Booked: Is It Time to Retire the Term “Revolution”?

The storming of the Bastille, July 1789 (Wikimedia Commons)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this special podcast edition, Tim spoke with David A. Bell about his book, Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present (Oxford University Press, 2016). Use the player above to listen to a recording of their conversation, or read an edited version below.

Timothy Shenk: Historians have recently described the French Revolution—a period you’ve spent much of your career studying—as a “historical backwater” and an “interpretive cul-de-sac.” How did you end up there?

David Bell: Well, back when I was drawn to it, it wasn’t a backwater. Revolution was still a very live and interesting concept in the Western world, and it seemed to me that the French Revolution was in many ways the starting point of modern politics. One of the astonishing things about the French Revolution is just how politically fertile it was.

Shenk: You call it a “the most important political laboratory the world had ever known.”

Bell: Exactly. In a period of just five years an absolute monarchy turns into a constitutional monarchy, which is overthrown and replaced by a democratic republic, the first time that you have universal adult, male suffrage really in Western history. Then within a couple of years that is basically overthrown and replaced by an unstable ideological dictatorship, which itself collapses very quickly, is replaced by an unstable, illiberal republic, which is then overthrown by a military coup. In a period of ten years, you have so many basic political forms that would influence the Western world for the next two hundred years.

Shenk: This sense of the French Revolution as an incubator of modernity has become unfashionable among historians, who are now much more engaged with the attempt to provincialize Europe—that is, to move Europe out of its place at the center of world history. Have you taken that turn, or do you still hold onto the sense that something decisive for the rest of the world happened in Paris between 1789 and 1799?

Bell: I still hold on to it absolutely, and I don’t simply do so because of any kind of prejudice that what happens in the West happens everywhere else. If you look at the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, people have paid attention to the French Revolution. They were talking about what happened there. Obviously they are not simply receiving the political forms and political practices, they are adapting and appropriating them, but it is incredibly influential nonetheless.

Shenk: In one of the final essays for this book, which was published in the National Interest in 2014, you talk about this idea of revolution, and you suggest that, given the concept’s recent history,  it might be time to retire the term. Can you explain?

Bell: If we look at the broad sweep of modern history from the eighteenth century to the present, we see that revolution has lost its salience as a political concept, and I’m saying this despite Bernie Sanders. I think our political standards have become far too different. We’ve realized that great revolutions never happen without wide scale violations of human rights. Human rights have become far more central to the way that we define political legitimacy and morality, so it becomes far harder to justify anything like the great revolutions of the past. In 1989 I was in my late twenties and enormously interested by what was happening in Eastern Europe. I had travelled through Eastern Europe before the wall came down, and met people in the KOR in Poland. It was striking that the dissidents there rejected the notion of revolution because of its association with 1917 and the Bolsheviks. Jacek Kuroń, who was one of the heroes of Solidarity in Poland, publishes this piece in a French newspaper in the summer of 1989: “What we are doing now,” he writes, just after the elections in which Solidarity won practically unanimously in the elections for the lower house in Poland, “this is not a revolution.”

Shenk: You mentioned Bernie Sanders, what do you think about his use of the phrase “political revolution”?

Bell: I’m worried about it because I think it promises a kind of end run around political processes and the hard, dirty work of getting things passed. The kind of policies Sanders would like to introduce, there’s no way of getting that through a Republican Congress, so he has to talk about building a mass movement. I’m perfectly happy with that, but calling it a revolution seems to me tricky. If you look at the way the concept of revolution has been deployed in American politics over the last five or six years, it’s been overwhelmingly by the Tea Party. While obviously I’m far more sympathetic to Bernie Sanders than I am to the Tea Party, nonetheless I think that there is something in the concept of revolution these days which is too easy. I think it also goes back to the failure of Occupy, and the reluctance to formulate a serious political program.

Shenk: But don’t you think the success of Sanders demonstrates the influence of Occupy? Despite being perceived as having an inchoate agenda, they put economic inequality at the center of political debate, which left a foundation the Sanders campaign built on a few years later. Once the professional politicians came in, so did the policy specifics, but you don’t get those details without the broader shift in the conversation. “Millionaires and billionaires” isn’t quite “We Are the 99%,” but it’s pretty close.

Bell: Ideally, yes, but I’m not sure that the movement that Sanders is trying to create will actually have any staying power, as long as it’s built on such inchoate promises of revolution, which conjure up all these ideas of people charging the Bastille or storming the Winter Palace. In the end, how does this translate into the basic work of organizing a political movement in the United States today? I’m not entirely sure.

Shenk: To go back to the French Revolution, one of the advantages of bringing together essays published over a long period of time is that you get to see what sticks around over decades. For you, one of those lingering subjects is François Furet. Who was he, and why does he figure so prominently in this book?

Bell: François Furet was probably the most important twentieth-century French historian of the French Revolution. He started out as a Communist militant in the late 1940s but broke with the party very early. Then in the 1960s, he became attracted to a circle of very interesting intellectuals in Paris, people like Claude Lefort, Cornelius Castoriadis, and others who were looking for an alternative left that would not be socialist, or certainly not communist. Later he tried to recreate a tradition of French liberalism that would go back to Montesquieu, to Benjamin Constant, to François Guizot and above all, to Alexis de Tocqueville. He was always puzzled by the turn, both in France and then in Europe as a whole, towards Jacobin collectivism, which he saw as coming to full flower in the Russian Revolution and leading tragically to totalitarianism. He was involved with a lot of left, but anti-communist, intellectuals in the United States in the Partisan Review tradition. He came to the University of Chicago and was in the Committee on Social Thought there, where he was actually tempted towards more of a neo-conservative position.

Shenk: You call him the godfather of French neo-conservatism.

Bell: Yes, because the liberal tradition that he was trying to bring about in France ended up being supported politically, above all, by Jacques Chirac and then by Alain Juppé, who might very well be the next president of France. It is closer to American neo-conservatism in many respects than to anything that Americans would call liberalism. But Furet starts out as a historian in the mode of the Annales School, which was the great move towards a social history, grounded in the analysis of long-term, even geological, but also economic, social trends.

Shenk: Grain prices over hundreds of years . . .

Bell: Grain prices over hundreds of years, but even beyond that, the movement of bodies of water, the shifting of the continents, the geological patterns that create mountains and rivers and seas. So Furet was trained in the Annales School in France, and he did his early work really trying to bring those insights to intellectual history. In the 1970s he published Interpreting the French Revolution, which was a swinging attack on the Marxist interpretation that was dominant in France at the time.

Some of the really great historians of the French Revolution of the mid-twentieth century, like Georges Lefebvre or Albert Soboul, were members of the Communist Party. Furet felt that the tradition was stale and that it wasn’t an analytical tradition, but simply tried to justify the French Revolution. Furet, on the other hand, identified the Revolution as being the point at which French political culture made a very wrong turn, where it embraced a kind of Jacobin collectivism, which would set the stage for later socialism and communism.

Shenk: And derailed the liberal tradition that he was trying to revive.

Bell: And derailed any chance of the liberal tradition really establishing itself, so that it remained a minority, dissenting position.

Shenk: So by turning to the French Revolution Furet is rejecting Marxism, but he’s also challenging the Annales School with its focus on the longue durée. He’s focusing attention on this very specific place over a short period of time.

Bell: Absolutely. What Furet felt that he needed to do in order to make his argument was to reject what he started to call the “sociological history” of the Annales School, and to try to invent a new intellectual history, which would focus on the history of political ideas. In Furet’s history of the French Revolution in the nineteenth century, published in the 1960s, there’s hardly anything about peasants, there’s hardly anything about grain prices. He only cares about the people who spoke and thought in an intellectually meaty way. Particularly he’s interested in the people who he can feel that he’s an interlocutor with, like Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant. There’s little attention to the King and the Queen, or Georges Danton, who wrote very little. Maximilien Robespierre, who wrote a great deal, gets more attention.

Then after taking on the Jacobin tradition, he published Interpreting the French Revolution, which was a landmark book that suggested we have to understand the French Revolution not as the result of any kind of social break in French history, but as an event marked by a rupture in political thought.

Shenk: He was asserting the primacy of politics over supposedly more basic forces.

Bell: Exactly. What’s interesting here is that the turn he was taking was not influenced by what we would think of as French postmodernism. While he was certainly aware of people like Foucault, he wasn’t coming out of that tradition and, in fact, he had very little sympathy for them. But the turn he was taking was quite congruent with what they were doing, particularly the linguistic turn.

Shenk: Because of the focus on ideas?

Bell: Because of the focus on ideas and political language, and particularly his focus on the notion that what happens is that the revolutionaries adopt a Rousseauian idea of indivisible sovereignty. This idea quickly becomes their lodestar, and they cannot break out of it. The revolutionaries keep trying to instantiate the people as the sovereign, and what happens is a political competition is put in place, whereby different groups are all trying to present themselves as the group that best represents the people. This very quickly becomes bloody, and it pushes people towards a more and more radical stance. This kind of political competition between groups is what explains the Reign of Terror. Groups that are mostly forgotten today, such as the Feuillants, the Monarchiens early in the Revolution, the Girondins, ultimately are cast aside onto what Trotsky would call “the scrap heap of history,” by the faction that wins out—the Montagnards (“The Mountain”), which is led by Robespierre, Saint-Just, Marat until he is assassinated, and several others. Furet suggests that the Terror grows out of this purely political process that dominates over the social. This was a challenge to the Marxist tradition and to the Jacobin tradition, which had presented the Revolution as a class struggle between a decaying aristocracy and monarchy, and a rising bourgeoisie.

Shenk: And not just the Marxist tradition—you point out that this notion of the French Revolution as a bourgeois revolution had been thoroughly established since the 1820s.

Bell: Absolutely. This had been taken over and adapted by the Marxists, but it had been pretty much universally accepted by everybody that to understand the French Revolution, you had to look at social conflict. While I don’t have much sympathy for Furet’s desire for free market liberalism in France, I think the move he made was very important, particularly for returning our attention to what actually happens in the realm of political thought.

Shenk: So, to circle back to where we started, how do we get from this moment in 1980—when it seems like this is an exciting project with deep political relevance—to the “historical backwater”?

Bell: First of all, what happens in 1989 and 1991 with the collapse of communism, is the fading of revolution as something which has political salience. Second, I think it has to do with the broad transformation of political life and political culture both in America and in France that’s come with globalization, and the increasing attention to the need to set things in a global context. One thing that Furet ignored, like almost every historian of the Revolution before him, was Haiti, and that was really a big omission. These three colonies were driving the growth of the French economy and were very important to the expansion of the European economy as a whole in the eighteenth century that would set the stage for industrialization. All of this is borne out of these absolutely hideous conditions for slaves in the Caribbean, and recently, there’s been a lot more attention paid to these kinds of global patterns of interaction and interchange, and that of course has taken attention away from what was happening in Paris.

Shenk: This global turn has taken place among historians and across the humanities and social sciences, but you’ve been a bit of a skeptic.

Bell: I don’t have anything against this turn. I think it has been a very important and revealing move for historians, but you have to make a distinction. It’s one thing to set these events in the broader context and to pay due attention to the importance of these global forces, but you can’t then go further and say this explains everything. What happened in Paris itself really mattered. The French Revolution is an astonishing moment of extraordinary political utopianism, which again would have appeal all over the world. It is the moment in which the revolutionaries do something no revolutionaries in European history had tried to do before: overthrow Christianity. Notre Dame Cathedral gets turned into a “temple of reason,” Joseph Fouché, who would later be Napoleon’s police minister, goes around putting signs up on cemeteries saying “Death is an eternal sleep.” They attempt to move towards an idea of enforcing social equality through taxation and redistribution of wealth. The extent to which this is just an amazing break has to be appreciated. You can’t explain this rapid radicalization simply by placing it within patterns of global trade. It’s important for setting up what happens, but it’s always important to note that there are these extraordinary moments in history, whether it is the moment when you see the birth of Islam in the seventh century, or the Reformation in Germany in the sixteenth century. When so much happens so quickly in these tiny little spaces, you have to look to see what’s actually going on.

Shenk: When you’re trying to encompass the world, it makes it difficult to either construct a narrative or provide a causal account unless you’re willing to embrace a strong Marxist argument or some other macro theory of history.

Bell: Absolutely, and I think that that’s a shame, because a lot of the global histories that have been attempted, Christopher Bayly’s work, or Jürgen Osterhammel’s world history of the nineteenth century, are wonderfully broad, descriptive works.

Shenk: But the analysis is always “here are five things that could be operating.”

Bell: Exactly. You get the sense of these great sloshing oceans of change where there are twenty currents going in different directions. It’s very hard to identify, not even simple causality, but to identify processes at work by which things happen. When we talk about how history can appeal to a broader audience, explanation is important. However difficult it may be to identify the causes of something, we need to still struggle to do this because people turn to history to find out why something happened.

Shenk: On that question of broader audience, many of these essays in this collection were published not in scholarly journals, but for general readers, especially in the New Republic. What drew you to writing for these publications targeted at broader audiences?

Bell: Some of it is obviously my own personal history. My father Daniel Bell is often seen as a key member of the New York intellectuals. My uncle Alfred Kazin also comes out of that milieu, where people certainly didn’t see any kind of hard and fast divide between writing something that is intellectually serious, and writing something that might also appeal to a general audience. I think they always saw themselves as trying to make an impact in whatever way they could on a broader world. Personally I always thought in college that I was going to be a journalist, and after college I ended up working at the New Republic. I was talking to Leon Wieseltier, who was the literary editor at the time, about whether or not I should go to graduate school because I had an offer to go to Princeton. He said, “Even if you end up writing for magazines, it’s always important to know something about something, to have a base of knowledge that gives you at least some degree of intellectual heft,” so I followed his advice and went. I was lucky enough to be going to graduate school in one of the rare moments in the last forty years when there were actually jobs for historians, so I’ve been able to make a career doing it. At the same time, I wanted to continue writing for a general audience, and I was lucky to have these connections from that year at the New Republic.

Shenk: You end this book by talking about the limitations of history for understanding where France is today. Can you explain?

Bell: In David Rieff’s forthcoming book, he writes about the importance of forgetting in history. There are ways in which historical thinking can really trap us. I think the single worst example of this is the way we remain imprisoned when we think about the world outside the United States by the Second World War. You have neoconservatives like Charles Krauthammer who, basically every time they’re presented with a foreign policy issue, immediately start screaming Munich, Munich, Munich! Neville Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain! That is, unless we’re incredibly aggressive right now, we’re going to be stomped on, which is just absurd.

In France today, we have a kind of unprecedented situation, where the country is trying to deal with a large Muslim population, which has actually integrated into French society surprisingly well. But people don’t actually see that. What they see is the misery of the ghettos outside of Paris and they see the extremes to which a very small percentage of these people are driven.  French intellectuals keep reaching back to the history of their own country, particularly to ideas about laïcité or secularism, which they see as a solution. These ideas are clearly completely inappropriate for dealing with this very new situation that has much more in common with what’s happening in Sweden today, or Denmark, or Germany, than it has in common with what happened in France in the nineteenth century.

Shenk: This, despite your skepticism about the global turn being applied to solve all problems at the historical level.

Bell: For understanding the problems of ethnic minorities and religious minorities in France, the French Revolution is not going to be of that much help. I think it’s very important not to keep referring to the traditions of the Revolution and French Republicanism, but instead to put it in a global frame and to recognize that France is facing challenges that countries across the world are facing now, with large scale movements of population, with religious tension, and so on and so forth. That’s really the analytical frame you have to place these particular problems in.

Shenk: Do you see echoes of that in the United States today? The argument’s been made that with the Sanders campaign demonstrating the appeal of a more aggressive left and with the Trump revolt pushing Republicans toward a kind of white ethno-nationalism that’s made its peace with the welfare state, politics in the United States is starting to look a lot more like politics in Europe.

Bell: When I was becoming politically aware and then starting out as an historian, we still lived in a kind of world in which we thought of France as a country of great, rigid ideological divides, while we thought of the United States as a place of mushy, centrist compromise.

Shenk: This is in Ronald Reagan’s administration?

Bell: Before then, in the 1970s when Nixon was founding the EPA and things like that. Already by the 1980s we were clearly moving towards ideological polarization ourselves, even while the French seemed to be moving away from it. But on the other hand, there’s a great similarity in that in both the United States and France, you have these groups on both the left and the right that above all are rejecting globalization for very different reasons. On one side they are rejecting neoliberalism that they see as oppressive, on the other side, because they are xenophobic nativists who are rejecting foreigners. But you see a kind of confluence. In this country too, you see people who hesitate between voting for Sanders or for Trump, even if the Sanders people don’t want to acknowledge this, just the way in France there are people who are sometimes torn between voting for the Trotskyite, extreme left, or people like Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who tries to resurrect an old red-flag revolutionary tradition, or voting for Marine Le Pen. I have a colleague at Princeton who talks about the parties of “ouverture” and “fermeture,” of openness towards the world and closing yourself off from the world, and in some ways, I think the Sanders position does relate to the people who want a kind of closing off. They’re afraid, for very good reasons, of the kind of global economic forces which they feel that they might be at the mercy of.

David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton. He is the author of four previous books, including the prize-winning The First Total War, and writes regularly for a number of journals and magazines.

Timothy Shenk is a graduate student in history at Columbia University and a Dissent contributing editor. He is the author of Maurice Dobb: Political Economist.

Want to read our Spring issue for free? Sign up for our newsletter by March 31 to receive a full PDF when the issue launches.


We need Dissent more than ever.

Sign up to the Dissent email list to receive biweekly article roundups, issue previews, event invitations, and more.