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  • Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the ‘Rights of Man’ to Robespierre by Jonathan Israel
  • Colin Jones
Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the ‘Rights of Man’ to Robespierre. By Jonathan Israel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. xii + 870 pp., ill.

In history, as in other disciplines, there are lumpers and splitters. Jonathan Israel, whose Revolutionary Ideas weighs in at nearly 900 pages, counts as a mega-lumper. The work, which offers much more than avoirdupois, champions a striking and contentious thesis: namely, that the French Revolution strove to enact the script of ‘Radical Enlightenment’ that Israel has sketched out in four meaty earlier volumes. Largely responsible for the achievement, he argues, was a grouping he identifies as ‘Brissotin’ that transformed the radical materialist strand under the Ancien Régime into a democratic philosophy of ‘human rights, equality and free expression’ (p. 703). Israel’s penchant for lumping means that he runs roughshod over many problems that preoccupy the splitters among us. His loosely identified and baggy, twenty- to thirty-strong Brissotin grouping includes individuals from political formations often at odds with them. Vicious attacks by Camille Desmoulins (here accounted a Brissotin) contributed mightily, for example, to sending Brissot to the guillotine. (Oddly, too, despite Israel’s contention that the group was socially unrepresentative of the political class at this time, proportionately it seems to include quite as many lawyers and professionals as the national assembly as a whole.) At least these Brissotins, the stars of Israel’s show, have their ideas ventilated and examined in this work. The same cannot be said of the ‘Robespierrists’, against whom the Brissotins ‘struggled for the soul of the Revolution’ (p. 591). Although Israel flies the flag of intellectual history, his approach to Robespierre is highly psychologistic: Robespierre was a ‘self-confessed dictator’ (p. 541; the ‘self-confessed’ is based on a clear misreading of a phrase in one of Robespierre’s speeches) who suffered from ‘megalomania, paranoia and vindictiveness’ (p. 449). His grouping was characterized less by ideas than by crude political practices — the ‘dragooning of public opinion’ and ‘lies and distortions’ (pp. 52, 217), in a nutshell. An ‘authoritarian populist’, Robespierre practised a form of ‘proto-fascism’ (p. 164). Israel even views the Terror largely in terms of Robespierre’s pathological zeal for disposing of Brissotin enemies. One would never know that Robespierre was also involved in conducting a war against allied Europe into which the Brissotins had led France. R. R. Palmer’s classic Twelve Who Ruled (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941) is in the bibliography but Israel has not digested its lessons. Parts of Revolutionary Ideas, notably sections highlighting the importance of outright republicanism in the Revolution’s early years, will stimulate fruitful debate. So it seems a shame that Israel rarely engages with the work of other scholars, even some of those who analyse republicanism (for example, Raymonde Monnier and Keith Baker). Symptomatically, most of the footnotes are references to often manifestly cherry-picked quotations from primary sources. It is sadly characteristic of his approach that historians who do not accept what he characterizes as ‘the proper view’ on the Revolution (vix. his own, one assumes) are considered victims of ‘historiographical obscurantism’ (p. 703). This is one way of conducting a debate, I suppose, but I hope not one that catches on.

Colin Jones
Queen Mary University of London


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