Jonathan Israel's "Revolutionary Ideas" is a sterling example of a type of scholarship that today is a bit out of fashion -- it is what the guild of historians used to call "Intellectual History." What this means is that Israel takes ideas seriously. This approach, one that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, is now a bit passe', what with the current fixation on gender and ethnicity in history along with a generous dollop of low-voltage Marxism. His book reminded me of Perry Miller's epochal work on the Puritans ("The New England Mind") more than seventy years ago for Miller, like Israel, respected the intellectual integrity of the writings with which he dealt and did not see them as mere protective coloration for some deeper motivation of which those involved were unaware but today university-trained historians can detect like bloodhounds.
Israel's thesis is that the leaders of the French Revolution, at least as represented in the various assemblies, did not gradually convert from constitutional monarchism to republicanism but were from the very start republican. Among these men the one he most admires is Jacque-Pierre Brissot, the journalist and man of letters who Robespierre eventually guillotined. Brissot is one of those whose republicanism was rooted, says Israel, in the "radical Enlightenment," a term the author does not define but which may be said to represent European thinking (mostly French) from roughly 1750 until the upheaval of 1789. The values of this radicalism, which Israel clearly admires, included greater economic equality, freedom of the press and speech, secularism and honest elections, without the muddle of the estates, and afterwards open and frank discussion for the common good in representative bodies. Israel tirelessly tells the reader how advanced was the thinking of these late Enlightenment savants and he refers to their political machinations as the "true French Revolution." And, he proves his point with copious documentation and a careful reading of these late eighteenth-century philosophes.
Why, then, did the Revolution become such a gawdawful mess and leave in its wake Napoleon's long dictatorship and constant warfare, followed by a century of French political instability? For Israel the reason for all this is clear -- the Revolution was betrayed. The traitor-in-chief was, of course, Robespierre. The lawyer from Arras abhorred the materialism and detestation of religion that marked the Brissot-like philosophes and from the summer of 1793, until his own guillotining, gutted Enlightenment values and replaced them with his own urge to power and lack of humanity. Israel clearly detests Robespierre every bit as much as he admires Brisson. For the author, the great train of the Revolution had steamed down the rails more or less in a satisfactory manner, moving France ever closer to a truly liberal society, until Robespierre and Marat threw the switch at a critical junction and sent the whole shebang careening down the wrong track and, ultimately, off the rails and into a ditch.
Israel puts together a coherent, if not completely convincing, account of the Revolution. The radical philosophes were,from the very beginning, dedicated republicans. The Revolution was, despite some wobbles now and then, a phenomenal political achievement informed by philosophy that seemed fated to mature into something like the New Deal. Then, Robespierre hijacked the entire business and flew it into a skyscraper. But, on the very last pages of his book, Israel throws a curve ball at the reader when he describes Robespierre's Reign of Terror as "prefiguring modern fascism" -- and this is the point at which the wheels come off.
The author does a good job of defending the philosophes against those historians who assert that the Terror was the logical outcome and fulfillment of the Enlightenment. He shows, convincingly, how the intellectual world of his republicans differed from that of the group of thugs that gathered around Robespierre. But, this distinction is less significant than it first appears and only a few seconds of reflection are needed to understand that the Revolution "prefigured" Marxist revolutions and not fascism.
There is, for one thing, the question of the Popular Will, Rosseau's famous formulation of what governments are established to implement. The savants of 1789, for all their humanity and learning, prefigured something that has tormented the world ever since -- the "Revolutionary Vanguard." For, these men represented no one but themselves. Time after time Israel admits just this: the vast majority of French men and women remained monarchists and Catholic. Time and again, when given the chance, they reverted to these values in local (e.g. Lyons) politics. Israel emphasizes that the radical savants were journalists, political essayists, men of letters and philosophers-at-large. And, because they were "enlightened," these savants were positive that they understood what was best for "the people," an abstraction drawn from Rousseau.
German fascism was abominable but National Socialism was a mass movement. The French Revolution, like the Russian, was in large part an intellectual coup d'etat. Jacques and Marianne, especially outside Paris, did not hate the monarchy and rather loved their local cure. To the philosophes this merely meant that the "people" were unenlightened and that this French Vanguard of History must lead them, will-nilly, into a utopia of human rights.
Robespierre was not the French fascist -- he was the French Stalin. The radical savants were not rooted in popular culture but felt themselves above it. Robespierre and Marat were entitled to feel precisely the same -- and beat the radical republicans at their own game. Meanwhile, Robespierre, monster that he was, understood the common desire to retain religiosity. Then, like Stalin who murdered the Old Bolsheviks, Robespierre murdered Brisson and those like him. In this sense neither Stalin nor Robespierre "betrayed" their respective revolutions -- they simply took those revolutions in different directions using the tools forged by, respectively, the Old Bolshevists and the radical savants. Perhaps Robespierre destroyed the vision of men like Thomas Paine but the latter's vision was no more legitimate, insofar as the majority of the French populace was concerned, then that of Robespierre. To some simple peasant in the Vendee the whole thing probably looked like nothing more than a falling out among thieves.
israel's book is a mine of useful information and subtle interpretation. It is decently written, well-documented and convincingly argues its thesis about the radical republicanism that dominated the Paris assembly from its first days. And, refreshingly, it takes ideas seriously. Israel's enthusiasm for men like Brisson and their political vision of a secular, democratic welfare state -- an ideal that still thrills liberals -- perhaps causes him to place the Revolution in the wrong historical tradition. It was not fascism that eventually emerged from the Revolution. What emerged was, instead, the poisonous idea of a Select Few with a political gnosis that entitles them to lead the "masses" where the masses don't know they wish to go. And, along with that emerged, eventually, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.