The Annalists, the Revisionists, and the Quest for the Truth
Marc Bloch believed, Lucien Febvre posthumously wrote of his Annales Journal co-founder, that “good history” has the ability to inspire others to challenge and augment its thinking. Bloch had argued that if a history wasn’t rewritten every twenty years, the historian had failed to inspire others to dig into the subject matter and had thus failed to write good history (Febvre 1953). But it is clear that the conservative-minded historical assault which was led by a former communist by the name of François Furet, was not the sort of professional re-evaluation of “good history” that Bloch had intended. Furet’s words were sharp and intensely critical as he charged that a whole segment of the history, the very important period of the French Revolution, as it had been published by the Annales journal and elsewhere, was riddled with Marxist ideology. The not so subtle charge was this was not “good history.” Furet, in this way, was not building on the history of France, but virtually tearing it down and though perhaps not his intention, leaving the truth of history unsettled. The irony was that the tactics that Furet used in the 1970’s had been very similar to those that Lucien Febvre had utilized himself, forty years before, as he and Marc Bloch fought to professionally rise within the French historical community.
The target of Furet’s cutting criticisms had been what was widely-accepted causes and meanings behind the French Revolution. Although not personally named in Furet’s 1971 essay, Revolutionary Catechism,* it was the work of Albert Soboul epitomized the “traditional” history of the French Revolution as it was written by Soboul, and it was the content of Soboul’s writings which Furet so mercilessly attacked.
There was no argument that Soboul was a Marxist, he admitted as much. Nor was there any critical disagreement among French academicians that at its heart, the Revolution had been, as the Marxists would say, a class-struggle; that is until Furet’s first, more professional challenges to the idea that the Bourgeoisie and peasantry had risen up together to overthrow the monarchy and the system of France’s feudal economy.
Furet, himself a former communist party member, was accusing this traditional analysis of the French Revolution was philosophically, and more importantly, politically inspired by the writings of Karl Marx. Outside of France, research in the 1950’s by Alfred Cobban had already challenged the conclusion that the bourgeois had been complicit in class warfare. His work showed that it had in fact been the nobility within the Assemblée nationale constituante, as well as members of the clergy, who had forced a new constitution, instituted reforms and controls of the power of the monarchy, and formed the First Republic. But Cobban English texts were neither being read in France. Such charges had to be brought by a Frenchman. François Furet would finish the job, en Français, where in the country where it really mattered.
The timing of Furet’s attack was timely, with his writings hitting pay dirt on two fronts. First, conservatism was just beginning to stage its revival -even in socialist France – so charges of Marxist influence were not to be so quickly dismissed. Secondly, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, the subject of Furet’s writings and lectures, was looming.
Only the Jacobean “terror” of 1793-1794 stood in vivid contrast to the planned celebrations of the founding of the French Republic. Furet charged the most macabre actions of the Revolution came not from the resentment of the aristocracy, but could be directly traced to Rousseauian enlightenment ideals. He wrote that those who governed did so with popular sovereignty (Kates 2006), and it was this perverse distortion of Rousseau’s “will of the people” that gave legitimacy to use any action used to serve the interest of the state.
So, it was with a certain brilliance that Furet charged Revolution had grown out the philosophies of France’s most revered enlightenment philosopher. Like a tabloid headline, Furet’s shocking and disturbing accusation riveted the academic world. Was it possible that the Jacobin’s actions had, in no way, been a class-struggle, but rather gross malignancy of Rousseau’s otherwise splendid social contract?
Furet point to Rousseau’s social contract, in a nutshell, required that the state ensure that the freedom of its people “will be forced to be free” (Rousseau 1762) ***, and was is required to do so with legitimate force, even if such actions “overrule(d) the dictates of private consciences” (Cranston 1989). The rationale behind both Rousseau’s idea that the state must “suppress [both] immorality, as well as crime”* (Cranston 1989), and this was very much in line with the actions of Robespierre and the Jacobins. Nearly one hundred years later, the famed Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin would aptly write that the “isolated concentration the State is much too narrow to embrace, to contain the interests and consequently the morality of, humanity as a whole” (Bakunin undated, via Maximoff 1953), and the terror was certainly one example of this.
The 16,594 official death sentences carried out across France in the year between 1793 and 1794 (2,639 of which were in Paris), stood in stark contrast the celebration being planned for the centennial of the French Republic which would occur in 1989. So to blame the terror on an unintentional perversion or malignancy of the ideals of one of France’s most treasured intellectuals, somehow tempered the repugnant ten months of bloodletting, which along with the thousands of beheadings, included savage acts of dismemberment, disembowelment, and even reported cannibalism by members of the sans-culottes (Stanley Lewis 1964, via John Kekes 2006). The need of an explanation to the abhorrence surrounding these events no doubt gave Furet’s reductionist argument, which denuded the revolution to merely political-intellectual underpinnings, the legs it might not have otherwise had.
Regardless, the fact that the long-held understanding that the bourgeoisie capitalists had, in an act of counter-revolution, had swept aside the lower-class sans-culottes, was now being viewed as effete Marxist propaganda, meant that Albert Soboul, the leading proponent of this theory, had been discredited (Kates 2006). Ironically, Furet’s charges lead not just to the suspicion of the history of Revolution as having Marxist undertones, but in some regards, it leads to the suspicion of Marxist influences within all of French history. It was almost precisely at this time that the Annales Journal, which had often published Soboul and had itself published Furet’s Revolutionary Catechism**, began to see its powerful influence in decline.
Like a computer virus, it is fairly clear Marx’s ideas did infect and corrupt the analysis of the history of France, but this information only leaves us the question of to what extent is this true? Furet’s words, far from resolving the Marx issues, only served to infect the history further with his own: a virus of distrust. In the 1980’s, in what would be the final decade of the cold war, the question of Marxist political indoctrination could not be shaken off, and to this day has left the history of modern France an old battleground where the spectre of Marx lingers. Resolutely, the history of France has defied reconstruction. This is our challenge.
(*) The Terror was the vehicle by which Robespierre would dispatch his Girondin rivals on charges of conspiracies, and he did so by simultaneously connecting his position with “the will of the people” (thus a social contract) while “evoking an underlying division between the people and the legislative body (Caroline Weber 2003).
(**) Revolutionary Catechism was a term intentionally chosen by Furet to infer that Soboul’s ideas had dangerous antecedents, as the well-known phrase had twice been used in revolutionary works. In 1866, the violent Anarchist leader, Mikhail Bakunin, used Revolutionary Catechism as the title for his the steps to engage in revolution. It begins notably with the blank first step, indicating the first condition of revolution had not yet been written. The second step was “Replacing the cult of God by respect and love of humanity.” Three years later, Sergey Nechayev, the most feared Anarchist in Russia, wrote in his “The Revolutionary Catechism,” saying “The revolutionary is a doomed man”…”Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.” For academics, the inference of Soboul as a dangerous revolutionary could not have been missed, despite the misused metaphor: Bakunin and Nechayev were Anarchists, Soboul was well-known to be a communist.
(***) “In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimizes civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.” excerpt Rousseau, The Social Contract Book I
Reassembling French History
In the past, new generations of writers tackled histories defined every couple of decades, perhaps not so much as Bloch suggested that they invited revision, but because books were published in runs, and became unavailable except by those collected by libraries. New publishing, represented the latest thought, and in short-order became prevailing history. But with the Internet, and the wide availability of texts, the works of the Annalistes, are, in many ways more available today than the day they were written. And browser searches of social history have made these mid-century writers more prevalent than they were a decade ago, and vastly more relevant than they were at the turn of the 21st-century. One could argue that the Annaliste luminaries, the contentions of the revisionists notwithstanding, have regained a notable the sway over the perceived history of 19th-century France; all because of the internet. This is especially true as many of these texts have been translated into English, although if careful to add in all of the aigu’s (é), circonflexe (â,ê,î,ô,û), and grave’s (à,è,ù), deciphering French texts with the help of on-line translators is available to us as well.
When researching the social history of 19th-century France the browser searches rarely reveal works written in the last two or three decades. It is not clear if these areas of French social histories have largely been bypassed in favor of less controversial historical periods (my first assumption), or that the court battles surrounding copyright infringement had up until recently prevented Google from digitizing portions of current histories for preview.
In December of 2014, after a 10-year court battle, the second circuit court decided that Google’s limited preview “was a fair and thus non-infringing” on the publishing copyrights of the 30 million books that Google had scanned and made available online. A portion of the Author’s Guild statement following the decision against them: “America owes its thriving literary culture to copyright protection. It’s unfortunate that a Court as well-respected as the Second Circuit does not see the damaging effect that uses such as Google’s can have on authors’ potential income. Most full-time authors live on the perilous edge of being able to sustain themselves through writing as a profession, as our recent income survey showed, so even relatively small losses in income can make it unsustainable to continue writing for a living.” While I feel for these authors, Google’s work landmark scanning has made my research possible. I certainly could not have afforded the thousands of dollars, nor invested the greatly increased time it would take to gain the same information with merely an index. Although I have close to two years into this project, the control (F) function, the snipping tool, the cut and paste, Google translate, and ability of Google Docs to convert jpg to text, has been the made the difference between researching this history possible, and not being possible.
But while the vastness of this information is revelatory, I have seen that in the context of the advancement of a contemporary vision of history, it does create confusion. With the wide availability of these mid-century texts and the relevance of their research, it becomes difficult to just throw away the (dated?) analysis to which these texts are coupled. This is problematic if the troubled accounting of modern French history is to move forward. Certainly, clarity is a major problem, as Marxist lexicon, if not Marxist thought, is now able to refresh its presence in the historiography of France, on the backs of these easily accessible Annaliste texts. Moreover, will the battles surrounding the Annaliste’s structuralist-Marxist economic history and Furet’s redressing of them, be fought over and over, as new readers access these classic works, and repeatedly contemplate the same intellectual conflicts which are now a half-century old? Have I, myself, been sucked into in a long infinite loop of contention that will not be settled for decades to come?
The best I can hope for is to reassemble modern French history for myself, with the vast wealth of information written by the same scholars whose work we question. I believe that at this point, the understanding of history lies in two parts. The first, given what has come before, it is as important to understand Annales historians, their methods, and the commonalities their ideas had with Marxist ideology, as it is to know the history that they produced. And secondly, we need to understand how Marx’s ideas developed as the direct result of his observations of the 19th-century. Admittedly, it is an examination this near impossibly complex web of relationships, causes, and effects, that it will be possible to conclude in which way Marxist ideology may have skewed five decades of Annaliste historical analysis, between 1929 and 1979.
The challenge of this writing, or any future inspection of French history, is that we must discount charges of Marxist influence in these examples where Marxist thought is concurrent with the history while being vigorously aware if it diverts from historical fact. But the parsing of fact from fiction can be an extraordinarily tricky thing, since much of the history as we know it, was written by the same historians who stand accused of being influenced by Marxist historiology.
On the surface, the questions which must be answered appear to be these: Is the written history of France, which had essentially been curated by the Annalistes for nearly half century, impregnated with Marxist ideology? Could the Annalistes be, in any way, considered Marxists or were they influenced by Marxist ideas in regards to their ideas of French social and historical development? Did Furet’s charges really take down the mighty Annales, a journal that he himself had often been published, or had the journal already run its course? What follows is really a rangy exploration of these questions, and although conclusions may not be neatly drawn, this papers exploration of the many facets of French politics, culture, philosophy, and history of the 19th century, of the academic historical thought and history of the 20th, and in total should bring much greater understanding of not just the history of France, but the dynamics behind what we consider history to be period.
It is interesting that this paper, although involving Marx really is only superficially so. Where necessary, I will discuss his thought or refer to other articles I have written on Marx, particularly in the context that I view his own history and ideas.
Many of the parallels between the works of the Annales scholars and of Marxist ideology are due, in part, to the methodologies and philosophies used to gather and organize information, but also these parallels exist because of Marx’s two major strengths as an intellectual. The first was that Marx had the keen ability to accurately observe the socioeconomic conditions of his day. The fact that he did so without the benefit of any statistical data, something which today we absolutely rely on to develop and support our conclusions, was a feat that is even more impressive. He then used his observations to develop his economic theories which, being largely orthodox in nature, fit within what is considered the classical economic model. In fact, Marx made major contributions to the genre of classical economics. Classical economics can be thought of as how economics existed before the introduction of calculus (marginalism) the precursor of today’s macroeconomics. The fact that most historians have tended to reach for the theories of classical economics in order to explain historical events automatically puts them on the same intellectual playing field as Karl Marx.
The challenge of historical honesty
All that I write of above speaks to the challenges historians face writing with historical honesty, whether they are aware of it or not.* Impediments exist in our ability to communicate: as the complete transmission complex information is hampered by the social dictums of presenting a concise argument and maintaining a structured essay format, both of which limit the range of inquiry. Similarly, understanding is further reduced by the difficulty to explain complex multi-dimensional issues with linear nature of sentence structure, and the amorphous, imprecise nature of language. These issues that have always plagued human communication, and conspire to distort, or even shave off many of the complexities of history because the ideas just don’t fit into the paper, the paragraph, the sentence, or the word.
Words themselves can be problematic. It is obvious that every word I use has a specific meaning and associations that will be intrinsic to me, and slightly different than the meaning and associations those same words have to you. But time and cultural changes usage and connotations as well. As we read texts of history, the changes in language over time, the differences in cultures, as well as the accuracy meaning between languages, all contribute to wider disparities in the transmission of ideas. And the more obtuse the prose, the more quickly they lose their precise meaning outside the context of the peers of the writer. According to Henry Stuart Hughes, the literary style at the turn of the 20th-century was gratuitously over-blown, and it needed to be decoded or scaled back to reach the author’s true meaning (Hughes 1969).
Not so dissimilarly, Robert Penner noted that French historical revisionists had a propensity to use “words such as “orthodoxy,” “dogma” and “iconoclasm”… a usage that “that goes beyond rhetorical flourish.” These type of religious word references, which are recycled for a new meaning by Furet, may not transmit their intended meaning as time moves forward. Although after less 50 years hence, Penner was able to recognize these religious word usages as a representation for Furet to create a “formal theoretical connection between religion and leftist ideology” establishing that Furet saw these ideologies as a “pseudo-religion.” (Penner 2005). But it is these kinds of underlying meanings, are easily lost as the ability to accurately decode, as the language propensities of new generations slip its bonds to the past.
Even in the most idyllic of writing and research environments, where ego and competition between historians play little or no part, the challenges of the writer for complete historical integrity are appreciable. The reason? The themes and meanings developed by historians are a synthesis of four inputs: data collection, the writer’s social position, the particular culture in which the writer lives, the particular economic and political conditions under which the history is written.
Professor Kaya Yilmaz of Marmara University in Istanbul showed an uncommon level self-awareness when he wrote: “The discipline of history refers not only to what happened in the past but also to the act of writing about the past.” Indeed, the moment the pen hits the paper, the historian himself becomes indivisible from the history they write. Marc Bloch wrote decades earlier, that the historian, as a product of his or her own culture, invariably corrupts the historical accuracy of their work. He wrote: “The historian, is, by definition, absolutely incapable of observing the facts which he examines.” With those words, he challenged himself and all academics to approach and analyze their subjects as accurately and impassively as possible.
As importantly, the prevailing cultural viewpoint can change dramatically with shifting socioeconomic and political conditions. Thus new histories, written in this changed climate, might focus on a different aspect of the same history, and arrive at alternate conclusions than those from earlier generations. These shifts in cultural outlooks usually accompany economic cycles, but sometimes watershed events, such as the Dreyfus affair* which occurred at the turn of the century, can dramatically change the cultural course of a nation.
In an attempt to achieve a most honest understanding of the past, we must consider the history of our own economic conditions and cultural outlook. We cannot ignore the fact that we live in a post 20th-century world, and we although can readily see the swings of political conservativism that dictated the 1980’s, it does not rid us of the prejudices cemented into those of us who lived through those times. For my generation, Marxist accusations continue to carry the weight of Communist wars of revolution: in Vietnam, Angola, the Congo, Indonesia, Myanmar, and elsewhere. It carries the weight of growing up under the threat of Soviet missiles and the uncertainty of the idea that it could all end at any moment. Being an American who was born in the early 1960’s, it reminds me of protests and flag burnings on the small black and white televisions of my childhood, of accusations that the Democrats were bleeding-heart liberals, anti-war protesters were Commies, and charges that any such position was un-American.
As for the present, we must consider the changes the 2008 recession brought to our thinking, and that the resurgence of Keynesian economic thought may have made us more open to quasi-socialist ideas presented within the works of Annales scholars. That today, while the Marxist threat is no longer palpable and our attention is turned to the religious extremists and the Islamic State, we equally should not discount the anxiety produced among western democracies by those that did in the past attempted to usurp power under the banner of Marxism. Knowing our own place in history, particularly when reviewing others, at least a step toward gaining an honest understanding.
Now with the precursory introspection behind us, let’s dig into the history of French historians.
(*) In the case of the Dreyfus affair, the cultural shift it sparked allowed Jean Jaurès to come to prominence as a Marxist-socialist historian and major political activist. It was at this time that socialism gained much wider acceptance by the French people.
* * *
Marc Bloch: A life history, Carole Fink, Cambridge University Press, 1991
The French Revolution: Recent Debates and New Controversies, Gary Kates, Taylor & Francis, 2006
Peasantry and Society in France Since 1789 Annie Moulin, Cambridge University Press, 1991
Foucault’s Strata and Fields: An Investigation into Archaeological and Genealogical Science Studies, Maren Kusch Springer Science & Business Media, Dec 6, 2012
Macroeconomics: A European Text Michael Burda, Charles Wyplosz, OUP Oxford, 2013
Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates, editors Susannah Radstone, Bill Schwarz, Fordham Univ Press, 2010
The French Radical Party in the 1930’s, Peter J. Larmour, Stanford University Press, 1964
Dove va la storia economica?: metodi e prospettive secc. XIII – XVIII ; atti della “quarantaduesima settimana di studi”, 18 – 22 aprile 2010, Francesco Ammannati, Firenze University Press, 2011
The Influence of the Russian Revolution on the Paris Peace Settlement, Aleksandr Pavlovich Shimanskiy, Порталус Portalus online database 2007
Annales School Continuities and Discontinuities, Jacques Revel, Review (Fernand Braudel Center) Vol. 1, No. 3/4, 1978
The Obstructed Path: French Social Thought in the Years of Desperation, 1930-1960, Henry Stuart Hughes, Transaction Publishers, 1969
Lucien Febvre, A new kind of history? Dermot Fenian, University of Cambridge, The Spectator, 1973
Austrian Business Cycle Theory: A Brief Explanation, Dan Mahoney, The Mises Daily Articles, 2001, Mises.org
The Conscious of a Liberal, Paul Krugman, The New York Times, April 7, 2010, krugman.blogs.nytimes.com
Krugman on Austrian business cycle theory,
Fernand Braudel and the Monde Braudellian, J.H. Hexter, Journal of Moder History Vol. 441972 Annales: Critical Assessments, Stuart Clark – editor, Taylor & Francis, 1999
Economic history is dead; long live economic history? C.R. | Telford and Cambridge, The Economist, 2017
The Future of Post-Human History: A Preface to a New Theory of Universality and Relativity, Peter Baofu, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012
From Independence to Power: The Workers Movement from 1848 to 1917, Chris Gaffney, Marxist Internet Archives, 1993.
Time, Space, and Society: Geographical Societal Perpectives, A. Kellerman, Springer Science & Business Media, 2012,
Rural Communism in France 1920-1939, Laird Boswell, Cornell University Press, 1998
The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the War on Terror, Jonathan Fenby, Simon and Schuster, 2015
Reviewed Work: Penser la Révolution Française. by François Furet, Hunt, Lynn. History and Theory 20.3 (1981): 313-23. Web.
The French Right Between the Wars: Political and Intellectual Movements from Conservatism to Fascism, Samuel Kalman, Sean Kennedy, Berghahn Books, 2014
Time and Human Agency: A Re-assessment of the Annales Legacy, Robert C. H. Sweeny, 1993, York University
The Rise of the Keynesian Consensus, Centre de langues, Université de Lyon