A People’s History of the French Revolution by Eric Hazan

9781781689844-3c88cfdcd2d6570b0b5c7e04f0b94626Where my previous read on the French Revolution (the original one) was a somewhat conservative choice (Simon Schama) – this one (by Verso books) was squarely on the left wing radical side of things. And by a Frenchman as well. That means that a little more knowledge may be expected going in – references to historians like Michelet, Jaures and Lefevbre are scattered throughout. Actually that’s rather the point of the book – dredging up real quotations from the revolutionary press (Marat, Hebert) and speeches by the politicians (Robespierre in particular) to challenge the standard interpretations and narratives.

The copy and paste approach doesn’t make for the smoothest read, but it does make its point well – the chosen quotes making Robespierre and even Marat seen much less extreme than their reputations. However, the obvious lack of balance detracts from this.  It’s difficult to get sucked into Hazan’s argument without being familiar with the arguments from the other side.

It also feels a shame (and not necessarily Hazan’s fault) that we don’t actually hear much from the “people” here, the closest we get is a bit of focus on the sans-culotte leadership.  The english title of the book is definitely less accurate than the more mundane French title Une histoire de la Révolution française

I did enjoy the book despite the flaws, but it isn’t the best of introductions to the period.

Revolutions Podcast Fundraiser II

Mike Duncan of Revolutions Podcast is doing another fundraiser (possibly more of a downsizing, as he moves house).  As ever, I’m interested in the books he’s selling – largely to add to my own reading list, so I’ve reproduced them below.  Check out his podcasts if somehow you haven’t, and if you are familiar with them, check out the extra episodes and some good t-shirts (I do like his “Livia did it” one).

Philosophy

  • Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant
  • On Revolution – Hannah Arendt
  • The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
  • Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes
  • Second Treatise of Government – John Locke
  • Essential Rousseau – JJ Rousseau
  • Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche
  • Beyond Good And Evil – Nietzsche
  • Thus Sprach Zarathustra – Nietzsche
  • Genealogy of Morals – Nietzsche
  • Autobiography – John Stuart Mill
  • On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
  • Utilitarianism – Mill and Bentham
  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume
  • Political Essays – David Hume
  • Cambridge Companion to David Hume
  • Surveys From Exile – Karl Marx
  • Common Sense and Rights of Man – Thomas Paine
  • Guerrilla Warface – Che Guevara

The English Civil War

  • The Causes of the English Revolution – Lawrence Stone
  • The Causes of the English Civil War – Conrad Russell
  • Britain in Revolution – Austin Woolrych
  • The Crisis of Parliaments – Conrad Russell
  • History of the Great Rebellion – Earl of Clarendon
  • Revolution, Riot and Rebellion – David Underdown
  • The World Turned Upside Down – Christopher Hill
  • The Century of Revolution – Christopher Hill

The American Revolution

  • Rules of Civility – George Washington
  • Washington – Ron Chernow
  • A Defence of the Constitutions – John Adams
  • The Federalist Papers
  • The Americans – Daniel Boorstein
  • American Scripture – Paulin Maier
  • Paul Revere’s Ride – David Hackett Fischer
  • The Birth of the Republic – Edmund Morgan
  • The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution – Bernard Bailyn
  • Radicalism of the American Revolution – Gordon Wood
  • The Unknown American Revolution – Gary Nash
  • Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution – Arthur Schlesinger
  • American Slavery, American Freedom – Edmund Morgan
  • The Glorious Cause – Robert Middlekauff

The French Revolution

  • Massacre at the Champs de Mars – David Andress
  • Talleyrand – Duff Cooper
  • The Longman Companion – Colin Jones
  • The Peasantry in the French Revolution – PM Jones
  • Twelve Who Ruled – RR Palmer
  • The Sans-culottes – Albert Soboul
  • The French Revolution and Human Rights – Lynn Hunt
  • Becoming a Revolutionary – Timothy Tackett
  • Reflections on the Revolution in France – Edmund Burke
  • The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars – TCW Blanning
  • Interpreting the  French Revolution – Francois Furet
  • The Coming of the  French Revolution – Georges Lefebvre
  • The Social Interpretation of the  French Revolution – Alfred Cobban
  • The King’s Trial – David Jordan

The Haitian Revolution

  • Toussaint L’Ouverture – Jean-Bertrand Aristide
  • The Haitian Revolution – David Geggus
  • Slave Revolution in the Caribbean – Laurent Dubois and John Garrigus
  • Haiti – Laurent Dubois
  • Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue – John Garrigus
  • You Are All Free – Jeremy Popkin
  • Confronting Black Jacobins – Gerald Horne
  • The Making of Haiti – Carolyn Fick
  • Facing Racial Revolution – Jeremy Popkin
  • The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon – Philippe Girard
  • A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution – Jeremy Popkin

Spanish-American Independence

  • Bolivar – Marie Arana
  • The Spanish-American Revolutions – John Lynch
  • Francisco de Miranda – Karen Racine
  • For Glory and Bolivar: The Remarkable Life of Manuela Saenz – Pamela Murray
  • Simon Bolivar – John Lynch
  • Writings of Simon Bolivar
  • Bolivar – JL Salcedo-Bastardo
  • The United States and the Independence of Latin America – Arthur Whitaker
  • The General in His Labyrinth – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Jose Antonia Paez – RB Cunninghame Graham

Rome

  • Scipio Aemillianus – AE Astin
  • The Civil War – Caesar

There’s also a baseball section, but I think that’s beyond my interests.

Citizens by Simon Schama

18370354716_2I think there are a few ways one can approach the French Revolution.  One is a biographical focus on the main characters – Schama does not do this, although he does cover Lafayette and Talleyrand in some detail.  Another is to deal with it thematically – Schama does not do this, although he deals with themes as and when they show up in the narrative.  Another still is do give a blow by blow account of the Revolution – this, for me, is what Schama does (the book is even subtitled ‘A Chronicle of the French Revolution‘).

It isn’t a light book.  Schama’s background leads him to show a particular focus on art.  The work of Jacques-Louis David is ever present.  And this pads out the book to an extreme length with detailed descriptions of the art and culture of the Ancien Regime and the Revolution.  The benefit of this is that one gets a feel for the atmosphere, the motives and the aesthetics of the participants.  The downside is that this isn’t necessarily an easy introduction to the topic – with action dispersed among lengthy commentaries on art. particularly in the early part of the book.  Some institutions just seem to pop up, while others are given solid explanations.

Another uneasy thing here for an introduction is Schama’s judgement on the Revolution.  He thinks it was a lot of violence, horror and disruption to very little benefit.  He might reluctantly admit that the focus on rights changed the direction of post-Revolutionary France, but it had little positive material benefit.  With all this focus on the personal loss and violence of the period 1789 to 1794, he doesn’t actually spent that long on the longer term effects of the revolution.  Never mind the revolutions of 1848, 1830 or Napoleon, he doesn’t even get to the Directory.

For all that, Schama does write very well and the sections on art and culture add something different, more visual, to the history of the revolution.  Maybe it doesn’t stand alone as an unbiased record, but there’s so much to the period that it would be hard to find a book of substance that does.  Perhaps, as Schama is currently on TV reworking an old Kenneth Clark BBC series, this could be thought of in similar terms as The French Revolution: A Personal View.