ of life. Describing himself as ‘lower-upper-middle class’ at the start of one of his books was a superb irony and tongue in cheek way of poking the class system in the eye. It was He who made the bold statement that the working class are not ‘unwashed’ through choice but by circumstance – “The Road To Wigan Pier”. He admired the working class who actually did things as a daily matter of course which many higher classes might have gained sainthood for doing, or been awarded medals.

            Meanwhile, the ‘left’ is often termed as a catch-all insult for anyone who criticises some of the nasty things done by those on ‘the right’. You know, those without moral conscience or care for others who make it all out to be down to the individual to struggle and lie and cheat and murder and backstab their way to survival.

            Looking at the Jacobite aspect, it wasn’t only the upper crust who tasted the bite of la guillotine, but also many others who happened to be unlucky enough to fall foul of anyone of the ‘in-crowd’, same as with many revolutions.

            I think perhaps this contraption should be part of the swearing-in ceremony of any serving politician and any who deliberately break their oath or the law, while serving, should be punished to the full extent of the law.

            Meanwhile, I shall vote the Watermelon Party, as called by the Right in the USA.. Greens! (“Green on the outside and Red on the inside”) because I like the socialist manner of governance, despite that I acknowledge Odin and Thor and Heimdall and many other gods and goddesses 🙂