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Was Louis XVI Overthrown by Ideas?

Stephanie de Sakutin/AFP/Getty

Jonathan Israel

In her starkly dismissive review, Hunt demolishes my “premises” exposing the “flaws in the workmanship” without even explaining the book’s argument and what it attempts to do. She reduces a complex thesis to my asserting that a “revolution in ideas” was “the motor and shaping force” of the French Revolution. In so doing, she joins a whole phalanx of hostile critics asserting that, according to my interpretation, “only ideas matter.” To this Hunt adds—as if making a profound objection—that eighteenth-century atheistic materialism, which I argue spearheaded the assault on religious authority, does not necessarily entail a democratic republican outlook when I nowhere suggest it does but rather emphasize that atheistic materialism and the democratic impulse do not necessarily go together (as in La Mettrie, Goethe, the marquis de Sade, etc.).

Since the democratic republicans, I argue, were only one of three main movements within the Revolution, Hunt misleads the reader by removing a vital qualification—that the other two main blocs, hence most of the Revolution, were not driven by the “revolution in ideas,” far from it! Furthermore, since my “Radical Enlightenment” was essentially a dual phenomenon—intellectual and social-cultural at the same time—a “revolution in ideas” plus networks of like-minded radicals, mostly intellectuals, journalists, and ex-tutors seeking fundamental reform and exploiting wider social discontent—her misreporting further deletes the cultural-social dimension, introducing double distortion. These truncations are serious. The book focuses throughout on the crucial role of ideology in forming and organizing the rival groups and what this means when fiercely competing currents of “diffusion” collide. How did the democratic republican faction win sufficient backing to promote republicanism, human rights, freedom of expression, equality of cults, equality before the law, and drastically weakening religious authority culminating in the world’s first democratic constitution (February 1793) when few in society initially understood or supported their principles? Vigorous “diffusion of ideas” among the people, I contend, was their chief tool. In particular, their leading publicists—Brissot, Condorcet, Carra, Gorsas, Louvet, Girey-Duprey, Bonneville, Cérutti, Lanthenas, Prudhomme, and others—heavily dominated the pro-revolutionary press. Few important pro-Revolution papers of any quality supported either of the other two main ideological tendencies—Anglophile “moderates” or populist authoritarian Montagne. My account of “diffusion” may diverge sharply from the bottom-up approach to cultural trends made famous by Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier of which Lynn Hunt herself is a practitioner, but I place no less emphasis than they on “diffusion”: Instead of identifying social practice and individual choice in reading as the chief motor, I emphasize ideology and the use of top-down propaganda methods. Revolutionary Ideas devotes much space to newspapers, including popular papers specifically addressed to women, beside pamphlets, parades, public ceremonies, enforced changes to religious practice, politicization of the theatres, and “pantheonization.”

“It is hard to imagine a more telling example” of my “failure to comprehend how politics works,” than my claiming a pre-1789 “revolution in ideas” was the main shaping “cause” of the democratic republican tendency promoting “universal human rights.” Hunt and I clash fundamentally over “diffusion” and “universal rights.” She explains the rise of universal human rights, in her work, in terms of long-term “cultural shifts” and reading epistolary novels. “Gradually, the people became morally and socially independent agents less tied to communities and churches and this broad social-cultural process was reflected in the art and especially the epistolary novels of the era.” “Reading accounts of torture or epistolary novels,” Hunt maintains, “had physical effects that translated into brain changes and came back out as new concepts about the organization of social and political life.” Conceivably; but how does literature encouraging “new individual experiences (empathy)” generate structurally innovative “new social and political concepts (human rights)?”

How do we explain the furious, irresolvable divisions in French society and the National Assembly in 1789–91 not least over whether the principle of human rights should be adopted? What of the bitter controversies over applying the new principle in key instances like emancipating the Jews? Most people in Alsace-Lorraine where the largest Jewish community in eighteenth-century France lived, as well as (initially) most of the National Assembly (perhaps those who did not read novels?) staunchly opposed Jewish emancipation. Only a small, resolute fringe, Mirabeau and the democratic republicans, advocated it. Were there any solidity to Hunt’s “cultural shifts,” much of France and Europe would have followed this tiny fringe, in 1789 or later, in embracing instead of rejecting universal rights. Peter de Bolla’s recent book on the origins of universal human rights confirms the striking abruptness of the rise of “universal human rights” in the 1770s, and the pivotal role of changes in structures of ideas, concluding that all this invalidates Hunt’s thesis which emerges as “so wide off the mark” that it fails to address either the abruptness or structural conceptual change; I agree but would add Hunt’s complete inability to account for the profound, bitter and lasting divisions over human rights. 

Grossly oversimplifying my “revolution of ideas,” and with her “cultural shifts” in tatters, Hunt returns to the charge with a third absurd distortion. “In an effort to save [my] version of history,” she claims, I “backtrack” by attributing the Montagnard coup of June 1789 to “four different factions” which then soon began to fight among themselves. This nonsensical charge of “backtracking” she produces twice despite my adhering to the same argument consistently throughout: the terrible repression and Terror of 1793–4 were the work of a group dictatorship comprising three populist factions—Dantonists, Robespierristes, and adherents of Hébert—briefly supported by an independent-minded group of sansculottes, the Enragés. Nowhere is there “backtracking” of any sort.

“Israel’s intellectual history, as he calls it, falls apart,” explains Hunt, “because the foundations are flawed, and the detailed political narrative that he develops does not support it. Countless examples could be cited,” she adds, without providing any. She does offer one purported “example”—my titling the chapter describing the coup of June 1793 “Robespierre’s Putsch.” As sarcasms like “il duce Robespierre” indicate, she scorns my suggesting an affinity between the populist authoritarian revolution of 1793–4 and modern Fascism. Yet, a Putsch in German means a concerted, armed uprising and that is exactly what it was. Its success was achieved by using organized, concerted force (including cannon) to intimidate the legislature. At first sight my drawing a parallel with Fascism might seem inappropriate. But I suggest this parallel for a cogent reason. The defining feature of the Montagnard group dictatorship of 1793–4, and one especially antagonistic to democratic republican values and the Enlightenment, was their insistence (following Rousseau) on the purity and virtue of the ordinary person and the common people’s unity of will. Rousseau was not responsible for the extremes to which this doctrine was carried. Nevertheless, this theory assumed a peculiarly vicious form in Montagnard hands being systematically employed to justify stifling surveillance, criminalizing dissent, closing down press freedom (early 1793), and the Terror. The only correct way for the ordinary person to think, insisted the Montagne, should be imposed on society using ‘terror justice’, a political culture closely parallel to Fascism. Historical comparisons when well-judged are useful tools for high-lighting significant parallels without this implying the Terror’s organizers resembled the Nazi dictatorship in every respect.

Hunt roundly berates me for the significance I attribute to Diderot, d’Holbach, and Helvétius, making one mistake after another. These writers, she says, “are not easy to characterize politically because they wrote primarily on other matters.” Actually d’Holbach’s last three major books—his Système sociale (1773), La Politique naturelle (1773), and La morale universelle (1776)—are almost entirely about politics and how to reform society, like Helvétius’s later work and Diderot’s contributions to the Histoire philosophique des Deux Indes (1770), the most widely read and comprehensive attack on monarchy, aristocracy, and religious authority as well as colonialism of the late eighteenth century. Hunt cites the materialist thinkers’ flirtation with enlightened despotism in the 1760s, and Diderot’s association with Catherine II in Russia, imagining these contradict my thesis without realizing these features actually support it because, briefly, the enlightened despots seemingly pursued much of the far-ranging emancipation program—ending serfdom, curtailing aristocratic, and clerical privilege and liberating state and society from religious authority—Diderot and the others demanded. Diderot returned from Russia in 1774, however, deeply disillusioned with Catharine and enlightened despotism.

Hunt supposes she delivers a further significant blow by observing that in the speeches delivered in the National Assembly between 1789 and 1793, searchable online, “d’Holbach is never mentioned,” Helvétius and Diderot “come up only a handful of times,” and Rousseau is cited far more often. All this is totally vacuous. Frequency of citation in National Assembly debates is irrelevant to evaluating these authors’ impact because d’Holbach’s works all appeared anonymously and practically no-one knew he wrote them until later while Diderot’s authorship of the hardest-hitting sections of the Histoire philosophique also remained a secret. Their names hardly appear but the titles of d’Holbach’s books and characteristic phrases crop up continually while the Histoire philosophique was unquestionably the most widely reprinted, translated and read French political work of the 1770s and 1780s, everywhere recognized as pivotal to the onset of the democratic revolutionary consciousness. Of course, Rousseau was mentioned with great frequency. But Rousseau, I explain, strongly appealed to the Left, Right, and center all at the same time so that without examining divergences, conflicting “structures” of ideas, nothing about his or their impact is correctly understood. If his concept of popular sovereignty aided the radical tendency, Rousseau’s anti-intellectualism and hostility to the philosophes and book-learning together with his doctrine of ‘dictatorship’ and theory of the unity of the popular will stressing the natural virtuousness of the ordinary man, formed the core (albeit in a debased version) of the authoritarian ideology of Marat, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and the Terror.

“Even the supposed radicals invoked Helvétius and Montesquieu in the same breadth” complains Hunt, again confusing names with structures. Montesquieu, next to Rousseau, the single most cited of all thinkers during the French Revolution, is treated very differently by each of the three main revolutionary blocs. For the “first revolution,” the “moderates,” rejecting democracy and wanting mixed government and an aristocratic upper chamber to the legislature, Montesquieu was the highest authority and continually praised; however, it was his relativism, defense of aristocracy and admiration for the English “model” they esteemed. For precisely this reason, the other two main ideological movements, the democratic republicans and authoritarian populists, never promoted his reputation or main ideas at all. Again, Hunt misses that it is structures of ideas that count.  

The structural elements in Diderot, d’Holbach, and Helvétius that closely parallel the chief components of the democratic republican revolutionary consciousness of 1789-93, I argue, are: 1) the long-standing radical doctrine that over the centuries kings and priests maintained “an alliance” to deceive and oppress society in their own interest; 2) the people are deceived and led to act against their own interest by ignorance and fundamentally wrong ideas, bondage reparable only by “enlightening” all of society; 3) “aristocracy,” privilege and vested interests represent across-the-board institutionalized injustice that must end, the object of all legitimate government being to promote the common welfare, or general “happiness,” treating the interests of all equally; 4) preventing kings, clergy and privileged groups preying on the majority means demolishing a general system of royal, aristocratic and religious oppression with sweeping measures of emancipation setting all of society free and rendering all laws and institutions, education, religion, the arts and marriage more equitable, rational, and secular.

“Israel has no feel for politics” reiterates Hunt. To my account of Robespierre and the Montagne she prefers the conventional view that both represented the main lines of the Revolution. When contemporaries repudiated Robespierre and the Terror, she supposes they turned against the Revolution. I dismiss this as a category confusion strictly to be avoided. No important European, British, or American democratic intellectual of the revolutionary era ever endorsed or condoned the Montagne. All genuine democratic republican publicists, practically without exception, condemned Robespierre as a vicious “dictator,” and the Montagne as monstrous despotism wrecking the democratic Revolution’s authentic legacy. This is true of the Americans and British—Paine, Jefferson, Barlow, Madison, Palmer, Priestley, Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, Bentham, and Godwin—of the Dutch—Irhoven van Dam, Paape and Daendels—German, and Italian democratic republican publicists, and of pro-Revolution independents like Olympe de Gouges, Mercier, Fauchet, Cloots, Naigeon, Lamourette, and Benjamin Constant, comparing the main rival factions in French.

What Hunt says about the key rift between Brissotin democrats and the Montagne is incorrect both in broad outline and specific detail. Brissot was not “contradictory” but politically and ideologically consistent. It was not the Montagne but the Brissotins who led the campaign for black emancipation. Condorcet’s differences with Robespierre’ were not just “political” but also educational, religious, literary, ceremonial, journalistic, and enmeshed in theatre controversies as well as philosophical. Robespierre’s failure to promote women’s political rights, and urging separate education for boys and girls, are factually incontestable. Condorcet, asserts Hunt, was not serious about promoting women’s rights: He did not “propose giving the vote to women.” Yet again, she is entirely mistaken. During 1788–93, Condorcet and his wife, Sophie, were consistently the most active fighters for women’s political rights as well as civil divorce, equality in marriage law, and other improvements for women within the Revolution. The core of universal rights, held Condorcet, a convinced republican democrat even before the Revolution, is “equality in the quest for human happiness”; and while most men had not yet realized it, he explained, in 1788, women must eventually share equally in the benefits of universal rights. Women need to escape the oppression imposed on them by men and women’s happiness and interests would one day be treated as of equal value. He acted on these sentiments consistently.                                 

Hunt generously labels me “fixated,” dogmatic, and unwilling to accept criticism. David Bell levels the same accusations in his New York Review of Books review published shortly after hers, offering objections which, if anything, are even more inaccurate and prone to misrepresent. My foundations are weak, she insists, and my interpretation “falls apart.” Yet, there is not a single substantive point in the whole of Hunt’s and Bell’s reviews which remotely justifies such a claim or is even partially accurate. I would like to keep an open mind about this, however, and invite any reader who has read both the book and their “critiques,” and has some familiarity with the material, to communicate his or her view to me if he or she thinks they have spotted an objection somewhere in their ‘criticism’ that should be taken seriously. I would gladly accept and profit from any cogent argument based on genuine evidence.

Lynn Hunt:

Now that I have joined “a whole phalanx of hostile critics,” it might seem unnecessary to reply to Jonathan Israel and simply refer the reader back to my review or to his 870-page book. But, in fact, the reader will find a very good sample of his method of proceeding in his rebuttal. He makes bold claims that are based on selective and therefore misleading evidence; he deliberately mischaracterizes the views of other scholars and if necessary denies what he himself has said in print; and when all else fails, he endeavors to convince the reader of his position by citing long lists of names to testify to his erudition. Only if someone is willing to track them all down can his conclusions be shown to be invalid. And if someone (like me) tries to do it, he then simply throws out another list. In the interest of brevity, I reduce my remarks here to a set of side-by-side comparisons that follow Israel’s own line of attack.  

Israel: She reduces a complex thesis to my asserting that a “revolution in ideas” was “the motor and shaping force” of the French Revolution.  

Hunt: In his book appears the following: “A ‘revolution of ideas’ was necessary before there could be a revolution of fact. … It paved the way for the ‘revolution of events’ and was its motor and shaping force.” 

Israel: He nowhere suggests that atheistic materialism and the democratic impulse necessarily go together “(as in La Mettrie, Goethe, the marquis de Sade, etc.).”

Hunt: A typical Israel list. The views of these men have almost nothing in common with each other and are not discussed in this book, at least that I could find, whereas Israel obsessively repeats that his authentic republicans were atheists and materialists. 

Israel: “Her misreporting further deletes the cultural-social dimension.” This cultural-social dimension he defines as a “vigorous ‘diffusion of ideas’ among the people.”

Hunt: Israel has little patience for or interest in the views of the people. On p. 427, for example, he concludes, “But the sansculottes [the term for ordinary working people], though a decisive force in the Revolution down to the summer of 1795, were also an anarchic, inconsistent ebbing and flowing element, with little cognizance of the general scenario, much under the thumb of their trusted local dominateurs, forceful men with scant concern for, or knowledge of, the overall political situation.” So much for the diffusion of ideas, which would in fact be a fruitful subject for examination.

Israel: The leading publicists of the democratic republicans were “Brissot, Condorcet, Carra, Gorsas, Louvet, Girey-Duprey, Bonneville, Cérutti, Lanthenas, Prudhomme, and others,” and “they heavily dominated the pro-revolutionary press.”

Hunt: You see what I mean about lists. His “etc.” in the list above and “others” here cover a lot of territory, and the listing of names does not prove that they “heavily dominated the pro-revolutionary press.” These men, some hardly household names, were all involved with newspapers but so were hundreds of others at the time. 

Israel: He then offers two paragraphs of criticisms about my book on human rights (Inventing Human Rights) presumably to argue that his account is better. 

Hunt: By all means, read my book! It is, however, irrelevant to my review as I do not cite it, do not rely on its arguments, and in any case have always maintained that there is more than one good way to study the origins and development of human rights. Unlike Israel I do not believe I have the only possible answers. 

Israel: He tries to defend his analogy, that he admits “might seem inappropriate,” between the “the Mountain” (so-called because they sat in the higher rows of the Convention) and fascism by arguing that the former insisted “on the purity and virtue of the ordinary person and the common people’s unity of will.”

Hunt: If that is his definition of fascism then Thomas Jefferson, too, was a proto-fascist.

Israel: It is “totally vacuous” to insist that the influence of authors and their ideas ought to be demonstrable by some empirical means.

Hunt: This is typical of Israel’s version of intellectual history. He asserts an influence and when someone questions his evidence since he hasn’t provided any, he argues that it is the “structures” of ideas that matter. And is it not a new example of “backtracking” to argue that “the structural elements” in Diderot, d’Holbach, and Helvetius “closely parallel” the chief components of “the democratic revolutionary consciousness of 1789–1793”? Reading those works or being influenced by them in any way is now utterly irrelevant? The first problem is that other scholars do not agree about this definition of the structural elements in the three authors; the second problem is Israel’s static, reductionist account of democratic republican revolutionary consciousness. There was no one democratic republican revolutionary consciousness. If there had been, there would have been no Terror, no Directory government, and no Napoleon. Political views evolve over time as circumstances change. 

Israel: “’Israel has no feel for politics’ reiterates Hunt.”   

Hunt: Yes, I did say that.

And finally, 

Israel: “Condorcet, asserts Hunt, was not serious about promoting women’s rights: He did not ‘propose giving the vote to women.’”

Hunt: What I actually said was, “If anyone is an unblemished hero of human rights, it is Condorcet.” What I also said was, “he took the lead before 1789 in opposing slavery and after 1789 in advocating equal rights for women.” I mentioned that he did not include the right to vote for women in his draft of the constitution of 1793 to show that he had a keen sense of politics: It was simply impossible to advocate that position in 1793. And, by the way, “Robespierre’s failure to promote women’s political rights” puts him in line with 99 percent of the other democratic republicans and with most men (and women) for generations afterward.