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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: 1789, l’esprit de la Révolution

by Lucien Louvrier

1789, The Spirit of the French Revolution

Translated Saturday 28 April 2007, by Isabelle Métral

In a brilliant synthesis entitled "1789, The Heritage and the Memory" ("1789, l’héritage et la mémoire"), French historian Michel Vovelle sums up a lifetime of research into the French Revolution’s heritage and the history of its memory in French society and beyond.

To conflate in a dense historiographic synthesis the sum of a lifetime of research on the French Revolution is a formidable achievement, especially as the author takes in both the political, institutional, and cultural legacy of the revolutionary period and its memorial inscription in French society and in the world from the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815 to the present day.

Dedicated to Georges Lefebvre’s famous “1789”, a combative study written in 1939 for the 150th anniversary of the Revolution and banned a few months later by the collaborationist Vichy government, Vovelle’s essay draws freely upon lectures that have never been published or are just about to be published, on texts published abroad (which French readers cannot easily come by), well-known conferences and academic communications as well as earlier studies. The author has extracted the gist of all these so as to put two complementary issues in perspective. Firstly, how much has the Revolution achieved (from a pragmatic point of view, i.e. how much have we inherited from it?) Secondly, through the filter of memory and its successive revaluations, how did this heritage change at each successive stage in the history of our relation to the revolution itself?

Though Michel Vovelle modestly insists this is no scholarly study, readers will be legitimately impressed by the rich knowledge in which the study has its source. The great issues investigated by researchers and specialists since the bicentenary have been systematically re-contextualised and re-interpreted in the light of the latest developments of historiography, whether in relation to what lies at the core of the philosophical legacy, the famous proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, so singularly specific to the French Revolution on account of its modernity when compared with the English and American precedents, or in relation to more concrete elements like the abolition of the feudal system or the rise of modern politics through the exercise of citizenship. Though the author clearly establishes what he calls “our debt” to the Revolution in respect of the system of values it has handed down, he also points to the darker sides, the grim years known as the Terror ) or the religious divide that grew wider as a result of the fast-track dechristianisation enforced in 1793 (the second year or“An II” of the Republic in the Revolutionary calendar).

In the chapters devoted to memory, Michel Vovelle notes that during the two centuries that followed the Revolution, one part of the legacy remained unquestioned, namely modern representative political democracy. Yet from the 1960s onwards many intellectuals denounced the myth and illusions it had nourished as they saw in it the matrix of totalitarianism (Talmon) or the origin of equalitarian fantasies that were an obstacle to society’s smooth, unchallenged, and confident progress towards neo-liberalism (Furet). This irrepressible trend, which carries a radical critique of the very concept of revolution, culminated in the 1989 celebration of the bicentenary, when François Furet bluntly declared: “The Revolution is over.”

Is it? Vovelle asks, after mapping the evolution of French people’s political behaviour in the light of the great polarities that have structured French politics from the time of the Revolution. Updated after the last elections, the maps he publishes today show the persistence of the very modes of behaviour that originated in the Revolution.

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