‘Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre’ reviewed by David Sockol

Reviewed by David Sockol

About the reviewer

David Sockol is a doctoral candidate in History at Drew University studying Modern European …


Although it is a self-contained history of the French Revolution of 1789, Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (2014) is best viewed as the conclusion to his preceding series of studies examining the Enlightenment. In Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and Democratic Enlightenment (2011), Israel pursued the controversial claim that a coherent set of philosophical ideas and their political correlates animated a persistent faction of ‘Radical Enlightenment’ thinkers throughout Europe. Arguing that this bloc, stretching from Spinoza to Diderot, embraced a materialist metaphysics, privileged rational thought, and asserted the autonomy of the individual against traditional centers of authority, Israel has maintained that they established the intellectual foundation for the liberal democratic and secular ideals that he considers to be the core political values of modernity. These claims fundamentally animate Revolutionary Ideas, wherein Israel approaches the history of the Revolution not in a spirit of objective inquiry, but with a host of a priori assumptions and, most prominently, as an opportunity to demonstrate the veracity of his ideas concerning the Radical Enlightenment, its impact, and its beneficence. This results in Israel overreaching in regards to his central contention that the Revolution was solely the product of Radical Enlightenment ideas, in his imposition of thinly supported categories and characterizations upon many of its leading figures, and in his often-neglectful attitude towards its non-elite participants and non-intellectual aspects. Despite this, Israel’s belief in the Revolution’s ideological pedigree does allow him to engage in some incisive analyses of a number of its features, including its emancipatory proclamations, social programs, and opposing political groupings, resulting in a work that, alongside its missteps, contains definite value.

Beginning with a curt dismissal of recent scholarship as doing ‘no more than enrich[ing] the background’ of the Revolution and not ‘identifying any single dramatic factor’ as its cause (10, 14), Israel immediately reveals his own idiosyncratic and ultimately self-propelled approach towards his subject. Ignoring the fact that current historians are averse to positing monocausal explanations for complex events due to the reductive and potentially obfuscatory nature of such a procedure, Israel avowedly embraces this methodology. Writing that the ‘Radical Enlightenment was incontrovertibly the one “big” cause of the French Revolution…it inspired and equipped the leadership of the authentic Revolution…[it] alone offered a package of values sufficiently universal, secular, and egalitarian to set in motion the forces of a broad, general emancipation’ (708), Israel summarizes his core, compound claim. The ideas of the Radical Enlightenment, the ‘linking of one-substance monism with democracy and sweeping egalitarian social reform’ (703), alone produced the Revolution via its influence on the Revolution’s leadership, he argues, a bold assertion that, unfortunately, remains unsupported by decisive evidence.

The most prominent, but also the least convincing, support that Israel adduces for his contention that the Radical Enlightenment was the cause of the Revolution are contemporary statements to that effect. Noting early in his study that ‘virtually all highly educated observers identified the Revolution’s chief cause as cette grande revolution morale’ precipitated by the Enlightenment (16), Israel repeatedly returns to this point, peppering his text with quotations from various figures claiming that the ideas of Radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, and the Baron d’Holbach inspired the upheavals beginning in 1789. While such claims should not be dismissed, they should also be viewed far more critically than Israel does. He declines to consider, for example, that the Catholic intellectual François-Xavier de Feller’s assertion that the Revolution was the outcome of ‘a conspiracy’ of Enlightenment philosophes (17) was more a reflection of his avowed hostility to Enlightenment impiety and the Revolution’s subversion of the monarchy than an objective, and accurate, observation. Similarly, Israel overlooks that possibility that the Marquis de Condorcet’s declaration that the Enlightenment ‘planted the seeds of the Revolution’ (143) may have been based less on an exact assessment of cause and effect and more on an attempt to lend coherence and prestige to the revolutionary project.

Israel does briefly pursue a far more convincing means of demonstrating the role of Radical Enlightenment ideas in fomenting the Revolution in his examination of the press during the last years of the ancien régime. He writes that the effective collapse of royal censorship by 1788 had allowed a multitude of pamphlets, tracts, and other ephemeral texts expressing the Radical Enlightenment’s ‘antiaristocratic and anticlerical discourse’ to emerge, diffusing ‘new revolutionary ideas’ of equality and rights throughout France (34, 51). This widespread ‘intellectual subversion’ of the ancien régime, Israel concludes, eventually ‘form[ed] a new kind of reading public…a collective tribunal, judging kings…and examining more general questions of government’ (34, 51, 50). Thus delineating a process in which texts disseminated the critical ideas of the Radical Enlightenment to the French public who would then go on to marshal them towards revolutionary praxis, Israel puts forward an argument that cogently locates the influence of the Radical Enlightenment within the genesis of the Revolution.

Unfortunately, Israel does not maintain this attention to demonstrable processes of intellectual transmission within the Revolution nor to the multitude of ordinary men and women who participated in it for the majority of Revolutionary Ideas. Instead, Israel devotes the bulk of his study to a select group of the Revolution’s leading figures, arguing that it was they who ‘formed the essential link connecting the Revolution to the Enlightenment’ by realizing the latter in the former (478). The frustrating inconsistency of his designation for this group – variously referring to them as ‘the parti de philosophie,’ ‘left republicans,’ and ‘Brissotins’ (after one of its most prominent members, Jacques-Pierre Brissot) before effectively equating them with the Girondins (21, 278, 285) – is but one of the problems in Israel’s presentation of this ostensible cohort. Most striking is his attempt to fit its variegated membership, including such figures as the aforementioned Brissot, Condorcet, Camille Desmoulins, the Comte de Mirabeau, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyés, and a host of lesser personages (29), into the Procrustean bed of his Radical Enlightenment without any thorough examination of their philosophical convictions. Because Israel conceives of the Radical Enlightenment as a fundamentally philosophical enterprise – a belief in ‘one-substance monism’ – his neglect of this dimension of his parti de philosophie is particularly glaring. It is also particularly unfortunate in light of the unsatisfactory results that arise from his attempt to establish this clique’s connection to the Radical Enlightenment through an examination of their politics. Israel argues that, adhering to the democratic-republican ethos that he considers to be a central tenet of the Radical Enlightenment, this group was ‘bent on eliminating every last vestige of genuine monarchy [and] allowing no aristocratic strand in the new constitution’ (70). This claim, however, directly contradicts the facts that Mirabeau was an avowed supporter of constitutional monarchy and Sieyés played a significant role in the drafting of the 1791 Constitution and its inegalitarian distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ citizens. Israel seems to recognize that this contradiction throws his assertion of a coherent, Radical Enlightenment-inspired group of revolutionists into question, but rather than leading him to rethink his position, he doubles down on it with the unconvincing claim that even when publically supporting monarchist or aristocratic governance, all the members of this group were in fact ‘crypto-republicans’ (139).

Israel finds more success in identifying the Radical Enlightenment lineage of his parti de philosophie in his examinations of their proposed social programs. Surveying their plans to emancipate women and blacks, secularize the state, and implement universal education, Israel argues that neither popular pressure nor class interests can account for the genesis of these proposals. Their origin, he concludes, lay in the ideas of Radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot, Gabriel de Mably, and Étienne de Condillac, a position he cogently supports through both statements by the revolutionists themselves and his own incisive analyses (120-30, 396-419,180-94, 374-95). While thus leading him to propose a number of keen insights in regards to the course of the Revolution, Israel’s focus on a select group of Revolutionary leaders throughout Revolutionary Ideas is mostly unrewarding. His assertions of their unitary character as devotees of the Radical Enlightenment are unconvincing and his stress on their role in shaping the Revolution results in an unbalanced narrative overlooking numerous important elements, particularly the actions and importance of non-elite revolutionists.

Mixed results also accrue from Israel’s examination of the Montagnards and their leader, Maximilien Robespierre, which runs parallel to and ultimately constitutes a necessary pendant to his study of the parti de philosophie. With the latter, Israel intended to demonstrate not only the revolutionary impact of the Radical Enlightenment, but also, in line with his belief that its ideas constitute the basis for the most noble of modern ideals, its progressive, salutary nature. Writing that the parti de philosophie were ‘the founders of the modern human rights tradition…[and] attempt[ed] to create a fairer society by constitutional, legal, and nonviolent means’ (478), Israel clearly hopes to ascribe all that was good in the Revolution to the parti and, through them, to the Radical Enlightenment. A consequence of this, however, is that Israel must dissociate what are effectively the heroes of his study from all that was objectionable in the Revolution, most particularly the Reign of Terror, with the result that he wholly and unfairly associates these aspects with the Montagnards.

Though eventually approaching calumny, Israel’s treatment of the Montagnards and Robespierre begins on an extremely firm basis, with an engaging examination of their ideological lineage and careful consideration of its distinctions from that of the Radical Enlightenment. Drawing upon the Montagnards’ own statements and writings, Israel identifies them as followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and proceeds to discuss how Rousseau’s proto-Romanticism placed him, and subsequently his Montagnard followers, in opposition to the Radical Enlightenment and its disciples. Establishing that Rousseau’s stress on ‘virtue,’ ‘feeling,’ the ‘ordinary,’ and espousal for direct democracy contrasted with the Radical Enlightenment’s privileging of knowledge, reason, intellectual elites, and support for representative democracy, Israel develops a convincing argument concerning how conflicting pre-Revolutionary ideas shaped the debates and political groupings of the Revolutionary era (348-71).

Israel largely drops his examination of the Montagnards’ ideology as they ascend to the leadership of the Revolution in favor of a thorough vilification of them as self-serving authoritarians who ‘overturn[ed] the Revolution’s core values’ (450). Gathering together several of the key weaknesses of his work –the use of contemporary statements without concern for any bias they may harbor, a neglect of context, and a dismissive attitude towards non-elite actors – Israel strives to undermine the idea that Robespierre and his colleagues ever enjoyed genuine popular support. Citing avowed opponents of the Montagnards, such as Jean-Baptiste Louvet Louis-Sébastien Mercier, and neglecting the fact that France was engaged in an unpopular war of which the Montagnards had been one of the most vocal opponents of, Israel argues that the upwards of eighty-thousand Parisians that fought for the Montagnard coup of June 2, 1793 did not genuinely support Robespierre and his colleagues. Instead, he writes, the people of Paris had ‘little grasp of what was happening’ after having been ‘fed…nonsense’ propaganda by unnamed Montagnard agents and were simply being ‘used’ (446). Especially striking is Israel’s treatment of the Terror, which, after rejecting characterizations of it as an inevitable product of the Enlightenment and a means of alleviating poverty by redistributing wealth (28, 506), he empties of all ideological significance. ‘The Terror,’ Israel argues was nothing more than a ‘ferocious crackdown on all opposition and dissent’ in order to ensure that ‘the Robespierriste leadership…retain[ed] its grip on power’ and employed a leveling, Rousseauist ideology as a ‘mask, providing ostensible justification for its acts’ (507, 557). In his rush to demonize the opponents of his preferred revolutionists, therefore, Israel completely undercuts his own core contention that the influence of ideas was central to the course of the Revolution, concluding that motivating one of its most prominent features was nothing more than base expediency.

As Israel concludes his study by surveying the Revolution’s history from Thermidor to Napoleon’s ascension in 1799, his continued insistence on seeing the ideas of the Radical Enlightenment at work and celebrating their supposed champions leads him into further self-subversion. Discussing the republican Fructidor coup of 1797, Israel defends this overthrow of a democratically elected government by a small clique of politicians. Writing that although ‘impelled wholly from above’ and instituting an ‘authoritarian’ regime, Fructidor ‘reaffirm[ed] the Revolution’s essentially philosophique character’ by reviving the parti de philosophie’s plans for universal education and by ‘firmly advocate[ing] a comprehensively antiaristocratic, merit-based social elite’ (680-2, 686). Seeming to forget his claim that the Radical Enlightenment bequeathed a ‘package’ of cohesive values to Revolutionists including equality and democracy, Israel insists on finding its influence in elitist repression.

Ending his monograph by rejecting the current, pervasive assertion that ‘the Enlightenment project failed’ and that its ideas hold no redeeming value (707), Israel reminds his readers of the lack of nuance and even degrees of distortion that condemnations of the Enlightenment can contain. With Revolutionary Ideas, however, Israel demonstrates that defenses of the Enlightenment can contain similar features.

20 November 2016

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