Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) is not as read as he used to be. The heyday of his massive popular history of Europe, composed of The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, The Age of Empire:1875-1914, and The Age of Extremes 1914-1991, has been eclipsed by popular studies that are less programmatically Marxist, and which reflect our more contemporary interest in social history and alternate approaches. Every cultural moment has its popular historians. Although dated to some degree, Hobsbawm is a major figure who left an indelible mark, so there’s no shame in my nearly thirty years of attachment to him, beginning when I was an undergraduate.

I went back to The Age of Revolution this week to refresh on the French Revolution. I realize it’s one of his popular histories and not necessarily his most complete exposition of the subject, but it’s brief and its handy because I keep a copy at home and another at the office. My main interest in the French Revolution springs from two things, one scholarly, the other purely personal. The first is my scholarship on nineteenth-century Latin America, in which the French Revolution is always relevant as background intellectual history. My good friend William Acree, author of an award-winning book on nineteenth-century Argentinian and Uruguayan culture, Everyday Reading: Print Culture and Everyday Reading in the Río de la Plata, has a fantastic chapter on the pageantry of early republican symbolism and ritual. My pal Amy Wright of Saint Louis University has a chapter forthcoming in the MLA Teaching Representations of the French Revolution volume (forthcoming 2018) that tackles The French Revolution in Latin America. My second reason for being interested in the French Revolution is one of my all time favorite novels: Gustave Flaubert’s The Sentimental Education (1869). It takes place half a century after the Revolution, during the Revolution of 1848, but I can’t disassociate the links between both in my mind.

Here’s what I found when I returned to Hobsbawm’s account of the French Revolution in The Age of Revolution:

Why does the French Revolution matter?:

France provided the vocabulary and the issues of liberal and radical-democratic politics for most of the world. France provided the first great example, the concept and the vocabulary of nationalism. France provided the codes of law, the model of scientific and technical organization, the meetric system of measurement, for most countries. The ideology of the modern world first penetrated the ancient civilizations which had hitherto resisted European ideas through French influence. This was the work of the French Revolution. In the first place, it occurred in the most powerful and populous state in Europe (leaving Russia apart)…In the second place it was, alone of all the revolutions which preceded it and followed it, a mass social revolution, and immeasurably more radical than any comparable upheaval…In the third place, alone of all contemporary revolutions, the French was ecumenical. Its armies set out to revolutionize the world; its ideas actually did so…Its repercurssions, rather than those of the American Revolution, occasioned the risings which led to the liberation of Latin America after 1808…Its indirect influence is universal, for it provided the pattern for all subsequent revolutionary movements, its lessons (interpreted according to taste) being incorporated into modern socialism and communism.” (77)

Hobsbawm’s account of causes underlines the disintegration of French feudalism (he calls it the ‘feudal reaction’) through various reasons, including the steady encroachment of the Second Estate (the nobility) into the political and administrative posts typically controlled by the Third Estate (the middle sectors.) It might seem counter intuitive to think that the Second Estate was not very secure or powerful, but Hobsbawm argues for its ineffectiveness and economic weakness. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the peasantry, crushed by their feudal obligations to their lords (tithes, dues) as well as by taxes, and the vicissitudes of a weak economy (inflation), and weather and crop health, etc. Hobsbawm proceeds with familiar boilerplate about the economy.

In 1789, the National Assembly began to move to decisively break with the Ancien Regime and reformulate the French body politic. Hobsbawm underlines the confluence between the middle, educated classes who commanded events in the Assembly and the masses who almost spontaneously rose up in the Great Fear to destroy the Ancien Regime:

The Third Estate succeeded, in the face of the united resistance of the king and the privileged orders, because it represented not merely the view of an educated and militant minority, but those far more powerful forces: the labouring poor of the cities, and especially Paris, and shortly, also, the revolutionary peasantry. For what turned a limited reform agitation into a revolution was the fact that the calling of the States-General coincided with a profound economic and social crisis…in 1788 and 1789 a major convulsion in the kindgom, a campaign of propaganda and election, gave the people’s desperation a political perspective. They introduced the tremendous and earth-shaking idea of liberation from gentry and oppression” (82-83).

To put it simply, the educated revolutionists provided a vocabulary and a vision for the masses, which provided the muscle. But mind and body, as it were, would not always coordinate smoothly and comfortably. For Hobsbawm, what is significant about this convergence and intensification of conflict is that it inaugurates a framework that will be repeated in future revolutions, all the way into the twentieth century. Revolutions begin with reforms that are overtaken by popular discontent, which in turn fractures reformist elites into conservatives and radicals.

This dramatic, dialectical dance was to dominate the future generations. Time and again we shall see moderate middle class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance our counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolutions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left-wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them” (84).

Hobsbawm tries to tether the Revolution to a Marxist model but finds the all important class of the revolutionary proletariat missing. The Jacobins are bourgeois radicals who succeed because there is no proletariat, and because the peasantry is rather mute except to become an irresistible force when properly mobilized and directed. The Sansculottes, who Hobsbawm defines as the “actual demonstrators, rioters, constructors of barricades,” and as a “shapeless” and urban movement of shopkeepers and artisans, function to mediate between the lowest social order and the revolutionary bourgeoisie. The struggle to find a schema in which to place these players in relation to Marxist models is revealing. When Hobsbawm was writing this book in the late 1950’s, the scholarly stakes of Historical Materialism were higher than now, and more prominent.

Hobsbawm doesn’t blanche over The Terror, but rather embraces it as a necessity for the preservation of the Revolution and the very survival of the country: “…the choice was simple…either The Terror with all its defects from the middle-class point of view, or the destruction of the Revolution, the disintegration of the national state, and probably…the disappearance of the country…” (92). Hobsbawm is all in with the Jacobins. The passing reference to middle class critics of Robespierre is telling. “The Dantons of history are always defeated by the Robespierres…” he writes, “because hard narrow dedication can succeed where bohemianism cannot” (95).