Both from the title and the opening dedication of the book to the deceased singer of the legendary punk band The Clash, it is clear that Mark Steel’s <Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution is not going to be a stale and overly academic history of one Europe’s great revolutions. Steel is writing not to bemoan the deaths of the royal family and their supporters, as so many historians do, but rather to examine how both how the revolution was led “from below” by the poor and how it has been portrayed in histories since. Steel describes how the period is regularly portrayed as a period to be hated, yet he finds inspiration in the actions of ordinary French citizens who realized that their collective power could topple a regime that was believed its power came from God. He examines all the “major” events of the period while also exploring the minor events that have been frequently ignored, especially focusing on events and activities that challenge the prevailing interpretations of the French Revolution. He writes with the passion that writing about a revolutionary movement demands, eschewing the dispassionate and stale rhetoric that so often characterizes how history is written and instead brings to the front the inspiration that the study of revolutionary movements should give to contemporary activists.
Having received a degree in history and having an interest in pedagogy and its relationship to social movements, I found Steel’s comments and analysis on historiography of the period to be one of the most interesting aspects of his book. While never focusing any significant time on the French Revolution while in college, the topic was addressed briefly in the compulsory “World History” courses (renamed from “Western Civilization” in order to attempt to mask the fact that they were in reality primarily histories of “great” white leaders). The courses presented the French Revolution in a generally vague and convoluted manner, ignoring the specifics of what happened to focus on “key” aspects such as King Louis XVI lavish spending, the “unfortunate” status of the lower classes (with little analysis of why people were starving), the storming of the Bastille, the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the reign of “Terror,” and the rise of Napoleon. The brief overview had an underlying sympathy for the royal family, essentially suggesting that while there were significant problems with inequality, revolution was not a solution. Of course, in a system where the King’s power is believed to derive from God, there really is no other option, but such is the use of history when it is taught in a manner that promotes an ideological adherence to capitalism. People can, occasionally, organize in “official” ways, such as demanding the right to vote or asking for legal equality, but once they begin to challenge the underlying basis of society, they are forever seen as “extremists” in “official” histories.
Throughout the book, Steel weaves in an analysis of other histories of the French Revolution, but it is his two introductions (one to this US edition and the other to the original British version) in which he provides the bulk of this analysis. Steel argues that the French Revolution has been portrayed as a “dreadful episode with no redeeming features.” This has been aided by popular films and novels, which have advocated an idea that most of the revolutionaries were bloodthirsty and unthinking. Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that the influential histories of the period have advanced similar assertions, with books such as Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution and Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, containing numerous personal attacks on leaders of the revolution, especially Jean Paul Marat. Other books, including The French Revolution and Its Legacy, have gone so far as to say that Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were the “heirs of the French Revolution.” At the same time, other historians have advanced an interpretation that the French Revolution had no lasting impact. In both interpretations, the Terror is played up as being a defining feature of the revolution, while the efforts to create a society based on fairness, equality, and democracy have been minimized.
Vive la Revolution is an entertaining book that is both easy to read and useful in illuminating one of the more misunderstood periods in European history. For those who have relied on their basic western civilization textbooks to learn about this period or even those who have undertaken a more detailed study of the period using more scholarly sources, they have likely seen the revolution portrayed as an uncoordinated and horribly violent attack on “order” that resulted in a “dark” period of European history. In an amusing and lucid way, Steel rejects such interpretations and shows that it had components that constituted a “revolution from below” and argues that it is possible to find inspiration for contemporary struggles within the French revolution. Steel ends the book by discussing how the French Revolution shows that when “peasants, slaves, postmen and washerwomen” get together they can change the world because “there are more of them than there are nobles, priests and kings.” He relates this to the present by pointing out that the 360 richest people in the world own the same amount as the poorest 2 billion, suggesting that the current system is vulnerable if organizing brought together the 2 billion.
Mark Steel, Vive la Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution, (Haymarket Books, 2006).