chapter  21
20 Pages

The Survival o f the Republic , 1871-90

The era of revolutions had ended; but that is clear only with hindsight. For those living in 1871, political collapse, defeat and revolution began a period of uncertainty. The Left feared a monarchical reaction; the Right, a return of the Commune. All feared another war. Above all, the electorate wanted a safe option. That proved to be the Republic, the lowest common denominator, the status quo. This ‘conservative republic’ for the first time conquered the support of the majority. Many historians, especially in France, present the ‘triumph’ of the Republic as the natural, logical and even inevitable conclusion of the Revolution and the embodiment of the ‘values of 1789’: ‘the French Revolution was coming into port’, concludes Furet.1 This rather whiggish approach seems to have been reinvigorated by the abandonment of Marxist teleology over the last generation, and by a desire, admirable in its way, to reaffirm liberal ‘republican’ values. We should take such political piety with a pinch of salt. The ‘values of 1789’ were widely accepted, and had been practised in some form since the fall of the Jacobin dictatorship (which had practised a more totalitarian form of democracy). Legal and religious equality had been consecrated in the 1814 Charter. National sovereignty had been successfully asserted in 1830. Parliamentary government had laid down its rules between 1815 and 1848. Universal male suffrage dated from 1848. In that sense, the Revolution had been coming into port ever since its journey began. The ‘values of 1789’ prevailed piecemeal as a result of practical political need, like the ‘necessary liberties’ won in the struggles of the 1860s. The Third Republic certainly claimed to be the legitimate heir of the revolutionary tradition (though as was seen in Part I dispute continued about precisely what this

involved). And it did single-mindedly pursue certain aspects of the revolutionary heritage - freedom of expression, secularism, education, cultural homogenization. However, republicanism was deliberately diluted with a large dose of consensus liberalism influenced by British and American models, the Values of 1688’ and the Values of 1775’, so to speak. Finally, the Third Republic succeeded politically by stepping into the empty shoes of popular Bonapartism, offering order, democracy and patriotism deliberately shorn of the utopianism of 1848 and 1871. Its survival was less a victory of ideology than a product of circumstance, a victory by default.