French History @ the IHR

French History @ IHR: Julia Nicholls on Revolution


Date & Place: Monday 16 November, in the Wolfson Room NB02, IHR Basement, North block, Senate House

Speakers: Julia Nicholls (QMUL)

Paper Title: ‘The Revolution is over, long live revolution: history, science and social change in post-Commune revolutionary thought’

Chair: Iain Stewart (QMUL)

The long shadow of the French Revolution has often clouded the way we view we have viewed the history of revolutionary movements in France. Nicholls recently submitted a PhD on this topic at QMUL, and took this opportunity to discuss the way in which these ideas mapped onto France’s turbulent 19th century political history. The looming presence of 1789, she contended, had led a generation of historians to misread its influence in the 1870s.

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France’s relationship with the concept of revolution was challenged by defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the trauma of the Commune’s suppression. For the fledgling Third Republic to establish itself as a respectable regime in the 1870s, revolution had to become a historical concept, tied to the country’s storied past, rather than being a disruptive political present. Once in power, the Republicans promoted progress and stability as outcomes of the 1789 Revolution, which were put at risk by the irresponsible act of revolution in contemporary France. The creation of Bastille Day as a holiday and the representations of the Bastille at the Paris Expositions were two examples Nicholls pointed to in the active historicisation and institutionalisation of the 1789 Revolution. In a word, the Revolution became less revolutionary.

Yet, the vernacular of active revolutionaries – anarchists, former communards and others – was not defined by these projects of the state. Revolution, for them, remained a live political project, and not a cult of the past. For Nicholls, the decisive break which established this trend came in 1848, and not 1871 as some have contended.  After 1848, revolutionaries engaged in an active project of redefinition that sought to establish a sense of having learned lessons from failure. The searches for new methodologies and justifications established a political discourse which rejected the quasi-religious fervour for the 1789 Revolution. In its place, revolutionaries used the language of medical and scientific thought to portray revolution as a natural process. This was especially true among medical students and student journalists on the ‘rive gauche’, and echoed through the exile communities of Europe. The ambivalence activists expressed towards the 1789 Revolution after 1871 was a continuation of a pattern rather than a new direction. That it has been presented as a new trend is itself indicative of how this period has been misread.  In the 1870s, she argued, the concept of revolution garnered a more scientific than historical association, built on the vernacular of specific discourses emerging from 1848.

Defeat in the Franco-Prussian war did make it more difficult for activists to engage with the 1789 Revolution, and, given the rhetoric of the Republic, did make it difficult to separate France from the long shadow of the Revolution. As such, activists invoked an array of historical referents when theorising revolution. In an effort to avoid the bourgeois nationalism and comfortable liberalism with which the deployment of the 1789 Revolution had been tainted, they invoked other moments when marginalised groups had engaged in political struggle: the Huguenots, and the Albigensian Crusade, for example. These helped to establish a long-running narrative of political struggle by marginalised groups, establishing other political reference points beyond 1789.

In this extended narrative, scientific language became doubly useful as a means of examining and analysing the long tail revolutionaries found on the concept of revolution. To illustrate this trend, Nicholls focussed on Elisée Reclus’ lecture ‘Evolution and Revolution‘, which coupled ideas of progressive scientific modernism with the vernacular of revolution. Reclus drew on Darwinist and transformist ideas to relate the evolution of the natural environment to that of human societies. By opposing the radical change associated with ‘revolution’ to the progressive reformism of ‘evolution’, Reclus argued that both Republicans and the revolutionary Left were endorsing a false binary. Study of the natural world revealed a cycle of processes of destruction and renewal: evolution was therefore itself revolutionary. This lent an ineluctable quality to revolution. As one of the ‘moral leaders’ of the Geneva exiles, Reclus had been a prominent geographer just as he was a committed political activist. On returning to Paris, he was able to find a new means of addressing these issues to the activist community. Reclus’ lecture was published as a pamphlet that was influential and widely translated. It was not only the clearest example of the association between scientific languages of evolution and political demands for revolution, but its readiest font. It helped to redefine both revolution and evolution for activists, binding them as iterative processes of change that superseded their contemporary political context. In this light, failures, as in 1848 or 1871, were neither final nor inevitable, but rather part of a wider process steered by natural forces.

As Nicholls argued, this new interpretation of revolutionary ‘failure’ shifted the definition of the revolutionary act. The overwhelming power of these ‘natural forces’ stripped away the ascetic cult of past revolutionaries, smoothing reintegration into the political mainstream. These new methodologies and justifications for action led revolutionaries to engage with parties and organize.  For activists like Reclus, the non-intervention of exile which had characterised revolutionaries during the 1870s seemed outdated after the amnesties of the 1880s and the Third Republic’s attempts to historicise the 1789 Revolution. His thesis in ‘Evolution and Revolution’ broadened and generalised the meaning of revolution into one which better operated in the immediate political context of France and the Republic. But there was a risk here. At the same time that Reclus productively broadened the definition of revolutionary activity, he potentially stripped it of all specificity. If activists could now consider all sorts of acts as part of the broader revolutionary process, was being a revolutionary now, crudely, too easy?

Nicholls’ demonstrated, therefore, the importance of reconstructing the context in which the discussion of political concepts took place. Her work shows how the political and ideological referents of activism inform and inflect both their methodologies and their justifications for action. If we take that context for granted, or gloss it in a grander narrative, then we risk misreading both the concept and its legacy. For Nicholls, the 1789 Revolution remained an important star in the ideological constellation that guided late nineteenth-century activists, yet it was not alone, and nor was it their brightest point.


(Summary by Andrew Smith, with helpful and much appreciated input from Rob Priest)

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