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Barbarians at the Gate

CITIZENS & CANNIBALS: The French Revolution, the Struggle for Modernity, and the Origins of Ideological Terror, By Eli Sagan, Rowman & Littlefield: 626 pp., $35

September 01, 2002|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the author of "Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914." He is a contributing writer to Book Review.

A work will sometimes surface, so shallow in the profundity it affects, so shoddily written and altogether so egregiously bad that it calls for notice, even when the reviewer might prefer to set it aside for others to appraise: not necessarily to warn potential readers off, but to signal some of the hazards that await them. That is the case with Eli Sagan's "Citizens and Cannibals."

The best that I can fathom of the book is that it is about the birth pangs of Modernity with a capital M, the anxieties which that trauma inspires and the ensuing nervous disorders that spawn terrified terrorists and "cannibalistic" terror, like that of Robespierre, in the service of high ideals. But I could be wrong, because the book is muddled and perplexing. A magpie collection of untidy lore, all secondhand information scrupulously credited, it promises a lot and delivers little. This history of the French Revolution is to serve "as a prism through which to view, and attempt to comprehend, the Modern world." Looking through a piece of glass cut to reflect and analyze light becomes a figure of speech about seeing reality transformed, and possibly deformed. But Sagan's interpretation muddies rather than illuminates. So let's get a few things clear.

The revolution was not, as the subtitle implies, about modernity. It was about money and food shortages. It started as a taxpayers' revolt, and its most violent episodes turned on bread and wages. Economic crisis, political crisis and violence surged in counterpoint. Revolutionary measures presented as solutions to the country's troubles made its problems worse. Political reform buttered no parsnips, anarchy skidded into terror and the cascade of greater and lesser massacres was only suspended by the dictatorship of a soldier: Bonaparte. A logical outcome, because war was the only successful enterprise of the revolution and the army the only growth industry it wrought.

If modernity is marked by secularism and trust in reason, then its signs were there before the Bastille fell in 1789. If the essence of modernity lies in industry, communication and consumption, the revolution was a serious setback to its development. Far from being a factor of modernization, it disorganized economic activity, chilled credit, discouraged capital, held back industry and blocked growth for a generation.

Modernization was never an issue. The revolution struggled not for modernity, but to return to a better world in some legendary past: Athens, the Roman Republic, sylvan democracies, "natural" orders. Modernization has been described as the mobilization of the masses for economic progress, but that's not what the revolution offered or revolutionaries wanted, which was political experiment, education, indoctrination. Revolutionaries preferred political to industrial revolution, ideological radicalization to practical solutions, conflict to conciliation. They seared these tendencies into the French tradition and invented modern politics. But that's nothing to brag about.

So it goes also with other words that Sagan likes to throw around: "enlightenment," "liberalism," "people," "democracy," and so on. "I will not attempt to differentiate between the concepts of 'Enlightenment' and 'liberalism' ... I shall use the concepts interchangeably." That's not a good idea. True, both represent aspects of modernity and modernization. But enlightenment, which emphasized reason and individualism at the expense of tradition, was administrative, bureaucratic, utilitarian and, above all, elitist. Liberalism favored free trade and gradual, not abrupt, political and social reform. Napoleon was the last enlightened despot, not the first liberal one. Enlightenment was about efficiency; liberalism was about liberty: laissez faire, laissez-passer. Neither concept was much at home in revolutionary France, which replaced defective royal absolutism with a despotism more absolute than anyone expected.

The same goes for democracy, another word Sagan likes to throw around, which we take to mean government of the people, by the people, and also an indifference to hereditary class distinctions and tolerance of minority views. After the revolution, rights became equal, at least in theory and hereditary distinctions, before they came back in full force, designating preferred victims. Sagan talks a lot about the people of France, though that people is never defined. At times the people provide "powerful" support from below, at times they are presented as "a mass society democratically constituted," at others "the elite of the Third Estate." But we are also told that less than 3% of the population enrolled in Jacobin clubs. So, just how powerful was support from below, if you bear in mind that the revolution played out in urban centers, and that urban population was no more than 16% of the country's total, that three out of five men and four out of five women could not sign their marriage certificates?

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