Reviews for ‘The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,’ ‘The French Revolution: From Enligtenment to Tyranny,’ and ‘The French Revolution: The Great Courses’

The French Revolution

This is a member of the ‘Very Short Introduction’ book series, about the French Revolution. I very much enjoyed it as a primer, to refresh myself on the topic before I delve deeper in. It discusses the various effects the Revolution had on French- and worldwide- society. The social, cultural, colonial, religious effects. This is only about a hundred pages long, so it never delves too deep. As an example, Robespierre is a figure on maybe fifteen total pages. I also felt this neglected discussing slavery in it’s required depths. But overall, this is a good place to start to learn the fundamentals before going somewhere to flesh out the details.

I think this book was at it’s best when discussing the prelude to the revolution. It discusses the financial crises which led up to the conflict between the classes- how institutionalized corruption and tax exemptions accumulated amongst the nobles and bourgeoise over the generations, resulting in a top-heavy imperial government which was inevitably destined to collapse. I’ve been reading some other books on the revolution, and the economic background of the revolution is covered uniquely well here.

Finally, I really enjoyed the final chapter. The final chapter was an analysis of the history of studying the French Revolution. To summarize, for a long time analysis of the Revolution was tangled up in Soviet and post-Soviet thought, viewing the Revolution in the context of the later empire it inspired. More recently, people have started detangling the Revolution from soviet thought. Basically, for a long time only Marxists studied the Revolution, and now some Right-Wingers are studying it. This chapter was really neat, showing that history is an active process.

The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny

This is a longer book on the same subject, focusing more on the internescine political dance of the French Revolution. It explained who the Montignards were, who the Jacobins were, who the Gerodins were, who the sans-culottes were, and how they all related to one another. I found it fascinating how it deconstructed the events-on-the-ground, explaining the Terror in detail an how the Jacobins were basically riding a tiger, trying desperately to retain control of their nation in a time of sustained crises. Paris desperately wanted to be free of the monarch, even if the rural population didn’t. This led to constant infighting and civil wars.

If I’m interpreting this correctly, Robespierre and his cronies felt forced to kill thousands of people because the sans-culottes (aka the Parisian working class) were furious about the fact that they didn’t have food. The mass slaughter by guillotine- aka the Terror- was the Jacobin’s only option to stay alive in an unstable environment caused by lack of food, destabilized government caused by the fall of the monarch, and the invasion by the Austrians. The other books I’ve read on the subject haven’t clearly explained that fact. I think the author’s main thesis was ‘Democracy and Republics are good; the French Revolution was good because it served as an example of what NOT TO DO EVER.’

I recommend reading this. It’s only 250 pages long so you can get through it in a few days. It’s a bit dry, discussing how ‘on this date so and so committee met to overthrow the king. On that and that date the king ran, but was switftly caught.’ Aka, bland prose. It doesn’t capture the emotions of the moment. However, it’s very informative, and if you read between the lines a bit you can guess at what emotions were going on. This book neglects the high emotions to focus more on the power struggle, shifting alliances, and military maneuver, seen from a birds-eye perspective where all the human tragedy look like ants.

The Jacobin Republic

I read the first 50~100 pages of this. It was well written, but I didn’t synch up with it. I decided not to finish reading it. I think my problem is that this was book 2 in a three part series about the French Revolution, and I never read book 1. FYI, this book covers the events from the king’s death on until the Thermadorian Revolution.

The Great Courses: The French Revolution

This is a re-read for me from earlier this year. I stand by that review.

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