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New Left Review I/90, March-April 1975

Henri Lefebvre

What Is the Historical Past?

Albert Soboul’s work on the Parisian Sans-Culottes in the Year Two of the French Revolution [1] Albert Soboul, Les Sans-Culottes Parisiens en l’ An II, Paris 1958. Shortened English translation, The Parisian Sans-Culottes and the French Revolution 1793–4, Oxford 1964. All page references hereafter are to this English translation. begins with the victory of the Montagnards over the Girondins, a bloodless political triumph despite the fact that it was won with the support of the armed people of Paris: ‘On 2 June 1793, the Montagne took power by pressuring the Convention with the threat of the Parisian sansculottes. It did not, however, intend to let the sans-culottes rule . . . ’ From the very outset of his book, Soboul focusses on the problem which he intends to study: the conflict, at first latent and then open, between the revolutionary government and the masses which had brought it to power. This conflict was eventually to exhaust both the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses and the authority of those in power. Its final outcome was Thermidor. The author deliberately limits the object of his research. He ignores or passes over other aspects of this turbulent period, in particular the foreign policy of the revolution, the subject of a recent debate between Jean-Paul Sartre and Daniel Guérin. [2] J. P. Sartre, Critique de la Raison Dialectique, Paris 1960, pp. 33–40; and Daniel Guérin, La Lutte de Classes sous la Première République 1793–7, (new edition), Paris 1968, Vol. II, pp. 514–20. Soboul confines his study (by a conscious methodological limitation) to thedeterminant social force in the revolutionary process, the Parisian Sections. Historians, he tells us, know this period well at the level of the State, Institutions and Leaders—in other words, from above. Albert Soboul, on the other hand, following in the steps of Georges Lefebvre, but advancing yet further, seeks to study ‘the Parisian populace in its general assemblies and sociétés sectionnaires’. To the earlier histories of the events of the Revolution—of the men, ideas and institutions it produced—and to the economic histories of Mathiez or Labrousse, Soboul has now added a history of the social forces of the French Revolution, in a volume, whose essential concern is sociological. The research this involves is sometimes surprisingly detailed: it includes the biographies of individuals who played some part in the great drama, however minimal or local. We learn of their social origins, and thereby discover the social composition of the different Parisian Sections, which illuminates their respective political roles remarkably, and is in turn clarified by them. Though Soboul purposely avoids other questions, particularly the general political problems of the French Revolution, he does not separate his meticulous research from the total movement which is the object of his study; the rise, stabilization, reflux and decline of the mass movement of the Parisian sans-culottes.

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Henri Lefebvre, ‘What Is the Historical Past?’, NLR I/90: £3

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