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Alan Forrest: The French Revolution: Recent Debates and Controversies

Paper read at Shanghai Jiao-tong University, 27 March 2012


 It is interesting to look back over the last thirty or forty years of writing and debate on the French Revolution to see how far historiography has evolved over a generation. The debates over the nature of the ‘social revolution’ in France, which were once so prominent and which certainly captured my imagination as an undergraduate in the 1960s, have been largely consigned to the archives. The classical French view – or Marxist view - of the revolution as the most significant link in the evolution of society from feudalism to capitalism is no longer the subject of speculation and analysis. Indeed, it had begun to be chipped away by other social historians of the period – like George Taylor and Alfred Cobban –during the 1960s, historians who did not question the social significance of the Revolution but who challenged the validity, in eighteenth-century Europe, of a hard class terminology that seemed more appropriate to the industrial nineteenth.  They showed how the interests and values of nobles and bourgeois often overlapped, how nobles increasingly indulged in the same commercial activities, how the richer members of the bourgeoisie sought to ‘live nobly’ on rural estates and invested their profits in titles and honours from the Crown.  In the United States, and to a lesser degree in Britain, it was by the late 1970s widely accepted that the Revolution was essentially about politics, about political change, the collapse of political institutions, the rise of a new political vocabulary.  And politics has dominated most of the discussion and debate of recent times.

It was in France that the classical interpretation proved most resilient, most reluctant to die. And that, one suspects, was because it was part of a national heritage, linked to the ideology of the republic itself. In the Third Republic, at the time of the centenary of the Revolution in 1889, radical politicians had sought to celebrate that heritage, to glory in the tradition of the First Republic, to praise the great republicans of their past.  That meant that the entire revolutionary experience had to be treated as a single whole, a bloc: the rights of man of 1789, the trial and execution of the King, the creation of the republic, the defence of the nation in war, the Great Terror of 1783-94.  In 1892 the minister of education forbade the showing of a play in Paris that dared to distinguish between a good and a bad revolution, and dared to criticise the bloodshed of Robespierre’s Terror. Any criticism of the revolutionaries was taken as a criticism of the republican ideal, and was seen as undermining the legitimacy of the current regime. The Revolution therefore had to be celebrated, and the establishment of a chair in the history of the Revolution at the Sorbonne was done in that spirit. And the Sorbonne did not let them down: from Alphonse Aulard to Albert Mathiez, from Georges Lefebvre to Albert Soboul and Michel Vovelle, the chair was held during the hundred years between the Centenary and the Bicentenary, by historians who remained loyal to the republican ideal.

Increasingly, too, over that century, the classical school became identified with another political creed, that of Marxism, with Lefebvre and especially Soboul leading proponents of a Marxist social history. Each did the subject a sterling service by bringing new social categories into the debate: Lefebvre with his study of the peasantry of the Nord, Soboul with his work on the sans-culottes of Paris. Each also was insistent that the Revolution was quintessentially French, a part of France’s political heritage, Albert Soboul in particular rejecting any notion of a broader, liberal-democratic revolutionary movement that encompassed the whole of the Atlantic world.  If his revolution was focussed on social change, it was French society that was changing, and the roots of the Revolution had therefore to be sought in France, in the evils of seigneurialism and in the quest for justice of peasants and urban artisans.  This led to a considerable divergence between his concerns and those of English and American historians of these years.  Perhaps  I may take two examples. Robert Palmer’s two-volume work, The Age of Democratic Revolution, which made such an impression on historiography in the Anglo-Saxon world, was largely ignored in France where it was not dismissed as an attack on the autonomy of the French Revolution, a denial of its essential Frenchness. There were even suggestions that it was a product of Cold war politics, a politically-inspired attempt to put the American Revolution and its more liberal, devolved institutions centre stage, and to imply – as, ironically, François Furet would do so successfully more than a decade later, that the real import of the Revolutionary era was its legacy of liberalism.  Alfred Cobban’s Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, which had been so influential elsewhere in questioning the Marxist social model, made little impact in France. French historians of this generation tended to read only in French (something else that has changed out of all recognition in recent years!), and there was an increasing gulf between the historiographies of the English-speaking and the French-speaking worlds. And Cobban’s book, published in London in 1963, was not translated into French until 1986, almost a quarter of a century later, and four years after Soboul’s death in 1982.

This may not be just coincidental, for Albert Soboul was the dominant figure of his generation in revolutionary studies in France. His textbooks were used very widely, his reviews of other authors studied and cited, and his views on the Revolution were seen as being uniquely authoritative.  His tenure of the Chair in Paris, indeed, may be one of the principal reasons why French writing on the Revolution – and writing in countries that were greatly influenced by France, notably Italy, or where his research students came from, like Japan - remained so loyal to the Marxist paradigm at a time when it was being increasingly questioned in other western countries. And of course Soboul found natural allies in other countries as well, not least in eastern Europe, where there were some excellent historians of Revolutionary France (like Anatoli Ado in Moscow or Walter Markov in East Berlin) who also adopted a Marxist approach to the subject. I do not wish to suggest that France was isolated by the writing of the 1960s and 1970s: merely that a gulf formed between the historical traditions of France and the Atlantic world which form the backcloth to more recent discussions and controversies.  Not that that gulf was total.  The appearance of François Furet’s Penser la Révolution Française in 1979 was a landmark, for it not only switched the focus of study very sharply from the social to the political – if not the ideological; it abandoned the use of the archive sources seen as essential by the classical school of historians to replace them with political texts; and it saw the significance of the Revolution in political terms, as the moment when a tradition of individualism and liberalism emerged to become one of the dominant threads of modern western political culture. Along with his colleague Denis Richet, Furet had already challenged the Marxist interpretation in a general work on the Revolution which attracted a lot of attention in France. Furet could also appear to be unsympathetic to the Revolution, playing down its commitment to human rights and arguing that the violence and intolerance of the revolution were a major part of it from the outset, and were present in its language, in its moralising, in its philosophy, as well as in the legal codes and the institutions it adopted.  He also argued that after two hundred years of debate there was little new or relevant to the present age to be learned from studying the Revolution. As a subject of historical enquiry it was ‘finished’.

Furet’s approach had more in common with those American historians like Keith Baker who concentrated their attention on discourse and language. His clear ideological stance and pugilistic debating style earned him immediate popularity with the wider media – with the Paris press, the weekly news magazines like L’Express and particularly Nouvel Observateur, and television.  In 1989 the Bicentenary of the Revolution guaranteed France’s revolutionary historians a maximum of publicity and exposure, and if Michel Vovelle, the current professor at the Sorbonne and chairman of the Bicentenary Commission, was the dominant presence on the conference circuit both in France and internationally (he spoke at well over 200 academic gatherings), Furet was the undisputed king of the French media and as Steve Kaplan has shown emerged as the winner from the media debate. But Furet’s arguments in 1989 were not new; he had expressed them consistently since the late 1970s.  What he succeeded in doing in the context of the Bicentenary was to get his views across to a new and much wider general public as well as to the historical profession. And so 1989 can be seen as the moment when the French classical school of revolutionary history finally gave up its claim to be the accepted orthodoxy.  Certainly the historians who have replaced Vovelle at the Sorbonne in the later 1990s and 2000s – first Jean-Clément Martin and now Pierre Serna – have adopted a different approach and have encouraged new and more innovative lines of research, though they continue to analyze the institutions and political practices of the republic – which has encouraged some American critics to describe their work and that of their graduate school as being in some sense ‘neo-Jacobin’.

But of course, if 1989 was the year of the Bicentenary, it was also the year of another revolution (or series of revolutions) which have left a much deeper mark on the consciousness of contemporaries: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the various communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Indeed, despite attempts to link the spirit of 1989 to the legacy of the French Revolution, the association in popular perceptions of 1789 with the Marxist interpretation of history remained strong, and this may have had the effect of alienating opinion. But more importantly, while the French were celebrating the memory of their Revolution, others, across Europe, were making revolution, and a revolution that claimed little ancestry in the Great Revolution of the eighteenth century. 1989 was a specifically French celebration, a celebration of France as the country of the Rights of Man. François Mitterrand, opening the modestly titled Congrès Mondial at the Sorbonne, quite specifically related the Bicentenary to questions of rights and citizenship, to 1789 and not to 1793. Historians of the Revolution flocked to Paris to discuss the revolution, its representations and its legacies. But, seen globally, 1989 was not to be the year of the Bicentennial.  It had a far greater significance to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and to the world beyond France. As Rebecca Spang has pertinently observed, it is no coincidence that in 2009 various conferences were held around the world that offered twenty-year retrospectives – on ‘Poland after Twenty Years of Freedom’ (Warsaw), on `1989 in  a Global Perspective’ (Leipzig); on ‘The Roots of Global Civil Society: From the Rise of the Press to the Fall of the Wall’ (Cambridge).  Much fewer were the events that looked back on twenty years of writing on the French Revolution itself. And fewer still that could with assurance agree on the significance and impact of these years. So the question remains. How have revolutionary studies evolved over the last twenty years? Is there a new, post-bicentennial view of the Revolution and its place in history?  Can we identify any new debates to replace the old? Or is there a new consensus about its origins and significance?  Earlier decades produced grand narratives of the Revolution (from Marx himself to Barrington Moore and Theda Skocpol), which attempted to integrate the Revolution into wide-ranging explanations of human development, social breakdown or state formation. Where are the grand narratives of today?

I think we can probably agree without too much argument that the debate about class and the social revolution is now played out in western historiography and has receded from the agenda since 1989.  By that date, indeed, the question was where revolutionary studies would go next. Two points are worth making from a purely French perspective. First, that the French left itself has moved on since 1989, and is much more drawn by notions of social democracy than it was previously; it may still have its roots in nineteenth-century republicanism, but it is less prone to seek justification in France’s republican past.  And secondly, as a consequence of this, that France’s revolutionary history is no longer seen as part of a moral crusade to justify the institutions of the current Republic. Hence the public concern, not least with Mitterrand, to talk about liberal values and the liberal phase of the Revolution, and to distance himself from what followed.

This has allowed the Revolution to be treated like any other aspect of French history, to be discussed in the light of methodological changes and advances from elsewhere in the discipline, and even – for that most évènementiel of events, to be incorporated into a rather longer durée than the 1790s. It has, if you like, allowed the Revolution to escape from the history of a single decade, which, in an age that looked to the Annales school for ideas of long gradual evolution and methodologies developed from the social sciences, had tended to condemn it in the eyes of many historians of the modern period to an intellectual ghetto. Whereas the Annalistes had explored diet and nutrition, popular beliefs and witchcraft, religion and superstition, ethnography and literacy, and had dome so comparatively with case studies drawn from across the planet, the revolutionary obsession with one country in a single decade had begun to attract a degree of scorn.

The effects of this change have been generally positive, integrating revolutionary research in to the broader research culture of the day. It has opened up questions of image and representation, for example, and discussions of the meaning of political culture. This has had the effect of reviving and modernising much of the political debate about the Revolution, including – to take just a few examples -  discussions of the history of rumour and conspiracy; the history of village autonomies; and, most significantly, the meaning of violence at a time of political idealism and a fractured polity.  It has also given a new potency to local studies, which can deconstruct the meaning of political factions or of political violence at community level. The recent work by Don Sutherland on the southern city of Aubagne shows the way in which micro-histories can illuminate such general themes and provide empirical support for broad theoretical claims. This research often engages with broad cultural issues and draws on the social sciences and disciplines other than history: on psychology and political science, for instance, on sociology, art and aesthetics.  It is another respect in which studies of the revolution have tended to become more interdisciplinary over the last couple of decades.

Very often the drivers for innovation come from elsewhere, from outside the field of revolutionary studies. They reflect current political concerns, for example, from the interests of people in our own age, and from trends in historiography that come from outside the revolutionary sphere. There is not the slightest reason why students of the French revolution must continue to work inside a narrow methodological framework of their own making, or remain unaffected by trends and developments in the wider world.  Quite noticeably, a number of the most striking developments of recent years have seen Revolutionists asking questions of France in the 1790s that historians have been asking of other subjects and other periods. In that sense the Revolution is being more closely integrated into the Academy, and we should be happy that this is happening, for the result has been an enrichment of the subject and its bibliography.  A few examples will suffice for our purposes today.

Gender history is a good instance.  Over the last two or three decades gender has been widely applied as a tool of analysis to the history of the French Revolution, and has continued to evolve in a creative way at a time when western societies are evermore concerned with issues of gender discrimination.  From the discussion of women’s rights to the history of representation, gender historians have added a new cultural dimension and have helped to explain some of the discursive silences of the revolutionary years. The Revolution, and more especially the Republic, was accustomed to use feminine images to represent its ideals and its values. But did this have any real significance when the same republic excluded real women from political participation?  The discussion of gender has also spread to areas more conventionally associated with male qualities and masculinity, and recently we have seen a gendered approach applied even to areas like the history of war, traditionally regarded as a masculine preserve, and this has enriched our understanding of the meaning and culture of revolutionary armies. Gender has also helped to open up the question of individual experience during a political turmoil like the Revolution, and of how such individual experience can be explained and understood.  The revolutionaries’ own use of language and terminology has been continually dissected to reveal subtly gendered meanings and assumptions, while the revolutionary ideals of citizenship and the Rights of Man have been subjected to detailed analysis from the perspective of gender. Women were quite deliberately excluded by the Jacobins from certain spheres of public life deemed to be reserved for male republican virtues: like political clubs, and the army.  Politicians did not think of giving the vote to women; but then nor did anyone else in Europe at the time.  In a world where (under the Jacobin constitution of 1793) all men (except for domestic servants) were included in the electorate, is it realistic to claim, as some feminist historians have done, that the French Revolution actually made the position of women worse?

The history of representation has also been strongly advanced in recent years, and the Revolution has been studied in literature and art, symbolism and caricature, and through an increasing interest in revolutionary theatre. Michel Vovelle took a significant step here in structuring the Congrès Mondial around issues of image and representation, and historians and art historians alike have lavished attention on revolutionary symbols and identifiers, from painting and sculpture to the visual culture of everyday life, like plates and song sheets and the design of military uniforms. Revolutionary festivals have proved a particular source of interest for historians, with their concern to take the message of the republic into the lives of ordinary people by executing a moving, representational tableau. So have acts of revolutionary vandalism, destroying the visual residue of kings and aristocrats, saints and religious martyrs, throwing statues of the Virgin from their niches on street corners and guillotining Christ’s apostles in stone around the doors of great cathedrals.  Or take the work of Philippe Bourdin on the theatre during the Revolution and Empire: the texts of revolutionary dramas and the taste of revolutionary theatre audiences, the extent of theatrical production in provincial cities and in the French armies and in garrison towns; or his discussion of the interactions between theatre and real life. Important new work has looked at other forms of innovation, notably the revolutionaries’ bid to replace the Gregorian calendar, with its unavoidable Christian references, by a revolutionary calendar of their own, dating modern times not from the birth of Christ but from the first day of the French republic. This, like the introduction of new weights and measures or the metrification of distance, was seen both as a nod in the direction of rationalism (the revolutionaries never forgot their roots in the Enlightenment) and as a way of importing revolutionary symbols into everyday life.  

And, of course, we continue to examine representation in discourse, through symbols and references; the ways in which language was used and the meanings that were acquired by particular words.  There has been a lot of sensitive work on the meanings attributed to language (by Keith Baker, for instance, in the United States, or Jacques Guilhaumou in France, among many others), as the discipline has been swept by interest in discourse analysis and the post-linguistic turn.  Historians have weighed the words the revolutionaries preferred to use – words like ‘peuple’ and ‘nation’, ‘patrie’ and ‘république’ - with the same commitment as they have analysed the boo-words, those negative terms that came to be seen as counter-revolutionary during the Terror (such words as ‘aristocrate’, ‘fanatique’, ‘incivique’, égoïste, ‘tiède’ and the like), creating their own glossaries of revolutionary virtue by analysing their vocabulary in key contexts. They have sought to deconstruct revolutionary language and show how words could give power and authority to those who used them: the contexts in which language was used, words that were seen as politically suspect, phrases that held concealed political meaning, all were re-examined in the light of discourse analysis and postmodern theory. Again, this methodology did not come from revolutionary studies themselves, but was appropriated from the humanities and other disciplines, for which the French Revolution proved a rich testing ground for various forms of linguistic theory.

Political culture continues to be of central concern to the current generation of historians, whether it is seen through institutions (elections, representatives on mission, or religious institutions) or through a study of individual political careers. The last twenty years have seen a resurgence of political biography, at times collective biographies that demonstrate the workings of local sociability, or political networks, or ties of family and friendship.  Here a traditional form has been resurrected and its approach renewed.  So there have been important works on different forms of political sociability: on popular societies and political clubs, both in Paris and in the provinces; on the popular sections and Paris popular movement; on reading circles and publishing houses; on deputies on mission sent out from the Convention in 1793 and 1794 to the departments and the armies under the Republic; on the membership of revolutionary committees or commttees of surveillance. Much of this work is being done in France, and within the framework of what might be termed neo-Jacobin historiography. There are, to my knowledge, three separate historians in three different countries working on elections and on the culture of answerability to local electorates (Serge Aberdam, Malcolm Crook, Mel Edelstein), all approaching the question from slightly different tangents. Some have chosen to explore political culture through individual biographies (the story of individual revolutionary careers has never lost popularity with either historians or a wider general public), or in  collective studies and prosopographies (I think especially of  Isser Woloch or Pierre Branda on Napoleon’s collaborators, those on whom le relied to build hid political system, in France and beyond); and there has been greater emphasis on examining the individual experience of politicians (Timothy Tackett on `Becoming a Revolutionary’, for instance), on the deputies to the national Assembly in 1789. This does, of course, lead to other questions, about the nature of political experience in the tumult of revolution. Discussion has ranged to include studies of expectation before launching into a political career, the overlap between experience and memory, the role of emotion and sensibility.  

Then there is the question of revolutionary violence, which continues to fascinate and repel in equal measure. Why did a revolution that set out with such a benign and enlightened agenda descend into the unbridled violence of the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Terror?  How could men who had spent so much energy defining and defending the rights of their citizens in law connive so cheerfully in arbitrary measures of political justice?  For historians of the classical school violence was something to be explained away by circumstance, as an unfortunate by-product of war and outside aggression, of counter-revolution and internal dissent, while Furet and those who followed him in his approach – Ran Halévy initially, now most notably Patrice Gueniffey – emphasise that the discourse of the Revolution was always exclusive, and that even in 1789 the language of popular sovereignty, with its implications of unanimity and intolerance of pluralism, always contained a strong element of violence against minorities. During the bicentenary of the civil war in the Vendée there were many in France, following the lead of Pierre Chaunu and the political line of Philippe de Villiers, who sought to equate the republic with violence, to talk of the repression in the West – the phrase is that of Reynald Secher – ‘une génocide franco-française’. And his influence continues in popular representations of the evolution: like the recent publication of a supposed Livre noir of the Revolution – essentially a denunciation of the crimes that were committed in its name – or the move by the right-wing MRP in the National Assembly to have the civil war in the Vendée classed as genocide. More moderate, and more influential in the scholarly world, is the view of Howard Brown that with the passing of the Terror state violence did not immediately subside; he sees the use of special courts and military jurisdictions under the Directory as evidence that violence was deeply engrained in the psychology of the revolutionary state. And Branislaw Baczko, looking at the months after Thermidor, has shown how difficult it was for a country liberated from Robespierre’s rule to free itself from the terrorist imperative. Terror had become a mind set, a way of life for too many in the population for them to change overnight.    

The time span that is the subject of our attention has also tended to be extended, for though there is still an understandable interest in the republic of 1793-94 as the most intense and ideological phase of the Revolution, few serious studies would now stop, as they did a generation ago, with the fall of Robespierre and what many saw as the end of the revolutionary dynamic. A renewed interest in later regimes – in the Directory, the Consulate and even the Empire - has helped us understand the impact of the Revolution and its continued importance for France and Europe. The Thermidorian and Directorial years have been subjected to particular scrutiny, and many now see them not as an end story but as an integral part of the revolutionary experience. Their intolerance of religion and impassioned secularism, their response to returning émigrés, their continued use of revolutionary language and their insistence on their republican identity, these are subjects that have allowed us to understand the later years of the revolutionary decade more intensely. Violence did not cease with Robespierre’s fall, nor did the repression of those expressing contrary opinions. Indeed, several scholars have shown how the later republic continued to exercise repression on its own members, and to turn to repeated purges as a form of self-justification. Furet is not alone in seeing Terror as endemic throughout the revolutionary years.

 We should perhaps note especially a renewed interest in the Empire, which after a long fallow period has been opened up to new critical analysis, both in France and throughout Europe. There are continuities, of course, in the state’s pursuit of war and the critical role of the army in sustaining the regime;  but that had been true in the Directory, too, while the army had long since ceased to be the ideological force which Jean-Paul Bertaud called a ‘school of Jacobinism’. But there are other continuities, too - in legal policy, in education, in local government and the application of justice, in a suspicion of the Catholic Church and a deep-seated preference for secular institutions. These are all aspects of the polity which can be equated with modernity and which help to accentuate the role the Revolution played in modernising society and the state. If the bicentenary of the Revolution led to a redefinition of revolutionary political culture, the bicentenary of napoleon is now doing the same for the Empire.  I would mention here the work of Mike Broers, Michael Rowe, Annie Jourdan and others, and point particularly the fact that the Empire is now increasingly seen from a European rather than a French perspective, an ordering of society that was applied as firmly in Milan as in Paris, in the Rhineland, in Poland, in Croatia and the Illyrian provinces. Napoleon not only built on the judicial and administrative achievement of the French Revolution, but he applied the revolutionary template across much of northern and central Europe.

This brings me to my final point – the renewed vigour of transnational history in our universities, following ideas and individuals as they passed from country to country, and from one civilisation to another. For many young historians today it is only be offering a comparison across countries that any meaningful conclusions can be drawn, and there is something unsatisfactory, even simplistic, about histories confined to single national spaces. Like gender history and the history of sensibility, this is one of the broad themes of our times – possibly the theme of the current generation of historians across all fields – and it is having a clear impact on the historiography of the French Revolution. For need the study of the French Revolution be confined to France alone?  Indeed, what can its significance really be if it has no influence outside of one smallish nation?  And yet few will suggest that the Revolution did not have a huge influence on the nineteenth-century world, not just in Europe but across the world. The last twenty years have seen a reworking of the history of sister republics in Naples, Switzerland and Holland, just as the history of Napoleon’s Empire has been rewritten as a Europe-wide project, as critical to the development of the Rhineland or Lombardy as it was to metropolitan France. So in the Caribbean a new history has been written of Haiti and the French sugar islands, a history that puts the slave experience and their identity as Africans at the centre of the story.  The work of historians like Laurent Dubois means that no general textbook on the Revolution can now neglect its transnational dimension; while the renaming of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe is surely not without significance. This is not just the traditional theme of revolutionary France bestowing gifts of liberty and equality on a grateful world, a sort of one-way traffic between France and her colony; it grants agency to the African slaves, whose revolt is shown to stem more from anger at their working conditions and the humiliations they suffered at the hands of the slave-owners than from pamphlets imported on slave ships from Europe.  This is a significant development which not only helps to explain the impact of the Revolution and the reputation it enjoyed in another hemisphere, but also marks a significant methodological shift which helps to integrate revolutionary studies into one of the major historical discourses of our time.  


Though the French Revolution remains a prominent subject in school and university history curricula throughout Europe, and though that there is a specialized community of historians publishing regularly in the field (ranging from more established scholars to PhD students looking for new topics), 1789 seems in danger of losing its central position in European consciousness. This situation dates back to 1989. In the immediate aftermath of that year it was widely believed that this had to do with the enormous effort of the French government and the international academic community to provide new insights and to commemorate the French Revolution – leading to a certain fatigue after what became a marathon of conferences and research projects.  But in fact it was less the Bicentenary which explains the falling interest in the Revolution and its consequences, and more the fact that it coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in Europe. This caused many to conclude that that the era opened by the French Revolution was now closed, and that the Revolution could now be declared – as François Furet formally declared it – to be officially over.

From seeking to explain violence and terror the emphasis now switched to the celebration of peaceful revolutions; there was much less interest in discussing the tension between freedom and egalitarian concepts of social justice which had found such a ready echo in the Cold War. But that period, too, now seems to be over. What we observe now is a resurrection of interest in the French Revolution, though it is presented in a different guise.  The Haitian slave rebellion which started in 1790 and was widely neglected in earlier historiography, or at best was presented as some kind of distant outpost of the French revolution, has evoked more interest among researchers over the past decade than most of the revolutionary events in France itself. Inspired by postcolonial studies, Haiti assumed a new importance, precisely because it related the French Empire to wider international questions like the Independence movement in Latin America or the complex with slavery in the South of North America – topics which became much more interesting in the framework of global history than they had been before.

That situation, of course, continues to evolve. Recent revolutions like the ones in 2011 in Egypt and the Maghreb and democratic movements in Asia and Latin America refer to the French Revolution in new ways and invite us to address a subject which many thought had run its course, as new reference is made to 1789 or 1793 in political and social movements today.  It is imperative that we study these movements and understand the ways in which the French Revolution seems relevant to societies in later periods, to societies in Black Africa, Latin America, even in China and Japan. And although it is arguable the recent revival of revolutionary studies has as yet created no new paradigm, no master narrative on a par with those of Furet or Soboul, it is clear that the Revolution has gained a new significance, and has generated renewed interest, through its continued relevance to the contemporary world.   

Professor Alan Forrest

University of York, the UK



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