Eugen Weber, who contributes one of the essays to this interesting collection, writes of the way the Revolution became a national obsession in 19th-century France. The reason was, at least in part, that throughout the century the threat - or indeed the reality - of violent political change was never off the agenda. One can go further, however. Historical awareness of the Revolution may not run deep among the mass of Frenchmen, but it often does among the élite, for whom it constitutes an elaborate dramatic metaphor shadowing the practices and institutions of contemporary life. Thus at the height of the May Events of 1968, the French Communist Party, full of quasi-revolutionary rhetoric, announced that it would hold a large public demonstration through the streets of Paris. A route-map of the demonstration was published which showed that it would lead past the Hôtel de Ville (which houses the mairie of Paris); then, just before the march began, the route was altered so as to bypass the Hôtel de Ville. The point which the PCF was (rightly) sure would not be lost on the governing élite was, of course, that the seizure of the Hôtel de Ville has been the customary first step in any revolutionary seizure of power. In other words, the original announcement constituted an implicit threat that, unless concessions were made to it, the PCF might run up the red flag over City Hall; the revision absolved the PCF of all responsibility should, for example, any Trotskyites among the marchers try to take matters into their own hands. The authorities, in their turn, would have responded within this well-understood, if unstated tradition, which is still sufficiently alive to allow such creative improvisation: indeed, stays alive through it. Many of the central traditions of British political life, by contrast, such as the state-encrusted flummery of Black Rod, the Mace and the Queen's Speech, are quite dead: the rows about the handling of the sacred Mace are really to do with the blasphemous disturbance of a corpse.
LRB 16 February 1989 | PDF Download