Utopia and calculation


The Demands of Liberty: Civil Society in France Since the Revolution

By Pierre Rosanvallon

Translated by Arthur Goldhammer

(Harvard University Press, 354 pp.,

$35)In the twentieth century, few if any countries did as much as France
to change the way history is written. The Annales school, named
after the brilliant journal of that title, and associated
especially with the charismatic Fernand Braudel, led readers around
the world to see the past in a new way. The school centered its
inquiries on long-term patterns of social and economic change and
the experiences of ordinary men and women, rather than on the
doings of kings and generals. It advocated a close partnership
between history and the social sciences, and developed wonderfully
original methods of analyzing long- range series of data. The best
Annalistes could conjure up the ghosts of the hungry and the
downtrodden from the dry bones of grain-price and land-holding
records. For once, a movement among historians deserved the
compliment "revolutionary."

And like all revolutionary movements, the Annales eventually lost
focus and energy. The journal itself remains outstanding, but it no
longer leads the discipline as it did in Braudel's day. A plethora
of approaches, methods, and theories have sprung up that claim
"Annales-style social history" as a point of origin, but often
retain only loose connections to it. In the United States, a "new
cultural history" inspired by literary theory and cultural
anthropology long ago proclaimed itself the discipline's new
cutting edge.

Pierre Rosanvallon, one of the most important writers of history in
France today, would certainly seem to owe little to the Annales.
For one thing, he is a follower of Franois Furet, the great
historian of the French Revolution who died a decade ago. Furet
openly repudiated Annalisme, practicing what might best be
described as philosophical history--an account of the past in which
ideas structure historical change. In one of Furet's exemplary
works, an imposing history of France from 1770 to 1880, the central
figures were neither ordinary men and women nor (for the most part)
kings and generals, but political thinkers such as Rousseau,
Constant, and Tocqueville. At one point Furet even wrote that "the
revolutionary lower classes continued to confuse the grain issue
with politics"--as if matters of hunger and survival did not
deserve such a lofty label. Rosanvallon does not share this
condescending attitude, but he too largely concerns himself with
the pronouncements of philosophers, pamphleteers, and the more
articulate sort of politicians.

And yet the Annales school did lie behind Furet's work, and so
behind Rosanvallon's as well. Furet began his career writing
Annales-style quantitative history, and even after he moved away
from it he continued to seek deep structures that shaped the
movement of societies across the centuries. Except that where
Braudel had seen these structures at work in geology and climate,
Furet found them in fundamental political concepts. He believed,
for example, that the most important factors shaping modern French
history were the pre-revolutionary monarchy's conception of
sovereignty as indivisible, and Rousseau's rigid notion of the
general will. Together they supposedly fostered an unhealthy
dependence on the state and an inability to tolerate dissent and
disagreement, which endured long after the revolutionary crisis of
the eighteenth century. Hence, for Furet, the inability of the
French to establish even a moderately stable democracy until nearly
a century after 1789, or ever to develop a strong and autonomous
civil society. A onetime communist turned passionate
anti-communist, Furet also believed that a bloody line ran from the
French revolutionary terror of 1793-1794 all the way to Stalin and
the gulag.

At its best, this sort of history writing is dazzling and
provocative, suggesting that the distant past holds the key to our
present political pathologies. Yet unlike the Annales school, this
successor movement now represented by Rosanvallon has had
relatively little influence outside the circles of those who study
France. There are two principal reasons for this. The first is that
Furet and Rosanvallon concerned themselves above all with the
problem of how democracy can devolve into totalitarianism, and this
problem has greater resonance in France than elsewhere. American
and British democracies, despite their multiple weaknesses, never
fell prey to totalitarianism. Nor did the pathologies of democratic
rule figure decisively, if at all, in the origins of Nazi Germany
and Soviet Russia. But in France, even after more than two
centuries, the jagged scar of the Terror remains raw and painful.
Why were the grand hopes of 1789 so quickly followed by civil war,
the guillotine, and a dictatorial regime that seemed to prefigure
the worst that modernity has to offer? And why did the shadow of
these events fall so heavily over so much of the country's
subsequent history?

The second reason is that Furet never really created a historical
"school," even in France. He did not found a journal or any
large-scale institution (unlike Braudel, who established France's
main research center in the social sciences). Furet's students have
mostly written conventional political and intellectual history,
while the intellectuals who gathered around him mostly worked in
the area of political and social theory. (Several of them have also
written important historical essays, and some of their best work has
appeared in translation, in the series "New French Thought" edited
by Mark Lilla and Thomas Pavel for Princeton University Press.) Of
all the members of what used to be called the "Furet Galaxy,"
Pierre Rosanvallon is virtually alone in having written a
significant and wide-ranging body of work that pursues Furet's
questions with something like Furet's methods, and on the scale that
Furet pioneered. Since Furet's death, it is Rosanvallon who has
come closest to fulfilling his historical project. But the project
remains, in some fundamental ways, a problematic one. Above all,
Rosanvallon, like Furet before him, tends to exaggerate the
historical importance of both tyranny and proto- totalitarianism in
France. Arguably, the country has suffered far more from the evils
of civil war, and the distinct form of oppression that Tocqueville
dubbed "soft despotism."

On the surface, Rosanvallon would seem an unlikely candidate for the
role of Furet's heir. Whereas Furet was brilliantly eclectic,
publishing on everything from the eighteenth-century book trade to
Soviet communism, Rosanvallon has been doggedly steady, producing
one tome after another on the travails of French democracy and
civil society. And Furet's formative political experience came in
his break with communism in the 1950s, while Rosanvallon's outlook
followed from the student rebellion of 1968 (he was twenty at the
time) and a subsequent stint in the so-called "second left"
associated with the maverick socialist Michel Rocard. Indeed, while
Furet flirted with Anglo-American classical liberalism in the
1970s, Rosanvallon was working as a house ideologue for the
moderate left trade federation, the CFDT, and exploring the
possibilities of autogestion, or workers' self-management (a popular
"third way" idea that, in its time, sent many a well-intentioned
Western leftist on a political pilgrimage to its then-champions in

Yet Rosanvallon, like the "nouveaux philosophes" Bernard Henri-Levy
and Andre Glucksmann, and unlike so many others on the French left,
recognized totalitarianism as the great modern political evil. This
led him to Furet's remarkable circle of anti-communist
intellectuals, which included the theorist of democracy and
totalitarianism Claude Lefort, the left-libertarian Cornelius
Castoriadis, and future stars of the "Furet Galaxy" such as Pierre
Manent and Marcel Gauchet. Rosanvallon was captivated, especially
by Furet and Lefort, and after Rocard lost out to Franois
Mitterrand for leadership of the French socialist movement, he
turned from militancy toward the life of a historian-

Rosanvallon has by now produced a genuinely impressive body of work,
including a book on the crisis of the modern welfare state, an
extraordinary study of French liberals in the early nineteenth
century, and above all a hefty three-volume study of modern French
politics that appeared in the 1990s. For a long time, this work
attracted little attention in the United States, but in 2004 the
historians Samuel Moyn and Andrew Jainchill published a lucid
overview, and last year Moyn brought out a collection of
Rosanvallon's essays under the title Democracy Past and Future. The
Demands of Liberty, which appeared in France three years ago, is
the first of Rosanvallon's books to be published in English.

Opening The Demands of Liberty, it is easy to see why. For a writer
who discusses the French penchant for abstraction at length,
Rosanvallon remains apparently oblivious to the way this same
inclination can sometimes deaden his prose. Reading him
successfully depends on mastering a long series of abstract
formulations that make little sense on first glance: "generality as
social form"; "generality as democratic quality"; "immediate
democracy"; "polarized democracy"; "the network state." Nor does he
explain them as clearly as he might. "Immediate democracy," he
writes in a typical turn of phrase, "rejects all reflexivity of the
social, by which I mean that it rejects the assumption that the
expression of the social requires a reflective agent to structure
or focus intervention." What he means, I think, is that in certain
forms of democracy (especially the one advocated by French
revolutionary radicals) it is considered illegitimate to have any
single agent or institution express the opinions of society as a
whole. Society should speak with a single, unanimous, unmediated
voice. Thankfully, Arthur Goldhammer has done his best (which is a
great deal) to put Rosanvallon's thinking into lucid and readable
English, and he deserves no blame for the head-scratching and
occasional tooth-gnashing that will accompany any serious perusal
of this book.

In an effort to broaden the book's appeal, Harvard University Press
inadvertently worsened the problem by changing the title. The
original French title translates properly not as The Demands of
Liberty, but as The French Political Model: Society Versus
Jacobinism from 1789 to the Present, which provides a much more
precise description of what Rosanvallon wanted to accomplish. The
book in fact has as its subject the modern struggle between
"Jacobin" attempts to subject French civil society to centralized
political control and opposing attempts to carve out an autonomous
space for independent social activities. By "Jacobin," Rosanvallon
refers not only to the members of the radical Jacobin "club" whose
members dominated the radical phase of the French Revolution, but
also to the broader revolutionary vision of "regenerating" France,
which dominated French Republican thinking long after the
Revolution itself.

Above all, Rosanvallon focuses on the question of "intermediary
bodies" that emerge from and represent civil society-- guilds,
trade unions, religious confraternities, professional
organizations, and the like. Soon after 1789, the new revolutionary
National Assembly outlawed all such associations so as to keep
minority groups from imposing their own particular interests on
public affairs. "There is no longer any corporation within the
state," wrote Isaac- Rene Guy Le Chapelier, the sponsor of the law.
"Henceforth, there is only the particular interest of each
individual and the general interest." In 1810, Napoleon's Penal
Code formally banned all unauthorized meetings of more than twenty
people. It took until late in the nineteenth century for France's
Third Republic finally to legalize trade unions, and not until 1901
did the French gain full freedom of association.

This is familiar territory for Rosanvallon, who wrote extensively on
the problems of civil society and intermediary bodies in his
trilogy in the 1990s. In these books, he followed Furet in
presenting Jacobin hostility to civil society as a key modern
pathology that opened the door to totalitarianism. Left unchecked,
he suggested, the Jacobin urge to regulate, to control, and to make
universal would crush not only intermediary bodies, but individuals
as well. Only a strong civil society could save ordinary people
from the looming power of the state. These insights drew heavily on
the work of Tocqueville, whose The Old Regime and the French
Revolution cast an all-devouring, ever-centralizing state as the
dark protagonist of French history, and despaired of the French
ever overcoming it. (Rosanvallon and Furet have also repeated
Tocqueville's mistake of equating "Jacobinism" with centralization,
when the actual Jacobins saw the concentration of power in Paris
mostly as an emergency measure, never tried to systematize it, and
hoped eventually to diffuse authority throughout French society.)

In one crucial sense, Rosanvallon did depart from Furet's
interpretation. For Furet, if the roots of the Jacobin aberration
lay in the legacy of the Old Regime monarchy and Rousseauian
philosophy, its antidote could be found, in large part, across the
Atlantic. Furet never fell prey to the reflexive anti- Americanism
of so many French intellectuals, and he nurtured a deep affection
for the United States. France, he argued at various times, needed a
strong dose of Anglo-American-style liberalism to free itself from
the suffocating weight of the Jacobin past, and he gave pride of
place in his work to a canon of thinkers whom he saw as having
tried, without great success, to implant varieties of it in French
soil: Constant, Germaine de Stael, Franois Guizot, Tocqueville. In
the 1980s, a "neo-liberal" political current inspired by this work
had brief political importance (above all during the premiership of
Jacques Chirac).

Rosanvallon, by contrast, has long presented classical liberalism as
the Scylla to Jacobinism's Charybdis--"an equally dangerous
extreme." He has argued that by seeking to develop a
self-organizing, self-regulating society wholly independent of the
state, classical liberals were actually promoting a vision of a
world free from politics--and therefore a world where ordinary
people had no recourse to political action. Such a world ultimately
left individuals unprotected from society in much the way that
totalitarianism left them unprotected from the state, and therefore
it had a totalitarian quality of its own. This insistence on the
possibility of political action owed more than a little to the
teachings of Claude Lefort, as well as to Rosanvallon's own
experience of grassroots political activism in the 1970s, and the
ideal of autogestion. Still, Rosanvallon remained loyal to Furet in
presenting modern France as suffering from an essentially Jacobin
pathology-- a sort of "French exception" to the democratic rule.

It is on this point that The Demands of Liberty, even while summing
up much of Rosanvallon's earlier work, departs most strikingly from
it. He states the point quite clearly: "There is nothing
exceptional about the French model. It is not an outlier among
liberal democracies. Indeed, it is fully implicated in the
antimonies that define the structure of modernity." To explain
these "antimonies," he goes back to Hegel's insight that modern
times have left individuals free to develop and express their
private, particular, subjective natures, leaving them with only
formal, "external" features in common, such as the title of
citizen. This change, in turn, often leads to the desire to
establish more substantial commonalities through possibly coercive
political action. Modern political societies therefore fall between
the poles of allowing the greatest possible latitude to private,
particular interests (the English model, for Hegel), and
constraining these interests as much as possible in the name of the
greater good (the French model). But Rosanvallon moves further by
arguing, against Furet, that French civil society has in fact
managed to assert itself successfully against Jacobinism since
Hegel's time, notably in securing the passage of the 1901
legislation on associations. For this reason, the French experience
does not illuminate a uniquely French pathology, or even a
pathology at all. Rather, it illuminates the modern democratic

Rosanvallon backs up his claims with some striking material. In the
first part of his book, he carefully delineates what he calls the
Jacobin "political culture of generality": one that refuses to
allow the legitimate expression of private, particular interests
and tries to force citizens into abstract, a priori categories. He
quotes abundantly from figures of the revolutionary era to show
just how far this political culture could be pushed--for example,
Saint- Just's delirious proposal that all men above age twenty-one
be required to give the authorities a yearly list of their friends,
or the abbe Raynal's shocking image of the absolute supremacy of
the general will expressed in law: "The law is a sword that must
impartially cut off anything that would raise itself up above it."
He then traces the early nineteenth-century perception that the
Revolution had destroyed French civil society, highlighting the
lamentations of figures such as Chateaubriand ("the great and
universal malady of a world in dissolution"), Balzac ("the nation
... is held together now by nothing more than the ignoble bonds of
material interest"), and Royer-Collard ("only in the books of the
philosophers had anyone ever seen a nation decomposed in this
manner and reduced to the least of its elements").

Rosanvallon concludes by showing how later French thinkers
eventually managed to justify intermediary bodies in a way that did
not involve reactionary notions of society as an organic, naturally
hierarchical body. He gives particular credit to early French
sociologists (especially Durkheim), who demonstrated just how
greatly modern society differed from the abstract, mechanistic, or
organic visions promoted by Rousseau and Le Chapelier, as well as
by their conservative critics. Given society's complexities, these
scholars argued, private associations of some sort are a necessity,
not an option, and can even function as auxiliaries of the state in
some contexts. Following this discovery, Jacobinism could redefine
itself to tolerate intermediary bodies, and the French state itself
could turn increasingly corporatist, as it would do throughout much
of the twentieth century.

It amounts to a powerful tale of political evolution. Despite
Rosanvallon's often cloudy prose, his ideas have a clarity and a
power similar to Furet's. His work does not have the Gulag-shadowed
darkness of Furet's, but political progressives will like it all
the more for this quality. Furet condemned political utopias as
dangerous illusions, whereas Rosanvallon once spoke of the "immense
work" needed "to keep our ambition to transform society from being
expunged along with our illusions." In The Demands of Liberty, he
writes that "possibilities sometimes arise when one side's utopia
coincides with the other side's calculation." It is a fine creed
for liberals. Interestingly, in the decade since Furet's death
Rosanvallon has positioned himself clearly to the left of the
decomposing "Furet Galaxy," and in 2002 he even sponsored the
publication of a pamphlet that attacked its more right-wing members
as "new reactionaries."

And yet Rosanvallon's book is not entirely convincing. For, despite
what Rosanvallon has come to believe, there is a "French
exception," and The Demands of Liberty itself gives striking, if
unwitting, proof of it. Rosanvallon is quite correct that the
"exception" is not Jacobinism, if we see Jacobinism as some sort of
proto-totalitarianism. But should we really characterize
Jacobinism-- and, more broadly, French Republican politics--in this
way? Change the definition, and things look rather different.

The important point about the original Jacobins, which Rosanvallon
never really recognizes, is that they undertook nearly all their
most repressive and terroristic measures in the context of a savage
fight for power among themselves, and between them and other
revolutionary factions. (Furet's student Patrice Gueniffey has
argued this case very convincingly in a recent study of the
Terror.) They never sought, and they never had the chance, to make
these measures permanent, and they never achieved the sort of
absolute control over society of which their more delusionary
leaders dreamed. While the revolutionary authorities shed
horrifying amounts of blood in rebellious provinces, the systematic
application of "terror" in areas unaffected by civil war lasted
less than a year, and when the Jacobins fell, in the summer of
1794, their repressive legislation was for the most part
immediately repealed.

Tellingly, what survived of the original Jacobinism was less the
tyranny than what might be called the pedagogy: the doctrines that
envisioned the French people as children to be tutored in proper
behavior (including grandiose plans for public education, reforming
the French language, establishing new patriotic rituals, and so
on). This attitude, as Furet might have observed, owed a great deal
both to the Old Regime and to Rousseau--in the first case to the
idea of the king as "father of his people," and in the second case
to the philosopher's haunting image of an all-powerful Legislator
handing down the law to the people in the manner of Moses. The same
sort of paternalistic Jacobinism remained powerful under Napoleon,
who was a tyrant of a surprisingly unbloodthirsty sort when it came
to France itself. (The conquest of foreigners was another matter
entirely.) Not surprisingly, Tocqueville, the keenest observer of
modern French politics, was fascinated by the phenomenon of what he
called "soft despotism," and by the notion of the state as the
people's tuteur-- a word that in French means both "tutor" and
"guardian." Tocqueville's contemporary Charles de Montalembert put
it most strikingly in 1849, in a passage quoted by Rosanvallon
himself: "As soon as any party, without exception, achieves control
of the government, it treats France not as a victim or a conquest
but quite deliberately as a pupil. It sets itself up as the
country's teacher.... It makes this great country its ward and
awards itself the right to teach it what it ought to want, know and

Rosanvallon cites the passage as evidence that the French of the
time lacked confidence in civil society, and he is right. But the
passage also prompts the idea that the most important peril in
modern French politics has been neither the tyranny feared by
ancient-minded thinkers nor the totalitarianism that has terrified
modern-minded ones. Consider that throughout nearly all of modern
French history, instances of real, bloody tyranny have been
surprisingly brief, tending to accompany struggles for power rather
than the systematic exercise of power: the original Terror (and the
subsequent White Terror); the brief civil conflicts of 1830 and
1848-1851; the bloody episode of the Commune in 1870- 1871; and
finally Vichy (where one side of course had the support of the Nazi
occupiers). But once securely in power, French rulers, including the
two Napoleons, have tended towards a rule more tutelary than
tyrannical. This quality, more than the struggle between
"Jacobinism" and "civil society," is arguably the essence of the
"French model." And it is, arguably, exceptional.

Of course, accusations of tyranny echo loudly through all of French
history, against every regime that has ever held power in the
country. But Rosanvallon is a little too quick to limit his
discussion to such polemics, without pausing to ask about the
social realities that they sometimes conceal. He does note that
despite the penal code of 1810, a vigorous civil society in fact
existed throughout the nineteenth century, to the extent that in
1900 one agency officially counted no fewer than 45,148
associations in France. And in practice, the state tolerated such
associations long before the legislation of 1901. As the future
premier Adolphe Thiers instructed local officials in 1834, "You
will ignore their existence if they conduct themselves in a manner
worthy of being ignored." This is evidence not only for the
existence of civil society, but also for the tutelary character of
the French state--a state that actually cares less about
intermediary bodies as such than about whether these bodies show
the right attitude and have learned the right lessons.

Rosanvallon also fails to note the comic peculiarity, from a
non-French point of view, of a state agency that bothers to count
45,148 associations in the first place, or of politicians and
intellectuals who debate whether and how to foster the development
of civil society through state action. Doesn't civil society simply
exist, independent of such action? Isn't it an ominous
contradiction in terms to think that the state can create it?
Tyrants and totalitarians do not think in terms of "creating" civil
society, and neither do classical liberals. It is adherents of the
French tutelary state who think and speak in these terms. And
Rosanvallon, for all his efforts to gaze impartially on his
national history, remains one of them.

Late in his book, Rosanvallon remarks that "despite the major
changes described above, it is striking to find that the French
still look upon their institutions with the same critical eye that
has informed their thinking for the past two centuries.... It is as
if they suffered from a permanent affliction, a need to exaggerate
their woes by turning them into fantasies." This is quite true. But
I would argue, against Rosanvallon, that this "affliction" actually
extends straight back to the origins of modern French politics in
the eighteenth century. Political ideas and doctrines imported from
elsewhere--"tyranny," "liberalism," "totalitarianism"--have rarely
fit the French case very well, even if they do not always deserve
the label of fantasy. To the extent that they have structured
French politics over the past two centuries, they have structured
it in large part as a battle of mirages. Rosanvallon's work exposes
this fact to some extent, but he still remains at least partly in
thrall to the mirages himself.

And is the tutelary state really so exceptionally French? On
reflection, perhaps not. Certain aspects of it will strike a chord
with citizens of nearly all modern democracies. I would suggest
that if the "French model" is to illuminate the larger story of
modern democracy, it is this aspect, rather than the dialectic of
Jacobinism and civil society, that may offer the most useful key.
And by focusing on the French case in this way, the very French
brand of philosophical history practiced by Pierre Rosanvallon,
which has already proven so thought-provoking, may offer new and
unexpected rewards.

By David A. Bell

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