The Demands of Liberty: Civil Society in France Since the Revolution

By Pierre Rosanvallon

Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

(Harvard University Press, 354 pp., $35)

In the twentieth century, few if any countries did as much as France to change the way history is written. The Annales school, named after the brilliant journal of that title, and associated especially with the charismatic Fernand Braudel, led readers around the world to see the past in a new way. The school centered its inquiries on long-term patterns of social and economic change and the experiences of ordinary men and women, rather than on the doings of kings and generals. It advocated a close partnership between history and the social sciences, and developed wonderfully original methods of analyzing long- range series of data. The best Annalistes could conjure up the ghosts of the hungry and the downtrodden from the dry bones of grain-price and land-holding records. For once, a movement among historians deserved the compliment "revolutionary."

And like all revolutionary movements, the Annales eventually lost focus and energy. The journal itself remains outstanding, but it no longer leads the discipline as it did in Braudel's day. A plethora of approaches, methods, and theories have sprung up that claim "Annales-style social history" as a point of origin, but often retain only loose connections to it. In the United States, a "new cultural history" inspired by literary theory and cultural anthropology long ago proclaimed itself the discipline's new cutting edge.

Pierre Rosanvallon, one of the most important writers of history in France today, would certainly seem to owe little to the Annales. For one thing, he is a follower of Franois Furet, the great historian of the French Revolution who died a decade ago. Furet openly repudiated Annalisme, practicing what might best be described as philosophical history--an account of the past in which ideas structure historical change. In one of Furet's exemplary works, an imposing history of France from 1770 to 1880, the central figures were neither ordinary men and women nor (for the most part) kings and generals, but political thinkers such as Rousseau, Constant, and Tocqueville. At one point Furet even wrote that "the revolutionary lower classes continued to confuse the grain issue with politics"--as if matters of hunger and survival did not deserve such a lofty label. Rosanvallon does not share this condescending attitude, but he too largely concerns himself with the pronouncements of philosophers, pamphleteers, and the more articulate sort of politicians.

And yet the Annales school did lie behind Furet's work, and so behind Rosanvallon's as well. Furet began his career writing Annales-style quantitative history, and even after he moved away from it he continued to seek deep structures that shaped the movement of societies across the centuries. Except that where Braudel had seen these structures at work in geology and climate, Furet found them in fundamental political concepts. He believed, for example, that the most important factors shaping modern French history were the pre-revolutionary monarchy's conception of sovereignty as indivisible, and Rousseau's rigid notion of the general will. Together they supposedly fostered an unhealthy dependence on the state and an inability to tolerate dissent and disagreement, which endured long after the revolutionary crisis of the eighteenth century. Hence, for Furet, the inability of the French to establish even a moderately stable democracy until nearly a century after 1789, or ever to develop a strong and autonomous civil society. A onetime communist turned passionate anti-communist, Furet also believed that a bloody line ran from the French revolutionary terror of 1793-1794 all the way to Stalin and the gulag.

At its best, this sort of history writing is dazzling and provocative, suggesting that the distant past holds the key to our present political pathologies. Yet unlike the Annales school, this successor movement now represented by Rosanvallon has had relatively little influence outside the circles of those who study France. There are two principal reasons for this. The first is that Furet and Rosanvallon concerned themselves above all with the problem of how democracy can devolve into totalitarianism, and this problem has greater resonance in France than elsewhere. American and British democracies, despite their multiple weaknesses, never fell prey to totalitarianism. Nor did the pathologies of democratic rule figure decisively, if at all, in the origins of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. But in France, even after more than two centuries, the jagged scar of the Terror remains raw and painful. Why were the grand hopes of 1789 so quickly followed by civil war, the guillotine, and a dictatorial regime that seemed to prefigure the worst that modernity has to offer? And why did the shadow of these events fall so heavily over so much of the country's subsequent history?

The second reason is that Furet never really created a historical "school," even in France. He did not found a journal or any large-scale institution (unlike Braudel, who established France's main research center in the social sciences). Furet's students have mostly written conventional political and intellectual history, while the intellectuals who gathered around him mostly worked in the area of political and social theory. (Several of them have also written important historical essays, and some of their best work has appeared in translation, in the series "New French Thought" edited by Mark Lilla and Thomas Pavel for Princeton University Press.) Of all the members of what used to be called the "Furet Galaxy," Pierre Rosanvallon is virtually alone in having written a significant and wide-ranging body of work that pursues Furet's questions with something like Furet's methods, and on the scale that Furet pioneered. Since Furet's death, it is Rosanvallon who has come closest to fulfilling his historical project. But the project remains, in some fundamental ways, a problematic one. Above all, Rosanvallon, like Furet before him, tends to exaggerate the historical importance of both tyranny and proto- totalitarianism in France. Arguably, the country has suffered far more from the evils of civil war, and the distinct form of oppression that Tocqueville dubbed "soft despotism."

On the surface, Rosanvallon would seem an unlikely candidate for the role of Furet's heir. Whereas Furet was brilliantly eclectic, publishing on everything from the eighteenth-century book trade to Soviet communism, Rosanvallon has been doggedly steady, producing one tome after another on the travails of French democracy and civil society. And Furet's formative political experience came in his break with communism in the 1950s, while Rosanvallon's outlook followed from the student rebellion of 1968 (he was twenty at the time) and a subsequent stint in the so-called "second left" associated with the maverick socialist Michel Rocard. Indeed, while Furet flirted with Anglo-American classical liberalism in the 1970s, Rosanvallon was working as a house ideologue for the moderate left trade federation, the CFDT, and exploring the possibilities of autogestion, or workers' self-management (a popular "third way" idea that, in its time, sent many a well-intentioned Western leftist on a political pilgrimage to its then-champions in Belgrade).

Yet Rosanvallon, like the "nouveaux philosophes" Bernard Henri-Levy and Andre Glucksmann, and unlike so many others on the French left, recognized totalitarianism as the great modern political evil. This led him to Furet's remarkable circle of anti-communist intellectuals, which included the theorist of democracy and totalitarianism Claude Lefort, the left-libertarian Cornelius Castoriadis, and future stars of the "Furet Galaxy" such as Pierre Manent and Marcel Gauchet. Rosanvallon was captivated, especially by Furet and Lefort, and after Rocard lost out to Franois Mitterrand for leadership of the French socialist movement, he turned from militancy toward the life of a historian- intellectual.

Rosanvallon has by now produced a genuinely impressive body of work, including a book on the crisis of the modern welfare state, an extraordinary study of French liberals in the early nineteenth century, and above all a hefty three-volume study of modern French politics that appeared in the 1990s. For a long time, this work attracted little attention in the United States, but in 2004 the historians Samuel Moyn and Andrew Jainchill published a lucid overview, and last year Moyn brought out a collection of Rosanvallon's essays under the title Democracy Past and Future. The Demands of Liberty, which appeared in France three years ago, is the first of Rosanvallon's books to be published in English.

Opening The Demands of Liberty, it is easy to see why. For a writer who discusses the French penchant for abstraction at length, Rosanvallon remains apparently oblivious to the way this same inclination can sometimes deaden his prose. Reading him successfully depends on mastering a long series of abstract formulations that make little sense on first glance: "generality as social form"; "generality as democratic quality"; "immediate democracy"; "polarized democracy"; "the network state." Nor does he explain them as clearly as he might. "Immediate democracy," he writes in a typical turn of phrase, "rejects all reflexivity of the social, by which I mean that it rejects the assumption that the expression of the social requires a reflective agent to structure or focus intervention." What he means, I think, is that in certain forms of democracy (especially the one advocated by French revolutionary radicals) it is considered illegitimate to have any single agent or institution express the opinions of society as a whole. Society should speak with a single, unanimous, unmediated voice. Thankfully, Arthur Goldhammer has done his best (which is a great deal) to put Rosanvallon's thinking into lucid and readable English, and he deserves no blame for the head-scratching and occasional tooth-gnashing that will accompany any serious perusal of this book.

In an effort to broaden the book's appeal, Harvard University Press inadvertently worsened the problem by changing the title. The original French title translates properly not as The Demands of Liberty, but as The French Political Model: Society Versus Jacobinism from 1789 to the Present, which provides a much more precise description of what Rosanvallon wanted to accomplish. The book in fact has as its subject the modern struggle between "Jacobin" attempts to subject French civil society to centralized political control and opposing attempts to carve out an autonomous space for independent social activities. By "Jacobin," Rosanvallon refers not only to the members of the radical Jacobin "club" whose members dominated the radical phase of the French Revolution, but also to the broader revolutionary vision of "regenerating" France, which dominated French Republican thinking long after the Revolution itself.

Above all, Rosanvallon focuses on the question of "intermediary bodies" that emerge from and represent civil society-- guilds, trade unions, religious confraternities, professional organizations, and the like. Soon after 1789, the new revolutionary National Assembly outlawed all such associations so as to keep minority groups from imposing their own particular interests on public affairs. "There is no longer any corporation within the state," wrote Isaac- Rene Guy Le Chapelier, the sponsor of the law. "Henceforth, there is only the particular interest of each individual and the general interest." In 1810, Napoleon's Penal Code formally banned all unauthorized meetings of more than twenty people. It took until late in the nineteenth century for France's Third Republic finally to legalize trade unions, and not until 1901 did the French gain full freedom of association.

This is familiar territory for Rosanvallon, who wrote extensively on the problems of civil society and intermediary bodies in his trilogy in the 1990s. In these books, he followed Furet in presenting Jacobin hostility to civil society as a key modern pathology that opened the door to totalitarianism. Left unchecked, he suggested, the Jacobin urge to regulate, to control, and to make universal would crush not only intermediary bodies, but individuals as well. Only a strong civil society could save ordinary people from the looming power of the state. These insights drew heavily on the work of Tocqueville, whose The Old Regime and the French Revolution cast an all-devouring, ever-centralizing state as the dark protagonist of French history, and despaired of the French ever overcoming it. (Rosanvallon and Furet have also repeated Tocqueville's mistake of equating "Jacobinism" with centralization, when the actual Jacobins saw the concentration of power in Paris mostly as an emergency measure, never tried to systematize it, and hoped eventually to diffuse authority throughout French society.)

In one crucial sense, Rosanvallon did depart from Furet's interpretation. For Furet, if the roots of the Jacobin aberration lay in the legacy of the Old Regime monarchy and Rousseauian philosophy, its antidote could be found, in large part, across the Atlantic. Furet never fell prey to the reflexive anti- Americanism of so many French intellectuals, and he nurtured a deep affection for the United States. France, he argued at various times, needed a strong dose of Anglo-American-style liberalism to free itself from the suffocating weight of the Jacobin past, and he gave pride of place in his work to a canon of thinkers whom he saw as having tried, without great success, to implant varieties of it in French soil: Constant, Germaine de Stael, Franois Guizot, Tocqueville. In the 1980s, a "neo-liberal" political current inspired by this work had brief political importance (above all during the premiership of Jacques Chirac).

Rosanvallon, by contrast, has long presented classical liberalism as the Scylla to Jacobinism's Charybdis--"an equally dangerous extreme." He has argued that by seeking to develop a self-organizing, self-regulating society wholly independent of the state, classical liberals were actually promoting a vision of a world free from politics--and therefore a world where ordinary people had no recourse to political action. Such a world ultimately left individuals unprotected from society in much the way that totalitarianism left them unprotected from the state, and therefore it had a totalitarian quality of its own. This insistence on the possibility of political action owed more than a little to the teachings of Claude Lefort, as well as to Rosanvallon's own experience of grassroots political activism in the 1970s, and the ideal of autogestion. Still, Rosanvallon remained loyal to Furet in presenting modern France as suffering from an essentially Jacobin pathology-- a sort of "French exception" to the democratic rule.

It is on this point that The Demands of Liberty, even while summing up much of Rosanvallon's earlier work, departs most strikingly from it. He states the point quite clearly: "There is nothing exceptional about the French model. It is not an outlier among liberal democracies. Indeed, it is fully implicated in the antimonies that define the structure of modernity." To explain these "antimonies," he goes back to Hegel's insight that modern times have left individuals free to develop and express their private, particular, subjective natures, leaving them with only formal, "external" features in common, such as the title of citizen. This change, in turn, often leads to the desire to establish more substantial commonalities through possibly coercive political action. Modern political societies therefore fall between the poles of allowing the greatest possible latitude to private, particular interests (the English model, for Hegel), and constraining these interests as much as possible in the name of the greater good (the French model). But Rosanvallon moves further by arguing, against Furet, that French civil society has in fact managed to assert itself successfully against Jacobinism since Hegel's time, notably in securing the passage of the 1901 legislation on associations. For this reason, the French experience does not illuminate a uniquely French pathology, or even a pathology at all. Rather, it illuminates the modern democratic condition.

Rosanvallon backs up his claims with some striking material. In the first part of his book, he carefully delineates what he calls the Jacobin "political culture of generality": one that refuses to allow the legitimate expression of private, particular interests and tries to force citizens into abstract, a priori categories. He quotes abundantly from figures of the revolutionary era to show just how far this political culture could be pushed--for example, Saint- Just's delirious proposal that all men above age twenty-one be required to give the authorities a yearly list of their friends, or the abbe Raynal's shocking image of the absolute supremacy of the general will expressed in law: "The law is a sword that must impartially cut off anything that would raise itself up above it." He then traces the early nineteenth-century perception that the Revolution had destroyed French civil society, highlighting the lamentations of figures such as Chateaubriand ("the great and universal malady of a world in dissolution"), Balzac ("the nation ... is held together now by nothing more than the ignoble bonds of material interest"), and Royer-Collard ("only in the books of the philosophers had anyone ever seen a nation decomposed in this manner and reduced to the least of its elements").

Rosanvallon concludes by showing how later French thinkers eventually managed to justify intermediary bodies in a way that did not involve reactionary notions of society as an organic, naturally hierarchical body. He gives particular credit to early French sociologists (especially Durkheim), who demonstrated just how greatly modern society differed from the abstract, mechanistic, or organic visions promoted by Rousseau and Le Chapelier, as well as by their conservative critics. Given society's complexities, these scholars argued, private associations of some sort are a necessity, not an option, and can even function as auxiliaries of the state in some contexts. Following this discovery, Jacobinism could redefine itself to tolerate intermediary bodies, and the French state itself could turn increasingly corporatist, as it would do throughout much of the twentieth century.

It amounts to a powerful tale of political evolution. Despite Rosanvallon's often cloudy prose, his ideas have a clarity and a power similar to Furet's. His work does not have the Gulag-shadowed darkness of Furet's, but political progressives will like it all the more for this quality. Furet condemned political utopias as dangerous illusions, whereas Rosanvallon once spoke of the "immense work" needed "to keep our ambition to transform society from being expunged along with our illusions." In The Demands of Liberty, he writes that "possibilities sometimes arise when one side's utopia coincides with the other side's calculation." It is a fine creed for liberals. Interestingly, in the decade since Furet's death Rosanvallon has positioned himself clearly to the left of the decomposing "Furet Galaxy," and in 2002 he even sponsored the publication of a pamphlet that attacked its more right-wing members as "new reactionaries."

And yet Rosanvallon's book is not entirely convincing. For, despite what Rosanvallon has come to believe, there is a "French exception," and The Demands of Liberty itself gives striking, if unwitting, proof of it. Rosanvallon is quite correct that the "exception" is not Jacobinism, if we see Jacobinism as some sort of proto-totalitarianism. But should we really characterize Jacobinism-- and, more broadly, French Republican politics--in this way? Change the definition, and things look rather different.

The important point about the original Jacobins, which Rosanvallon never really recognizes, is that they undertook nearly all their most repressive and terroristic measures in the context of a savage fight for power among themselves, and between them and other revolutionary factions. (Furet's student Patrice Gueniffey has argued this case very convincingly in a recent study of the Terror.) They never sought, and they never had the chance, to make these measures permanent, and they never achieved the sort of absolute control over society of which their more delusionary leaders dreamed. While the revolutionary authorities shed horrifying amounts of blood in rebellious provinces, the systematic application of "terror" in areas unaffected by civil war lasted less than a year, and when the Jacobins fell, in the summer of 1794, their repressive legislation was for the most part immediately repealed.

Tellingly, what survived of the original Jacobinism was less the tyranny than what might be called the pedagogy: the doctrines that envisioned the French people as children to be tutored in proper behavior (including grandiose plans for public education, reforming the French language, establishing new patriotic rituals, and so on). This attitude, as Furet might have observed, owed a great deal both to the Old Regime and to Rousseau--in the first case to the idea of the king as "father of his people," and in the second case to the philosopher's haunting image of an all-powerful Legislator handing down the law to the people in the manner of Moses. The same sort of paternalistic Jacobinism remained powerful under Napoleon, who was a tyrant of a surprisingly unbloodthirsty sort when it came to France itself. (The conquest of foreigners was another matter entirely.) Not surprisingly, Tocqueville, the keenest observer of modern French politics, was fascinated by the phenomenon of what he called "soft despotism," and by the notion of the state as the people's tuteur-- a word that in French means both "tutor" and "guardian." Tocqueville's contemporary Charles de Montalembert put it most strikingly in 1849, in a passage quoted by Rosanvallon himself: "As soon as any party, without exception, achieves control of the government, it treats France not as a victim or a conquest but quite deliberately as a pupil. It sets itself up as the country's teacher.... It makes this great country its ward and awards itself the right to teach it what it ought to want, know and do."

Rosanvallon cites the passage as evidence that the French of the time lacked confidence in civil society, and he is right. But the passage also prompts the idea that the most important peril in modern French politics has been neither the tyranny feared by ancient-minded thinkers nor the totalitarianism that has terrified modern-minded ones. Consider that throughout nearly all of modern French history, instances of real, bloody tyranny have been surprisingly brief, tending to accompany struggles for power rather than the systematic exercise of power: the original Terror (and the subsequent White Terror); the brief civil conflicts of 1830 and 1848-1851; the bloody episode of the Commune in 1870- 1871; and finally Vichy (where one side of course had the support of the Nazi occupiers). But once securely in power, French rulers, including the two Napoleons, have tended towards a rule more tutelary than tyrannical. This quality, more than the struggle between "Jacobinism" and "civil society," is arguably the essence of the "French model." And it is, arguably, exceptional.

Of course, accusations of tyranny echo loudly through all of French history, against every regime that has ever held power in the country. But Rosanvallon is a little too quick to limit his discussion to such polemics, without pausing to ask about the social realities that they sometimes conceal. He does note that despite the penal code of 1810, a vigorous civil society in fact existed throughout the nineteenth century, to the extent that in 1900 one agency officially counted no fewer than 45,148 associations in France. And in practice, the state tolerated such associations long before the legislation of 1901. As the future premier Adolphe Thiers instructed local officials in 1834, "You will ignore their existence if they conduct themselves in a manner worthy of being ignored." This is evidence not only for the existence of civil society, but also for the tutelary character of the French state--a state that actually cares less about intermediary bodies as such than about whether these bodies show the right attitude and have learned the right lessons.

Rosanvallon also fails to note the comic peculiarity, from a non-French point of view, of a state agency that bothers to count 45,148 associations in the first place, or of politicians and intellectuals who debate whether and how to foster the development of civil society through state action. Doesn't civil society simply exist, independent of such action? Isn't it an ominous contradiction in terms to think that the state can create it? Tyrants and totalitarians do not think in terms of "creating" civil society, and neither do classical liberals. It is adherents of the French tutelary state who think and speak in these terms. And Rosanvallon, for all his efforts to gaze impartially on his national history, remains one of them.

Late in his book, Rosanvallon remarks that "despite the major changes described above, it is striking to find that the French still look upon their institutions with the same critical eye that has informed their thinking for the past two centuries.... It is as if they suffered from a permanent affliction, a need to exaggerate their woes by turning them into fantasies." This is quite true. But I would argue, against Rosanvallon, that this "affliction" actually extends straight back to the origins of modern French politics in the eighteenth century. Political ideas and doctrines imported from elsewhere--"tyranny," "liberalism," "totalitarianism"--have rarely fit the French case very well, even if they do not always deserve the label of fantasy. To the extent that they have structured French politics over the past two centuries, they have structured it in large part as a battle of mirages. Rosanvallon's work exposes this fact to some extent, but he still remains at least partly in thrall to the mirages himself.

And is the tutelary state really so exceptionally French? On reflection, perhaps not. Certain aspects of it will strike a chord with citizens of nearly all modern democracies. I would suggest that if the "French model" is to illuminate the larger story of modern democracy, it is this aspect, rather than the dialectic of Jacobinism and civil society, that may offer the most useful key. And by focusing on the French case in this way, the very French brand of philosophical history practiced by Pierre Rosanvallon, which has already proven so thought-provoking, may offer new and unexpected rewards.

By David A. Bell