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  • Revolution and Authenticity:Reflections from France on the Russian and Soviet Experience
  • Donald M. G. Sutherland (bio)

One of the occupational hazards of the discipline of history in the last half of the twentieth century has been the seduction of social science. The desire to render the subject "scientific," the desire to look for regularity in apparently similar events, has spawned a significant literature of comparative history. Nowhere has the itch to compare been greater than in the phenomenon of revolutions, and nowhere has it been greater than in the urge to compare the Russian and the French Revolutions. Yet for all that this enterprise has been genuinely engaging and fascinating, one comes away from this literature with a feeling that in the end, the comparison does not really work, that authors end up by privileging one revolution over another. Although the authors themselves might well deny it, many think that Brinton and Skocpol used the French Revolution as a yardstick against which all others were measured, while others might think Goldstone used the English as his standard.1

The difficulty for anyone who has been asked to compare these six excellent papers with "his" revolution, in this case the French Revolution, is the realization that the two fields have developed at different paces and that in some respects, Russian and Soviet studies have developed in many more interesting and sophisticated ways than the French. The reason for this has to do with the way the French Revolution until very recent times has related to the French sense of national identity and how Anglo-Saxon historians of France, who have otherwise contributed so much to the renewal of the field, have followed an agenda that helped the French identify themselves as egalitarian, democratic republicans. However much the French, and therefore French historians, have quarreled over the past 200 years about what it means to be French, the fact is that those who rebelled against the French Revolution were never taken seriously until very recently. Alphonse Aulard, for example, the first holder of the chair in French Revolution studies at the Sorbonne, refused to accept the fact that those peasants [End Page 153] of the west of France who rebelled against the Revolution – the Vendeans and the chouans – were French at all. He dismissed them all as British agents, even though at their height they occupied close to a quarter of the French national territory, and even though they were, far more than the famous sans-culottes, the popular movement in the French Revolution.2 Indeed, at a critical conference on the issue of resistance to the Revolution at Rennes in 1985, there were some participants who maintained that resistance to the Revolution was not authentic or legitimate, that even if there were peasants in the Vendean armies who wore a sacred heart stitched to their smock, who marched under the banner of the fleur-de-lys, who bowed down in prayer before a dissident priest before going into battle, who shouted "Long live Louis XVII" – that none of these tests of political loyalty meant anything. The common people could not possibly be counter-revolutionary. They were simply misled.3

The issue of resistance in the Revolution has become respectable since that conference, in some ways, of course, because of it. But such respectability has been a long time coming. This is almost certainly because almost all of those in France and abroad who practice what is called l'histoire universitaire have been admirers of the Revolution overall, while those who have attacked it could be dismissed as disgruntled and obsessed reactionaries, out-of-touch Catholic apologists, or worst of all, mere érudits locaux. One cannot imagine such a situation developing in the historiography of the USSR and its successor states. As several of the papers under review here make clear, there is a tendency to ascribe legitimacy and authenticity, not to the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist terror state, but to those who resisted it. No doubt this has everything to do with historians' political appreciation of their subject. And it also explains why the question of resistance in Soviet historiography has attained such high quality, as each of these...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-5000
Print ISSN
1531-023x
Pages
pp. 153-160
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-26
Open Access
No
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