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Revolutionary Tradition in France

Revolutionary Tradition in France Simultaneously revolutions are bearers of change and prisoners of past thought, giving rise to debates concerning their innovative and conservative aspects. As the legitimate heir of the Great Revolution, the French in 1848 spoke its language, used its symbols, idealized its heroes and even copied its institutions. As Karl Marx adjudged: "The 1848 Revolution could do no better than parody either 1789, or the revolutionary tradition from 1793 to 1795." But while Marx's judgment underscored the diverse inspiration for the protest movement of the mid-nineteenth century, he erred in denying the movement any originality. The 1848 revolution was no carbon copy of 1789 or 1793. The 1848 Revolution was the product of a revolutionary tradition whose point of origin was the French Revolution but this was also a living tradition which constantly modified across time, a link in a chain that extends beyond the mid-century.

To alter the contours of the society in France the revolutionists of 1848 chose as models inherited symbols, words, images, and practices that had come down to them as a revolutionary tradition. Thus those bequeathed the appellation of the "Mountain" hailed each other with the epithet of "citizen", demonstrated at the Place de la Bastille and sang the Marseillaise. They would proclaim the republic, abolish slavery and elect a constituent assembly, all in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity. It would be too easy to misconstrue this as merely passive and sterile imitation. To confuse the "Mountain" of 1792 with that of 1848 mistakes the names of institutions of disparate republics arising at different times and assumes that they are the result of similar forces. But the slow permeation of French society by capitalism in the intervening period transformed society and economics; altered class relations and therefore the aspirations of different groups mutated the meaning to the revolutionary tradition. Not merely molding itself to a changing reality, it also selected from the sum of the revolutionary events and ideas. The 1830 revolution contributed to this process because a consensus quickly emerged in February 1848 in favor of a republic and universal manhood suffrage, thereby setting aside the early choices in 1789 and the Restoration of a monarchy and limited suffrage. Otherwise, in 1848, the diverse ideologies split the movement. Depending on its practical tendencies, or its links with the old or the new republicans, each group took sustenance from its own sources, whether they were jacobin, sansculotte or babouvist. The process of selection led each to choose from the past the elements that would strengthen its identity and reinforce its unity. "The revolution [thus] consists of conflicting fidelities to heritages that are not only diverse but contradictory" (F. Furet). In the face of such complexities, it is doubtless appropriate to talk about revolutionary traditions rather than a single revolutionary tradition. Thus reshaped according to current needs by contemporary political practice and mind sets, revolutionary traditions in 1848 are not "a shop of ready-made truths". They are rather agents of major change. The principle of equality is exemplary in this regard. Integrated into the revolutionary experience since the summer of 1789, it was invested through subsequent working-class deceptions with a new meaning, less and less juridical and increasingly socio-economic. The will to defend it gave rise to a political programme which in the middle of the nineteenth century would address the social question in new terms. Irrespective of their capacity to resolve problems or of what would happen to them, the right to work and to form associations would be part of the new social project clearly set out by those revolutionaries who would now be called the "democ-socs", a term more redolent of the twentieth than the eighteenth century. The establishment of the Luxembourg Commission, even though it was marginalized and without decisionary powers, was another symbol of changing mentalities and the origin of a general rethinking that would eventually change attitudes. The revolutionaries' attachment to the principle of equality, while it went back far into the revolutionary past, still had a clear potential for mobilization in 1848 that would be handed on to the Communards of 1871 and even to socialists of all hues in the twentieth century. In this way past and present are inextricably linked in a complex but effective articulation. The innovation-versus-tradition dialectic may thus be a false opposition.

At the end of the eighteenth century there was a speeding up of historical processes in France which meant that Frenchmen, in a flash of inspiration, were able to foresee the socio-economic problems that would preoccupy throughout the entire nineteenth century. They even tried out, in rudimentary and in some cases premature fashion, all the political formulas that would be proposed in the next hundred years. These years were accurately labeled "the crucible years." Revolution, with all its eventualities, was put on the agenda but it was left to future generations to confer form on them. The evolution of the economy and society, along with the provocations of counter-revolution, sporadically gave new life, and new meanings, to the dreams in collective memories. This is the paradoxical and ambiguous side to French political life which already seems to want to find solutions for its future in the baggage it inherits from the past. This is also a complex and original dynamic - which some tried to exorcise during the recent bicentennial - at the heart of which sits the 1848 revolution.
Christine Piette


M. Agulhon. 1848 ou l'apprentissage de la république. (Paris: Seuil, 1973).

M. Agulhon. Marianne au combat: l'imagerie et la symbolique républicaines de 1789 à 1880. (Paris: Flammarion, 1979).

G. Bourgin, "1848 et la tradition révolutionnaire française", La Revue socialiste, 17-18 (1948): 64-72.

E. Eisenstein. "The Evolution of the Jacobin Tradition in France: the Survival and Revival of the Ethos of 1793 under the Bourbon and Orleanist Regimes" Ph.D. Dissertation, Ratcliffe College, 1951).

F. Furet. "La Révolution dans l'imaginaire politique français", Le Débat, 26 (1983): 173-181.

R. Gosselin, "Les almanachs républicains. Traditions révolutionnaires et culture politique des couches populaires de Paris (1840-1851)", (Ph. D. Dissertation, Laval University, 1990).

H. J. Lusebrink, "La Bastille dans l'imaginaire social de la France", Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, 30 (1983): 196-235;

C. Nicolet. L'idée répubicaine en France (1789-1924): Essai d'histoire critique (Paris: Gallimard, 1982).

P. Nora (dir. de), Les lieux de mémoire, I, La République (Paris: Gallimard, 1984).

C. Piette, "Réflexions historiques sur les traditions révolutionnaires Paris au XIXème siècle", Historical Reflections/ Réflexions historiques, 12 (1985): 403-418.

A. Spitzer. Old Hatred and Young Hopes: the French Carbonari against the Bourbon Restoration. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

R. Samson. Les 14 juillet, fête et conscience nationale 1789-1975. (Paris: Flammarion, 1976).

M. Vovelle ed. Les images de la Révolution française: actes du colloque des 25-26-27 octobre 1985 tenu à la Sorbonne (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1988).

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