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Democratic Indifference

Published in History Today

The Making of the Sans-Culottes by R.B. Rose

200 pp. (Manchester University Press, 1983)

Despite its title, this is not really a book about the sans-culottes at all. It is about a tiny handful of local political activists in Paris and the way they explored and exploited the institutions thrown up by the Revolution between 1789 and 1792. In the course of this process a democratic ideology was elaborated which later became identified with those called sans-culottes, but for most of the period covered by Professor Rose this term was not used, and he does not even remind us when it first was. What emerges most clearly from his analysis is the massive indifference of most future sans-culottes to the democratic opportunities that the early revolution offered them. While orators at thinly attended district, and then sectional, assemblies and popular societies fulminated to each other about democracy and legislative accountability, the people of Paris whom they constantly invoked went about their everyday business and forgot to vote. Nor did they obviously miss the right to do so when deprived of it. The only democratic right they really cherished was to take to the streets, and they only did that when they felt physically threatened, either in their persons or their stomachs. This had notoriously been their outlook since long before the Revolution.

The book's subtitle, 'Democratic ideas and institutions in Paris, 1789-92', therefore more accurately describes its contents: a series of essays on the structure and working of representative institutions in the early revolutionary capital. The provinces hardly receive a mention, even when their radicalism antedated or exceeded that of Paris; yet it took the arrival of provincial enthusiasts, the federes of 1792, to galvanise metropolitans into positive action against the monarchy. Despite all the carefully chronicled efforts of electoral ward machine politicians, little evidence is offered for a steady growth of popular involvement in politics during these years. Involvement came suddenly, at moments of crisis, and it faded away as rapidly as it had materialised. It was the sustained emergency of the war that really made the sans-culottes, after the book ends. All that was elaborated between 1789 and 1792 were the institutions they would use, and the rhetoric they were to adopt.

These conclusions might not have pleased the late Albert Soboul, who suggested this topic to Professor Rose and to whose memory the book is dedicated. What would have delighted him is the careful analysis of the 1789 elections in Paris, which shows that men of trade and money played a part in choosing the deputies that makes Alfred Cobban's 'revolution of office holders' look increasingly inadequate as a way of explaining what happened in 1789.

  • William Doyle is the author of Origins of The French Revolution (1980)

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