Henri Lefebvre

What is the Historical Past?

Albert Soboul’s work on the Parisian Sans-Culottes in the Year Two of the French Revolution1 begins with the victory of the Montagnards over the Girondins, a bloodless political triumph despite the fact that it was won with the support of the armed people of Paris: ‘On 2 June 1793, the Montagne took power by pressuring the Convention with the threat of the Parisian sansculottes. It did not, however, intend to let the sans-culottes rule . . .’ From the very outset of his book, Soboul focusses on the problem which he intends to study: the conflict, at first latent and then open, between the revolutionary government and the masses which had brought it to power. This conflict was eventually to exhaust both the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses and the authority of those in power. Its final outcome was Thermidor. The author deliberately limits the object of his research. He ignores or passes over other aspects of this turbulent period, in particular the foreign policy of the revolution, the subject of a recent debate between Jean-Paul Sartre and Daniel Guérin.2 Soboul confines his study (by a conscious methodological limitation) to the
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following in the steps of Georges Lefebvre. posing the problems of provisioning in the capital. In 1793. Albert Soboul. This—according to Albert Soboul. To the earlier histories of the events of the Revolution—of the men. ideas and institutions it produced—and to the economic histories of Mathiez or Labrousse. Oxford 1964. seeks to study ‘the Parisian populace in its general assemblies and sociétés sectionnaires’. Laundresses thereupon started to loot soap from the boats docked at the Parisian quays. pp. 28 1 . Soboul shows how—very soon after the Montagne had won power—‘disturbances’ broke out that promptly polarized different economic attitudes and political programmes within the victorious camp. La Lutte de Classes sous la Première République 1793–7. ‘Disturbances’ With a rare wealth of documentation. (new edition). and Daniel Guérin. control of distribution and generalization of the laws of the ‘maximum’ governing prices and wages: in other words they were raising the question of economic equality in a situation of shortages. II. the Parisian Sections. Institutions and Leaders—in other words. Critique de la Raison Dialectique. Paris 1958. he does not separate his meticulous research from the total movement which is the object of his study. particularly the general political problems of the French Revolution. which illuminates their respective political roles remarkably. We learn of their social origins. from above. in a volume. know this period well at the level of the State. stabilization. he tells us. the rise. pp. however minimal or local. soap was scarce in Paris. because they show the ‘depth of the social crisis’ by putting in question the foundation of society and not merely its political and ideological superstructures. Les Sans-Culottes Parisiens en l’An II. P. In doing so. reflux and decline of the mass movement of the Parisian sans-culottes. In effect. Historians. by their intervention. an intervention spontaneously pushing the latter towards a directly social form of democracy. Paris 1960. Shortened English translation. the popular masses of Paris manifestly neither wanted nor were able to go on living as they had previously done. Soboul transforms Michelet’s prophetic but generic ‘vision’ of the Revolution as a series of epic descriptions of the battles of insurgent Paris. Though Soboul purposely avoids other questions. these women were forcibly taxing a scarce commodity and. and thereby discover the social composition of the different Parisian Sections. 33–40. Paris 1968. but advancing yet further. The Parisian Sans-Culottes and the French Revolution 1793–4. Thus. All page references hereafter are to this English translation. 514–20. He follows its evolution and that of other small ‘disturbances’ in great detail. by the end of June 1793. The research this involves is sometimes surprisingly detailed: it includes the biographies of individuals who played some part in the great drama. and is in turn clarified by them. on the other hand. Soboul points out the significance of this intervention by women—housewives—in the political democracy of the time. 2 J. These ‘disturbances’ were provoked by apparently trivial and invariably everyday reasons.determinant social force in the revolutionary process. whose essential concern is sociological. Soboul has now added a history of the social forces of the French Revolution. Vol. Sartre.

Lenin—is the definition of a profoundly revolutionary period. of the war and how to fight it. By its very nature and necessary limits. the Government dissolved (from above) the Provisioning Commission set up by the Sections. on the other hand. was to sweep them up in their turn and impel them farther. For example. those great (bourgeois) revolutionaries. along the same road. the leader of the Parisian masses. declared. and then become bogged down in Girondism. Those whom the people already called ‘statesmen’ invented or perfected all the devices of modern politics. created and employed every contemporary means of maintaining power: the communications system. which was an expression of direct democracy and represented an aspiration towards greater social and economic equality. 29 . The Jacobins. by simultaneously achieving political democracy. The upsurge of the masses worsens the economic crisis and this worsening then intensifies their pressure. both Hébert and Marat participated in the Jacobin operation against Jacques Roux. economic democracy and social (socialist) democracy. ignorance and lack of consciousness. A hundred and thirty years later another revolution—qualitatively distinct but not absolutely separated from it—would try to push democracy in every field to its limits. and also other responsibilities. Soboul’s book has the suspense of a great novel: destiny is decided. He who knows—the historian—shows their uncertainty. They want State power to be used for the satisfaction of their needs. in this period. Soboul provides us with an impressive account of how. Political democracy. particularly since through their actions it rapidly becomes a centralized and dictatorial State power.) Manoeuvring was constant—and utterly unscrupulous. if necessary through their direct delegates. after which. in other words. the Moderates set the Sections against the Commune and the Jacobins by whipping up agitation over the food crisis. gathered momentum again. which they are willing to make as egalitarian as possible. Objectively. too far. the pressure of the masses. Soboul shows how the process of radicalization that had begun in 1789. but nobody in July 1793 realized this. presaged and yet none of the actors or characters is aware of it. they manipulated the masses. mystification and slander. conflict between the Jacobins and the sans-culottes was inevitable. It is to be noted that in July 1793. Very early. which uses its legality to suspend the rights of individuals and of personal freedom. His fate was a fore-shadowing of what was to follow. a gulf opened up between the language of leaders who talked of ‘patriotism’ and of masses who more and more spoke of ‘food’. politics were conducted. (Hébert was attacked as an ‘English agent’. want to use the State for very different purposes. however. newspapers and rumour. right up to outright control of distribution and even of production. is enough for them. the Jacobin (bourgeois-democratic) Revolution was incapable of solving this contradiction. They push towards goals determined by the demand of a daily life which has become intolerable. They have other perspectives. informers and police. Jacques Roux. The Jacobins in power. pretending to deal with the shortages. In this respect. was politically defeated. the force behind the popularity of the leader whom they had eliminated. particularly those of national defence. As early as July 1793. repress or break them. utilized them and confiscated their energies to mobilize.

The right opposition pulled the administration backwards towards the interests of the propertied classes (the bourgeoisie). This political crisis was never distinct from an economic crisis. On the one hand there was the people’s power of the sociétés sectionnaires and the comités. its institutions. The left opposition. which was already beginning to pose problems with which we are now very familiar. both in their ignominy and their tragic grandeur (when executioners become victims). it tried and condemned a sizable contingent of Moderates together with a crowd of Hébertists. Wider Implications In this respect Soboul’s book has a very wide significance. Another example of the same type can be cited from a later episode of the Revolution. In 1793 and 1794. The Government hit out in both directions. for several months in 1793 there existed in Paris a form of dual power. Far better than in any previous work on the French Revolution. the book could serve as a breviary for many different people. a new crisis then developed which was only resolved with the overthrow of Robespierre. a terrible and complex political struggle ensued. This militant wing was petty bourgeois by origin and initially close to the leading elements of the popular 30 . the others to feed their hatred for political mystifications and trickery. it fabricated a remarkable amalgam. together with a fairly large number of wage-earners. which was seeking by successive (and bloody) approximations to discover its politics. perhaps greater than its author intended. the exact opposite of what the militants in the Sections had wanted! The manoeuvre thus concluded with a victory of the most powerful and dominant economic tendency at that moment. amidst fluctuations caused by demagogic initiatives and clashes of contradictory currents of opinion and action. Who. its ideologies. without making socialist demands (an anachronistic term avoided by Soboul). but was now attempting to break away from it. then. and on the other a Government which had originated from this popular movement. of course.Economic freedom thereby triumphed: in other words. partly abandoned by the masses. some of them to learn politics. its perspectives. To sum up: according to Soboul. they were not posed in the same terms as in the mid twentieth century. even when these are historically effective. The Jacobin Government was only maintained in power by the support of a social base that it could only disappoint. For all its size. the reader can follow here the birth of modern politics. They fought each other and at times became confused with one another. did the Jacobins and Robespierre represent? The militant wing of a bourgeoisie which was learning to become a ruling class in the midst of a revolutionary process. When the Jacobin revolutionary government struck at the extreme-left opposition which had sought to appeal to the masses. if only because of the social composition of the sans-culottes: the Sections were essentially recruited from petty shopkeepers and artisans. sought to outflank the Jacobin Government and to draw it beyond a politically egalitarian republic. A right opposition and a left opposition emerged and crystallized.

they portrayed its last battles.masses. He shows how these contradictions exploded. to slow the movement down without bringing the Girondins back to power. and so on. he condenses into a few lines his account of the internal contradictions (economic. We have so far deliberately emphasized (with a certain insistence) expressions and phrases which have a very modern meaning. particularly given the often astonishing exactitude of parallels and the intimate correspondence between the scholarly accuracy of the historian and his implicit reference to modern political experience. These echoes between past and present multiply the interest of reading this history. the audacious section of the bourgeoisie. intimately linked with the latter. Thus. who inspired Taine. When economic research became widespread. recorded the class struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism. separated from the proletarian revolution by a radical discontinuity. There is hardly a page in Soboul’s book that does not evoke present memories of some kind in a reader who is versed in the political life of the twentieth century. Some— such as ‘dual power’—are directly borrowed from Lenin. and it got rid of Robespierre as soon as he had won it and because he had won it. for others. Its primary objective was to win the war. It had no compunction in exercising dictatorial power under the ideological banner of Freedom and Democracy. The historians of the Restoration. according to Soboul himself. There. ideological and political) of the sans-culottes. What is. it accepted an advanced political democracy as long as it remained within the limits of (bourgeois) political democracy. economic histories of the revolution came to the forefront. his own contribution? He summarizes it at the end of his book. after he has provided his arguments and established his proofs. the Revolution appeared in a different light: it was a premonitory explosion. in fact. to reassure bourgeois notables and especially the new rich. Soboul does not reveal his true thoughts at the beginning of the work. and yet were not the only elements in the revolutionary 31 . These contradictions were to bring Robespierre and Saint-Just to the scaffold. The Historian’s Stance Very cleverly. For the nascent socialist movement. who constituted neither a class. social. At the end. the political objectives of the Montagne were to mobilize popular forces and to wear them out. but a coalition. he says everything (or nearly everything). drew up a balance-sheet and traced its history backwards into the remote past (Augustin Thierry). in the name of the Nation. Every historian of the French Revolution has contributed something— a new set of facts. without bringing on an insurrection of the masses. a movement that was a precursor and harbinger of a new revolution—for some. or a new light on them—out of his own period and his own experience. nor the party of a class. to canalize sans-culottes energies and to exhaust them. essentially concerned with precise documentation). and instinctively constructing his book like a skilful novelist (whereas he is. Robespierre represented the politics of a class.

even if they were not motivated by ambition alone.5 This was not all: ‘Finally. The eventual outcome was a relaxation of the control exercised by the popular movement over the Revolutionary Government. then. for a ‘reason of a biological nature’. the halt to the invasion. . 5 Ibid. . more active. Since victory was at last in sight.’6 Numerous sans-culottes joined the State apparatus. 32 .’8 There could be no better way of saying that a mass political movement. . always in the thick of the battle.’ Moreover. and finally.’4 There was a second reason. victory led to the demobilization of the popular movement. the dialectical effect of success led to a gradual disintegration of the framework of the popular movement. . the democratic ideal was being weakened in the sections. The younger. The result of plebeian enlistment in the army was to age the whole popular movement in Paris: ‘the inevitable effect on the revolutionary enthusiasm and combative keenness of the Parisian masses can readily be appreciated’. p. the realization of victory led to an understandable relaxation of tension. presuppose a number of different conditions. . The people were anxious to reap the benefits of all their effort. They are enough. 3 4 The Parisian Sans-Culottes. In fact. . The stability of the popular movement largely depended upon the satisfaction of these personal interests which happened to coincide with the need for purging the various committees. . which became increasingly authoritarian in character. 259. also affected the militants. in such cases. Time plays an essential role in its being. success breeds a new conformity. 8 Ibid. 6 Ibid. This physical exhaustion . It is true that these three short words speak volumes. if not exactly abundance. they expected. ‘the end of the civil war. among them physiological. regarded an official position as the legitimate reward for their militant activity.’7 The reader may savour the phrase ‘in such cases’: sole perceptible intrusion of the subjectivity of Soboul the individual into the objective movement studied by Soboul the historian. Such a movement constitutes a conjuncture. constantly on the alert. Badly fed. Ibid.3 Why? Firstly. less difficulty in being provided with food as well as a daily supply of bread. and ideological conditions.crisis: ‘The disintegration of the popular movement was inscribed in the dialectical march of history itself’. the sans-culotte militants inevitably suffered physical fatigue and nervous exhaustion. 257. the process of bureaucratization gradually paralyzing the critical spirit and activity of the masses. it is in no way permanent and does not possess an immediate and stable link with the ‘structural’ characteristics of this or that class. It is thus that it enters into history and becomes a history. ‘Five years of revolution had drained the physical resources of the sectionary personnel who provided the cadres of the popular movement. 258. and more enthusiastic men of the Sections left for the front. 7 Ibid. p. and its historical efficacy. They emphasize the significance of the lines that follow: ‘At the same time. . p. at least. the bureaucracy: ‘Many sectionary militants. But. moral.

suggests a different hypothesis. closed and definitive. which are equally valid? Discussion and polemic are then reduced to virtually superfluous games.Past and Present In this dramatic picture of a rise and a decline. 9 Raymond Aron.’11 Soboul’s work. The French Revolution was a total phenomenon. even if it lies hidden. 11 Aron. 134. shifting and floating historicity. 146. Therefore the historian puts history ‘in perspective’. II. cit. sclerosis. and a plurality of interpretation is legitimated by a plurality of perspectives. For the arrested and frozen historicity of dogmatism. philosophy of history and total philosophy are inseparable. the historian alone gives form to groups of ideas as well as to social groups. the interest of each work lying essentially in its organization of texts and documents. history is necessarily filtered through a philosophy and a philosophy of history: ‘Philosophy and history. prose and style? Or must one accept absolute relativism—the thesis that there are always new approaches and new points of view (on the past as well as the present). Paris 1938. age. 344. even (and especially) if it lurks concealed beneath impeccable scholarship? Is the historian cheating when he accumulates documents? Does Soboul’s work. conformism and the integration of militants into bureaucratic apparatuses? But then. Is it in the final analysis the ‘subjectivity’ of the historian which triumphs. 33 . of a growth and an exhaustion.9 As Daniel Guérin has rightly remarked. op. restored to its context—the sum total of recent works on the French Revolution—finally and arrestingly confirm this ruse? Alternatively. its composition. 10 Guérin.10 For Aron’s limited relativism. hence a plurality of independent histories and interpretative systems. such a theory justifies outright anachronisms. Vol. the methodological problem of the writing of history is posed in a new and intense way. Introduction à la Philosophie de l’Histoire. The historian and ‘historical study’ differ but they belong to the same totality. p. does history depreciate like a literary genre. 151. the totality of a historical process can only be attained through a ‘plurality of understandings’. op. is merely replaced by an indeterminate. real development is not immediately intelligible. which can be formulated in two phases: 1. in which historians and periods proceed by projecting themselves onto the past and interpreting it in terms of themselves. cit. pp. who can fail to perceive certain features of the proletarian movement in the last forty years of our own century: the effects of lassitude. p. however. that was simultaneously economic. resulting from a total social and historical process. Or (a last hypothesis? there is nothing to prove it so!) must we even return to Raymond Aron’s views? For him. 147. 494.

without falling into subjectivism. how they were living while the militants were rushing to the local offices of the Sections: how they were preparing themselves for power and ease? 34 . They do not mistakenly project the present onto the past. The history of the French Revolution has thus not come to an end with the work of Albert Soboul. as a totality. when historians take into account their own experience in their research into the past. Rather. Further research is precisely suggested by reading Soboul. 2. they are also economic. nor do they merely constitute novel approaches. or Georges Lefebvre. It restores historical actions and personages to the effective movement of history. novelty and inexhaustibility—of history. It is revealed with them. or are uncovered. The introduction of the category of the possible into historical methodology permits us to conceive the objectivity—while yielding its due to the relativity. without collapsing into pure relativism. Thus the revolutionary event. and these are not only ‘historical’ aspects in the narrow sense of the word. for example. interpretations or perspectives. it represents the ‘necessary risk’ which research must accept. they tend to eliminate anachronisms. or rather a theory of a deeper objectivity which does not exclude a certain relativity. the careful collation of its evidence and sources. they are profoundly right to do so. nor to be tolerated. and in particular to Soboul. sociological and ideological. through a ‘process’ of which it was either the origin or a decisive element. what exactly was going on among the nouveaux riches and the careerists of the Revolution. as such.sociological. Controversies such as those which oppose Daniel Guérin to other contemporary historians of the French Revolution. masked and unseen in the explosive mass of the total phenomenon. Thus. they do not each merely elaborate a personal philosophy of history. The past becomes present (or is renewed) as a function of the realization of the possibilities objectively implied in this past. have their own utility. Thus. belongs not only to so-called ‘narrative’ history but to a deeper historicity. Consequently new aspects of it perpetually emerge. We may ask ourselves. appears to be inexhaustible. We can thus arrive at an objective relativism. This total phenomenon. in the course of this realization itself. anachronism is neither to be recommended. any more with that of Daniel Guérin. ideological and so on. has been adopted in all fields of the social sciences and therefore now has a very general methodological character. but proceed immediately to eliminate by the exactness of its documentation. If this is so. which reveals itself slowly with the realization of such possibilities and the advent of new possibilities. Each time one of these possibilities is realized. while no one of them can be accorded an absolute causal privilege. but the formulation of a principle hitherto absent yet inherent in it. Ernest Labrousse. It is thus in no way an external importation into historical method. although philosophical in origin. For the introduction of the concept of the possible should not be confused with any merely philosophical interpretation of history. The French Revolution made a certain number of events possible. This concept. They bring to light real historical contents which had previously been concealed. the works of successive historians are not incompatible. it retroactively sheds a new light on the initial event.

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