François Mitterrand’s socialist administration has become so scandal-ridden and financially precarious that the year-long celebration of the revolution’s bicentennial is now nothing but a hypocritical farce. Yet Mitterrand’s reference to 1789 is an ideological obligation, since the “leftist myth” is the number one legitimizing factor that makes the regime credible in the eyes of a fluctuating electorate. What happens on the level of pure politics—a long dithyramb to the “great ancestors”—is only one side of the coin. The pious organizers, for all the money they had to spend on the celebration, are quite clearly out of touch with the many scholars and historians who right now are giving the lie to the official version. This intellectual rebellion of the mind can be explained by two things: one is the unquestioned decline of Marxism among the intellectual class (this dates back exactly to Solzhenitsyn’s visit and debates in Paris in 1975); the other is the rise of a new generation of historians and other researchers who are no longer impressed by what historian Francois Furet calls “the Leninist/ Jacobin interpretation” of the French Revolution.

Furet, himself an ex-Marxist, has been in the forefront of the elaboration of the new version, and his just-published Dictionary of the French Revolution (with twenty-some contributors) has become overnight a bestseller, although the volume is rigorously scholarly, heavy—and expensive. Furet is the first to acknowledge a debt to his predecessors, distant and near, as he did in a book that turned the tide some ten years ago, Let Us Rethink the Revolution. Around the First World War, Augustin Cochin, returning to contemporary documents that leftist Sorbonne historians Mathiez, Aulard, and Soboul had placed under a quasi-interdict, unmasked the real initiators of the revolution, the Jacobin/radical sociétés de pensée (ancestors of today’s Trotskyist and ultraleft circles); they consisted of Parisian and provincial debating clubs where lawyers, Freemasons, admirers of Rousseau, and a variety of illuminati (even some clergy) used to meet, spread the message, and lend mutual encouragement. Furet does not hesitate now to add to Cochin’s work important documents of counterrevolutionary literature from Joseph de Maistre to Charles Maurras, and above all the writings of Tocqueville, whose critical moderation has influenced Furet’s own students and collaborators.

Public opinion has in a certain way supported this transvaluation of the events surrounding 1789. French television recently organized two events, one devoted to a “retrial” of Louis XVI, the other to a “retrial” of the queen, Marie Antoinette. In a poll taken after the shows aired, 70 to 80 percent of the spectators acquitted the royal couple. By the way, the spectators’ ancestors would have presumably done the same, which is why Robespierre, St.-Just, and prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville had decided to do their bloody work quickly, without consulting the nation.

It is now rather simple to analyze the origin and course of the revolution. Hippolyte Taine in the last century did it with a masterful subtlety; today Furet presents the modern diagnosis in a lapidary sentence: the Bolshevik Revolution has intervened to camouflage and distort the French events. It became the interest of many people to “save” 1917, its prestige, worldwide validity, and influence, and to secure for it a respectable historical ancestry. While Robespierre has no statue anywhere in France (a Communist municipality is now planning to erect one), because his figure still strikes horror in the hearts of many people, Lenin has streets named after him. After all, wasn’t he a famous statesman and wasn’t his regime a wartime ally?

This business of a respectable ancestry plays a role not only for Marxist intellectuals, but also for two political parties, the Socialist and the Communist, which hanker after a unity of doctrine and unity of action. The significance of the present historical “revisionism” is that it does not come from the right—although the revisionists are accused of just that, for example by historian and Communist party member Michel Vovelle. It comes from too many unimpeachable academic sources to be called politically motivated. Important historians like E. Le Roy Ladurie and Pierre Chaunu do not subscribe to the simple view that pre-1789 misery and injustice had prepared the way for the downfall of the old structure. Among the hundreds of books on 1789 and its sequels and actors published in the last two or three years, the best ones scrutinize the following causes and phenomena: the writings of Rousseau, the Abbé Sieyès, and also of Immanuel Kant—yes, the Herr Professor from Koenigsberg!—who justified the massacres of the Terror and the birth of human rights in brutal violence; the legitimation of democracy, a delicate topic since in it are linked the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the “theology of history” (Kant); and the bases of Robespierre’s but also Napoleon’s dictatorships, which, according to young historians undeterred by reigning taboos, were far more totalist than the rule of Louis at any time.

It is understandable that such topics go deeper than the usual textbook praise heaped upon the “virtuous” heroes like the corrupt demagogue Danton, the hateful accuser Marat, and the killer Hebert. No wonder that in a new book critical of the bicentennial celebrations Pierre Chaunu calls this “an apology for crime.” It is not a matter of dismissing the entire revolution, but of finding a suitable and balanced place for it in the unraveling of history. François Furet admits that the ideas of freedom and participation were in 1789 new and persuasive, but he insists that the sequels must be condemned as dangerous precisely for freedom and participation. Already Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero speaks of “two revolutions,” one that was to reform the kingdom along constitutional lines, the other that unleashed violence in the very halls of the National Assembly.

I cannot say that the more than 300 books published so far about 1789 contain sensational revelations. The novelty is not in the new light shed on the well-known events; it is the gradual reevaluation of known documents after the rereading that, it seems, every generation or so must undertake. In this respect two works stand out: lawyer Jean-Denis Bredin’s Sieyès, and André Tosel’s Kant révolutionnaire.

The revolutionary Abbé’s reputation needs no special introduction; this priest without a vocation wrote the pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?” and then, after a period of hiding during Robespierre’s Terror, went on to be one of the triumvirs of Napoleon’s consulate. His pamphlet may be seen in a different light today, when the state is treated as nothing but a legal structure based on a bare “social contract.” What for Sieyès’s contemporaries was a brilliant new formulation, has become for us s cause of fragility in democracies that are no longer supported by divine reference, tradition, and the common good. In place of these ancient props, the Abbé set up a fictitious social contract, then delegated to the contractors’ representatives unlimited powers of decisionmaking. “They possess the leisure, the intelligence, and the education to debate matters, they know better things than the busy working men whom they represent.” So much for popular government.

André Tosel’s selections from Kant’s revolutionary texts—some of them half-hidden during the philosopher’s life, others posthumous—present an even more terrifying picture, since Kant is the philosopher who has had the greatest influence on the past two centuries. Kant believed that the goal of mankind is to overcome nature, establish the strict rule of law, and thus put an end to both history and philosophy (the Hegelian/Marxist view, avant la lettre). The Reign of Terror (1792-94) was therefore justified; uprisings against it, for example by Catholic Vendée, were not. The republic, wrote Kant, is the highest form mankind can achieve (Marx said the classless society, Churchill said democracy), and it must be guided by “morally upright public philosophers,” obviously like himself, who counter through public opinion the influence of “conservatives” and other agents of despotism.

Jacques Julliard, in an interview published by the review Catholica, argues against Sieyès and the revolutionary thesis, that the representatives must indeed “keep their fingers on the pulse of civil society,” but that going beyond this would be a “deviation.” Political parties that easily degenerate into quasi-secret groups are in this sense negators of the social contract itself. Let us have either a total democracy without representation (Rousseau’s ideal), or recognized structures that articulate power (a reactionary position?)

Thus Sieyès’s propositions—and he is recognized in France today as the central figure of 1789—are now seen as leading to unfreedom rather than the foundation stone of a constitution. In fact, in La République du Centre, where authors F. Furet, J. Julliard, and Pierre Rosanvallon write the revolution’s epitaph, an arbitrating position emerges as if a long crisis is to be solved: “Let’s not play on words: the bicentennial seems to us the shroud of the revolutionary tradition.” It does not appear so to everybody. Regis Debray, once Che Guevara’s comrade (and, like the guerrilla leader, arrested in Bolivia), now an advisor to Mitterrand, writes with nostalgia that the new thinking on the revolution destroys the historical interpretation on which the French republic’s foundation myth rests. For Debray, as for Vovelle, the republic is not a political regime like any other, it is “a struggle and an ideal.”

Let us bear in mind that in the ever-overheated ideological climate of France a demythicized revolution may lead to a fatal loss of prestige for the republic—whose official symbol is a woman wearing the revolutionary Phrygian red bonnet; and the weakening of the republican myth may lead in turn to new thoughts on a royalist restoration. Whether such a thing would be an improvement or not, it is hard to say. In Spain, a nondescript king at least prevents chaos. The world witnessed the burial of Hirohito, the emperor surrounded with veneration and sacred symbols. The Brazilian congress just decided that four years hence a popular referendum would choose a new regime: republican, presidential, or imperial. The Prince and Princess of Wales are immensely popular in France. And the old Count of Paris, pretender to the throne of Louis XVI, has chosen his grandson. Prince Jean, as his successor. Real history is unpredictable; it plays havoc with the severe mold in which revolutions want to enshrine it.

Significant in all this is the change of public climate from the old, generally (except for royalists) positive judgment on the revolution, to the new evaluation, which goes from indifference to rejection. Intellectuals, professors, and writers live in France in a greater closeness with large segments of the population than in any other country except perhaps Russia. Thus there is some cause-and-effect relationship between the men and the books here mentioned and the overall climate. It is impossible precisely to scrutinize the chemistry of such changes in mentality, sentiment, and semipublic discourse. Three reasons may, however, be tentatively suggested.

The first ‘is the memory of the minirevolution to which the French refer as “May 1968,” and which was perhaps the last gasp of irresponsible intellectuals, symbolized by Sartre and his colleagues. There are enough repulsive reminiscences of those events to have depoliticized large segments of the population for a long time. The lesson is clear: if revolutions are not stopped in time—as Louis XVI could have done and de Gaulle half-did in 1968—they will go on chopping off heads.

The second reason is the genuine repugnance people feel before the game of democratic parties and pressure groups, now presented—this is still new for the French—on television. Corruption, pious promises, and incompetence have spared no member of the political class. People have begun refusing to vote, the “myth” is in shreds, the “system” is despised. The vote for Le Pen could easily climb to 20 percent, not because people favor him, but as a manifestation of protest.

The last reason is simply the erosion of ideals that overcomes modern liberal-welfare industrial democracies. When only material fulfillment and obsession with rights are spoken about by institutions and the media, the citizen not only turns selfish, he wallows in the self-centered “lifestyle” and is no longer embarrassed to display his preference. France, too, has arrived at this stage. On a popular level it may not be a “rethinking of the revolution,” only a rejection of the transparent lies uttered and pictured 24 hours a day.

Seventeen eighty-nine seems, in comparison, like a year of enthusiasm and civic fervor. Nineteen eighty-nine is, despite the fanfare and the confetti, a bored gesticulation.