December 17th 2016

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COVER STORY Much food for reflection in a single Christmas carol

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coalition limps through year of frustrations

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The left's whitewash of Fidel Castro

THE MEDIA Greed, ideology generate burst of fake news online

WA LEGISLATION Foetal homicide reform a very small step forward

SOCIETY A proposal to assist the victims of sexual abuse

AUSTRALIAN DEVELOPMENT The financial and social costs of cramming ourselves into just five coastal cities

MUSIC What Ellington heard: Allan Zavod, RIP


CINEMA Capra on the Common Man: Meet John Doe

BOOK APPRAISAL Religious incredulity: a most modern virtue

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News Weekly, December 17, 2016


The French Revolution

by Peter McPhee

Yale University Press, Yale
Hardcover: 488 pages
ISBN: 9780300189933
Price: AUD$57.95


Reviewed by Bill James


General Charles de Gaulle once asked: “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”

France has always been a nation of striking regional differences, and this was no less true during the revolutionary era 1789–99.

One of the strengths of Peter McPhee’s story in Liberty or Death: The French Revolution is that he continually describes the ways in which the revolution, and the reactions to it, took varying forms, not only in Paris and provincial France, but across and within these provinces, and even in France’s overseas colonies.

Thus the increasingly radical events in Paris met with enthusiastic support in France’s southeast, but passionate opposition in the west of the country.

The precipitating factor in the 1789 outbreak of revolution was a financial crisis brought on by France’s expensive involvement in several wars.

A meeting of the Estates-General was called, to increase the disproportionately small amount of tax paid by the First Estate (the Church) and the Second Estate (the aristocracy). Together, they made up about 1 per cent of France’s population, while owning or controlling most of its wealth.

Representatives of the Third Estate – mainly middle-class lawyers, inspired by philosophes such as Voltaire and Montesquieu, as well as by the American Revolution – set up a National Assembly.

In succeeding reincarnations, it ran France for the next 10 years. It abolished feudalism (1789–91), established a constitutional monarchy (1791–92), replaced it with an increasingly radical republic (1792–95), and then retreated to a conservative form of republicanism known as the Directory (1795–99).

This decade of democratic experimentation was followed by the personal rule of Napoleon, first as Consul and then as Emperor, 1799–1815.

Critics of the Revolution condemn it as a piece of brutal utopianism that traumatised France by treating its culture and tradition as a machine to be ripped apart and restructured wholesale, rather than as an organism to be nurtured in the direction of politically progressive evolution.

The mutilating of the Bastille’s officials, following its sack by the Paris mob in 1789, was followed by episodes such as the 1792 storming of the Tuileries Palace and the hysterical September Massacres, when nearly 2,000 victims were murdered. Tens of thousands more – bourgeoisie, workers and peasants, as well as nuns, priests and aristocrats – were guillotined in Paris and the provinces during the Terror run by the Convention’s dictatorial Committee of Public Safety 1793–94.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette made up for their unimpressive reign with dignified and courageous deaths at the beginning and end of 1793.

Foreshadowings of 20th-century communist puritanism in the USSR and China can to be found in the fanatics’ demands that even theatrical productions should feature ideological soundness over artistic merit or entertainment value.

“The revolution devours its children”, as one contemporary remarked when moderates, and later on even former heroes of the Revolution, such as Danton, and the “sea-green incorruptible” Robespierre, self-styled exemplar of classical Roman republican virtue, fell victim to the poisonous suspicion among Convention members that they lacked revolutionary purity.

Charles Dickens’ Madame Defarge, seated knitting inexorably at the foot of the guillotine as the heads tumbled into the basket, remains the popular image of this era. The fact is, however, that the Revolution was a fertile period of innovation, and McPhee documents many benefits that we now enjoy that emerged during the revolutionary epoch.

In 1789 the young National Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, based on the twin principles of liberty and equality.

Article 1. asserted: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”.

From this political fountainhead there flowed democracy, pluralism, religious freedom (notably for Jews and Protestants), the career open to talents, cosmopolitanism, women’s rights, public education, and the standardisation of administration, taxes, trade regulations, currency, weights and measures. The first steps were made towards today’s welfare state with regulations to ensure food supplies for the poor people of Paris, the volatile sansculottes.

Perhaps the Revolution’s finest measure was the abolition of slavery in 1794, long before Britain and the United States did so, even if it took many decades for all traces of French slavery to actually disappear.

A central feature of the Revolution was the issue of religion.

In 1789 France was overwhelmingly Catholic, with small but important Protestant and Jewish communities. Outright atheism was rare, but some of the bourgeoisie in commercial, professional and intellectual circles were turning from orthodox Christianity to Deism. Deists sought to retain a belief in God, morality, and the immortality of the soul, while jettisoning as many supernatural aspects of religion as possible, such as miracles, revelation, and the Incarnation.

McPhee constantly emphasises the centrality of religion to the divisions engendered by the Revolution. “The scale and intensity of opposition to the Revolution,” he writes, “were transformed by the National Assembly’s reforms to the Church.”

In the Night Session of August 4, 1789, the National Assembly effectively abolished feudalism, including the tithes of the Church, and a few months later, seized and sold its lands.

The next year, the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, placing the clergy under the control of the government, to which they were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty. This measure not only turned the king against the Revolution, but also alienated hitherto sympathetic aristocrats, clergy, and many ordinary citizens.

The result was prolonged armed rebellion by Catholic townspeople and peasants right across France, which was concentrated in a few regions such as the Vendée, on the west coast.

The religious problem remained unresolved in 1799, at the end of the revolutionary decade. It took the political genius of Napoleon (who said: “Some see in religion the mystery of the incarnation; I see in religion the mystery of the social order”) to solve this dilemma for the time being, by a concordat with the papacy in 1801.

Liberty Or Death can be unhesitatingly recommended as a broad and thorough account of the Revolution by an internationally respected academic from Melbourne University, who brings the most recent scholarship to bear on his work.

It must be remembered, however, that history consists of both data and interpretation, and that interpretations, including McPhee’s, are not set in stone. For example, there has been a tendency in the past to attribute the excesses of the Revolution to Rousseau’s celebration of the General Will of the People, which is always right and good, but which can be misread, and must be correctly discerned.

According to this view of the Revolution, the claim of Robespierre and the Jacobins to be the exclusive custodians of the General Will anticipated, by just over a century, not only Lenin and his Party’s claim to a unique comprehension of Marxist historicism, but also the Bolsheviks’ alleged right to perpetrate revolutionary terror against dissidents. McPhee is not so sure. While aware of the unjust sufferings produced by the Terror, he tends to see them as collateral damage.

In view of the threat to the Revolution from invasion by Austria, Prussia and blockade by Britain, as well as by counter-revolution in the provinces, he writes: “Such were the stakes in 1793 – liberty or death – that the net necessary to ensnare enemies of the Revolution trapped many thousands of people whose only mistake was to be critical of government policy.”

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