Review – Citizens

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:

  1. Classification of the book according to kind and subject matter
  2. State the “unity” of the book with utmost brevity
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation
  4. Define the problem the author is trying to solve
  5. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with its most important sentences
  6. Know the author’s arguments by a sequence of sentences
  7. Determine which problems were solved and which were not
  8. Do not criticize until you can say “I understand”
  9. Do not disagree disputatiously (arguing to argue) or contentiously (being controversial for the sake of controversy)
  10. Demonstrate the difference between knowledge and opinion by presenting reasons for criticism
  11. 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?”

Origins

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.

Structure

Schama divides “Citizens” into three parts:

  1. Alterations
  2. Expectations
  3. Choices

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.

Transitions

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.

Closing remarks

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!

Review – Napoleon: A Life

Napoleon: A Life

by Andrew Roberts, published 2015

I’ve long been fascinated by political revolutions, where they come from, how the unfold, whether they’re effective in actually changing the social organization of the society which experiences them. But I have not spent as much time studying reactions to political revolutions. Having read several books about the French Revolution, I decided it was time to study the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte. Going into my reading, the primary questions I had in mind were:

  • What social conditions existed in revolutionary France that permitted Napoleon’s rise?
  • Was he actually a reformer and, to the extent he was, were his laws innovative or “useful”?
  • Was he truly a great leader and military commander and, if so, what personal characteristics did he possess which might have contributed to his success?
  • Do “Great Men” exist and if so, was he one of them?

As I read Roberts’s lengthy and overall balanced biography of Napoleon — it’s clear he believes in the Great Man theory of history and would put Napoleon in that category, but he rarely engaged in hagiography and was ready to admit his foibles, though also quick to wave them away as typical of the time or typical of humanity in general — I also developed a few more questions:

  • Why wasn’t Napoleon’s regime stable?
  • Why did Napoleon promote so many family members to positions of power (especially outside France)?
  • Could he have enjoyed a durable peace with neighboring countries, particularly Great Britain?

Setting aside Napoleon’s personal energy, intelligence and social talents, a large part of his rise appears to be attributable to timing and luck.

Rarely in military history has there been so high a turnover of generals as in France in the 1790s. It meant that capable young men could advance through the ranks at unprecedented speed… having been on leave for fifty-eight of his ninety-nine months of service — with and without permission — and after spending less than four years on active duty, Napoleon was made, at twenty-four, a general.

Surely it takes exceptional talent to even be considered for such a promotion at such a young age. But just as surely, Napoleon would not have been in a position to see and do the things he saw and did, when he saw them and when he did them, had this condition not existed by which he could achieve such a promotion at such a young age. The text doesn’t state whether any other generals were appointed at such an age around the time Napoleon was but it doesn’t matter– it is not to say that a “Napoleon” was bound to arise in such conditions, but only that it’s hard to imagine the Napoleon arising without such conditions.

And this luck or timing factor is a double-edged sword which can also help to explain his rapid political decline:

Many of the phenomena of Napoleonic warfare that had been characteristic of his earlier campaigns — elderly opponents lacking energy, a nationally and linguistically diverse enemy against the homogenous French, a vulnerable spot onto which Napoleon could latch and not let go, a capacity for significantly faster movement than the enemy, and to concentrate forces to achieve numerical advantage for just long enough to be decisive — were not present or were simply impossible in the vast reaches of European Russia. The Russian generals tended to be much younger than the general Napoleon had faced in Italy — averaging forty-six years old against the French generals’ forty-three — and the Russian army was more homogenous than Napoleon’s. This was to be a campaign utterly unlike any he had fought before, indeed unlike any in history.

Whereas in his early political and military career all of Napoleon’s strengths proved to be an uncannily perfect fit for the weaknesses of his opponents, the environmental factors shifted such that Napoleon faced a political-evolutionary dead end. Having mistook his earlier luck for fate, he mismeasured (or was simply unaware of) the enormous risks he was taking in this new, hostile environment and committed himself in such a way that he was doomed to be defeated.

Napoleon’s record as a social reformer is similarly mixed and confused. Although he rose to power supported by the burgeoning middle classes of France by vowing to defend the redistribution of Church and aristocratic property confiscated during the Revolution, Napoleon put in place a confusing and economically regressive system of managed trade (internal and external) known as his “Continental System” which was an intellectual continuation of the mercantilist Colbertism of the French monarchy, which was aimed at disrupting the trade economy of Great Britain and thus its willingness and ability to fight but which ended up proving more aggravating and ruinous to those same middle classes, as well as the economies of various French political allies.

France had reached only the level of industrialization that Britain had enjoyed in 1780, an indictment of revolutionary, Directory and Napoleonic economic policy and the Colbertism they all followed. ‘I never saw him reject a proposition that was aimed at encouraging or supporting industry,’ recalled Chaptal.

The Continental System was truly byzantine, an irony given that the multitude of taxes and trade regulations put in place by the French crown prior to the Revolution bred a nation of smugglers and tax evaders which sowed social instability and a lack of respect for the crown’s authority:

Different types of licenses costing different amounts authorized different companies from different departments to trade in different prescribed commodities with different foreign ports. The rules were constantly changing, seemingly capriciously, with endless clauses and sub-clauses covering every likely combination and permutation.

How could Napoleon’s regime achieve stability under such economic conditions induced by this policy? In fact, Napoleon specifically “rejected the idea of competition and free exchange as positive phenomena”, a formula almost guaranteed to produce conflict at home and war abroad. A zero-sum world is inhabited by predators and prey alone. Combined with Napoleon’s reckless and nearly constant warfighting, the French economy was very nearly wrecked, as evidenced by the fact that “at his best, he was forced to borrow at higher rates than Britain at its worst.” The upkeep of the military and the logistics of fighting far from home had a devastating effect on the finances of Napoleon’s state.

Napoleon put in place a system of mulcting conquered territories via “contributions” which were to help offset the costs of the wars. He also forced occupied territories to pay for the provisioning and billeting of troops. Despite these policies, Napoleon had to raise taxes and customs duties at home and engage in egregious borrowings. Rather than being a profit center, the wars were a weight around the neck of French society:

The war did not pay for the war, but only for 60 per cent of it, with the remaining 40 per cent being picked up by the French people in various other ways.

This problem was exacerbated still further by deploying this capital to fight wars of conquest in economically backward locales, such as Egypt:

the country had no watermills and only one windmill… [Napoleon and his savants spent time pondering questions such as] could Nile water be made drinkable; were watermills or windmills better for Cairo; [could they] teach Egyptians the benefits of wheelbarrows and handsaws?

And despite this incredible expense, nearly every one of his campaigns finds Napoleon writing letters to his quartermaster demanding basic provisions for his troops such as shoes (and terrible necessity given the thousands of kilometers his troops would travel on foot), adequate food and medicine. If the Napoleonic state couldn’t adequately provision its soldiery, the political backbone of the regime, how could it ever hope to innovate and reform its domestic economy?

Clearly, Great Britain got the better of the bargain in pursuing a policy of subsidizing proxy combatants:

In 1794 payments to allies amounted to 14 per cent of British government revenues… Although the grand total of GBP65,830,228 paid to France’s enemies between 1793 and 1815 was astronomical, it was markedly less than the cost of maintaining, and then fielding, a huge standing army… In 1815 alone, Britain subsidized no fewer than thirty European Powers.

The cost of war on French society, on any society, is not just financial. It is primarily physical, and it is truly horrible to behold as the nuances of warfighting are catalogued throughout the book in excruciating detail:

‘Everyone was scratching [due to the scabies mite],’ recalled a veteran, and one report to the Committee of Public Health stated that there were no fewer than 400,000 scabetics in the army. Napoleon later set up special hospitals for them during his campaigns [which he himself contracted earlier in his career].

Meanwhile, the battles and sieges, far from being conducted with a gentlemanly honor, routinely inflicted mass casualties on civilian populations caught up in the mix:

Genoa surrendered on June 4, by which time around 30,000 of its 160,000 inhabitants [almost 25%!] had died of starvation and of diseases associated with malnutrition, as had 4,000 French soldiers…”If one thinks always of humanity — only of humanity — one should give up going to war. I don’t know how war is to be conducted on the rosewater plan” [Napoleon later said].

The failed march on Russia in 1812 is later described as an “equinocide” in which literally tens of thousands of horses, almost the entire stock of France and the German States at that point in time, die of exposure, starvation, disease and battle. The waste of capital and life even before the dawn of mass warfare is staggering to behold for a person who loves civilization and peaceful trade.

While his early campaigns seem driven by ambition and his middle campaigns seem driven by a strategic belief in attacking as defense, his latter campaigns seem defensive and desperate. At a certain point, Napoleon realized his chance of a long reign was diminished the more he exhorted his state to fight. Unfortunately, his political status as an usurper and an upstart meant he had little realistic chance of a durable peace– his neighbors were committed politically to removing him from power and reinstating a monarchy. He antagonized them still further by placing his relatives on the thrones of various satellite states, but this was a further blunder in that many proved to be unreliable allies whose own search for power and permanence led them to follow policies contrary to Napoleon’s own desires. It’s hard to imagine a strategic environment where he would’ve been allowed to reign until his peaceful passing, at least so long as he pursued a disruptive domestic economic policy combined with an aggressive international trade paradigm that severely restricted the free flow of goods and services.

Far from a Great Man, then, we see Napoleon for what he mostly was– extremely intelligent and talented, yes, but subject to the same flaws and cognitive biases of all of us which led to numerous “unforced errors” which accumulated to the point of his downfall. Irrational loyalty to his spendthrift, cuckolding wife; doctoring public records to allow political prestige that was illegal; making up the results of democratic elections; being motivated deep down by a desire from childhood to be thought of as a historical figure. All the personal charm and the biggest library of wisdom and human experience in the world (Napoleon was a notorious bibliophile) couldn’t stop a person so hell bent at times on being their own worst enemy.

This “Life” was interesting to read in many ways and I found myself highlighting and underlining all manner of passages. It did get me to think more deeply about some of the questions I came to it with, as well as others that were raised along the way, but it didn’t succeed at getting me to fundamentally rethink any of my existing principles. And ultimately, although it demonstrated a great amount of research and personal expertise on behalf of the author and was pleasurable as a narrative at times, I found myself less inspired and moulded by this study of Napoleon than I had hoped to be and I doubt I’ll refer back to this title again in the future.