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University of California Press
Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution / Edition 1

Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution / Edition 1

by Lynn Hunt
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520241565
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/28/2004
Series: Studies on the History of Society and Culture
Edition description: First Edition, Twentieth Anniversary Edition, With a New Preface
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 287,060
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lynn Hunt is the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of The Family Romance of the French Revolution (California, 1992) and the editor (with Victoria E. Bonnell) of Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (California, 1999). She was President of the American Historical Association in 2002-2003.

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Politics, Culture, and Class the French Revolution

By Lynn Hunt


Copyright © 2004 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-24156-5


The Rhetoric of Revolution

"Les mots, commes les choses, ont été des monstruosités."

After the fall of Robespierre, the noted literary critic and author Jean-François La Harpe published a long reflection entitled Du Fanatisme dans la langue révolutionnaire. La Harpe's arguments were not in themselves surprising: he traced the perversities of the Revolution back to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, and he attributed the frenzy of "this abominable revolutionary spirit" to philosophie run riot. Most instructive, however, is La Harpe's conviction that the key to the Revolution's aberrations was its language. La Harpe, in fact, offered little analysis of this language itself; he was more interested in denouncing its consequences than in examining its causes or functioning. Yet his vitriolic pamphlet is nonetheless significant, because it shows that the revolutionaries themselves recognized the importance of language in the Revolution.

The crumbling of the French state after 1786 let loose a deluge of words, in print, in conversations, and in political meetings. There had been a few dozen periodicals — hardly any of which carried what we call news — circulating in Paris during the 1780s; more than 500 appeared between 14 July 1789 and 10 August 1792. Something similar happened to the theater: in contrast to the handful of new plays produced annually before the Revolution, at least 1,500 new plays, many of them topical, were produced between 1789 and 1799, and more than 750 were staged just in the years 1792–94. Political clubs proliferated at every level, andelectoral assemblies seemed to meet almost continuously during the Revolution's first heady years. Added to these occasions were the countless festivals organized all over the country for the purposes of commemoration and celebration. Everywhere, in short, talk was the order of the day.

Words came in torrents, but even more important was their unique, magical quality. From the beginning of the Revolution, words were invested with great passion. By the fall of 1789, Etesvous de la Nation? had become the watchword of National Guard patrols. As the king's sacred position in society eroded, political language became increasingly invested with emotional, even life-and-death, significance. Words associated with the Old Regime, names tainted with royalism, aristocracy, or privilege, became taboo. Procureurs and avocats (Old Regime legal types) became hommes de loi (simple "men of the law") if they wanted to continue legal practice; impôts were replaced with contributions, which sounded more voluntary. Wherever names were identified with Old Regime values, they were supplanted by new revolutionary (often Greek or Roman) appellations. Babies were named after classical heroes; the historic provinces were replaced with geographically identified departments; and rebellious towns were rechristened when they were retaken. At the height of the concern with names, in 1793, a deputation from one of the Paris sections suggested to the National Convention that it systematically rename streets and public squares after "all the virtues necessary to the Republic." This would give the people "a silent course in ethics."

Certain key words served as revolutionary incantations. Nation was perhaps the most universally sacred, but there were also patrie, constitution, law, and, more specific to the radicals, regeneration, virtue, and vigilance. Uttered in a certain context or included in soon-familiar formulaic expressions, such words bespoke nothing less than adherence to the revolutionary community. Revolutionaries placed such emphasis on the ritual use of words because they were seeking a replacement for the charisma of kingship. Primary among ritual words was the revolutionary oath, or what La Harpe derided as "an incurable mania for oaths." As Jean Starobinski argues, the revolutionary oath of loyalty became an important ritual because it underlined the contrast between national sovereignty and the authority of kings. The kings received "the supernatural insignia of power" from a transcendent God during the ceremony of consecration; by contrast, the revolutionary oath of loyalty created sovereignty from within the community.

Interpretations of revolutionary language do not precisely overlap with the three schools outlined in the introduction. There are Marxist and Tocquevillian positions on language, but there is as yet no developed revisionist position. Marxist interest in revolutionary language is relatively recent, and revisionist historians have until now followed the general lines of Tocqueville's analysis, when they have shown any interest in language at all. A third account of revolutionary language is what can be called a Durkheimian position, that is, an analysis that emphasizes the cultural and especially integrative functions of revolutionary language. All three positions proceed from the common assumption that the "real" significance of language is hidden in some fashion, and the task of analysis is most often construed as one of unmasking.

In Marxist analysis, political language is considered an expression of ideology. Revolutionary rhetoric, in this view, hides true social interests, in particular, the class aims of the bourgeoisie. Marx himself emphasized the false consciousness of the French revolutionaries: "in the classically austere traditions of the Roman republic its gladiators [those of bourgeois society] found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions that they needed in order to conceal from themselves the bourgeois limitations of the content of their struggles." Nicos Poulantzas maintained this general position when he argued that "the bourgeois political aspect" of Jacobin ideology "is masked by the fact that its language is an ethical and not a political language." In a similar vein, Jacques Guilhaumou characterized the radical rhetoric of the Père Duchesne as camouflaging a bourgeois conception of democracy behind "a form which wants to be sans-culotte." In all these views, bourgeois discourse only pretends to be something other than what it is — an ideological instrument of bourgeois political and social hegemony.

Recently, some Marxist historians have begun to move away from this reductionist view of language. Guilhaumou himself has written that Jacobin discourse cannot be reduced to masking and mystification. Yet, though he and Régine Robin grant that language is something more than a reflection of social reality or a mechanism for its reproduction, they still use a relatively inflexible framework of analysis. They ground discourse in a particular "conjuncture" of circumstances, which they define as "the unity of contradictions of a social formation at a given moment, a unity over-determined at the political level." This view may make the Marxist analysis of revolutionary language more complex, but it still relies on the implicit metaphor of sub- and superstructure; the social formation lies underneath the level of politics and language, and language expresses those underlying social contradictions. Sense can only be made of political discourse if reference is made to an "extra-linguistic" level.

The Tocquevillian position does not make language an ideological instrument of class conflict, but it too emphasizes the element of self-deception. In Tocqueville's view, the revolutionaries "nursed the foolish hope that a sudden, radical transformation of a very ancient, highly intricate social system could be effected almost painlessly, under the auspices of reason and by its efficacy alone." Their "fondness for broad generalizations, cut-and-dried legislative systems, and a pedantic symmetry" prevented them from seeing that they were in fact reproducing the absolute power of the Old Regime they hated. In Penser la Révolution française, François Furet revives the Tocquevillian position and gives it a semiological twist. For Furet, the veil of language not only hides the truth of political continuity but also at the same time stands in for the realities of political competition: "speech substitutes itself for power," and thus, "the semiotic circuit is the absolute master of politics." Because the normal relationship between society and politics has been disrupted, politics becomes a struggle for the right to speak on behalf of the Nation. Language becomes an expression of power, and power is expressed by the right to speak for the people. The inordinate importance of language in the Revolution was a sign of how untracked French society had become.

An alternative position has been forcefully presented by Mona Ozouf in her analysis of revolutionary festivals. Rather than unmasking the social content or the political deceptions of the festivals, she examines their ritual functions in Durkheimian fashion. Durkheim himself used the work of Albert Mathiez on revolutionary cults, and he frequently cited examples from the Revolution to illustrate his arguments on religion. In Ozouf's view, the many, apparently conflicting festivals reveal a profound "identical conceptualization," "an identical collective need." The festivals accomplished "a transference of sacrality" to the new revolutionary community. Through the institution of the festival, "the discourse of the Revolution about itself" revealed an effort to form a new Nation on the basis of a new consensus. The language of ritual and ritualized language served the function of national integration. It expressed the need for social solidarity.

The historical analysis of language is especially susceptible to the trope of layers or levels; language, after all, is usually taken as expressing something else, something more "real" than the words themselves. The reading of revolutionary language commonly follows from some prior assumption: that language is an instrument of social conflict (the Marxist position), that language is a vehicle of political self-deception (the Tocquevillian position), or that language is a carrier of cultural integration (the Durkheiminian position). Each of these views has its merits, and they are not necessarily irreconcilable. But here a different point of departure is proposed: the rhetoric of the revolutionaries themselves. Rather than vertically peeling away the layers to get at what revolutionary language "really" meant, I propose to look at language more horizontally, that is, in terms of its internal patterns and its connections to other aspects of political culture. Rather than looking underneath or outside the words, as it were, for the meaning of political discourse, I will seek first to elucidate their rhetorical context.

Revolutionary language did not simply reflect the realities of revolutionary changes and conflicts, but rather was itself transformed into an instrument of political and social change. In this sense, political language was not merely an expression of an ideological position that was determined by underlying social or political interests. The language itself helped shape the perception of interests and hence the development of ideologies. In other words, revolutionary political discourse was rhetorical; it was a means of persuasion, a way of reconstituting the social and political world. La Harpe recognized the rhetorical power of revolutionary language when he announced his intention to characterize the Revolution "by the examination of its language, which was its foremost instrument and the most surprising of all." He aimed "to demonstrate how the establishment, the legal consecration of this language, was a unique event, an unheard-of scandal in the universe, and absolutely inexplicable other than by divine vengeance."

"Divine vengeance" is no longer a standard item in the repertory of historical explanations. In order to understand how political rhetoric could become "an unheard-of scandal" and the "foremost instrument" of the Revolution, I propose to treat revolutionary rhetoric as a text in the manner of literary criticism. Needless to say, however, there is no one manner of literary criticism; literary critics are at least as divided over their methodological approaches as historians. New critics, structuralists, post-structuralists, reception theorists, to name only a few, disagree on almost every point. The debates within literary theory nevertheless open up many possibilities for historians. If the diverse utterances of revolutionary politicians are considered as constituting one text, for example, then the controversies about the nature of texts and the methods for their interpretation become directly relevant.

By its very nature, revolutionary rhetoric posed many of the same issues as those common in literary criticism today. Standards of political interpretation were as disputed in the 1790s as standards of literary interpretation are today. Just as literary critics are now concerned with the nature of authorship, audience, plot structures, and narrative functions, so too during the Revolution were political speakers concerned with authority, audience, and the correct interpretation of revolutionary history. When the deputies of the Third Estate resolved to call themselves, and whoever would join them, the "National Assembly," they challenged the traditional basis of monarchy and opened up general questions about the location of authority. The deputies claimed sovereignty for the Nation, but, in the years that followed, the question of who speaks for the Nation was never definitively settled in France.

In other words, authority — the authorship of the revolutionary text — was uncertain. The charisma of the king, the traditional sacred center of society, steadily dwindled, but no one person, institution, or document succeeded in taking his place. Where was the sacred center of the Nation regenerate? Before Napoleon's rise to power, there were no individually charismatic leaders; France had no equivalent to George Washington, though there were candidates aplenty aspiring to the role, and the new Nation recognized no Founding Fathers. The Revolution had neither paternal origins nor a clear lineage. None of the many constitutions and national assemblies was able to make itself into the fixed reference point for the Nation. As a consequence of this constant displacement of political authority, charisma came to be most concretely located in words, that is, in the ability to speak for the Nation. Revolutionary language was "fanatical" in La Harpe's terms, because it had been invested with sacred authority.

Although the "text" of revolution was sacred, it was also constantly changing. There was no revolutionary Bible that could serve as a source of confirmation and sanctification of revolutionary practice. The French rhetoric of revolution had to provide its own hermeneutics: imbedded in the practice of politics and political discourse were the principles or canon against which that practice could be measured. The new rhetoric was not created all at once, however, nor were its principles ever definitively fixed. To compound the difficulty, those rhetorical principles were for the most part unexamined, despite or because of their self-proclaimed novelty. Revolutionaries fashioned their rhetoric in fits and starts after 1789, and it was only in the heat of political struggle that they clarified their principles.

Revolutionary rhetoric got its textual unity from the belief that the French were founding a new nation. The Nation and the Revolution were constantly cited as points of reference, but they came with no history. As one local revolutionary proclaimed,

A revolution is never made by halves; it must either be total or it will abort. All the revolutions which history has conserved for memory as well as those that have been attempted in our time have failed because people wanted to square new laws with old customs and rule new institutions with old men. . . . REVOLUTIONARY means outside of all forms and all rules; REVOLUTIONARY means that which affirms, consolidates the revolution, that which removes all the obstacles which impede its progress.

The will to break with the national past distinguished the French from previous revolutionary movements. The new community of American radicals was a living tradition; Americans had always inhabited a "new world" far from what they saw as the corruption of English politics. The English radicals referred to the purer community of their Saxon and dissenting pasts. French revolutionary rhetoric had nothing similar: the French did not have behind them a long-standing tradition of popular literacy motivated by religious dissent, and there were no recognized birthrights of the "freeborn" Frenchman to sustain and animate revolutionary rhetoric. Instead, the French harkened to what I will call a "mythic present," the instant of creation of the new community, the sacred moment of the new consensus. The ritual oaths of loyalty taken around a liberty tree or sworn en masse during the many revolutionary festivals commemorated and re-created the moment of social contract; the ritual words made the mythic present come alive, again and again.


Excerpted from Politics, Culture, and Class the French Revolution by Lynn Hunt. Copyright © 2004 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Tables, viii,
List of Plates, ix,
List of Maps, x,
Preface to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition, xi,
Acknowledgments to the 1984 Edition, xvii,
Chronology, xix,
Abbreviations, xxii,
Introduction: Interpreting the French Revolution, 1,
1. The Rhetoric of Revolution, 19,
2. Symbolic Forms of Political Practice, 52,
3. The Imagery of Radicalism, 87,
4. The Political Geography of Revolution, 123,
5. The New Political Class, 149,
6. Outsiders, Culture Brokers, and Political Networks, 180,
Conclusion: Revolution in Political Culture, 213,
Appendix A: Correlation Matrix of Selected Political, Economic, and Demographic Variables, 237,
Appendix B: Occupational Analysis of City Councillors in Amiens, Bordeaux, Nancy, and Toulouse, 242,
Index, 247,

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