Lefebvre and the French Revolution

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Just look at that cover. Does this look like a history book to you? No it does not. But this is the first volume in Georges Lefebvre’s outstanding history of the French Revolution. Rather than, as the cover suggests, a cook book.

This book is definitely not one for beginners. Lefebvre assumes some knowledge of both the Revolution itself and the the late 18th century in Europe more generally, and if you either have no knowledge or aren’t quick on your feet when dealing with names and politics – well, this will be a hard book to read. Me, I’m pretty good on the French side of things, and that’s the only way I managed to read this without feeling like a complete idiot. There’s also no glossary, so woe betide the reader that misses a term that was explained early on… or wasn’t explained at all and you’re just meant to understand it, but maybe don’t.

One of the most awesome aspects of the book is the very fact that it places the Revolution in its broader European context. I had no idea of the Austrian/Prussian/Russian machinations that were going on at the same time as they were posturing about and around France; the controversy over Poland in particular made me realise just how much I have always viewed the French Revolution in isolation. That is, I know that the American Revolution had an impact, and so on; but I had forgotten that of course those countries who eventually invaded had other things on their mind than just an annoying neighbour. This is a common failing of mine, I have realised. So Lefebvre’s insistence on providing a really broad context – much broader than I would have thought necessary, with the internal politicking of Pitt etc – makes this a quite remarkable part of revolutionary historiography.

The most annoying thing about this is that it is part one of two. And this translator did not, apparently, do part 2 – which incorporates the Terror, and Thermidor, and Danton being his most awesome. Still, Lefebvre does give a succinct overview of the issues leading to the Revolution, as well as description of the early years. Perhaps the most amusing aspect is that he appears not to like anyone. He doesn’t seem to like the proletariat (as he terms them), nor the peasants, and the bourgeoisie quite often come in for disapproval. And let’s not talk about the aristocracy. The other thing of note for those of us who’ve done history more recently and have been forced to deal with issues of historiography and the post-modern/post-structuralist turn is Lefebvre’s utter conviction that his interpretation of events is right. In fact, it’s not even a conviction – that would suggest it was something he had given thought to. No; this is just the facts, and that’s all there is. Which is very appealing, if a little dangerous in the 21st century.

The translation is superb; there was no point at which I thought that it was convoluted or messy.

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