Francois Furet's book, which appeared in France in 1978, reopens the debate on the nature and significance of the French Revolution. For a very long time, what Professor Soboul likes to describe as the 'classical' interpretation provided the frame of reference for all the arguments. It was challenged by the late Professor Cobban in his Wiles Lectures, published in 1964 as The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, but Cobban's attack was essentially negative. He disputed many of the assertions of what he took to be Marxist historians of the Revolution, but, for all his pugnacity, he was more concerned to expose error than to construct a new creed of his own. Indeed, to an extent of which he must have been unaware, what he implied was not that the Marxist interpretation was wrong, but that Lefebvre and Soboul were bad Marxists. He accepted their theoretical assumptions but reversed their conclusions, claiming, for example, that 'it was a revolution not for, but against capitalism.' He answered their Jacobin patriotism with an economic determinism that flew the Union Jack: 'There is nothing surprising in the fact that, the economic development of English society being so far in advance of that of France, its political evolution should also have shown much greater maturity.' He cut the French Revolution down to size so drastically that one was left wondering what all the excitement was about. Since he wrote, many detailed studies, in America, England and, latterly, in France, have inflicted further, if sometimes unknowing damage on the 'classical' synthesis: but this was not the kind of evidence to overthrow the prevailing orthodoxy. Furet sets out to do just that.
LRB 5 August 1982 | PDF Download