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Book Reviews George C. Comminel. R e t h in k in g t h e F r e n c h R e v o l u t io n : M a r x is m a n d t h e R e v is io n ­ ist C h a l l e n g e . New York: Verso, 1987. Pp. 225. One of the broadly influential themes of contemporary research in the human sciences is the impossibility of a clear distinction between the two senses of “ history.” The word denotes both events and their narration, both what humans do and what they say or write about the things done. To the old dream of an invisible narration providing direct access to the truth of events themselves, structuralism and its successors have opposed keen aware­ ness that past events are available for present contemplation uniquely in narrative form. History is therefore always already a certain verbalization of history, and the events of which it speaks are less raw material than a manufactured product, less a point of departure than a point of destination. Because a historical fact acquires importance when a historical text represents it as consequential, the desire to separate facts from texts is hopelessly deluded. Whatever one’s attitude toward the epistemological consequences of structuralist and post-structuralist history, it must be admitted that the French Revolution furnishes an exemplary illustration of why they have gained currency. Even to identify the time span covered by the words “ French Revolution” requires us to choose among wildly varying opinions that range from a few months to many decades, and specification of the events that counted during whichever period is finally identified will be limited only by the amount of time available for library research. The history and historiography of the French Revolu­ tion have always been inextricable. It is therefore remarkable that a single interpretation of the Revolution was long an almost unchallenged orthodoxy. For historians of the left, the center and the right, what happened in France at the end of the eighteenth century was until recently a class conflict between bourgeoisie and aristocracy, a massive transformation of social and political organization that abolished feudal rights and obligations while establishing the conditions necessary for the development of modern economic liberalism. In the succinct language of The Communist Manifesto, the sociopolitical forms of feudalism “ had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.” Disagreements about what was responsible for the bursting were less important than agreement on what flew asunder, on what came together in its place. The broad consensus identifying the French Revolution as a bourgeois revolution had a long and vigorous life, but it died a sudden and inglorious death. Over the last two decades, historians throughout the world have concentrated their research and rhetoric on refuting every explanation of the French Revolution that posits class antagonism between bour­ geoisie and aristocracy. The two components of France’s eighteenth-century elite simply shared too many economic interests for it to be plausible that economic antagonism drove them inexorably into political conflict. There was simply too much inter-class mobility for it to be plausible that frustrated bourgeois ambitions could find no alternative to bursting the world asunder. Georges Comminel’s Rethinking the French Revolution begins with an informed survey of the life and death of the social interpretation of the French Revolution. Comminel writes as a Marxist, but his dismissal of M arx’s idea that the history of the French Revolution is the history of class struggle between nobles and bourgeois is unequivocal: “ there is now lit­ tle doubt that the whole body of serious historical research stands in refutation of the idea 92 S u m m e r 1989 B o o k R ev iew s that a capitalist bourgeois class was driven to overthrow a feudal aristocratic ruling class to which it was intrinsically opposed” (18). Rethinking the French Revolution provides a useful overview of both the revisionist historians whose work justifies that statement and of the classical historians whose work is under attack. Even casual inquiry into the French Revolution demands knowledge of the historiographical issues raised when historical...


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