Orthodox and Revisionist Interpretations of the French Revolution
The French revolution was controversial when it happened. Historians still differ in their opinions after its bicentennial anniversary. Different interpretations of the event have bemused many historians as to actual meaning and impact of the revolution. So far there are two major interpretations held by historians today. In Echoes of the Marseillaise, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm defends the orthodox view against the revisionist view that has become popular among contemporary historians.
The first and conventional view states the French Revolution was a class war between the aristocracy and the new bourgeoisie ruling class. Hobsbawm and other historians favor this view because the literate revolutionaries defined the revolution as a class struggle. They considered it a bourgeoisie revolution because it was the complete collapse of the old stock and the birth of a new one. The revolution blew the evils of the old society such as privileges, divine right and feudal obligations to smithereens and brought in new ideas of universal suffrage and republicanism. Historians holding the conventional view also believed the French revolution to be a major event of history penetrating the political and social facets of innumerable societies. According to Hobsbawm the French revolution was “an event or a series of events of unprecedented size and scale, and impact” (Hobsbawm 5) The new ideas of republicanism spread like wildfire to Austria and the German states and mirrored what happened in France. The socialists, who saw the revolution as a prototype for the proletarian revolution, also championed the conventional view. The second view is the revisionist interpretation that became popular among historians because of new research after World War 2. According to Hobsbawm, they see the revolution through the lens of a modern, industrialized and capitalist France, rather than the old struggling agrarian society. Historians who hold this view do not believe the revolution was a war between the old and new social classes. They see the revolution to be a lesser and negative event that did not have a global impact and was only relevant for that century. According to them, it was a small scale event that after its collapse had brought the same state of affairs that it had tried to destroy.
Contemporary historians have renounced the conventional interpretations of the French revolution because of a myriad of reasons. Led by Alfred Cobban of London University, The revisionist view of the French revolution was spearheaded by Alfred Cobban of London University as a ““young scholar seeking to establish himself”” (Hobsbawm 104). The revisionist view became a possibility because of the accumulation of new research that cleared unanswered questions. According to Hobsbawm, the revisionists’ main argument is if the revolution was a bourgeois revolution, then capitalism would have been prosperous. Revisionist historians reject the class war view because they expected the revolution to produce a booming capitalist economy like that of Great Britain. When their expectations were not met, revisionist historians dumped the orthodox view because, if the revolution was a really a class struggle won by the economically prosperous bourgeoisie, France would have become an economic power like Britain. The second revisionist argument is the French revolution gave nothing to France and the world when compared to the terrible costs it incurred. The loss of life, the total destruction of society and all existing conventions drove people to madness as government after government collapsed painfully bringing everyone back to square one. When the revolution ended, Napoleon, a so called product of the revolution convened another empire. Revisionist Historians regard it as a bloody uprising rather than a revolution with new ideals because it failed to establish France as a republic. To them the revolution had no positive impact the old monarchy came back. The third revisionist argument concerned the Marxists, who despite their great knowledge about the revolution, began to “question what exactly constituted a bourgeoisie revolution, and whether such revolutions actually brought the bourgeoisie to power even when they occurred” (Hobsbawm 108). Thus, contemporary historians rejected the revolution’s conventional view all the more because even its most vigorous champions doubted its causes and effects.
Hobsbawm successfully points out a political motive in the revisionist views of the revolution. While the conventional view of the revolution represented the liberal left, the revisionist view seems to match that of the conservative right. It is obvious that the supports of the monarchy would have defaced the orthodox view because they disagreed with the republican ideals that the revolution propagated. According to Hobsbawm, “the line between the political Right and Left . . . separated those who believed in the Republic from those who rejected it” (Hobsbawm 102). Hobsbawm states the obvious: the revisionist view was politically motivated because it was propagated by the supporters of the Right who did not believe in the revolution and the republic.
The French revolution was truly monumental. It changed the face of society in France and rest of the world forever. Hobsbawm says, “The French revolution demonstrated the power of the common people in a manner that no subsequent government has ever allowed itself to forget” (Hobsbawm 112). Indeed, Hobsbawm is correct in noting the prolific spread of the French revolution’s ideals boundless encroachment far and wide. Eric Hobsbawm’s support for the conventional view of revolution is noteworthy because it was truly a class struggle, though nothing new came immediately.
The book I used for this paper
Hobsbawm, E. J. Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
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