How a Book Reviewer Got My Book Wrong

tags: book, Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas

Jonathan Israel is a Professor at the School of Historical Studies. His books include "Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670–1752" (2006), "A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy" (2009), and "Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre."

Responding to the review of my recent book, Revolutionary Ideas, by David Bell, in the New York Review of Books issue of 10 July 2014, I wrote a rejoinder from which the editors of that periodical published brief extracts. I am not at all eager to reply to reviews but for reasons that will become clear to the reader, made an exception in this case. Thank you for agreeing to publish the full text.

Bell begins by asking ‘did a secret society bring about the French Revolution?,’ citing Dumas’s Romantic novel Joseph Balsamo and the nineteenth-century right-wing myth that the Revolution was engineered by the obscure underground group known as the Illuminati, deeming this an appropriate way to introduce a highly complex historical argument. The ‘unrepresentative fringe’ that in my view led the revolutionary assemblies much of the time between 1789 and 1793, could not, he contends, possibly have inspired and guided the ‘greatest political upheaval the Western world has ever seen.’ Constructive criticism is always welcome, but Bell’s dismissal of my case as a ‘narrowly partisan point of view,’ amounting to little more than ‘conspiracy fiction,’ is nothing of the kind.

My main argument in Revolutionary Ideas which Bell neglected to explain is that clashes over fundamental principle and ideology were central to the French Revolution and that this has generally been missed by historians. Viewed from the perspective of ideology, and political ideas, the French Revolution, I argue, fragmented into three different ‘revolutions’ based on sharply divergent revolutionary programs and value-systems in constant collision with each other. The ‘first revolution,’ dominant in 1790-91 and resurgent to an extent in 1795-7 was liberal monarchist, venerated Montesquieu and the British constitution, and aimed at preventing a democratic, republican outcome. Much space is devoted to this ‘moderate Enlightenment’ movement headed initially by Mounier and later by Maury, Malouet and Barnave. The ‘second revolution’ was the democratic republican strand chiefly at issue here. The third was that of the Montagne, a coalition of three populist groups – Dantonists, Robespierristes, and followers of Hébert - of which the last two became increasingly intolerant, repressive and inclined to use a debased version of Rousseau to justify shutting down freedom of expression, introducing strict surveillance of everyone, and insisting on the virtues of the ‘ordinary man’ against their democratic republican rivals who were mainly intellectuals and journalists by background.

The Montagne came to power by a coup d’état in June 1793, establishing a rigorous, extremely authoritarian dictatorship headed by Robespierre, and were the sole authors of the Terror, repression initially aimed more against republican intellectuals (and the Enlightenment) than against the old aristocracy or the clergy. Although he does not explain or really discuss my general framework, Bell does roundly reject my conclusions regarding Robespierre, the Montagne and the democratic republican ‘second revolution.’ ‘No serious historian of the French Revolution of the past century,’ avers Bell, ‘has accepted the idea that Robespierre ever exercised a true personal dictatorship, and Israel has no new evidence to present on the subject,’ roundly rebuking me for advocating the very opposite of what I actually say. For I emphatically insist Robespierre did not exercise a ‘personal dictatorship’ and that the Terror was directed by a group dictatorship. (pp. 450-1, 463, 466, 469-70, 503-7, 574-7).

From the commencement of the Revolution, the radical, republican tendency, I maintain - against nearly the whole historiography - was a powerful force within the Revolution which I demonstrate by proving that republicans, near republicans and democrats like Brissot, Carra, Gorsas, Desmoulins, Robert, Prudhomme, Condorcet and Mirabeau dominated the major pro-Revolution newspapers from the outset until June 1793. Despite the fact that ‘republicans’ were a small minority in the National Assembly between 1789 and mid-1791, the radical group, headed in 1789 by Mirabeau and Sieyes, successfully reduced the king to a virtual cipher, depleting the monarchy of practically all executive, legislative, judicial and financial power aided by the republican press and sporadic popular support. My contention that Mirabeau and Sieyes rejected the principle of monarchy ‘in the main,’ Bell attacks as an argument based on unconvincing use of evidence put forward ‘without quoting a single line from them to support’ my ‘allegations (or fully confronting the fact that Mirabeau became a close, paid confidant of Louis XVI).’ But I do discuss Mirabeau’s extensive writings of the 1780s in both Democratic Enlightenment and in Revolutionary Ideas, showing such works as his 1788 attack on the Dutch stadholderate and De la monarchie prussienne sous Frédéric le Grand (6 vols., ‘Londres, 1788)i – the strongest denunciation of enlightened despotism of the century - evince a markedly republican character. Depleting royal power systematically in any case is republican in tendency. Like Lafayette who expressly claimed to be a ‘republican’ in 1789, Sieyes and Mirabeau backtracked considerably in 1790-1, though, after concluding that erosion of royal authority had progressed too far. From 1790, they increasingly left leadership of the radical tendency to others. In contrast to the pure republicanism of Brissot, Condorcet and Paine, by 1791 Sieyes now preferred a ‘representative constitutionalism’ retaining the king as a tightly constrained executive power.ii Mirabeau was a corrupt and ambitious politician – as I acknowledge (pp.108, 136, 148, 303) - and did receive bribes from the king who tentatively hoped that he could count on him –but to suggest he was ever close to, or a confidant, of either the king or Marie Antoinette (with whom he was in occasional secret correspondence), is stretching the evidence.

Republicans, then, dominated the scene from the fall of the Bastille onwards. One of the best contemporary reports on the state of affairs in the National Assembly in late 1789 was that of Jefferson, formulated just before he returned from France to America and when, as American ambassador in Paris, he was ideally placed to judge. The Assembly, he explained, writing to John Jay, on 19 September 1789, was sharply divided into four main blocs. First, the ‘Aristocrats,’ or the Right, included most of the nobility, bishops and higher clergy, and representatives of the parlements, all striving to retain as much monarchy, aristocracy and ecclesiastical authority as possible; second, the royalist moderates desiring ‘a constitution nearly similar to that of England’ and division of powers according to Montesquieu; third, a centrist splinter group labeled ‘wicked’ and ‘desperate’ by Jefferson, promoting the liberal Orléanist branch of the royal house; finally, smallest but most effective, with the largest outside backing and the most press and international links, were the ‘republicans, who are willing to let their first magistracy be hereditary,’ but according to Jefferson [approving Sieyes’s, Mirabeau’s and Lafayette’s schemes] to ‘make it very subordinate to the legislature, and to have that legislature consist of a single chamber.’iii Since republicans unquestionably did dominate the pro-Revolution press, part of the Paris city government, and (precariously) the National Assembly, and since Mirabeau and Sieyes did propel the moves to eradicate most of the king’s power in 1789, my argument here remains intact and is the reverse to ‘unconvincing.’

Bell accuses me of circumventing ‘easily -too easily’ the reality that the Revolution was ‘not a unified and coherent one.’ In reality, I go further than Furet or any other recent interpreter of the Revolution in emphasizing its – from beginning to end – fundamental lack of unity and far-reaching inner divisions. My French Revolution interpretation does admittedly conflict at a basic level with the existing historiography and I accept that this gets me into more fights than I relish. There is bound to be lively and strong disagreement. But it should be fair. Bell’s claiming my standpoint is ‘in the end, impossible to accept’ as it ‘takes sides so completely with one group of its actors,’ and ‘is based so heavily on their own highly polemical writings’ is anything but. Since balanced use of sources is the historian’s first rule this is a highly derogatory remark. My account is based on hundreds of citations form the Archives parlementaires, the main repository of the National Assembly debates, the papers, journals and pamphlets of all factions, and the Jacobin Club records, as well as dozens of testimonies of independents and foreign observers. Those aspects of my Robespierre interpretation that diverge most from the standard account – his systematic vote-rigging in the Paris elections of September 1792, public attacks on ‘republicanism’ in 1791-2, and (from 1792) incessant diatribes against the philosophes and the Enlightenment - rely heavily on the Archives, the Jacobin records, and especially Robespierre’s own speeches and directives. Hardly anything in my stringently modified picture relies on (as opposed to being confirmed by) his opponents’ writings.

I am ‘not in the least interested,’ holds Bell, ‘in taking an impartial view’ of Robespierre. As most historians accept Robespierre’s good faith and sincerity, I consider it extremely important to provide solid, objective evidence that he was never a republican or democrat, and I have gone to considerable lengths to do so. Besides Robespierre’s own speeches and his monarchist newspaper, La Défenseur de la Constitution, 1791-2 with which he persisted long after the Flight to Varennes gave republicanism in France a massive boost, many sources show the so-called ‘incorruptible’ was persistently non-republican as well as corrupt politically. Further clear proofs are the viciousness of his public attacks on key revolutionary personalities like Condorcet and Desmoulins who had not been opponents previously, and whose republican and democratic credentials were exemplary, and his choice of police chiefs and Paris mayors, during the dictatorship (1793-4), including Jean-Nicolas Pache (1746-1823) ‘elected’ mayor in 1792, and Jean-Baptiste Fleuriot-Lescot (1761-94), in 1794, both exceptionally corrupt and ruthless men. The latter was an obscure Belgian revolutionary from Brussels unconnected with Paris whose sole qualifications for the job were total disregard for principle and subservience to Robespierre personally. He was guillotined together with Robespierre at Thermidor.

Bell thinks there is little to choose morally between the Montagnards and their opponents, and notes that most historians today agree with him. But that is no guarantee they are right. The whole point of my book is to demonstrate that insufficient attention to the ideological differences between the factions has led to the modern consensus being seriously flawed. In a political struggle, one side, in this case the Montagne, is often far worse in terms of ruthlessness, repressiveness, bloodthirstiness, and despotic tendency than the other. It by no means follows that I therefore ‘enormously admire’ the Brissotins. On the contrary, an essential step in my argument, again unmentioned by Bell, is that their radical set of democratic republican ideas won a considerable slice of popular support because it catered to popular discontent and resentment and was massively diffused hence proved a useful tool for ambition and self-promotion as well as social improvement (pp. 8-9, 12, 14-20, 24-7, 48, 50). Ironically, it is the limited character of the sources usually employed that has helped mask the colossal moral gap between the two preponderant factions. The commentaries and judgments of the major German, Dutch, Italian, American and British intellectuals supporting the French Revolution publicly, for example, are hardly ever collated in this connection. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Bell and most historians seem unaware that every important foreign pro-Revolution intellectual, without a single exception as far as I can see, condemned the Montagne as an altogether monstrous despotism. This applies to the Americans and British - Paine, Priestley, Jefferson, Barlow, Madison, Palmer, Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, Bentham and Godwin; to the Germans - Herder, Klopstock, Forster, Wedekind, Hölderlin, Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Dorsch, Cramer, and the editor of the Aachener Zuschauer, Dautzenberg; to the Dutch - Irhoven van Dam, Daendels and Paape, and to the Italians, key publicists and revolutionary leaders like Gorani and Pagano. Even the Prussian-Dutch National Assembly member Anarcharsis Cloots (1755-94), a radical intellectual who undoubtedly backed the Montagne (mainly because he hated Brissot) until he too was guillotined, nevertheless totally despised Robespierre as a despicable and perverse ‘dictator.’ The poet, Thomas Thorild, the leading Swedish radical of the era, was so fervent for the Revolution that it greatly pained him to have to admit Robespierre was an ‘all-consuming crocodile’ (pp.335-6). If this demonstrates my using sources one-sidedly then it puts me in excellent literary and philosophic company.

While right-wing thinkers of the Enlightenment reviling the Revolution’s democratic principles, like Burke and Gibbon, may have been tempted to try to discredit the Revolution as a whole by suggesting all factions embraced basically the same principles, no significant enlightener supporting the Revolution agreed with Bell’s view that there was little to choose morally between Brissotins and the Montagne. Even some regular Montagnards who, under the Terror, accepted the regime’s pretexts for its repressiveness admitted at the time that the Brissotins were more educated and cosmopolitan than their adversaries, and that the Brissot-Condorcet faction alone were true champions of the philosophes or what today we would call the Enlightenment. The Montagne defeated the Brissotins in 1793-4, independent French revolutionaries and commentators regularly noted then, chiefly because they were the most ruthless, manipulative and dishonest of the three principal blocs. Hence, far from being ‘impossible to accept,’ my interpretation will be hard to counter with genuine argument and facts.

Central to my thesis are the debates surrounding the drafting of the world’s first democratic constitution (pp.345-73), the emergence of universal human rights, freedom of the press, universal secular education, women’s rights, comprehensive religious toleration, and black emancipation (pp.396-419) which, whether correctly analyzed by me or not, are all of vital importance for the study of modern French history, indeed modern history and philosophy generally. The republican revolutionary faction, ‘the Left,’ led originally by Mirabeau and Sieyes, and later by Brissot and Condorcet, steered the Revolution toward these goals not because they were particularly admirable men (though Condorcet was) but because they were publicly (if not always privately) committed to the Radical Enlightenment principles of equality, republicanism, democracy, and freedom of expression. On ideological grounds, and in their own political interest, they happened to be the first to introduce universal human rights and the other fundamentally innovative concepts listed above. It was a shared sense of striving together for jointly-held principles that led Jefferson, Paine, Madison, and the American Revolution’s democratic wing unequivocally to side with them against both the ‘first revolution’ (the Anglophile moderates) and the third (the Montagne), as well as against the American Revolution’s conservative wing (John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, etc.- who in the French context supported the ‘first revolution’).

With practically nothing to say about any of this, Bell concentrates on alleging that ‘the vast majority of the French population fare particularly poorly in Revolutionary Ideas.’ In fact, I give extensive attention to crowd behavior and popular reaction not just in Paris but also Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nîmes, Toulon, Bordeaux, Caen, Strasbourg and in Brittany. Far from being ‘cavalier’ in my approach, I emphasize that the people’s anger and resentment was altogether justified and the need to prevent vested interests preying on the majority quite rightly the Revolution’s highest priority. The role of the people is absolutely central especially to my detailed explanation of why the first, second and (from July 1794) the third ‘revolutions’ all failed. The people’s role in breaking the political deadlock during the Revolution’s crucial moments (as well as their economic distress) was unquestionably pivotal but also closely tied to their shifting relationship to the elites and greatly complicated by their being deeply divided and frequently confused - in the highly fraught circumstances scarcely surprising (pp. 60-4, 89-94, 204-7, 246-62, 423 -48, 454-64). Ultra-royalist and Catholic fundamentalist sentiment remained everywhere formidable and the people’s principal pro-revolutionary interventions, such as on 14 July and 5 October 1789, fitful, sporadic and, most importantly, hesitant until guidance (or manipulation) were provided by rival leadership groups.

The ‘first revolution,’ despite strong support at elite level, never rallied much popular support; that was its fatal weakness. By contrast, the Brissotins, Montagnards, and counter-revolutionaries, all rallied substantial popular support in different parts of France at different times but only sporadically. The Montagne won little enduring adherence outside Paris and less in Paris than usually assumed. The overriding problem for revolutionary leaders was that their support in the streets was always shifting, precarious, and easily manipulated in some new direction. Besides my supposedly being unsympathetic to the people and treating ‘popular actions almost with annoyance,’ a ‘striking’ defect of Revolutionary Ideas, explains Bell, is my claiming the sans-culottes consistently ‘acted at Robespierre’s instigation,’ and my ‘blithely’ assuming they had ‘fallen under Robespierre’s spell,’ yet again ascribing to me the precise reverse of what I actually argue. I give the sansculottes ‘no credit for independent action,’ complains Bell, where I write that ‘the main body of hard-core sansculotte activists was far from being firmly behind the Montagne’ and emphasize their ‘independent’ action (pp.310-15, 435-45, 467-70, 504-7). The sans-culottes were never reliable or consistent supporters of Robespierre or the Montagne. The renowned street revolutionary Jean Varlet (1764-1837) supported the Montagnard coup in June 1793, but within weeks realized Robespierre was not interested in giving power to the people but only in establishing despotism and began opposing him (pp.437-8, 441-3, 505-6).

I take ‘no interest in the common people’s culture,’ holds Bell and ‘never consider the possibility that they might have conceived and articulated revolutionary ideas on their own.’ This possibility, vigorously championed by Lynn Hunt and others, I reject on the grounds that there is no convincing evidence for popular pressure or insurrection directly formulating key revolutionary values and principles, and that it is unrealistic to expect anything of the sort. Illiteracy and semi-literacy were only two major barriers preventing spontaneous emergence of universal revolutionary concepts at popular level. More important was deference to monarchy, religious allegiance, adherence to tradition, and prejudices prevalent at all levels of society generating strong anti-Protestant, anti-Jewish, anti-atheist, anti-philosophe, chauvinist (not least toward women), xenophobic and pro-Church attitudes running flatly against the priorities of all three ‘revolutions.’ Almost by definition, common attitudes are not ‘radical.’

The revolutionary efforts and strategy of the democratic republicans from 1789 to 1793, like those of their rivals, expressly relied on propagating their ideas among the public as much as possible. An overriding question in Revolutionary Ideas is how did the democratic, republican faction win enough backing to keep republicanism, freedom of the press, basic human rights, the quest for the world’s first democratic constitution, race and gender equality, and universal secular education to the fore in French politics and debate throughout the dramatic period from the fall of the Bastille (July 1789) to the Montagnard coup (June 1793), if few initially understood or supported their principles? My answer is vigorous ‘diffusion of ideas’ among the people by exploiting the Brissotins’ dominance of the press (until June 1793), dominance complete from the moment the Bastille fell (along with the royal censorship). Admittedly, I give an account of ‘diffusion’ diverging fundamentally from the bottom-up approach to this major cultural phenomenon made famous by Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier, but I place just as much emphasis on the importance of ‘diffusion’ as they do. Instead of identifying social practice, reading and popular trends as the motor, I emphasize the role of ideology and use of top-down methods of propaganda. Central to the book at every point are the cultural processes by which each competing faction strove to sway more of the public to support their particular ideology. Much space is devoted to the newspapers, including both popular papers directed at men and those directed at women (pp., 94-5, 169, 296-7, 438-9, 497), to pamphlets, parades, public ceremonies, enforced changes to religious practice, ‘pantheonization’ and other means. What I am chiefly concerned with is how the people and social impulses actually function in a revolutionary situation. My aim is to point out the crucial role of ideology in forming and organizing rival groups and what this means when there are fiercely competing and colliding currents of ‘diffusion.’ Much attention is paid, for instance, to the turmoil in the theaters (pp. 68-73, 211, 430-1, 518-22,670, 674). By bringing social and intellectual history closer together I aim to demonstrate that the twists and turns of the Revolution cannot be explained without the help of intellectual history, that the social and economic forces involved, though fundamental, are not enough on their own to explain why popular movements crystallize and transmute, often abruptly and sometimes violently, in particular directions as they do.

Despite his dismissive rhetoric, I do not suppose Bell really believes popular attitudes did play a major part in formulating the principles of full press freedom and freedom of expression, equality for Protestants and Jews, black emancipation, marriage law reform including civil divorce, universal secular education, abolishing feudalism, suppressing the Parlements as incompatible with popular sovereignty, forbidding use of aristocratic titles in municipal and other public business, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, or suppressing monarchy. But if Bell is suggesting, in the manner of Lynn Hunt, that popular culture decisively shaped and formulated the bitterly contested and complex ideas infusing the great enactments of the Revolution, then he is on wholly untenable ground. As Peter de Bolla observes in his analysis of the new ‘architecture of ideas’ generating the concept of ‘universal rights of mankind’ in the 1770s, the people as such could read about and discuss but not initiate or formulate essentially new and highly intricate constitutional, legal, educational and cultural principles. Long-term ‘cultural shifts’ of the kind Lynn Hunt stresses take time. Of course, ‘cultural shifts’ and reading patterns matter. In the context of ‘universal human rights’ transforming the scene in the 1770s, I am not suggesting Hunt’s thesis should be rejected altogether. But, as de Bolla points out, her approach is neither plausible or useful when seeking to explain the abrupt transformation in structures of ideas reshaping the debate about ‘rights’ in the 1760s and 1770s - a sudden and dramatic shift toward conceptualizing ‘universal human rights’ occurring first in France and shortly afterwards in America.iv

Given the centrality of the common people in breaking the deadlock between the factions at crucial moments, much attention is paid in Revolutionary Ideas to the Revolution’s key events, again directly contrary to what Bell says. Among these pivotal episodes are the Paris uprising of 10 August 1792 (pp. 253-63) and the September 1792 prison massacres (pp.269-73, 292-4) at a time of panic in Paris when the Prussians were invading France. In the latter case, small crowds of sans-culottes stormed the prisons resulting in the brutal slaughter of around 1,200 clergy, aristocrats and alleged counterrevolutionaries. The Brissotins and Montagne subsequently accused each other of instigating the atrocities. Here Bell labels me ‘quite credulous’ for accepting Brissotin accusations and supposedly assuming the ‘Montagne’s obvious complicity’ after admitting ‘little documentary evidence survives proving the premeditated complicity of leading Montagnard politicians.’ There is no such evidence, he categorically asserts. Yet, I point out that most Brissotin journalists (apart from Brissot himself in his paper Le Patriote français), afraid of besmirching the Revolution, initially covered up the truth and did not blame the Montagne, doing so only considerably later. More importantly, the killings were certainly not spontaneous or ‘popular’ as Robespierre cynically claimed (and Bell wrongly maintains), but covertly directed. Indisputable evidence implicates middle-ranking Montagnards like Jean-Antoine Rossignol (1759-1802) and Étienne-Jean Panis (1757-1833),v close to Marat, and key cogs in the machinery of Montagnard despotism, especially working through the now Jacobin-dominated Paris Commune. Their involvement in directing the massacres in turn indubitably confirms the Montagne’s, and especially Marat’s, complicity. ‘There can be no doubt,’ writes Timothy Tackett, ‘of the active support of members of the insurrectional Commune’ and the ‘Commune’s surveillance’ committee.’vi The Paris Commune, adds The Oxford History of the French Revolution, ‘voted to pay’ the organizers of the premeditated slaughter for their gruesome work.vii

Bell’s critique of my category ‘Radical Enlightenment’ is even more astoundingly inaccurate than the rest. He deems the evidence ‘thin’ for classifying Spinoza as a ‘democratic’ philosopher, when Spinoza is unquestionably the first great modern democratic philosopher. He repeats that ‘not every book denounced’ as ‘Spinozist’ ‘had much relation to Spinoza’s thought.’ As if I maintain that it did! ‘Among the great philosophes,’ only Diderot, affirms Bell, is ‘located, for Israel, squarely in the “radical” camp’ whereas I classify also Bayle, d’Holbach, Helvétius, and Condorcet among major philosophes who, following Spinoza, Collins and Toland - and together with Lessing, Franklin, Paine, Price, Priestley and Jefferson - strove for a fully secular politics eliminating religious authority and proclaiming a new social order based on equality, freedom of expression and what from the 1770s were conceived as universal human rights, an extremely complex process Bell pronounces (twice) ‘shockingly simple.’

My argument that the only ‘big cause’ of the Revolution viewed as a series of democratic and egalitarian enactments ‘was the Radical Enlightenment’ Bell deftly reduces to my supposedly claiming ‘only ideas matter for understanding how the Revolution came about and what course it took.’ As indicated already, I most certainly do not think only ideas matter for understanding the Revolution. But I do hold that the democratic and universal human rights legislation of the Revolution was chiefly shaped by a system of interlinked ideas that formed before 1789 and was principally forged by the Enlightenment’s radical tendency. The Enlightenment stream that most comprehensively attacked religious authority, denying that the moral and social order is proclaimed by God or through divine revelation, or is sanctioned by the Church, was also, I contend, the Enlightenment stream that originally rejected monarchy and aristocracy and developed the modern concepts of equality, human rights and democracy. This linkage evolved in stages from the mid-seventeenth century - from the Dutch republican ferment (Spinoza and his circle) between the 1650s and 1670s; to the radical network among the Huguenot diaspora (1680-1720), followed by the shift from clandestine manuscript to French-language underground printing (1720-50), the ‘war’ of the Encyclopédie (1750-65), the split between Voltaire and the materialists (1760-78), what I term the ‘diffusion’ break-through (1770-89), the debates and propaganda of the French Revolution, and, finally, the underground republican revolutionary critique of Bonapartism and the Restoration (1800-48). I find it hard to see anything ‘shockingly simple’ about any of this highly complex development and doubt whether many readers will either.

My Enlightenment interpretation has been heavily attacked (especially in the United States) by a whole phalanx advancing lengthy critiques (see in particular Volume Nine (2014 part 1) of H-France Forum,( Bell emphasizes this but forgets to mention that this is at least partly because the Radical Enlightenment construct (and by no means only mine) threatens to undermine much of the existing historiography of both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution – and even to an extent the very primacy of ‘cultural’ and social history. None of the ‘negative critique’ rejecting the interpretation outright, however, offers much serious criticism or contrary argument to the concrete evidence detailing the main stages set out in my Enlightenment interpretation. Meanwhile, what I term the ‘positive critique’ which is also growing in bulk pushes in the opposite direction. Recent additions to this corpus include Matthew Stewart’s path-breaking Nature’s God and an article of a Polish colleague, Przemyslaw Gut, who resumes the debate in the context of early nineteenth-century German Idealism claiming the ‘core reason for Spinoza’s influence on the Enlightenment was his conception of human nature’ which I perhaps understate, rather than the Dutch thinker’s assault on the divine origin of Scripture, the supernatural, and religious authority.viii Stewart offers a splendid panorama of the Radical Enlightenment that features important parallels with, but equally significant differences from, mine, not least rejecting – like Wim Klever who in the 1970s and 1980s did much of the early research on the radicalism of the Dutch circle around Spinoza –my classifying Locke and Hume as ‘moderate’ and not ‘radical.’ix

By contrast, the ‘negative critique’ sweepingly dismissing the staged trans-Atlantic process altogether is mostly beside the point, and operates purely rhetorically – liberally distributing scornful but highly inaccurate comments in defiance of considerable evidence and roundly rejecting the key connection between the attack on religious authority and the inception of democracy without providing any countervailing evidence (of which there appears to be none). Bell’s contribution to the ‘negative critique’ here and elsewhere is his assertion that I classify Rousseau largely with the ‘moderate Enlightenment.’ In fact, Rousseau, the best known political and social writer of the revolutionary era, had a greater general impact overall on intellectual culture and debate than any other writer of the age. At the same time, however, he is practically never mentioned by Condorcet and had little real impact on the major decrees or key constitutional debates, despite his unrivalled popularity. This was mainly because, among the public, his ideas appealed enormously to all sides, left, middle and right, not indiscriminately, however, but by diverging disparately into separate streams. His theory of ‘general will’ (acquired from Diderot) and popular sovereignty was undoubtedly radical and contributed to strengthening that tendency; his staunch defense of deism and divine providence was ‘moderate’; his hostility to book-learning and the philosophes was Counter-Enlightenment. The latter, together with his doctrine of ‘dictatorship,’ theory of the unity of the popular will, and stress on the natural virtuousness of the ordinary man, played key roles (albeit in a debased version) in the ideology of Marat, Robespierre and Saint-Just which was anything but ‘moderate Enlightenment.’ Dismissing my account of the Montagne’s calls for a ‘dictator’ before 1793, Bell claims I ‘never’ define this term where, in fact, I do identify and explain the Montagnard doctrine of ‘dictatorship,’ characterizing it, following Pasquale Pasquino, as rooted in Rousseau (pp.216-17, 389).

Since the 1920s a whole line of intellectual historians beginning with Leo Strauss, Günther Mühlpfordt, and Henry F. May - who in his classic work The Enlightenment in America (1976) contended there is no proper understanding of the American Enlightenment without firmly distinguishing its ‘moderate’ and radical tendencies – have emphasized the vital importance of the ‘Radical Enlightenment.’ They were followed by Margaret Jacob, Martin Mulsow, and latterly Philipp Blom, Michel Onfray, and Matthew Stewart. The contributions to the literature on Radical Enlightenment by Wim Klever, Gianni Paganini, Silvia Berti, Antony Mckenna, Wilfred Schröder, Gianluigi Goggi, Miguel Benítez and Maria Jose Villaverde Rico are also of great significance. No one with a broad knowledge of Enlightenment sources from the late seventeenth century down to the early nineteenth can still seriously deny the deep rift within the Enlightenment between those, as it has recently been expressed, for whom ‘reason reigned supreme in human affairs’ and those for whom ‘reason had to be limited by faith and tradition.’x In truth, the Revolution’s splitting the Enlightenment into opposed democratic and anti-democratic factions along lines that followed prior intellectual tensions is impossible to ignore as are the connections between the political and religious rifts. While there are now multi-authored compendia in French and German explaining the many facets of the Radical Enlightenment as a central topic in historical studies and philosophy,xi no such compendium exists yet in English. But a comprehensive compendium in English with numerous contributors is being prepared by Ashgate, based on the international Brussels conference on the ‘Radical Enlightenment’ held in May 2013.

In answer to his complaint that I have ‘accepted very few criticisms’ advanced by him or others in this quarrel, Bell may rest assured that I shall accept every criticism that is justified and based on cogent argument. Doubtless my reinterpretation of the Enlightenment and French Revolution has its shortcomings and can be considerably improved. I would gladly have liked to profit from and gratefully acknowledge Bell’s review had it been well-judged.


Jonathan Israel has responded, not once, but twice, to my review of his Revolutionary Ideas in The New York Review of Books. In addition to the response published on HNN, The NYRB itself will publish a second, considerably shorter response in an upcoming issue. As I have already written a reply to this second missive, which will appear in the same issue of the NYRB, I will refrain from composing a second reply for HNN. The gist of the objections to my review is the same, and, unlike Jonathan Israel, I don't see any need to repeat myself at possibly excessive length.


i Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment. Philosophy, Revolution and Human Rights

1750-1790 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 274-8, 814-15, 894-6, 904-8

ii Pasquale Pasquino, Sieyès et l’invention de la constitution en France (Paris, 1998), pp. 73-93

iii Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson vol. xv (ed.) Ch. Cullen and J.P. Boyd (Princeton,

1958) pp. 458-9. Jefferson to Jay, 19 Sept. 1789

iv for critique of the Hunt thesis proposing human rights as the outcome of long-term ‘cultural shifts’, see Peter de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts. The Heretical Formation of Human Rights (New York, 2013), 48; see also Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights. A History (New York, 2007), pp. 22-34

v Frédéric Bluche, Septembre 1792, logiques d’un massacre (Paris, 1986), pp.151-3, 160, 168-72 

vi T. Tackett, ‘Rumor and Revolution: The Case of the September Massacres’, French History and Civilization iv (2011), p.55

vii William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford, 1989), p. 192

viii Przemyslaw Gut, ‘The Legacy of Spinoza’, in Diametros vol. 40 (2014) The Radicalism of the Enlightenment , (eds.) Justyna Miklaszewska and A. Tomaszewska. pp. 45-72

ix Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God. The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (New York, 2014), pp. 3-4, 139-72

x Kenan Malik, The Quest for a Moral Compass. A Global History of Ethics (London, 2014), p. 192

xi Catherine Secrétan, Tristan Dagron, Laurent Bove (eds.) Qu’est-ce que les Lumières “Radicales”. Libertinage, athéisme et spinozisme dans le tournant philosophique de l’âge classique (Paris, 2007); Jonathan Israel and Martin Mulsow (eds.) Radikalaufklärung (Berlin, 2014)

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