Legacies of the French Revolution
The French Revolution was seen as a bourgeoise revolution in the two decades after it ocurred due the fact that it was now the middle classes who held sway in post Revolution France. Naturally this was not an ideal situation but in his book, Hobsbawn argues that the leftist tendencies of the original revolutionaries vanished by the 1820’s as the middle classes attempted to hold sway in all that was ocurring in France (Hobsawn 1991).
One also has to observe the social context in the 1820’s in France as this was now beginning to come to terms with the revolution’s implications and also the possible restoration of the monarchy. The Reign of Terror was over and had long gone and the country was going through a phase of political and social instability with the old ‘values’ being hearkened upon. Obviously some sort of revisionism on the revolution was long overdue and Hobsbawn argues that this perspective was to some extent inevitable. Leftist tendencies were seen by reactionaries as damaging to the country’s overall stability so there was an emphasis on putting the order back into society.
Hobsbawm continues to argue that the revolution achieved susbtantial results in its own way but yet again, the forces of conservatism attempted to dampen down this argument for their own ends (Hobsawn 1991). With leftism out of favour as a new industrial age becknoed, the situation was seen as all the more worrying for big business and other powerful forces in France who had no wish to see the poor and anarchists rise again and damage their substantial gains which were slowly building France up into an industrialized nation.
1This interpretation continued to develop during the 19th and 20th centuries as the rise of Marxism and Communism appeared to become a threat to social stability. The vast working masses needed to be brought under control and the situation was thus ripe for the blasting of the French Revolution as a plot from the left to destroy the established social order.
According to Hobsbawm this interpretation began to be discredited as workers began to calbour for more individual rights and thus fight against monarchical oppression as well as that coming from industry. He says that the successes of the Left in countries such as Russia and also to a certain extent, the UK demonstrated that the Revolution was the starting point of liberation for many peoples although ironically at that stage, France was quite a reactionary state (Hobsawm 1991).
The 1960’s saw a rise in revisionism of the French Revolution in France and the fear of Marxism and Communism continued to create situations where the same incident was seen as an eye opener for libertarian philosophies in Europe. The fact that the revolution ocurred in France almost a century before Europe began to reform was also seen as something quite avant garde. The Frenhch left which was gaining in influence and currency during that period also propagated this myth and Hobsbawm argues that all this brought about a revival in the appreciation of the whole French revolution per se.
Hobsbawn is very effective in his argument that the French Revolution transformed the whole world and this is actually an ongoing process of transformation which continues to this day. He argues that the social forces which brought about revolution made it easier for other social movements to become liberated from the shackles of tyranny, indicative examples being the fight more more worker’s rights as well as the emancipation of women. However his left leaning arguments do not always convince especially when he mentions the fact that the revolution continues to influence events up to this day.
There is obviously some form of political motivation in historical revisionism although I do not always believe that this is the case. Obviously, Hobsbawm comes from the left so his political motivation is pretty clear yet some French politicians also used the revolution as a means to mount populist assertions which went down well with the general public.
I found Hobsbawm’s arguments convincing when he espouses the sea change that the French revolution achieved in French society just after the revolution (McPhee 2009). Powerful clerics and the nobility were much reduced in influence and this all helped to build a solid France. However he is still slightly eccentric and rather fantastic in his assertions that the French Revolution still influences the world today and this is perhaps one of the low points of the book which could do with a little tapering down.
Hobsbawm remains a controversial historian but this book is an interesting and intriguing read which opens up new vistas on the French Revolution. Obviously there are some points which remain open to discussion but all in all this is a highly intriguing and very arresting book which deserves far wider currency.
Hobsbawm E J; Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution (Mason Welch Gross Lecture Series), 1991
McPhee P; Living the French Revolution, 1789-1799; Palgrave Macmillan 2009