Augustin Cochin, born in 1876, died prematurely—as did so many other French intellectuals of his generation—killed at the front in 1916.  He did have enough time, however, to carry out between 1909 and 1914 a series of in-depth studies, the fruit of his archival research on the sequence of preparatory elections for the Estates-General in 1789, on the influence of the groups that were active in them, and, finally, on the organization of the Terror and the revolutionary government.  The year before, Cochin had taken part in a debate that pitted the socialist historian Alphonse Aulard, at that time the principal defender of the triumphalist school of thought on the Revolution, and Hippolyte Taine, who had highlighted the revolution’s misdeeds in his monumental History of the Origins of Contemporary France.  

Certainly, Cochin was no socialist.  Through his family, he was connected to the current of liberal Catholicism that accepted the new order that had resulted from the Revolution and limited its criticisms to the Revolution’s excesses.  He did not, therefore, belong to the counterrevolutionary school, which was opposed to the very principle of the Revolution and cultivated nostalgia for the ancien régime.

Cochin’s rigorous, systematic approach to historiography inevitably led to his ostracism.  For a long time, his name could not be invoked in support of an historical interpretation.  Even today, his reputation as a Catholic counterrevolutionary continues to affect him, and those who have been forced to drag him from oblivion were initially attracted to Cochin by the violent criticisms made by the partisans of Republican history.  Such was the case with François Furet, who virtually rehabilitated Cochin in his work Interpreting the Revolution, though Cochin has also won support from Regis Debray and the German Fred E. Schrader.  Their work, however, has not prevented the partisans of the Revolution from repeating errors about Cochin.  In a special number of Historia philosophes in their philosophical societies and Masonic lodges,” and, more specifically, he is described as “privileging an elitist interpretation, that of an little group of managers acting in a clandestine manner.”

Beginning with the centennial of the Revolution, a kind of history written in “defense of the republic” emerged.  This style of history, later reinforced by Marxists, claims to see in the Revolution an inevitable collective phenomenon, whose subject is first and foremost the people.  (Michelet, who was above all a romantic writer, is full of such accounts.)  In this view, the revolutionary process became violent and, in some cases, uncontrollable because of the opposition it encountered and because of the obligation under which the revolutionaries labored—to defend the people against the coalition, exterior and interior, of its enemies.  (The same argument would later be used to justify “war communism” and the Leninist terror.)  This historiography does not deny the role of the 18th-century philosophes in the prerevolutionary phase, but it only goes so far as to declare that their role was to act as an echo of the people’s aspirations and that their desire was simply to reform the monarchy, not to destroy it.  In this view, any assessment of the cause of the Revolution will only take into consideration the movement that emerged from the people.

The opposite position was taken by counterrevolutionary authors who were horrified by the revolutionaries’ crimes and sacrilegious hatred.  When they tried to understand how such an outburst of destructive violence could happen, they naturally thought that the Revolution, satanic in its inspiration, was also satanic in the way it was carried out—the result of a vast conspiracy that swung into action concurrent with the so-called Enlightenment.

This interpretation rests upon a very detailed investigation conducted by the Jesuit Augustin Barruel, author of Memoirs to Serve as the History of Jacobinism.  Barruel’s conclusion was that the entire revolutionary process had been organized by Freemasons—in particular, the branch called the Bavarian Illuminati.  Barruel’s strength is in his historical documentation of the secret societies, which had previously been regarded as harmless.  This documentation had been assembled during the very years of the Revolution.  His weakness is his habit of hastily drawing certain conclusions from mere indications.  He did not show, for example, how the secret power he denounced succeeded in maintaining unity amid the chaos.  Nonetheless, throughout the 19th century, his conclusions constituted the basis of the Catholic interpretation of revolutionary events, and this includes pontifical documents, which often referred to the conspiracy against society and religion conducted by impious Freemasons.  The same documents paid scant attention to the institutional aspects of their hold on society.

It is against this backdrop that Cochin’s originality should be understood.  Unlike Barruel, Cochin starts with the events themselves, seeking to determine the logic by which they unfolded.  (This procedure derives more from the sociological method than from traditional historical research.)  We can follow his method by looking at a little essay entitled, “How the Deputies Were Elected to the Estates-General.”

Cochin begins by comparing the French and the English conceptions of civil liberties.  “The French conception,” he says in speaking of the ancien régime, “is positive, realistic, organic.”  The people is considered as it actually exists in the world, and it is the people that the king convokes in order to formulate his claims and proposals.  Traditionally, the people, “in its estates”—its constituent bodies—is made up of the clergy, the nobility, and all the others, who form the Third Estate.  The delegates elected by the parishes must conform to the representational mandate that is entrusted to them, notably that of presenting to the king the “Lists of Grievances” (Cahiers de doléance), which are derived from the actual complaints of those who give their mandate to the delegates.  

In the English conception, Cochin observes,

It is to the individual that the power is addressed, that is to say, it is the explicit and present conscience of each, an abstraction made out of the social milieu, out of the actual situation, duties, and deeds. . . . Thence comes the importance of the election, of the vote, the only circumstance and only act which allows this new being, the abstract and unreal citizen, to affirm his existence.  Thence comes the need for a special landscape, politics, which allows him to show himself, and the need for a special body (the Parliament), to be the depository of his thoughts and his powers, and of a dogma—liberty—which consecrates his superiority over the real being, the concrete human person, engaged in all the trammels of real life.

Necker, who organized the meeting of the Estates-General, wanted to reconcile the two conceptions.  His regulation of January 1789 broadened the traditional right to vote to include electors whose social position would not have previously let them qualify.  The naming of deputies was according to bailiwicks, ancient jurisdictions fallen into disuse and therefore artificial, uniting people who did not know one another or habitually work together.  And, although the old ban on forming electoral factions and campaigning was maintained, no one was entrusted with the duty of drawing up the Lists of Grievances.  This process takes place at different levels (parishes, towns, on up to the provincial level, and, ultimately, at the great Assembly at Versailles).  

Cochin brings out the destabilizing effect of these procedures, which are propitious to every conceivable kind of manipulation.  “The effect is marvelous,” he says.  “Imagine hundreds of peasants, unknown to each other, some of them coming from twenty or thirty places, parked in the nave of a church and asked to draw up within one week a report on the reform of the kingdom.”  He concludes, “In sum, thanks to the strange amalgam of the two systems—the English, which breaks up the social framework, and the French, which excludes all personal influence—the regulation of January 1789 put the electors not into liberty but into the void.” 

Such a situation ought to have produced a great cacophony: It is difficult to imagine how a people so deracinated, reduced to a collection of individuals, isolated and deprived of a common political awareness, could succeed in naming genuinely representative delegates and, above all, in drawing up coherent claims and propositions.  “But in fact,” asks Cochin,

what happens?  The work is done everywhere as if it were the easiest thing in the world.  The statements are drawn up—and the identical claims are made everywhere, sometimes with exactly the same spelling mistakes.  The deputies are named as if by enchantment: It is as if, side by side with the real people, which could not make their voices heard, there was another which spoke through it.

Cochin calls this group of ventriloquists “the Small People” or “the ideal city”—by which he means the artificial city, the utopian fabrication of a countersociety dreamed up by all the adepts of free thought so prevalent in the 18th century, what he calls “sociétés de pensée.”  (This is usually translated as “philosophical societies,” though their work was more in the nature of ideological propaganda than actual philosophy.)

When Cochin speaks of free thought, he means not only atheism but all the constructivist thought that operates in total contempt of existing reality, deriving its principles directly from modern philosophical idealism and from the claim of individual autonomy that it establishes.  The freethinker is the man who claims to construct reality in his own image without any regard for the order of Creation.  And where is this new type of man to be found on the eve of the Revolution?  In the Masonic lodges, in the literary salons, in the patriotic societies that would give birth, some months later, to the political clubs (those groups that would hold meetings in the convents of the Feuillants, the Jacobins, and the Cordeliers).

How could relations between these two “peoples” be conducted?  The response today would be obvious, now that the manipulation of groups and crowds is a familiar phenomenon.  A century ago, the evidence did not exist.  Cochin contended that every official meeting of the Great People is prepared for by a meeting of the Small People, who determines what is to be willed by the other.  The effectiveness of the maneuver is guaranteed by the moral defects of the people who undergo it coupled with their lack of awareness.  “Stupidity, laziness, timidity, the herd instinct—in a word, inertia. . . . Pure democracy needs inertia, just as authority needs loyalty.”

Certain circumstances favor this manipulation.  Necker’s regulation is judged very harshly by Cochin.  Reviving certain old traditions, he prohibits preparatory gatherings or campaigns aimed at picking candidates; he also gives free reign to secret manipulations, which have been much facilitated by the “philosophical societies.”  This same regulation forced the assemblies to vote publicly; intimidation, therefore, was easy.  (Throughout the Revolution, elected representatives were subjected to harassment and even mob violence.)

All that remains is to implement a system for sorting out the delegates, not through philosophical discussion but by exclusion and expulsion.  Cochin, in this regard, studies the case of the town of Rennes.  Of the 800 delegates of the parishes, he identifies only five percent at most who are sympathetic to the philosophes, all people from the town.  How could this urban minority impose itself on the rural masses?  Cochin notes the weakness of these masses, which consist of people who have been deprived of common ties, without either leaders or councils, disoriented, noisy, sometimes drunk.  The maneuver is executed in two stages.  Gate-crashers are brought in, tough men hired by those who pull the strings, and they come to occupy all the ranks of this already disparate assembly.  One of the agents of the Small People then proposes to exclude certain members who are judged undesirable.  After a great uproar, in which the lower elements participate, the coup succeeds, allowing the group in charge, in the following days, to impose the agenda and, above all, to select the “good” deputies for the Estates-General.  The operation is a complete success, especially since the majority of parish delegates ask only to be allowed to return home.  

Cochin cites a speech made by a member of a Masonic lodge in Rennes (July 23, 1789):

[T]he triumph of liberty and patriotism is the most complete triumph of the true mason.  How fine is the day, my very dear brothers, when a citizen king comes to announce that he wishes to command a free people and to turn his superb empire into a vast lodge in which all good Frenchmen are going to be truly brothers.

Cochin’s intuition is that the revolutionary process is a sort of bureaucratic social machine whose managers are merely cogs.  He concludes that the machinery of the revolutionary utopia tends to coincide with the society of which it is taking possession.  It begins by stripping away the personality of its own members, who will be used, in turn, to strip away the personality of the others in order to arrive at a general homogeneity.  Thus, the Small People acts as an avant-garde in the general massification of society, the goal of which is the replacement of society by one “vast lodge,” a “city of the clouds” reconstructed on the basis of such general ideas as “human rights” and not on the real conditions of the homo viator.

The Revolution is thus understood as a violent passage from a social order founded on Christian humanism to a new, homogeneous order established on the basis of mechanical conformism.  This is what Cochin calls “the revolutionary abstraction.”

Since this disaggregated mass is homogeneous, equally distributed among uniform compartments so that the political arithmetic of surveillance can be exercised on units of the same order, constraint and the management of mutual suspicions have a multiplying effect: “The force of things makes each citizen both the natural enemy and the watcher of his neighbor.”  Cochin observes that,

during the ten months of the Terror, France presented, district by district, commune by commune, man by man, the spectacle of this war between convicts on the same chain.  This is, in addition, both the condition and the effect of the socialized order: Universal hate has its equilibrium, just as love has its harmony.

Today, we would call this a management of low intensity, one that does not require the mobilization of a great number of armed troops, except in the face of strong resistance, as happened in the Vendée uprising.  It is “a system of government by self-interest, by surveillance, and the hatred of others.”  Cochin notes with a certain irony that this system is the realization of the third term of the revolutionary motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

The thought of Augustin Cochin is characterized by the intersection of documentary research and theory.  Although he was largely interested in the “philosophical societies” of the Enlightenment, he also pays close attention to the revolutionary process.  Thus, he furnishes abundant materials for understanding the broader development of his comprehensive theory.  Some might judge his sociological interpretation too systematic: In emphasizing social mechanisms, it is possible to underestimate the part played by the uncertainty that derives from human factors and from the imponderable ways of Providence.  Such a method can also minimize the conscious and deliberate role played by “Great Men,” as Hegel termed them.

This impression is confirmed by Cochin’s long critical study, “The Revolutionary Crisis: Taine and Aulard.”  Aulard had delivered a spiteful critique of Taine’s case against the revolutionaries, which he reduced to a caricature.  Taine was the first “revisionist historian,” though he had adopted the objective method of a strict examining magistrate in order to demonstrate the guilt of the revolutionaries.  Cochin, however, thinks Taine does not explain the reasons that impelled such people to become pitiless murderers.  “From the beginning,” he writes, “the Revolution seems a crisis of insanity,” and that is what he is trying to understand.  In a sense, he agrees with the socialist republican Aulard on that point: The role of men is secondary.  For him, the Revolution is “the natural effect of a general situation, not a conspiracy.”

That is why, far from subscribing to the thesis of Barruel, he expressly rejects it: “The argument for a plot has taken many forms, from the naive form, with Father Barruel, whose melodramatic conspiracy connects Voltaire with Babeuf, all the way to the learned form. . . . The Revolution . . . is a tyranny, it is true, but a tyranny without tyrants.”

Even if the paleographer and archivist Cochin allows himself to get carried away by his enthusiasm for the social sciences at the very moment when they are being developed, and even if he does neglect one relevant spirit of genuine conspiracy—the hatred of the Catholic Church that developed into sacrilege and the murder of priests—his political intuition is essential to understanding the revolutionary process.  Unfortunately, we had to wait more than 60 years for recognized historians to pay attention.