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Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre.

Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, by Jonathan Israel. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2014. 870 pp. $39.95 US (cloth).

The culmination of his massive four-volume series tracing the Enlightenment from Baruch Spinoza through the end of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Israel offers a characteristically ambitious and original interpretation of the French Revolution certain to spark widespread debate.

Israel shows little patience for any preceding school of Revolutionary historiography. Social interpretations and the study of broad political cultures, in his view, only "enrich the background" (p. 10). Francois Furet's intellectual history-based revisionism viewing the Rousseauianism of Robespierre as the Revolution's purest discourse, which dominated the field in recent decades, he declares, "needs rejecting just as comprehensively" (p. 28).

In their place, Israel--building from some revolutionaries' contemporary interpretations and early nineteenth-century histories of the Revolution--looks to interpret the Revolution as the product of la philosophic, which he interprets to mean the democratic Enlightenment he explores in his preceding 2011 volume. Consciously looking for a "single dramatic factor" (p. 14) to explain the era's radicalism, Israel--albeit with characters shiftily coming and going in his grand narrative--looks to identify a coterie sponsoring a comprehensive series of drastic changes. "The Revolution," Israel argues, "was above all a process of emancipation, democratization, and fundamental renewal on the basis of human rights" (p. 12).

Of course, the French Revolution was also many other things besides a movement for democratic Enlightenment, but Israel ably traces his cause's influence through the era. Israel begins his Revolution not with the Parlements or local Cahiers de Doleances, but rather with the Committee of Thirty, a coterie of radical pamphleteers operating out of Paris' Palais Royal which would most famously influence the production of member Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes' What is the Third Estate? Though Israel does not add to the little evidence surviving of the Committee's workings, and the figures involved are not normally described as neither a unified group nor "uniformly republican," (p. 35) as Israel calls his protagonists, he sees their influence as predominant. Israel tracks such radical ideas' influence through the early Revolution through their enactment into the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

Thereafter, Israel takes on the challenge of tracing the role of "democratic republican" thinkers and factions in their battles against "constitutional monarchism" during the Revolution's first years, and the radical alternative of "authoritarian populism" (p. 695) he sees Robespierre's faction as embodying. Though not a French Revolutionist by training, Israel gamely approaches Revolutionary debates and infighting--but with an often-excessive polarization matching outlying Revolutionaries' most excessive rhetoric.

The constitutional monarchism of Revolution's middle years is often neglected in Israel's treatment. Despite virtually all Revolutionaries' desire to end the Revolution and enact a compromise order, Israel remains adamant that "so powerful a philosophique republican undercurrent" (p. 141) could not remain ignored for long. The break with Catholicism is described as "wholly certain from the outset," (p. 181) while the push toward the overthrow of the monarchy is primarily attributed to "[Jacques-Pierre] Brissot, [the Marquis de] Condorcet and their colleagues" (p. 253) in the National Assembly rather than a contingent action of the federe and Parisian popular movements in the final insurrection of August 10, 1792.

Israel's "culmination of the Radical Enlightenment tendency" (p. 348) is the Constitution of February 1793. Curiously, for a movement Israel has traced over a century and a half, he describes its final triumph as one of moderation, which after having vanquished monarchy "sought a judicious middle path between the Scylla of direct democracy and the Charybdis of pure representative democracy" (p. 348). Israel's Revolution is that of Condorcet and his cohort, seeking free speech, individual expression, measured dissent, and meritocracy.

Instead of seeing the Robespierrists as the climax of the Revolution, as common in both Marxist accounts and in Furet's "Revisionist" cohort, Israel instead views the radical Jacobins as the supreme counter-enlightenment, "an early form of modern fascism" (p. 221) a century and a half availt la lettre. Recasting the Montagnards as "the men who wrecked the Revolution" (p. 21), Israel looks to isolate them from their earlier alliances with the parti philosophe. Though making a convincing case for the radical Jacobins' suppression of pluralism and particular targeting of philosophes, the argument that "the Terror was a general suppression of all the Revolution's essential principles and philosophy" (p. 510) seems to too easily elide the bellicose plans the Girondins themselves fostered while empowered in 1792-93.

At no point, however, does Israel precisely define the individuals making up his 'democratic Enlightenment' cohort. With the book presenting a comfortable narrative of the revolution, at no point do we get a detailed prosopography of those involved and the symmetry (or asymmetry) of their opinions. A "Cast of Main Participants" provided at the study's end winds up including everyone from the arch-counterrevolutionary Comte d'Artois to Robespierre, with no sense given as to who is or is not included in the radical Enlightenment coterie.

Israel, meanwhile, remains contemptuous toward the influence and roles of virtually all groups he places outside his vague "democratic Enlightenment" cohort. The popular movements of Paris gain particular scorn as "the Revolution's prime obstacle" (p. 16)--easily manipulated, prey to radical Jacobin populism. Though recognizing the Bastille uprising's importance for passing leadership to his "small, unrepresentative clique" (p. 70), Israel attempts to portray popular actors as manipulated throughout--by democratic Enlightenment leaders like Camille Desmoulins and Nicolas de Bonneville during the Bastille uprising, republican agitators in 1791, and Jacobin sectional leadership in 1793--describing the "supposedly sans-culotte uprising" of May 31 that year as "Robespierre's putsch" (p. 433). Among rural movements, Israel places them beyond his purview as "[l]ittle evidence really survives as to how the uneducated common people really thought" (p. 38).

Yet by so strongly barricading his prized philosophes olf from the Revolution's broader movements and social milieu, Israel does little to explain the dialogues influencing the radical pamphleteers and politicians. Popular pressure, as Israel repeatedly notes in passing, on several occasions did help push forward major revolutions of the mind: the project for a Declaration of Rights gained Assembly support only after heavy lobbying from the Paris districts (p. 57), and Israel briefly concedes the August 10, 1792 uprising which overthrew the monarchy was a "highly disciplined and coordinated uprising, led by politicized commissaires of the democratic sections" (p. 256). Elis arguments for philosophe direction in 1789 and 1791, or Jacobin control of popular movements in 1793, rest on only the thinnest shreds of evidence and innuendo.

Despite his conscious attempt to craft a radically new interpretation, Israel's sympathies are overtly and heavily Girondin--returning to the easy crutch of the nineteenth-century liberal historians demarcating a 'good' French Revolution up until 1793 before castigating Jacobin excesses thereafter--and remaining queasy at the prospect of undirected popular action throughout.

However, a vigorous polemic like Israel's in certain respects could help jolt French Revolutionary studies out of its recent lethargy in interesting ways. This book will doubtlessly make historians think harder about the relationship of the radical Enlightenment with the early French Revolution, and on the relationship between Robespierre's Jacobin faction and the Revolution as a whole. Written with spirited argumentation and a popularizing verve unseen since Simon Schama's Citizens, Israel's Revolutionary Ideas will doubtlessly be discussed for a long time.

Micah Alpaugh

University of Central Missouri
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Author:Alpaugh, Micah
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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