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Prefatory Note - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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“Tell me what you think about the French Revolution,” a distinguished professor of history of two generations ago said in introducing his lecture on the historiography of the French Revolution, “and I will tell you what you think about everything else.” He was probably paraphrasing Hippolyte Taine, but, writing forty-five years ago when Marxist historiography had taken possession of French Revolutionary studies, he spoke more wisely than his listeners may have realized.
For two hundred years the French Revolution, as a historiographical problem, has stood at the center of the study of European history. From the fall of the Bastille in 1789 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the historical problem of “the Revolution” has been the pivot of European history and, more particularly, European politics. The revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—1848, 1870, and 1917—were made in its image, or what men mistakenly thought to be its image.
Lord Acton wrote and delivered his lectures on the French Revolution just after 1889 when the centennial of the event was being celebrated in France as ancestral to the triumph of French Republicanism. The momentary triumph of the Paris Commune in 1870 made in the image of the French Revolution was for the Republicans only one more embarrassing moment in a past filled with ambiguity. It was papered over by a deluge of published archival materials and a World’s Fair in Paris illuminated for the first time by electric lights.
Acton, who loved nothing better than the dust of crumbling paper and brittle archival materials, undertook, in his magisterial fashion, to acquaint his students with the whole body of French Revolutionary historiography. His lectures were, in many respects, a summarization of the patient and impatient scholarship and the historio-political propaganda of the century and were delivered on the eve of the Marxist conquest of French Revolutionary studies.
Today the lectures are important, not simply because they are a historiography of a past era, but because they are the testament of a historian who believed it was possible, in the face of conflicting interests and diverse accounts, to arrive at a measure of historical certitude and make a judgment of the moral and political validity of actions in the past. Acton had lived with, and participated in, the great religious and political conflicts of the nineteenth century; yet, in spite of this, he believed it was possible for him to maintain his historical objectivity and to make the best possible case for the “other side.” This was important not only for the sake of historical objectivity but because the “other side” might have something of importance to say. That is what Acton means when he writes at the end of the Appendix to the Lectures on the French Revolution:
Don’t let us utter too much evil of party writers, for we owe them much. If not honest, they are helpful, as the advocates aid the judge; and they would not have done so well from mere inspiration of disinterested veracity. We might wait long if we watched for the man who knows the whole truth and has the courage to speak it, who is careful of other interests besides his own, and labors to satisfy opponents, who can be liberal towards those who have erred, who have sinned, who have failed, and deal evenly with friend and foe—assuming it would be possible for an honest historian to have a friend.
The stance of which Acton wrote is possible, of course, only to one who knows he is right, who can see through the shallow tam-tam of deconstructionist analysis, and who through ordered inquiry and sympathetic identification can, in a measure, relive and understand the past.
It was unlikely that Acton could have, at the end of his life, written a dispassionate account of the French Revolution. He was the scion of the imperial nobility of the Holy Roman Empire. His stepfather was George Leveson Gower, Earl Granville, a High Whig grandee for whom the Whig Revolution had receded into the faint and distant past. When the young Acton arrived at the household of Ignaz von Döllinger in Munich in June of 1850, he found himself in the company of young French noblemen and members of the high bourgeoisie for whom revolution was the content of nightmares. Acton had arrived stuffed with Macaulay who was thought by Professor Döllinger to be a bad influence.
The young Acton, combining in his thought Burkean conservative Whiggery with German Romantic organicism, asked himself rhetorically, “What was the Revolution?” His answer was what might have been expected: “The defeat of History, History dethroned.” He quoted Burke approvingly in his notes: “Burke right in rejecting the Revolution—an enemy of liberty.” One can read the Lectures on the French Revolution as an indictment of the Revolution, but that reading is deficient in the subtlety which reveals a more positive evaluation of the Revolution.
In 1895, an older and perhaps wiser Acton had arrived at a positive evaluation of the Revolution in his Inaugural Lecture as Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University. Taking the American and French revolutions together, Acton observes:
But the unexpected truth, stranger than fiction, is that this was not the ruin but the renovation of history. Directly and indirectly, by process of reaction, impulse was given which made it infinitely more effectual a factor of civilization than ever before, and a movement began in the world of minds which was deeper and more serious than the revival of ancient learning.
Ernest Renan said to his students on one occasion, “Do not think that it is I who am speaking to you. No, it is the voice of History.” Acton assumed the same magisterial voice. That he did so was acknowledged by his contemporaries and for a generation after his death. G. P. Gooch, writing in History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913) a decade after Acton’s death, stated that “No brief summary can convey an adequate idea of the strength, the eloquence and the wealth of reflection in this fascinating book.”
Acton’s great predecessor, de Tocqueville, in The Old Regime and the Revolution (1855), laid the groundwork and provided much of the philosophical framework for Acton’s own account of the French Revolution. Acton expanded upon Tocqueville’s account in a brilliant lecture on the influence of the American Revolution on France. Acton’s history of the revolution thus became an account that dealt primarily with ideas as they are instantiated in political action.
The drift of French Revolutionary history in the nineteenth century, however, was toward a social and class-conflict account of the origins and dynamics of the Revolution. The outstanding figures in this development were Michelet, Louis Blanc, and, ushering in the twentieth century, Aulard. Michelet is perhaps the most important, for he set the tone of Revolutionary romanticism. Increasingly, the Jacobins, an apology for the Terror, and a bias toward socialism, stood at the center of Revolutionary studies.
To be sure, there were voices of opposition, notable among them Hippolyte Taine, who became the antirevolutionary, par excellence. Acton observed, “Taine is not a historian, but a pathologist, and his work, the most scientific we possess, and in part the most exhaustive, is not history.”
October 1917 transformed the historiography of the French Revolution. Jean Jaures had already begun the Marxist reinterpretation of the French Revolution. The Bolshevik Revolution produced not only a complete reinterpretation of the French Revolution but a complete reorientation. The events of 1917 in Russia were read backward into the French Revolution, and the events in France in the late eighteenth century came to be viewed in terms of the events in Russia in the early twentieth century. Causal analysis and the study of political dynamics were cast to the wind, and a vulgar Marxism of ideological slogans took the place of careful historical study.
De Tocqueville and Acton had explained the French Revolution as a continuity with the ideas and politics of the past: the philosophical Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the French Revolutionary consolidation of political centralization that characterized the pre-Revolutionary French monarchy. By contrast, Marxist historians read the Bolshevik Revolution back into French history. Causal analysis gave way to dogmatic ideological statement. Bolshevism and Jacobinism were equated, and the French Revolutionary Terror was, looking backward, a replication of Leninist and Stalinist terror. Albert Mathiez, George Lefebvre, and Albert Souboul were the chief architects of what François Furet calls “the revolutionary catechism.”
This “history,” as a weapon of class-warfare, served its purpose well, but nothing, not even a wrong historical idea in the service of an evil cause, lasts forever. In 1978, François Furet published his decisive Pensir la Revolution Française (the English translation being Interpreting the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1981). Furet, who had been a member of the French Communist Party, rejected the “revolutionary catechism” root and branch and demonstrated in detail its intellectual impoverishment. Not content to simply display the catechism’s lack of historical analysis, Furet insisted that the Revolution could be explained through a history of its ideas and a description of the political dynamic that carried it forward. Thus the historical paradigm ceased to be socio-economic and class-engendered and became once more intellectual, political, and forcefully narrative. Furet recommended a return to the Revolutionary historiography of de Tocqueville and Augustin Cochin.
It is odd that Acton’s Lectures on the French Revolution did not play a role in Furet’s thought. With few exceptions, Furet’s references are narrowly French. Acton’s Lectures on the French Revolution, however, had already provided the type of historical analysis for which Furet called. True, Acton provides no discussion of the role of the bourgeoisie, but in every other respect Acton’s lectures provide a model. Finally, Acton, as did Furet, placed liberty and humanity at the center of his studies.
Today Acton’s lectures have a freshness and vitality that are always the hallmarks of a classic. The lectures constitute a book that ought to be pressed into the hands of advanced undergraduates and graduate students in history. For those who are interested in Acton and the quest for liberty, there can be no better introduction.
The following Lectures were delivered by Lord Acton as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in the academical years 1895–96, 1896–97, 1897–98, 1898–99. The French Revolution, 1789–95, was in those years one of the special subjects set for the Historical Tripos, and this determined the scope of the course. In addition some discussion of the literature of the Revolution generally took place either in a conversation class or as an additional lecture. Such connected fragments of these as remain have been printed as an appendix. For the titles of the Lectures the editors are responsible.
August 10, 1910