Like so many German intellectuals of his generation, Marx was literally fascinated by the French Revolution: in his eyes it was quite simply the Revolution par excellence or, more precisely, ‘the most colossal revolution that history has ever known’.footnote1 We know that in 1844 he was intending to write a book on the French Revolution, beginning with the history of the Convention. From 1843 onwards, he had begun to consult works on the subject, to take notes and to research periodicals and document collections. He began with German works (Carl Friedrich Ernst Ludwig, Wilhelm Wachsmuth) but, as time went on, French works came to predominate in his reading—particularly the Mémoires of Levasseur, a member of the Convention, extracts from which fill several pages of Marx’s Paris notebooks of 1844. Apart from these notebooks (which Maximilien Rubel reproduces in Volume III of the Pléiade French edition of Marx’s works), the references cited in his articles and books (particularly during the years 1844–48) provide evidence of the vast bibliography consulted: Buchez and Roux’s L’Histoire parlementaire de la Révolution française, Louis Blanc’s Histoire de la Révolution française, the histories of Carlyle, Mignet, Thiers and Cabet and texts by Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Marat, etc. A partial list of this bibliography can be found in Jean Bruhat’s article ‘Marx et la Révolution française’, published in the Annales Historiquesde la Révolution Française, April–June 1966.

The planned book on the Convention was never written, but we find scattered about Marx’s writings throughout his whole lifetime, a number of remarks, analyses, historiographical excursions and interpretative outlines on the French Revolution. These various writings are not all of a piece: we can see changes, reorientations, hesitations and sometimes even contradictions in his reading of the events. But we can also identify certain lines of force which make it possible to define the essence of the phenomenon—lines of force which have inspired socialist historiography for a century and a half.

This definition starts out, as we know, from a critical analysis of the results of the revolutionary process: from this point of view, what Marx was dealing with was, without a shadow of a doubt in his view, a bourgeois revolution. This was not, in itself, a new idea: the new step introduced by Marx was the fusing of the Communist critique of the limits of the French Revolution (from Babeuf and Buonarroti to Moses Hess) with the class analysis of the revolution made by the historians of the Restoration period (Mignet, Thiers, Thierry, et al.) and the situating of the whole within the framework of world history thanks to his materialist historical method. The result was a vast and coherent overall vision of the French revolutionary landscape, which brought out the underlying logic of events, beyond the myriad details, the—heroic or sordid—episodes, and the various retreats and advances. It is a critical and demystificatory vision which reveals, behind the smoke of battle and the heady language of the speeches, the victory of a class interest, the interest of the bourgeoisie. As Marx emphasizes in a brilliant and ironic passage in The Holy Family (1845) which captures the thread running through this period of history at a single stroke: ‘That interest was so powerful that it was victorious over the pen of Marat, the guillotine of the Terror and the sword of Napoleon as well as the crucifix and the blue blood of the Bourbons.’footnote2

In actual fact, the victory of this class marked, at the same time, the coming of a new civilization, new relations of production and new values (and not just economic values but social and cultural ones as well). In short, it saw the coming of a new way of life. Gathering the historical significance of the revolutions of 1648 and 1789 into one paragraph (though his remarks relate more directly to the latter than to the former), Marx observes, in an article in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in 1848: ‘In these revolutions the bourgeoisie gained the victory; but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois property over feudal property, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of the partition of estates over primogeniture, of the owner’s mastery of the land over the land’s mastery of its owner, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic laziness, of civil law over privileges of medieval origin.’footnote3

Naturally, this analysis of the—ultimately—bourgeois character of the French Revolution was not an exercise in academic historiography: it had a precise political objective. In demystifying 1789, its aim was to show the necessity of a new revolution, the social revolution—the one Marx spoke of in 1844 as ‘human emancipation’ (by contrast with merely political emancipation) and in 1846 as the Communist revolution.