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

Reviewer: Jelmer Rotteveel

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


Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 2014

ISBN: 978 06 9115 17 24

888 p.

$39.95 / £27.95

€44, 99

An Intellectual History of the French Revolution
Revolutionary Ideas. An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre is the latest work by eminent British historian Jonathan Israel. Some of his earlier titles include The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806 (1998) and his three-volume history on the Enlightenment: the Radical Enlightenment(2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006) and Democratic Enlightenment (2011). In the presently discussed work he sets out to rectify some misconceptions on the causes of the French Revolution. As Israel states in his introduction:

‘Historians working on the French Revolution have a problem. All of our attempts to find an explanation in terms of social groups and classes, or particular segments of society becoming powerfully activated, have fallen short. As one expert [historian Peter Campbell, author of The Origins of the French Revolution] aptly expressed it: “The truth is we have no agreed general theory of why the French Revolution came about and what it was- and no prospect of one”’(p. 6)

Moreover, instead of being one Revolution, it was:

‘in reality three revolutions in one: a democratic republican revolution, a moderate Enlightenment constitutional monarchism invoking Montesqieu and the British model as its criteria of legitimacy, and an authoritarian populism prefiguring modern fascism.’(p. 693)

The last few decades scholars have argued that the Revolution was caused by economic, political, social or cultural circumstances, despite the fact that contemporary observers had already noted that it was caused by the radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Israel has taken up the challenge of putting the intellectual history of the Revolution back front and center. Instead of being caused by the abovementioned circumstances, he claims it was caused by radical eighteenth-century doctrines. To prove his point, he guides the reader through the various stages of the Revolution, starting off by introducing some of his main characters and the ‘Revolution of the Press’ between 1788-1790. In this chapter he explores the way in which the philosophes-revolutionnaires managed to spread their ideas and achieve their ascendancy with considerable popular support. Not by publishing books, as ‘most ordinary folk did not read their books and would scarcely have understood had they tried’, but through cheap tracts and pamphlets. (p. 48) From then on, Israel discusses various major themes at length, highlighting several important phases (such as the democratization of the Revolution, the period of deadlock (November 1790-July 1791), when the course the Revolution should take appeared unclear, and the flight of king Louis XVI to Varennes. The latter created great apprehension. Should it have succeeded, it would mean inevitable foreign intervention and civil war; It also ruled out the chance of bringing about a constitutional monarchy, as the constitutional monarchists that remained ‘found themselves tied to a sullen prisoner king and court who resented and opposed them secretly, abetted by much of the army’s officer corps and clergy’ (p. 163). Conflict with the clergy was to escalate into a full-blown (in Israel’s words) ‘War with the Church’ (1788-1792). ‘The papacy and ecclesiastical hierarchy repudiated the Revolution’s core values altogether. Outright conflict between Revolution and Church was wholly certain from the outset.’ (p. 181). These are but two of the important phases Israel identifies and discusses at length. Other major themes include the confusing and violent summer of 1792, when large scale killings took place and concluding with the end of thirteen-hundred years of French monarchy with France becoming a formal republic in September 1792. At the same time, the Republic ‘adopt[ed] a stringently antimonarchical and antiaristocratic rhetoric and profile in visual imagery while simultaneously launching a barrage of political propaganda closely linked to the intensifying war with practically all of Europe’ (p.277); the division among the republicans from September 1792 to March 1793; the ‘General Revolution’ when it was attempted to ‘export’ the revolution, starting with the Battle of Valmy and ending with the defeat and collapse of the Revolution in Germany and the Low Countries (but not in Switzerland). Conflict between the Revolution and the Church was not the only thing that was certain from the outset. Conflict with foreign powers was a certainty as well:

‘Brissot, Condorcet, Carra, Gorsas, Roederer, and their foreign associates Cloots, Gorani, and Paine, all believed the Revolution could ultimately succeed only by defeating the combined international and external menace- French royalism and the European powers linked by the armed émigrés.’ (p. 243 )

Israel goes on by discussing the drafting of the ‘world’s first democratic constitution’ (Chapter 13), the role of education, Robespierre’s rise to power, the Terror, and much more. He ends by discussing the Revolution’s ‘failure’ and the coup of Brumaire of Year VIII (November 1799). Israel concludes his lengthy narrative with the resounding statement that:

‘Radical Enlightenment was incontrovertibly the one “big” cause of the French Revolution. It was the sole fundamental cause because politically, philosophically, and logically it inspired and equipped the leadership of the authentic Revolution. It could do so because the Radical Enlightenment alone offered a package of values sufficiently universal, secular, and egalitarian to set in motion the forces of a broad, general emancipation based on reason, freedom of thought, and democracy.’ (p. 708).

While his work sufficiently shows that the Radical Enlightenment was indeed of great importance, Israel seems to forget that there are many more factors at play. The circumstances in which the Revolution took place were not only created by the revolutionary thinkers, but they themselves were able (or forced) to act according to social, political, economic or cultural circumstance. They did not operate in a void, writing and orating the Revolution forward. Additionally, Israels’ narrative seems to reveal a certain preference for several among their number (and a disdain for others) thus creating an image of a conflict between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. His choice of naming Robespierre’s rise to power a ‘Putsch’ is remarkable in this respect and shows he might be taking his notion that the authoritarian populism prefigured fascism a bit too far. However, with his Revolutionary Ideas he may not have provided, as he has aimed to do, the definitive account on the Revolution, but he has laid the foundations for more extensive research into its intellectual side. Let us hope his work will provide a starting point for more research of this character to place the intellectual history of the Revolution in its rightful place. Not above, but among, the other major factors that have brought this monumental historical phenomenon into being.

Jelmer Rotteveel