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Sunday, September 22, 2013


I grow weary of angry commentary on the politics of the day, none of which seems to have much effect on the course of events, so today I propose to amuse myself, and perhaps some of you as well, by continuing my discussion of the contrast between historians with too much and with too little data.  Let me begin by acknowledging the lovely comment of J.R. concerning the very different circumstances of historians of early Greek thought and historians of the great figures of  eighteenth and nineteenth century Philosophy.

Today, I want to resurrect and tell you about a delightful controversy that flared up briefly in the middle of the twentieth century between Georges Lefebvre, whom you have already met on this blog, and Alfred Cobban.  Lefebvre was a leading proponent of the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution as a struggle that began as a right-wing aristocratic rebellion against the French monarchy and then changed into a seizure of political power by a growing bourgeoisie that had already displaced the landed aristocracy as the central economic force in Old Regime France.  In a phrase, the Marxist view was that the French Revolution was a major episode in the world-wide rise of the bourgeoisie, marking the inauguration of a new stage in the historical development of the forces and relations of production, a new stage of history.

Alfred Cobban, a distinguished English historian of the French Revolution, was a leader of a revisionist school of historians who rejected the Marxist interpretation of the revolution that was dominant at that time, in favor of a more complex reading of the facts that made the political revolution out to be less significant in France's historical development than previously thought.

Cobban wrote a pamphlet entitled Historians and the Causes of the French Revolution that was published in 1946 and reprinted in 1948, in which he undertook a synoptic review of the development of historiography of the Revolution, culminating in a brief two and a half page discussion of Lefebvre that was a direct challenge to the received interpretation.  Cobban claimed that the standard view of the Revolution was "supported by no more than isolated facts," and went on to state that "as qualification after qualification is introduced, the outlines of the accepted picture of a revolution of bourgeois merchants, financiers and industrialists become more and more obscure."  Lefebvre responded with a strongly critical review of Cobban's pamphlet. 

Then, in 1954, Cobban was installed as Professor of French History at the University of London, and he chose to title his inaugural lecture "The Myth of the French Revolution."  What made the event so delicious was that the French Ambassador to the Court of St. James was in attendance.  It was a deliberate slap in the Ambassador's face to make him listen to an argument that the defining moment of his native land was a myth!  To Frenchmen of the mid-twentieth century, a mere decade after the liberation of Paris by the Allied Forces and the reestablishment of Free France, The Revolution was the defining iconic moment in the two thousand year history of La Belle France.

Cobban's argument, which he had already set forth in scholarly publications, was based on his detailed study of the biographies of all of the men who served in the National Assembly, the first of the two great gatherings of elected representatives whose actions constituted the core of the Revolution.  Cobban showed that these men were, overwhelmingly, lawyers and government officials before the Revolution, lawyers and government officials during the Revolution, and lawyers and government officials after the Revolution had been displaced by the Napoleonic Empire.  The appearance of a radical social upheaval was, Cobban said, an illusion.  The same class of men ran France before, during, and after the Revolution.  Indeed, Cobban argued, the Revolution actually set back the advance of bourgeois capitalism in France, and that economic transformation did not occur until much later in the middle of the nineteenth century.

What fascinates me about this argument is precisely that everyone involved was a hard-working, immensely knowledgeable scholar, ready to learn from and acknowledge the archival discoveries of the other side.  Neither Cobban nor Lefebvre accused his opponent of ignoring facts or cooking data or playing fast and loose with documentary evidence.  But the sheer quantity of materials was so great that neither of them could possibly resurrect and absorb all of it.  Consequently, each man necessarily, unavoidably, was compelled to bring some theoretical or ideological matrix to the materials in an effort to subdue them to a comprehensible order.  Because they brought differing ideological understandings to the data, they emerged from their archival labors with differing grand interpretations.

Does this antique dispute between two schools of professional historians matter?  I think it matters a good deal.  France has had a strong, influential socialist political tradition for almost two centuries.  In its current incarnation, it controls the presidency  and the legislatures at the national and local levels.  The theoretical interpretation of France's past plays an important role in shaping its present politics, whatever one may think of the inadequacies of the Hollande presidency.  Only a few days ago, I sketched a contrarian reading of American history designed to make sense of contemporary political disputes.  I think it makes a difference for American politics whether one embraces or rejects that reading, and I think it also makes a difference for the French what understanding of the French Revolution they adopt as the basis for their understanding of their current situation.

But leaving all of that to one side, the Cobban/Lefebvre debate is a lovely example of what can happen when historians have too much data.


David Friedman said...

Interesting story.

But once Cobban has offered his conclusion supported by his selection of evidence, doesn't Lefebvre have to look at that evidence and see if it is consistent with his theory?

To put the point differently, it seems to me that in the situation you describe it's perfectly reasonable for different historians to come up with different conjectures, but that once they have shared the evidence on which those conjectures are based they ought, in principle and in time, to be able to come to agreement.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

There is more to the story than I told. Lefebfre reviewed Cobban's pamphlet, and gave his response. It would take forever to reconstruct the entire debate. But speaking generally, you are of course right, and the good historians do just that.

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

I once had the displeasure of reading a pamphlet about Taine’s work as a historian of the French R., written by this Cobban; it was a dyspeptic and distasteful paper, patronizing and sour. It was a thing written towards the end of Cobban’s life, and published posthumously. A very unfair take.
But Cobban’s revision of the standard understanding of the revolutionary events is very well—thought and worthy of reflection.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Curious. I would not have expected that from Cobban. Lefebvre's great work on the revolution, by the way, is marvelous. The revolution seems to have inspired some really wonderful hisoriography, by people like George Rude and Donald Greer.

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

I intend to read Caryle’s volumes. And I am interested in Babeuf’s ideas. Otherwise, my French Revolution is the one from the novels—Dumas and Dickens, that Colman adaptation.

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

Anyway, Taine was a very great historian, a very impressive mind and a huge scholar, and Cobban was insufferably dismissive.