Revolutionary Ideas


Revolutionary Ideas –
An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre
By Jonathan Israel
Princeton University Press – £27.95

Philosophy swayed the public and no one could arrest its course.

Banish ignorance and your liberty is safe.

Were it not for the fact that the French Revolution and the ghastly, unfortunate Terror thereof, changed European (and perhaps) world history, some of the contents of this nigh tomb of a book could well read like the darkest of Samuel Becket plays, crossed with a trajectory of inexorable rolling-credits – straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.

From page 709 onwards for instance, there follows a further 22 pages in a section entitled Cast of Main Participants; which, if nothing else, substantiates the mere breadth of these twenty-five chapters (excluding a Prologue, Notes, Bibliography and Index). It’s all here, every aspect and character, politician and philosophical debate involved within the French Revolution, has been noted, recorded and debated upon within the surprisingly easy to read, Revolutionary Ideas – An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre.

As the author of The Oxford History of the French Revolution has himself said: ”There is nothing else quite like this book. It not only crowns one of the major individual history projects of the past century but also serves as a stimulus to fresh debate on the greatest and most fundamentally important of all revolutions.”

Indeed, historians of the revolution have oft taken for granted what was all too obvious to its contemporary observers – that the French Revolution was initially triggered by the varying radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Although more recently, scholars have pertained that the Revolution was instigated by social forces, politics, economies or that of culture – almost anything other than such abstract notions as liberty and equality.

Hence, this amazingly well-researched book, where one of the world’s leading historians on the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel, restores the Revolution’s intellectual influence to that of its centrifugal role. Drawing widely from an array of primary sources, Israel shows how the Revolution was set in motion by radical eighteenth-century doctrines, and how these ideas divided revolutionary leaders into vehemently opposed, ideological opponents; the results of which were the invariable turning points of the Revolution itself: ”[…] escalating ideological assault on the ancien regime was concerted not by professionals or lawyers but by a handful of discontented nobles, litteratures, renegade priests, and journalists, a group completely heterogeneous, socially and by education. What counted were neither numbers nor social background but rather their striking ideological cohesion and ability to sway their audience. They seized the urban public’s attention, deploying an entirely new revolutionary rhetoric of equality, democracy, and volonte generale (the general will).”

Brought to the fore on a number of occasions throughout Revolutionary Ideas, is the towering presence and prowess of one of the greatest thinkers, writers and composer’s of all time, the Genevan philosoper, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – whose Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract remain milestones within the pantheon of social and political thought to this very day.

To be sure, it is surely impossible to write almost anything on the French Revolution, without Rousseau coming into play at very regular, and substantial intervals.

So far as this book is concerned, Rousseau is already (thoroughly) mentioned in the Introduction, wherein Israel writes: ”Rousseau was the surpassing hero simultaneously of the Left and Right, a status no other ideologue ever achieved. Nevertheless, major leaders of the Revolution prior to 1793 remained mostly rather guarded and critical in their assessments of his admittedly massive contribution and some, like Condorcet, barely referred to Rousseau at all. Shortly after the Bastille’s fall in July 1789, Mirabeau […] exalted Rousseau for his central role in preparing the Revolution: never should one speak of liberty and the Revolution without paying homage to this immortal ”vengeur de la nature humaine.” Among Rousseau’s ”truths” pronounced truly philosophique by Mirabeau was his doctrine that the social system benefits men only if they all own something and no one possesses too much, a notion dear to Fauchet and many revolutionaries. Yet, there was also a continuous tension between the Rousseauist claim that men should be primarily guided by moral instinct and ”feeling,” ”le sens moral,” and the Radical Enlightenment’s allegiance to ”reason” alone.”

Within the above quotation alone, there is so much moralistic food for thought, the likes of which has surely influenced the likes of Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela et al. That ‘le sens moral” doesn’t really come into much of today’s political thinking, could be construed as a travesty of the (moral) truth.

But who in this day and ghastly age of crass consumerism, gives a darn about the (moral) truth?

Revolutionary Ideas, albeit it a weighty read, packs a number of political punches unto the shameful stasis of current-day, lethargic, me-me-me ideology. To describe it as a very, very worthy read, would be an understatement of colossal, consequentialist design. Even if only to miss out on the following: ”All men should enjoy the same ”rights.” The law should be remade on the basis of philosophique principles because ”reason” and equity are the sole criteria of moral and social legitimacy.”

David Marx


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