Name: François Furet
Profession(s): Historian, academic
Books: Interpreting the French Revolution (1981), The French Revolution (1996)
For much of the 20th century, the historiography of the French Revolution was dominated by Marxist perspectives. François Furet’s landmark text Interpreting the French Revolution sought to address this imbalance. Furet refuted Marxist theory and resurrected the idea that the French Revolution might have been driven by political aims as much as by social conditions or class dissatisfaction.
Echoing the work of the 19th century liberal Alexis de Tocqueville, Furet considers the revolution to be France’s first foray into a liberal democracy, rather than a manifestation of socialism.
Furet believed the revolution failed to deliver a lasting liberal democracy because its forces, from the outset, were never restrained by the rule of law.
While many left-wing historians see the Terror as a perversion or an aberration, something unexpected and ‘outside’ the natural course of the revolution, Furet argues that the roots of terror can be traced back to the fall of the Bastille.
“The historian of the French Revolution must produce more than proof of competence. He must show his colours. He must state at the outset where he comes from, what he thinks and what he is looking for. What he writes about the French Revolution is assigned a label even before he starts working.”
“The revolutionaries gave a name to what they had abolished. They called it the ancien regime. In doing so they defined not so much what they had suppressed, but more what they wanted to create – a complete break with the past, which was to be cast into the shadows of barbarism.”
“For the same reason that the Ancien Regime is thought to have an end but no beginning, the Revolution has a birth but no end.”
“I have long thought that it might be intellectually useful to date the beginning of the French Revolution to the Assembly of Notables in early 1787. The absolute monarchy died, in theory and in practice, in the year when its intendants were made to share their responsibilities with elected assemblies, in which the Third Estate was given twice as many representatives as the past. Tocqueville dates what he calls the ‘true spirit of the Revolution’ from September 1788.”
“The ancien regime had been in the hands of the king; the Revolution was the people’s achievement. France had been a kingdom of subjects; it was now a nation of citizens. The old society had been based on privilege; the Revolution established equality. Thus was created the ideology of a radical break with the past, a tremendous cultural drive for equality.”
“There was an essential instability inherent in revolutionary politics, as a consequence of which the periodic professions of faith concerning the ‘stabilisation’ of the Revolution unfailingly led to renewed bursts of revolutionary activity.”
“Revolutionary France used the paradox of democracy as the sole source of power. Society and the state were fused in the discourse of the people’s will; and the ultimate manifestations of that obsession were the Terror and the war, both of which were inherent in the ever-escalating rhetoric of the various groups competing for the exclusive right to embody the democratic principle. The Terror refashioned, in a revolutionary mode, a kind of divine right of public authority.”
“The two symmetrical and opposite images of undivided power furnished the ingredients for ministers for a plot to institute a ministerial despotism; the royal administration believed in a conspiracy among the grain merchants or the men of letters. It is precisely in that sense that the eighteenth-century French monarchy was absolute, and not as has been said again and again by republican historiography on the basis of what the Revolution asserted – because of the way it exercised its authority. Its power was weak, but it conceived of itself as undivided. The French Revolution is inconceivable without that idea, or that phantasm, which was a legacy of the monarchy; but the Revolution anchored power in society instead of seeing it as a manifestation of God’s will. The new collectively shared image of politics was the exact reverse of that of the ancien regime.”