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Echoes: The French Revolution

Bell. D. A. Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present.
Oxford University Press

 

David Bell opens one section of his new collection of essays by quoting from the diaries of the great nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet: “It is you that I beg for help, O my noble country,” Michelet wrote, hoping that France would be able to replace the importance that “extinguished Christianity” once held in modern life.

It would be difficult to find a more appropriate summary of the global transformations ushered in by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution than this: a Romantic-era French intellectual recognizing the power of nationalism to replace religion as the social force that inspires mass human behavior.

Part of what makes Shadows of Revolution so delectable is its author’s keen ability to find and relay such memorable facts and quotations as the one involving Michelet. Bell, currently at Princeton University, is the contemporary American historian who best accomplishes the dual task of making significant scholarly contributions while also conversing with a larger audience. He is probably best known for his 2007 book Total War, which argued that a hallmark of the French Revolution was a worldview that was simultaneously utopian and Manichean, resulting in an implacable, almost fanatical form of warfare by its armies that was far bloodier than the frequent but small-scale conflicts waged by European monarchs in the preceding centuries.

One chapter in Shadows of Revolution, in fact, responds to critics of Total War; the rest are essays and book reviews for publications such as The New Republic (TNR; under its ancien regime) and the London Review of Books. There are U.S. academics who can rival Bell in scholarly achievements in the study of the French Revolution—Lynn Hunt and Timothy Tackett among them. But there are none who can match his ability to translate the fruits of that research into prose that is both scholarly and accessible to nonspecialists.

It helps that Bell is an excellent literary stylist. When discussing the claim that eighteenth-century literature changed readers’ brain chemistry, for instance, he tosses off the bon mot that modern readers of La nouvelle Heloise and Pamela “may find it surprising that these novels in particular could induce any physical effects besides narcotic ones.”

The most striking example of Bell’s ability to successfully impose the past on the present comes in an essay reproduced here that was initially published in TNR in 1988. “Paristroika” was written at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev was still being viewed skeptically by some in the West as a Stalinist in reformer’s clothing and the Soviet Union’s demise looked far from probable. Bell responded by arguing that Gorbachev’s reforms reminded him of Louis XVI’s. Just as the ill-fated King, Bell wrote, so too would Gorbachev fail to save a failed system because his good intentions were irrelevant, his halfhearted reforms would lead to endless calls for further changes, and by opening up the system for criticism, he would destroy its façade of popularity. On each of these points, Bell would be proved correct. Several of his other predictions reprinted in this collection were less accurate—he thought the downfall of Egypt’s Mubarak could lead to a wave of state terror akin to that led by Robespierre for instance—but “Paristroika” is one of the most remarkable examples of how an understanding of history can clarify the present and even the future I have encountered.

Most of Shadows of Revolution is concerned not with predicting the future but with clarifying the past, of course. Although Bell’s scholarly specialty ranges from the French ancient regime to the Napoleonic era, these essays range much wider. They begin with the Enlightenment and extend to present-day France, covering every period in between. With a true expert’s grasp of the subject matter, Bell’s insight and wide knowledge on an array of topics related to France over the last three centuries is on display throughout.

And so in an essay on France and its relationship to its Jewish population— a frequent focus of the book’s writings—Bell observes that, despite the Dreyfus Affair, “France was also the first European country to grant the Jews full civil rights—not just in France itself but also in the vast territories conquered by Napoleon.” Pages later comes the provocative reflection that what French conservatives despised about Jews was not their religiosity but their eagerness to be equal citizens: “It is no coincidence that the two most hated Jews in French history have been examples of extreme assimilation: the rightwing army officer Alfred Dreyfus (who, it has been remarked, in other circumstances would have made a natural anti-Dreyfusard), and the secular socialist Leon Blum, who was prime minister under the Popular Front in the 1930s.”

In a review of a Robespierre biography, Bell writes, “It is worth stressing here just how different the French revolutionary leadership was from the leadership of most revolutions. Figures such as Robespierre, Danton, Sieyes, or Saint-Just did not occupy positions of political prominence before the Revolution, as many of the American revolutionaries had done.”

Nor, he continues, had they spent years in struggle or exile, like Lenin on Mao, or even participated in elections or political parties. “In a mere blink of time, they hurtled from banal obscurity to world-historical importance, and so it is perhaps fair to say that the Revolution made them more than that they made the Revolution.” Bell deploys this shrewd apercu as a way of explaining why the Revolution so swiftly devolved into anarchic Terror.

In yet another essay, Bell suggests that the decline of religion led to notions of human rights: “To most educated western Europeans before the eighteenth century, nothing would have seemed less “self-evident” than the possession of copious natural rights by the wretched creatures of sin who went by the name of humans, who properly could hope for nothing other than God’s grace to save the souls.”

He continues, “It is no coincidence that the greatest pre-Enlightenment theorist of rights—Thomas Paine—was also the man who did most to unmoor Western understanding of politics from Western understandings of God.”

Bell makes the case for the French Revolution’s continued importance not just to France but to the entire world. “Billions of people in the centuries since 1789, including many who have never even heard of the French Revolution, have lived under its shadow,” he writes in the introduction, a piece that also includes a moving recollection of how he first became infatuated with French history. After listening to a lecture on the Revolution, he says, he walked around Paris and noticed the ways in which French history seemed to emanate from every street corner. History’s presence in contemporary life can be seen in many world cities, of course, but few cities can boast of being the site of “the most important political laboratory the world had ever known—a laboratory in which, in the space of less than a decade, many of the modern world’s key political ideas and practices first took shape.”

Many of us are drawn to the French Revolution—and to France itself—for the same reasons. But few of us make a career of it. And fewer still make such an impressive career that they can produce a book as fine as Shadows of Revolution.

 

Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single, Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-Presidency.

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