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.

One of the main characteristics which would, in Marx’s view, distinguish this new revolution from the French Revolution of 1789–94 would be its ‘anti-statism’, its break with the alienated bureaucratic apparatus of the State. Up to this point, ‘All political upheavals perfected this machine instead of smashing it. The parties that strove in turn for mastery regarded possession of this immense state edifice as the main booty for the victor.’ Presenting this analysis in the Eighteenth Brumaire, he observed—in a manner reminiscent of Tocqueville—that the French Revolution had merely ‘had to carry further the centralization that the absolute monarchy had begun, but at the same time it had to develop the extent, the attributes and the number of underlings of the governmental power. Napoleon perfected this state machinery.’ However, under the absolute monarchy, the Revolution and the First Empire, that apparatus had merely been a means for preparing the domination of the bourgeois class which would be exerted more directly under Louis-Philippe and the Republic of 1848, only to make way, once again, for the autonomy of the political under the Second Empire—when the State seemed to have made itself ‘completely independent’. In other words, the state apparatus served the class interests of the bourgeoisie without necessarily being under its direct control. The fact that it did not engage with the basis of this parasitic, alienated ‘machine’ was, in Marx’s view, one of the most crucial bourgeois limitations of the French Revolution. As we know, this idea, which Marx sketched out in 1852, would be developed in 1871 in his writings on the Commune, the first example of a proletarian revolution which smashed the state apparatus and put an end to that ‘boa constrictor’ which ‘grips the social body in the inescapable meshes of its bureaucracy, its police and its standing army’. By its bourgeois character, the French Revolution could not emancipate society from that ‘parasitic excrescence’, that ‘swarm of State vermin’, that ‘enormous governmental parasite’.footnote4

The recent attempts by revisionist historians to ‘go beyond’ the Marxian analysis have generally ended in a regression to older liberal or speculative interpretations, thus confirming Sartre’s profound observation that Marxism is the ultimate possible horizon of our age and that attempts to go beyond Marx frequently end up falling short of him. We may illustrate this paradox by examining the procedure adopted by the most talented and intelligent member of this school, François Furet, who can find no other way to pass beyond Marx than to return to Hegel. According to Furet, ‘Hegelian idealism is infinitely more concerned than Marx’s materialism with the concrete facts of the history of France in the eighteenth century.’ What then are these ‘concrete facts’ that are infinitely more important than relations of production and the class struggle? The answer is ‘the long labour of Spirit in history’. Thanks to this—Spirit with a capital S—we are at last able to understand the true nature of the French Revolution: rather than the triumph of a social class, the bourgeoisie, it is the ‘affirmation of self-consciousness as free will, which is co-extensive with the universal, transparent to itself and reconciled with being’. This Hegelian reading of the events leads Furet to the curious conclusion that the French Revolution ended in a ‘failure’, the cause of which is to be found in an ‘error’, the desire ‘to deduce the political from the social’. The man responsible for that ‘failure’, in the last analysis, is said to be Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s error and that of the French Revolution lay in the attempt to affirm the ‘precedence of the social over the State’. Hegel, by contrast, fully understood that ‘it is only through the State—that superior historical form—that society can be organized according to reason’. The French Revolution failed and the fault was Rousseau’s: this is one possible interpretation of the events, but is it really ‘infinitely more concrete’ than the one outlined by Marx?footnote5