Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
by Simon Schama, published 1990
An attempt at an analytical reading
I’ve been reading as many books as ever lately, but I haven’t had the time or the interest to review much of what I have read perhaps in part because my reading has felt rather “aimless”. It isn’t that I am reading a random assortment of books willy-nilly with no unifying logic to why I take them off the shelf, it is more about not having a particular purpose as I read, failing to annotate and highlight and thus make the book my own and therefore ending up with the feeling of “What did I take away from this?”
Luckily for me, I read a book several years ago called “How To Read A Book” and posted what I think was a rather excellent summary of its main ideas. I went back to this post a few days ago as I became acutely aware of my perception of my recent reading experiences and looked it over and in so doing gained resolve.
As I work through this review, I aim to discuss the following:
- Classification of the book according to kind and subject matter
- State the “unity” of the book with utmost brevity
- Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation
- Define the problem the author is trying to solve
- Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with its most important sentences
- Know the author’s arguments by a sequence of sentences
- Determine which problems were solved and which were not
- Do not criticize until you can say “I understand”
- Do not disagree disputatiously (arguing to argue) or contentiously (being controversial for the sake of controversy)
- Demonstrate the difference between knowledge and opinion by presenting reasons for criticism
- If criticizing, demonstrate where the author is misinformed, uninformed, illogical or incomplete
Now, #5 is going to be tough because as I mentioned, I didn’t bother annotating or underlining anything in this book. I really don’t have an easy way to reference key ideas or moments where the author built his argument. Similarly, #6 is a challenge. Instead, I am working with my general impression of the text having completed it.
I also want to avoid criticism of the author and his treatment and focus on my own understanding of the subject as gleaned from the book. Although I’ve studied the events in detail at other times in my academic history and through other books (The Days of the French Revolution) I am by no means an expert on the period and I certainly haven’t read or investigated it enough to spot errors in the author’s knowledge or specific arguments. Instead, my desire is to explore what I took away from the reading and what about my own cognitive abilities or knowledge hindered me from getting more.
In that vein, one of the things HTRAB recommends is to read with the following question in mind: “What problem was the author trying to solve in writing this book?”
Related to this is the personal question: “Why am I reading this book? What question do I hope to answer by reading it?”
So why did I read “Citizens”? I’ve been exploring the cause of political revolutions for several years and over time my perspective is coalescing around the idea that there is no such thing as a popular revolution– that all political change occurs at the top and is pushed down rather than occurring at the bottom and destabilizing the top. My view is that a political system always has a set of elites at the top who control it (the “in elites”) and a set of elites who can be grouped as those without power but aiming to influence power or agitating to get it themselves (the “out elites”). These two groups are always in conflict with one another and while they may use non-elite social groups as a tool in the struggle, these non-elite groups never act autonomously or without the express authority and direction of one of the elite groups.
In ancient monarchic regimes, this view can be clearly exemplified by “intrigues of court” in which the monarch, his friends and his family are constantly fighting to maintain power against antagonized aristocratic groups and other claimants to the throne (internally) and foreign powers seeking domination or control (externally), with the frequent circumstance that foreign intrigues come to dominate internal politics and vice versa.
The two major countervailing examples of this theory are the American and French Revolutions, both of which were supposed to be popular uprisings against corrupt central authorities which results in a wholesale transformation of the political landscape. The more I studied the American Revolution, the more it became obvious that, for example, the Continental Congress was a group of colonial elites claiming representation of “the people” who were conspiring not for more liberty but to have and to create the power of the colonial government themselves in opposition to the British king and parliament. The French Revolution, then, seemed to stand alone as a popular affair.
The question: “Was the French Revolution an example of a spontaneous popular uprising or does it conform to the theory of elite conflict?”
I chose “Citizens” to explore this question because Simon Schama’s thesis is an explicit answer to that question: the French Revolution was not a popular uprising but an example of an elite-driven reform movement getting out of hand, and the end result of the event was not to put in place an entirely new governing structure but rather to exchange captains and confederates from one regime to another, with the means of governance and central social problems largely unchanged.
Schama divides “Citizens” into three parts:
Although the text largely moves chronologically, there is some jumping ahead (often in the form of acknowledgements of a particular person’s eventual fate, or the irony of their present behavior given a later position they adopt) and back. Each chapter attempts to explore a specific theme from multiple angles and people’s perspectives. The three parts of the book chronologically explore the ancien regime of Louis XVI, the events of the French Revolution leading up to the end of the monarchy and the formation of the revolutionary Republic and finally the implosion of the Republic into the Directory and the Terror.
As the title of the book suggests, another way to think of these parts is the changing conception of the French public (elites and commoners) from the subjects of a monarchy, to the citizens of a republic and finally, to un-personhood during the paranoia of the Terror in which everyone was suspect and might be tried and executed as a threat at any time. A final thematic overlay are the ideas and periods of reform, revolution and repression and retrogression.
The argument, outlined
In the first part, Schama explores the idea that rather than being a squalid, repressive and backward political entity, the French Monarchy of the late 1700’s was progressive-minded (even for its time) and was already engaged in various reforms up to the eve of the events which came to be known as the French Revolution. While the French state consisted of a large and growing bureaucracy and a complicated and at times oppressive tax authority, the monarch and his ministers were civic-minded and future-oriented and saw themselves as having a duty to improving the lives and welfare of the common public. From supporting internal trade freedoms to celebrating technological achievements (hot air balloons were an exciting development of the times), the French monarchy was engaged in a process of self-criticism and analysis and attempting to implement the “state of the art” in a variety of fields.
One major challenge to this effort was the financial overhang of the Seven Years’ War and French sponsorship of the American War of Independence which resulted in repeated strains and logjams as the monarchy tried to fund current expenditures. Another was the sense amongst many out elites, including a rising professional class of bureaucrats who had purchased or gained their office through personal qualification, that the reform movement wasn’t going fast enough and left too many undue privileges in the hands of hereditary nobles and entitled clergy.
This reform movement occurred against a backdrop of philosophical debate. While some elites held on to ancient notions of nobility, gentility and class, and new class of professional elites were held in thrall to the naturalism and humanism of Rousseau, who “Citizens” portrays as a peerless thought-leader amongst the aggrieved counter-elite. Rousseau held up a notion of primitive equality, simplicity and “sensibilite” as the hallmarks of an enlightened society in contrast to the ranks and obligations, splendor and sentimentality of the monarchy and aristocratic society.
The Revolution itself began as series of largely disconnected challenges to the power of the king and his ministers which initially aimed at testing their resolve and forcing their hand with regards to particular reforms. Over a short period of time, however, the various agitators united around a common theme– first, opposition to the monarchy itself and promotion of the establishment of competing institutions of social power (the Legislative Assembly) and later, the wholesale destruction of the monarchy and nobility as a threat to the revolutionary movement.
What is fascinating about this period is observing who the revolutionaries were. Not the members of the lynch mobs and other mass movements, but the members of the Legislative Assembly and other successive political bodies. These people were mostly current minor and major nobility, clergy, and many legal professionals and provincial politicians. The king’s own cousin, the Duc d’Orleans, was one of the leading revolutionaries (until he was guillotined in the ensuing hysteria of the Revolution) whose residence in Paris was a hotbed of anti-monarchic intellectualism and activity.
Although Paris fishwives drove the cannon to Versaille, none sat in the Legislative Assembly. Though artisans and other manual laborers helped tear down the Bastille, none spoke in the National Convention. And while peasants were recruited for the revolutionary militias to fight counter-revolutionaries foreign and domestic, no peasant’s son was a member of the Directory.
The revolution lost
The murder of Louis XVI, his wife and many of his ministers marked the physical end of the monarchy and the dawn of an elite civil war which culminated in the submission of the Republic at the feet of an even more powerful central authority, the military dictator and self-styled emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. With the legitimacy of power itself questioned by the revolution, it seems only natural that the logical outcome would be a series of murderous battles for power ending in the dominance of a military figure.
As I read the book and watched one “patriot” after another turn on each other and seek the shedding of blood as a solution to all crises and recriminations I wondered how much of the paranoia was sincere versus concocted to serve a short-term political purpose. Although launched by out elites originally, the Revolution created no stable platform for the in elites to control and thus the political competition intensified dramatically. The constant accusations of foreign plots and emigres counter-revolutionary schemes at times seemed constructed and artificial, yet the universalist tone of the French Revolution and the intermarriage of European political elites across national boundaries meant there were good reasons why foreign outsides wanted “in”, too.
One of my biggest challenges with this book is my inability to pronounce French words and names, and my limited understanding of many of the French terms and locations introduced, many of which I was unsure if they were properly defined before being relied upon in the narrative. For example, the term “ci-devant” was used in nearly every chapter, sometimes multiple times, but when I looked it up in the index for its first instance I saw no way to define the term other than a better reading of context than I had. I realize I should’ve looked it up right away, it refers to a “reactionary” political person and in the context of the French Revolution connoted an elite who resisted the changes brought about. This is a good example of the value of HTRAB’s suggestions of focusing on key language an author uses to make his arguments and studying the usage itself!
Relatedly, I struggled to keep track of all the major figures of the period, and there were many in part because this period convulsed much of French society but also partly because so many met grisly ends and had their responsibilities taken up by another who in turn became prominent in the proceedings.
Something I really enjoyed about Schama’s writing was its referencing of artistic works of the period which illustrated the events. It’s not so much that I am a simpleton who prefers words to pictures but rather, I felt the selection and abundance of imagery served to capture the mood and subtleties of various moments that are hard to appreciate in just reading about them. Especially interesting from this standpoint are the various “ideal imagery” commissioned by the revolutionary government to celebrate fallen heroes. The way these people are depicted, the details emphasized, the details left out and the obvious attempt to actively control the moral tone of events demonstrated the important role forms of propaganda played in elevating one faction and lowering another as the civil war raged on. The fetishism of the Roman Republic and its heroes and martyrs was also telling and very Rousseauian in the sense of idealizing noble savagery.
Is it not obvious that a revolution is betrayed by obsessing about the establishment of norms and structures which belong to the past?
I believe Simon Schama wanted to demonstrate that the Revolution was not spontaneous and grassroots, but an elite phenomenon, thus satisfying my curiosity. I think he also was concerned with highlighting the violence of the Revolution as a necessary part and logically-connected to its ideals, rather than something that was a minor theme or an unsightly outlier aspect. In both of these efforts, I believe he succeeded. I think I would’ve gotten much more out of this book if I had done more to “make it my own” as I read it. That being said, I enjoyed the read overall and found it truly terrifying contemplating how violent things can become when the out elites give up on working within the system. This was a strange observation for me to make because I don’t think of myself as a defender of the status quo or anxious to see a measured pace for reform and political change– just the opposite. I found myself wondering “which side” I would’ve taken, and what I might have done to ensure I survived to the end!