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

Caroline Warman suggests that a complex period is oversimplified as the result of a forceful agenda

As I was preparing to write this review, the R. H. Gapper Prize, the big event in French studies, was announced. This year it went to Siân Reynolds’ Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland. The jury applauded the book’s modesty in not claiming to be the definitive account, and its ability to persuade while “acknowledging throughout the evasiveness of history and the unreliability and subjective interpretation of historical documents”. The contrast between such an approach and that of the eminent but controversial Jonathan Israel’s more bullish one is almost comical. He charges into the arena with one “big” cause of the French Revolution and an urgent agenda: to make readers accept that this big cause is what he terms “radical Enlightenment”, and that its proponents, republican politicians such as Jacques Pierre Brissot, punched above their weight, having a disproportionate impact over the course of the “authentic Revolution”. Is he at risk of simplifying an unmanageably complex era into a cartoonish game of goodies and baddies?

This is the fourth volume in Israel’s juggernaut account of the Enlightenment, and it has the same qualities and provokes the same anxieties as the earlier three. Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006) and Democratic Enlightenment (2011) marshal a huge number of texts, encounters, languages and contexts into one big story, the point of which is to show that Spinoza was the first to articulate the values of equality and religious tolerance that we now associate with the Enlightenment, and that these values worked their highly charged way through Europe and beyond for a century, finding ultimate expression in the French Revolution. Israel’s own convictions about equality, tolerance and republicanism are palpable and deeply mark his work. Thus, “radical Enlightenment” leads to the “authentic Revolution” and its “core values”, culminating in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, while Robespierre’s dictatorship and the violence of 1793-94 are not part of that authentic revolution, but the result of resistance to it by illogical moderates who become power-crazed hypocrites.

Israel scorns Robespierre and those he presents as his brainwashed supporters: “the essence of Robespierrisme”, he writes, “was the dragooning of misinformed artisans by manipulated section assemblies”. When it comes to the bloody events of Thermidor, Robespierre fell because “not enough of the least aware could be produced when it mattered most”. This is a startling formulation, and strikingly anti-populist. In fact, Israel’s account denies any significant influence to popular uprisings.

He thus clears the way for a narrative that brings to the fore the official debates of the revolutionary governments, and it can be thrilling to follow their daily cut and thrust. But it can also be a fatiguing read, with its single message about the disproportionate reach of what Israel calls “the nouvelle philosophie” serving to over-organise the mass of material. The endnotes, gathered in a great wad at the back, are terrible to navigate. Oh how I wished for the ever-present but unobtrusive footnotes allowed by his previous publisher, Oxford University Press. In the end, I simply cut the book in half for an enhanced reading experience. Not that easy access always helps, as sources and references are often hazy.

Take Diderot: his writings are consistently acknowledged as inspiring the “core values” of radical Enlightenment. I work on Diderot myself, and am predisposed to agree with anyone who argues for his importance. So I wanted to know which texts Israel is talking about. He doesn’t specify, and the only book by Diderot in the bibliography is the tricksy dialogue about Tahiti, the Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville. Otherwise, the endnotes tell us that Israel is actually referencing works by the philosophers Helvétius, d’Holbach or Raynal instead.

It is true that modern scholarship considers Diderot to be a hidden co-writer of d’Holbach’s militantly atheistic political theory, and that he was part of the team contributing to Raynal’s Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes, but Israel doesn’t work at this level of detail, and he doesn’t use the new (as yet incomplete) edition of Raynal’s work, which painstakingly identifies which paragraphs were penned by Diderot. On the penultimate page of Revolutionary Ideas, Israel does finally name the “major textual sources” he’s been alluding to throughout, and so far as Diderot goes, it’s the “political articles and exposition of la volonté générale in the Encyclopédie”. Fine: but even then authorship is not certain, as many of the Encyclopédie articles are unsigned, and all Diderot’s entries are anonymous from volume VIII onwards, that is, once work on the Encyclopédie was forced underground.

So why does Israel overstate the case about Diderot? Perhaps he considers that the fine detail of scholarship obscures the true picture, but if scholarship doesn’t stand by its principles of accuracy then the picture’s not going to be a true one anyway. For his account of the events and what motivated them, Israel often draws on contemporaneous partisan accounts, sometimes even paraphrasing them as if they were objectively accurate.

I have a particular bone to pick with Israel’s pervasive use of the terms “ideology” and “ideologues”: they were coined during the Revolution in 1796, by the republican philosopher Destutt de Tracy, to describe the “science of ideas” and those who studied it. The current quite different meaning, with its negative overtones of dogmatism, was determined by someone who hated this group of thinkers even though he’d once belonged to them. He redefined the term to discredit them, and his name was Napoleon. Does this not remind us that the French Revolution was not one thing but a welter of jostling factions, and that, as ever, the winning side got to write the history? I wish I didn’t have a lingering suspicion that Israel, with his radical Enlightenment agenda, might be writing in a similar vein.

Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre

By Jonathan Israel
Princeton University Press, 888pp, £27.95
ISBN 9780691151724 and 9781400849994 (e-book)
Published 30 April 2014

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