Reviews and Short Notices
Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France since the Eighteenth Century. By Jeremy Jennings. Oxford University Press. 2011. 548pp. £95.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 84–85, December 2012
How to Cite
Linton, M. (2012), Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France since the Eighteenth Century. By Jeremy Jennings. Oxford University Press. 2011. 548pp. £95.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 84–85. doi: 10.1111/1467-8314.12030
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
For 220 years the ideas let loose by the French Revolution have haunted France. This wide-ranging and ambitious book seeks to chart the impact of those ideas on political thought from the Revolution to the present. Jennings has set himself a challenging task. He deals with it by dividing up his chapters thematically rather than chronologically. This approach has many advantages. It enables him to deal at length with key concepts, and examine the differing response of intellectual thinkers to a variety of aspects of the revolutionary and republican legacy. The focus on themes traced over time does, however, have some disadvantages as we are whirled through decades and sometimes centuries within the space of a page. The start of each chapter goes back to the original Revolution and picks up the thread of another theme, which is then traced through 200 years of shifting thought. Intellectual coherence is given precedence over historical context. This would not have been a problem if the index provided a comprehensive list of the concepts addressed. Unfortunately the index is rather erratic: nation and nationalism feature, but not patrie or patriotism; socialism, but not republic or classical republicanism; poststructuralism, but not virtue. There is a chronology, but no bibliography to show what Jennings has read. So, with only the thematic chapter headings as signposts, it is not easy even for a diligent reader to navigate a path through over 500 pages of text. Yet it repays studying: it is a fruitcake of a book, rich and dense.
The introduction deals with the nature and meaning of the French Revolution itself, and particularly the relationship between Revolution and Terror that was so fundamental to how the significance of the Revolution was subsequently interpreted. As Jennings says: ‘What occurred during the French Revolution is central to the argument of the book’ (p. 1). Yet this is the least satisfactory section. Jennings relies quite closely on Furet and Gueniffey, both of whom take the view that the Terror was inevitable from the start of the Revolution, an argument which has generated much controversy. Jennings repeats it as unproblematic, agreeing that ‘Terror is integral to the logic of revolution itself’ (p. 11). Leading historians of the Revolution such as Jean-Clément Martin and Timothy Tackett might have given Jennings pause, but they do not feature here. Martin does not seem to have been consulted at all, Tackett not till page 302 and then in relation to ‘desacralization’ not the debate on the Terror. Both these historians have shown that the path from 1789 to the Terror was not an inevitable progress, but an ad hoc and improvised business, in which leading revolutionaries were responding to events as much as dominating through ideology. Nor is Jennings correct to say that ‘the Convention decreed that Terror was “the order of the day”’ (p. 5); as Martin makes clear, the Convention resisted the efforts of the sans-culottes to make it formulate the decree in those terms. Jennings's contention that the only penalty handed out under the Law of Suspects was death is somewhat misleading (pp. 5–6). This was the infamous Law of Prairial, which was in operation for several weeks in the summer of 1794.
Once we are away from the Revolution, however, and into the nineteenth century, Jennings is on much firmer ground. The principal focus is on debates between leading intellectual thinkers. The history of nineteenth-century political thought is a subject on which he is an acknowledged authority, and there is much of value here. His readings of Constant, Tocqueville and Quinet are particularly illuminating. But there is a vast array of other thinkers, from such disparate figures as Madame de Staël to Jean-Paul Sartre. Their very different responses to the challenges of revolutionary thought are closely examined through these pages. Jennings writes elegantly; his approach is both nuanced and perceptive. He ranges with assurance through the shifting history of a series of key concepts: including rights, liberty, equality, democracy, religion, positivism, philosophy and universalism. Throughout we are given a sense of the plurality and diversity of the republican legacy. Jennings remains scrupulously impartial in his judgements, whilst bringing fresh insights into a range of questions, too many and various to be done justice to in this review. One key point that he returns to on several occasions and explores in depth is the nature and extent of rights in the republican tradition. The chapter on ‘Insurrection, Utopianism and Socialism’ is particularly helpful for the way in which it addresses the fraught tradition of popular aspiration and revolutionary insurrection. In this chapter too we have much more of a sense of the involvement of ordinary people, whether in unions, as politicians, or on the barricades.
In the conclusion Jennings brings his narrative right up to date. He addresses head-on questions about the relevance of the intellectual tradition of republicanism in the face of a French society that has changed so much, and where the need for a viable and inclusive politics of multiculturalism has come to seem more relevant than many of the familiar themes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jennings's conclusions here are pertinent and engaging. By the end of his book he has thoroughly earned the right to conclude that the republican tradition is still alive – if not exactly well – in present-day France: ‘For all the predictions of its impending death, it still moves’ (p. 529).