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Democratic Enlightenment limps on to its unfortunate denouement, which purports to offer a new approach to the origins and subsequent course of the French Revolution. Israel’s argument is a restatement of a classic view, widely held by contemporaries of the event: the Revolution was the work of the philosophes of the radical Enlightenment, whose views became dominant among the revolutionary leadership in the summer of 1789. This is reasonable enough, although Israel overstates his case, and makes it in a gratuitously shrill manner. The real problem, however, comes when he tries to impose his binary conceptual grid on subsequent events in France. In his view, the battle for the heart of the Revolution was fought between 1790 and 1792 by two camps: on one side, the true heirs of the radical Enlightenment (men such as Sieyès, Volney, Condorcet, Brissot, and Mirabeau), who stood for freedom of expression and a representative system of democracy; and on the other, the nasty ‘Rousseauists’ (out comes the black legend again) typified by the Jacobins, whose toxic brew of authoritarianism, xenophobia, deism and demagoguery eventually perverted the course of the Revolution and paved the way for the Terror.
Like all Manichaean distinctions, this one sheds little light on patterns of thinking at the time. Rousseau was read and celebrated by a wide cross-section of opinion in the early days of the Revolution, from Marie Antoinette to Robespierre, and Israel’s attempt to impose one particular reading of his work is anachronistic and self-serving (it is also philosophically wrong, but that is a separate issue). The Jacobin assumption and wielding of power owed little to Rousseau, whose influence had peaked by 1793. It was mainly a product of the circumstances, abetted by the grievous errors committed by Israel’s cherished ‘radicals’: notably Mirabeau, whose corrupt double-dealing (he was secretly paid by the king) fatally damaged the ideal of representation, to say nothing of the Girondins’ criminally irresponsible decision to declare revolutionary war on Austria, blithely cheered on by Brissot.
Brilliant, but flawed: the verdict applies just as much to Democratic Enlightenment as to the radical philosophes who are its principal protagonists. They were generous, optimistic and sincere both in their revulsion at tyranny and oppression, and in their belief in reason, democracy and justice. But they were also elitist, excessively cosmopolitan and thus insensitive to the bonds which tied communities to particular places (something Rousseau understood perfectly). They were contemptuous, too, of the feelings and values of ordinary people – especially on religious matters, where they shaped an aggressive and sterile French republican tradition of anti-clericalism (indeed, it is not obvious that equating religion with ‘fanaticism’, à la Diderot, is much of a progressive manifesto today).
Recognising these limitations is essential to a judicious understanding of the radical Enlightenment’s legacy, just as the French Revolution cannot be appreciated in its wondrous complexity without acknowledging the contributions of those dastardly Jacobins. True, they were far from perfect, and like all revolutionary groups they attracted their fair share of opportunists and crooks. But at their best – in a figure such as Lazare Carnot, a member of the Committee of Public Safety – they embodied and carried forward the Revolution’s essential qualities: its energy, its patriotism, its attachment to freedom, its popular sensibility and its commitment to the public good. It was largely thanks to their capacity to mobilise these resources that they successfully organised the defence of French national territory from the invading monarchist armies and thus saved the Revolution. To order this book for £24, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 29
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Forbidden City Tankograd – The Formation of a Soviet Company Town:
Cheliabinsk, 1900s–1950s By Lennart Samuelson (Palgrave Macmillan 351pp £65)
The city of Cheliabinsk, deep in the Russian Urals, was one of the closed cities of the Soviet Union to which all foreigners were denied entry. In the 1930s it housed a giant tractor factory, the heart of the modernisation of the backward Russian countryside; during the Second World War the factory was turned over to the mass production of Soviet medium and heavy tanks (which earned it the sobriquet ‘Tankograd’); after the war nearby townships hosted some of the vital new installations for the Soviet atomic programme. In a country notable for its fear of enemies, such a city was understandably out of bounds.
Lennart Samuelson is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the Soviet military-industrial complex in the age of Stalin, but even he could not get into Cheliabinsk until it was finally opened up in 1992. He has used the opportunity of sudden and unexpected access to the city archives to construct a richly informed account of the transformation of a small town of 59,000 in 1932 to a sprawling industrial giant with almost 750,000 inhabitants during the Second World War. This urban explosion was common among Soviet towns, and it is perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the Stalin age – the conjuring of an industrial revolution out of the ground, overnight.
Samuelson has used Cheliabinsk as a prism through which to explore the long history of the Soviet Union. Its chequered past reflects very precisely the stages of the march from revolution, through Stalinism, war and terror, to the Soviet Union’s postwar aspiration to overtake the capitalist West in a generation. The large number of fascinating photographs reproduced in the book conveys a good sense of the widening contrast between ambitious socialist construction plans in the 1930s – with the utopian promise of wonderful new cities filled with workers’ apartment blocks, libraries, popular theatres and schools – and
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