ATHENE Webtijdschrift voor directe democratie > BOEKBESPREKINGEN > The Wards of Paris
  februari 2003 [3]


Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama (New York: Knopf, 1990/89. Illus. 948 pp.)

door Morris Slavin

The author is emeritus professor history at the Youngstown State University (Ohio, Verenigde Staten). Hij wrote among others The French Revolution in Miniature: Section Droits-de-l’Homme, 1789-1795 (1984); The Making of an Insurrection: Parisian Sections and the Gironde (1986); The Hébertistes to the Guillotine:
Anatomy of a "Conspiracy" in Revolutionary France (1994)

This review appeared in: Morris Slavin, The Left and the French Revolution, Humanities Pr. New Jersey, 1995, pp 169 -173 (Ch. 11)

Robespierre used to chide his moderate opponents of "wanting a revolution without a revolution." Simon Schama wants no revolution at all. In "shaking off the mythology of the revolution" (see the interview by Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times, 27 April 1989), Schama has created his own mythology. He admits that he does not believe in a "pure objectivity"- what historian does? But the reader has the right to expect of him a fair treatment of the revolutionaries in the real circumstances of a profound social and political crisis. Unfortunately, as Thomas Paine said of Edmund Burke, "He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird." Schama sees the Revolution as a series of scandal-ous events. In this respect his narrative is a sensational story. He seldom looks at the events from the revolutionaries' point of view and never with sympathy for them. In-stead, he judges the movement from the victims' outlook; but the victims are not the Girondins, Enragés, Hébertistes, or Jacobins of the Left, but, rather, the Malesherbes, the Neckers, and the Talleyrands. In addition, his hook is badly skewed. The text is 875 pages long, but the fall of the Bastille does not begin until page 369. Part 4, entitled "Virtue and Death," which covers the most important and in some respects the most mean-ingful developments for our own times, is a mere 170 pages. Yet this portion attempts to recite the dramatic events from the winter of 1793 through the fall of Robespierre in the summer of 1794. Schama has little to say on Robespierre and the Great Committees, and nothing but an "Epilogue" on the events after 9 Thermidor. As for his view on revolutions in general, he writes that "asking for the impossible is a good definition of a revolution" (322). This tells us more about the author's approach, however, than it does about his subject.

Let us examine the text in more detail. Schama, like so many of his so called revisionist contemporaries, never doubts that the old Regime was "modern" or "bourgeois," or that in any case, it was no longer feudal. Yet there are numerous references to the seigneurial system, to feudal dues, to labor obligations (corvées), and to other traditional feudal ex-actions throughout his text (see, for example, pp. 433, 434, 435, 437, and the feudal privileges surrendered on 4 August 1789 by the National Assembly, p. 438). He quotes with approval a conservative French historian, Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret, who writes that "a noble was nothing more than a successful bourgeois" (116), and th en contradicts himself by writing that "the one thing the Constituent Assembly was manifestly not was bourgeois" (478, his italics). But if the Assembly was not bourgeois, it must have been noble. (We can assume it is not neces-sary to demonstrate that it was not sans-culotte or peasant). Still, how could it have been noble when, according to Chaussinand-Nogaret and Schama, a noble was only a bourgeois?

Moreover, he ignores Louis XVI's famous speech three weeks before the fall of the Bas-tille (23 June 1789). "All property without exception," said the king, "shall be respected at all times, and his Majesty expressly includes under the name of property the tithes.. . feudal and seigneurial rights and duties [my italics] , and, in general, all rights and prerogatives, useful or honorary, connected with lands and fiefs, or appertaining to per-sons." Yet Schama could have us believe that the old Regime was "bourgeois."

Unlike many historians who find the old Regime full of archaic and irrational customs and practices (see Montesquieu's The Persian Letters as an example), Schama argues that the French elite "was fluid and heterogeneous" (117), that the term "old Regime" is a misnomer (118), and that at the very heart of this elite was "a capitalist nobility" (118). He is convinced that "a literary conspiracy" existed, which he calls "the Figaro syn-drome," that has been ignored by the modern historians and that helped the defeat of the misnamed old Regime by people who did not really understand the ideas they we re promulgating (175). And in a complete reversal of the many studies clone on Louis XVI, Schama sees him as "lively" (not at all phlegimatic) and concerned with public business (188).

Schama is convinced, moreover, that the social structure did not cause the Revolution but that social issues did. Yet in listing the issues that allegedly caused the Revolution, he cannot avoid mentioning the structure (see 293-94). Indeed, how can social issues exist without a structure to give them farm? Until the advent of the revisionists, histori-ans always believed that one reason we call the events of 1789 a "social revolution" is precisely because one social class, loosely termed the 'bourgeoisie," replaced another, the "nobility" (the upper echelons of the Church were, with hardly an exception, noble). Schama argues to the contrary that no significant transfer of social power occurred, ex-cept for its loss by the Church, but if there was no transfer of power, why did so many nobles emigrate? And why were "aristos" so exe-crated? Was the "Restoration" limited to the return of the Bourbons alone?

The trend, writes the author, was from "nobles to notables." And who were the latter? He replies as follows: "As landowners, state functionaries, departmental administrators, and professional judges and doctors, bankers and manufacturers, they constituted a knot of influence and power that would effectively dominate French society for the next century" (521). But these are "bourgeois" within the meaning of the term. And the real question is not whether they dominated the century after the Revolution (no one doubts this), but whether they dominated French society during the century preceding the Revolution. Of course, bourgeois property forms, and relations based on them, were beginning to domi-nate the economic life of the country decades before the Revolution, but the bourgeoisie was still the Third Estate and, as such, faced discrimination from the upper two Estates. Furthermore, if Schama can demonstrate that a seigneurial estate, encumbered and lim-ited by the law of entail and primogeniture, worked by unfree labor, is no different from a landed estate that can be bought, sold, or split up, that is, in short, to use a Marxist term, a "commodity," then, indeed, there is no difference
between nobles and notables.

Although Schama is interested in symbols (literary and pictorial), and even blames the Romantic movement for encouraging the revolutionaries for stressing "passion over Rea-son" (861) and going from "euphoria to terror" (354), he cannot see the Bastille as a symbol of despotism. Instead, he repeats that old cliché that only seven prisoners were inside its walls when it was successfully besieged by what conservative historians still call "the mob." (The concept of "crowd," incidentally, is foreign to Schama as well.) The fact that this structure, by its high and thick walls, the gunpowder stored in its vaults, and the Swiss garrison, dominated the neighborhood of Saint-Antoine is ignored. More impor-tant, its fall led to the successful organization of municipal bodies throughout France, dominated by the bourgeoisie, as well as to the evolution of the National Guard from the bourgeois militia. These two developments destroyed the possibility of the king's military intervention against the newly formed National Assembly. But out author sees nothing of this. Instead, he speaks of "Gothic fantasies" enhancing the responsibilities of "despot-ism" (487). Schama's quotation marks around the latter term means that he denies its existence.

Moreover, he is at pains to demonstrate throughout his narrative that it was violence that characterized the Revolution and "made the Revolution possible in the first place" (436). Violence, according to him, "was the Revolution's source of collective energy," and it was "what made the Revolution revolutionary." And again: "Bloodshed was not the unfortu-nate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy" (615). Furthermore, in a statement that could have made Burke blush, Schama pronounces that "the Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count" (477).

Two days after the storming of the Bastille, the duke of Dorset, England's ambassador to France, wrote a well-known report to his government praising "the regularity and deter-mined conduct of the populace" and concluding that "the greatest revolution has been effected with, comparatively speaking, if the magnitude of the even is considered, the loss of very few lives." Schama is surely acquainted with this famous letter, as is every student of the Revolution, but to admit such evidence by an objective observer outside France is to undermine his thesis of "violence" or the "politics of paranoia" (436).

Schama finds in the September massacres proof, yet again, of his thesis that the Revolu-tion "depend[ed] on organized killing to accomplish political ends" (637). He excoriates Pierre Caron, who wrote the definitive study of this tragic event, as being guilty "of intel-lectual cowardice and moral self-delusion" (631). And in an exhortation to such histori-ans, he writes: "To those who insist that to prosecute is not the historian's job, one may reply that neither is a selective forgetfulness practiced in the interests of scholarly deco-rum" (632). One can only agree - but as Robert Burns wrote, "O wad some power the giftie gie us / To see oursel's as ithers see us!"

Schama finds Talleyrand a model of maturity and good sense in rejecting the "extremes" of both Right and Left. Among the "extremes" of the latter are Thomas Paine's proposals for a "welfare state." What can one say to an author who thinks that Paine was extreme when he suggested that it was better to make the lives of the "140,000 aged persons" in England more comfortable than to waste "a million a year of public money" on the king? It's a little late to defend the civilized proposals advocated by Thomas Paine for old age, unemployment benefits, and insurance against illness.

Nor is Schama against violence per se. He finds Charlotte Corday admirable, a heroïne in every sense of the word, and he relishes the war she carried out her assassination of Marat. As for Marat, Schama despises him because of his "sanguinary hysterics," his glo-rification of "rudeness," and his effort to displease as many people as possible in order to demonstrate his "integrity" (661, 729-41). But if Marat was only a jealous, envious, rode person, it is difficult to account for his popularity among so many thousands of ordinary people, not only among the revolutionaries.

Marat is not the only revolutionary who earns Schama's displeasure. He finds Robespierre equally unattractive, a "Missionary of Virtue" (834). In characterizing Jean Baptiste Cloots (who called himself" Anacharsis") as "bizarre" and as among the "lunatics and thugs" of the Left, Schama makes a profound error (808, 816). It would be difficult to find a gentler and a more devoted French patriot (despite his Prussian and noble birth) than Cloots. He became a victim of French chauvinism and died in the frame-up of the Cordelier leaders. As for the Hébertists dying on the guillotine like "cowards without balls" (816), with the excep-tion of Hébert himself, all died with courage and dignity. Besides, this stress on how revolutionaries and their adversaries died is too of ten overemphasized, when the more important question should be, How did they live? Moreover, it is strange that Schama, who has so much compassion and concern for the conservative and moderate victims of the Terror, has none for the more radical spokesmen of the sans-culottes.

Schama concludes his book with the feminist revolutionary, Théroigne de Mericourt, in the mental institution of Salpêtrière. A sketch of her disturbed and pathetic visage is the last illustration in the book. Since Schama is keen on symbols, it is obvious that he sees de Mericourt's end as a fitting close to the Revolution as well. Still, it is regrettable that such a capable historian as Schama, whose style and expression are enviable, who can tell a fascinating story with verve and drama, and who rivets the readers' attention on the narrative, should be so prejudiced against the Revolution. Why is this so?

Like the rest of us, Schama is a product of our reactionary century. We are aware, of course, that its revolutions have turned out badly. The hopes aroused by the Russian Revolution and by social democracy turned into Stalinism and Hitlerism, respectively. The French evolution, too, failed to establish the reign of "Virtue." Goya's famous painting The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters reminds us that between dreams and nightmares there is a thin line. Vet the events in the late 1980s, from Beijing to Moscow, are proof, yet again, that humanity continues to dream and to strive for liberty, equality, and fraternity. These no-ble ideals of the French Revolution will continue to inspire men and women everywhere. In this respect the Revolution lives on.