Some Historians on the Crowd before and after the French Revolution: Gibbon, Carlyle, Michelet and Taine
The great crowd scenes of the French Revolution made the crowd a force to be reckoned with both in political theory and political practice. After the Revolution, it was no longer possible to see the crowd, as Gibbon did, as an occasional nuisance, on which contempt could be poured from the heights of Augustan detachment while the State, if it stood firm, could be relied on to deal with it. Gibbon’s own account of the Nika Riots in the fourth volume of the Decline and Fall can be seen as a reflection of an enlightened, aristocratic view of the Gordon Riots which occurred when he was preparing to write his account of the reign of Justinian. That was just nine years before the fall of the Bastille. A similar equanimity was not to be possible in the nineteenth-century historians who were to write accounts of the crowd in the French Revolution. For Carlyle, the revolutionary crowd is the vehicle of World-History, and he is careful to keep it free from as much of the guilt as he can for the horrors of the Revolution. Sansculottism is predestined to destroy the hollow shell of French society and bring a sense of reality into French life. The crowd is bound, in the end, to be defeated because it cannot produce a Great Man, and will not accept the leadership of a Hero, but it does pave the way for the next best thing, our last Great Man, the flawed Hero, Napoleon. Michelet’s view of the revolutionary crowd is less metaphysical. His crowd is the whole people, with the Rights of Man written on their hearts, storming the Bastille for all mankind. His crowd is less abstract, showing that real, living men can make their own history. The revolutionary crowd is the people, the people is the revolutionary crowd, and Rousseau is their hero. It was this view of the Revolution that Taine set out to destroy, and, by implication, to destroy what he took to be all the illusions which had allowed the Revolution to happen. These illusions continue to feed democratic and socialist ideas and practice in contemporary France, and in contemporary Europe, and Michelet’s view of what happened in 1789 is the greatest illusion of them all. Taine begins at the beginning, thinking that if he can show that the Revolution was an outburst of primal barbarism, people will come to their senses and reject all the political and social doctrines which either prepared the way for the Revolution or which rely for their plausibility on the view of the Revolution presented by Michelet and his kind. In the process of showing Frenchmen what their grandfathers were like, Taine develops at least the outlines of a genuine theory of the crowd as a psychopathology of politics, and out of that psychopathology of politics he developed an eclectic theory of history. Unlike Michelet, who had a theory of history before he began to write the history of the Revolution, Taine developed a theory of history out of his account of the Revolution, the centrepiece of which was his analysis of revolutionary crowds.