Julia Nicholls on the French revolutionary tradition

In this week’s seminar, we looked at one of the most paradigmatic countries of revolution: France. We hosted Julia Nicholls (King’s College London) who presented part of her excellent new book on the development of the French revolutionary tradition after the Paris Commune of 1871. Calum Aikman sends this report – and you can listen again to Julia’s talk via the Audiomack link below or on the CSMCH podcast channel.

It is impossible to consider modern France without ruminating on the impact that ‘the Revolution’ has had on the nation’s fortunes. Historians have long considered it to be the dominant theme, the leitmotif through which the recent past can be understood – so much so that the word itself has taken on an almost omnipresent significance, and is used to refer not just to the famous events of 1789 and the following decade, but to all those insurrections that erupted in imitation throughout the nineteenth century.

But what did being a ‘revolutionary’ mean at a time when Revolution – in any shape or form – no longer seemed feasible? It is this question that Julia sought to answer in her paper, by concentrating on the decade following the collapse of the Paris Commune, the last of the great ‘revolutionary’ episodes, in 1871.

She began by arguing that conventional historiography frequently portrays late-nineteenth century revolutionaries as caught on the horns of a dilemma – they were, it is said, either compelled to struggle onwards in pursuit of an imagined future, at a time when their prospects were dim, or risk becoming trapped by the fervent need to worship the past.

Julia thinks this is an unproductive false dichotomy: many revolutionary activists were actually willing to critically reassess their tradition, and did so in a way that disentangled the Revolution as an idea from its specifically French context. At the same time, however, they remained conscious of the pervasive influence the Revolution still had in late nineteenth-century France. This resulted in an apparent paradox, for although the revolutionaries continued to embrace the legacy bequeathed by the Revolution, some were also sceptical of the claims that were made in its name.

So how did this manifest itself in practice? Instead of paying endless homage to the revolutionary tradition or futilely chasing their utopian visions, Julia claimed that the revolutionaries became fixated on trying to shape the character of the new Third Republic. Having been led by supporters of the monarchy in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Commune, from the late 1870s the Republic was in the hands of a moderate republican government.

Although egalitarian in sentiment, the refusal of the republicans to support the Commune had prompted accusations from the radical left that their apparently progressive bona fides amounted to ‘opportunism’, and Julia argued that once in power the government courted popularity among different electoral groups by seeking to tame the Revolution and make it ‘respectable’ – extolling its historical virtues on behalf of the liberal bourgeoisie, while simultaneously reassuring both conservatives and reactionary Catholics that it had ceased to present any kind of danger.

This Janus-faced strategy, which venerated Revolution but refrained from trying to actually re-establish it, unsurprisingly provoked radical activists such as the Marxist propagandist Gabriel Deville, who later claimed that the ‘public love and respect’ for the Revolution was merely ‘a trick of the eye’. Rather than respond with their own uncritical celebrations of the Revolution, however, the revolutionaries tried to ensure its relevance by placing it in a broader historical context. Many writers sought to trace the heritage of French revolutionary thought by drawing inspiration from events that occurred long before 1789, citing the inspiration of Spartacus and the popular hero Etienne Marcel among others. They also pursued their own alternative concept of Revolution, one which was based on ideas of wholesale social transformation rather than the parliamentary reformism of the republican government. Their ultimate aim, Julia said, was to provide an alternative, viable definition of what the Revolution could still be.

Julia expanded her ideas further by drawing attention to the example set by Louis Auguste Blanqui – at the time one of the leading intellectuals on the French revolutionary left. Blanqui’s work was influential, and became part of a shared discourse that involved many other political activists. But even he was affected by the environment that prevailed after 1871, as was demonstrated by his reconceptualisation of revolutionary politics during this period. In an influential text he wrote on standing armies, for instance, he drew inspiration not from the Revolution, but from the ‘grandeur’ of ancient Republics and America during the Civil War.

Nonetheless, Julia pointed out that the Commune did not unleash a fundamental change in Blanqui’s thought, but merely exacerbated a sceptical outlook that had existed long beforehand: as early as 1851, he wrote a toast to French exiles in London deploring those who revered the Revolution without any restraint, which he saw as leading to a ‘hail of bullets – and poverty always!’

Emile commenting on Julia’s paper

Commenting on behalf of the CSMCH, Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) struck an emollient tone, expressing his sympathy towards the main thrust of the arguments presented in the paper. But he felt that the notion of ‘tradition’ could have been examined more closely. Perhaps what Julia highlighted was an example of an ‘invented tradition’, he mused, a conglomeration of myths and realities that were vying to outflank each other?

With that in mind, he went on to outline three points for further consideration: first, that there is perhaps a difference between the ‘tradition of Revolution’ and the ‘inspiration of Revolution’; second, that temporality is important, with revolutionaries often using the past to justify their view of the future; and, finally, that geographical distance can often preserve a tradition that has been either subverted or diluted in its homeland.

Calum Aikman is a PhD student in History. His research mostly focuses on twentieth-century British and Scottish politics, trade union history and the fortunes of the Labour Party in the post-war era. His thesis is on the political thought of the Labour Party’s ‘revisionist’ right wing in the 1970s. He is a CSMCH steering committee member.