Albert Soboul 1979

Jaurès, Mathiez, and the History of the Revolution

Source: Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française. No. 237, 1979;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

“When you think, “ Mathiez wrote in 1925, “that it only took Jaurès four years, the four years of forced repose that the voters of Carmaux procured for him thanks to their momentary ingratitude after the Dreyfus Affair, to raise such a monument, you are astonished by the power of his work as well as the assuredness of his gaze. No other history of the Revolution has so closely approached reality. None has advanced science so far. It is a starting point more than an arrival point. It set in motion a movement of research and ideas that, alas, had not yet produced all its results.”

Arrival point, departure point: what exactly is the case and what is the place of the “Socialist History of the French Revolution” in the current of revolutionary historiography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? But also, and more precisely, to what extent does the oeuvre of Albert Mathiez invoke that of Jaurès? And to what extent is the “Socialist History” still alive?


When in the final years of the nineteenth century Jaurès undertook the writing of his “Socialist History of the French Revolution,” whose first volume was to appear in 1901, Aulard was the unquestioned master of Revolutionary studies, at least in the eyes of university professors.

Aulard had rendered eminent services to Revolutionary historiography, having discerned that the historians of the French Revolution should submit themselves to the same discipline as other historians, should compel themselves to carry out patient research in archives, to discover, critique, and publish texts as the chartists had been doing for some time with the history of the Middle Ages. This was a singular merit when we realize that Aulard was formed by literary studies as they were understood at the end of the Second Empire and that he arrived at the history of the Revolution via the study of its orators. Given that, it must be said that his oeuvre bore the mark of his time. Aulard belonged to that generation which from 1875-1880 had fought, through the Republic, to found a parliamentary and secular democracy. What interested him in the Revolution was the political history, essentially that of parties and assemblies. And in his eyes this history was dominated by the evolution of ideas. This is precisely affirmed in his “Political History of the French Revolution” (1901), whose subtitle, in this regard, is significant: “The Origin and Development of Democracy and the Republic.” The economic and social substrata do not appear.

This doubtless had to do with Aulard’s literary training, but it is difficult to believe that the political conditions during his youth and maturity had no role to play in this. Aulard counted himself among the ranks of the republican bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie appeared to him to be the natural mentor of the Third Estate; the popular masses could do nothing but support it, and if need be goad it into realizing the fullest political democracy. Aulard viewed the Revolution from above, as if the popular masses had no other interests, no other needs, no other passions than those of the bourgeoisie. Finally, as religious and educational questions held the first place in the struggle among the parties from 1880 to 1905 and beyond, the religious history of the Revolution and the origins of secularism interested Aulard every bit as much as those of political history properly speaking.

The end of the nineteenth century nevertheless saw the acceleration of the progress of the capitalist economy, and its domain little by little extend until it dominated every continent. Economic questions took a growing, and finally a preponderant place in the policies of states and in international relations. One of the consequences of this evolution was unquestionably the accentuating of class oppositions and their growing magnitude and clarity. From this flowed the development of the working class movement and the growth of socialist ideas. Facts like these could not but have an effect on Revolutionary historiography. People began to seek the ideological origins of socialism in the eighteenth century, to seek out the first attempts at their realization over the course of the Revolution.

On June 21, 1885 André Lichtenberger defended his thesis on Socialism in the eighteenth century, a work that is considered a classic today, even if it appears outdated on many points. Aulard wrote a note on it in the Révolution Française of July 14, 1895, as did Jaurès over two and a half columns in La Petite République at the end of the same month. At the turn of the century some were not far from considering the economic policies of the Committee of Public Safety as a preliminary outline of collectivism. Soon Augustin Cochin, full of Durkheim’s sociology, constructed a daring hypothesis that demonstrated that the clubs, by “socializing” ideas, would necessarily arrive at “socializing” the economy (“The Societies of Thought and the Revolution in Brittany,” a posthumous work, would only appear in 1926). But let us leave aside these exaggerations, which have nevertheless had a long life.

A happier consequence was that historians now took the popular masses into consideration who they had heretofore ranked behind the bourgeoisie within the Third Estate, and began to more closely study the conditions of their existence and the motives that set them in movement from 1789 to the Year III. The study of economic and social facts gave historians a taste for the real; they realized that ideas don’t spread on their own and that a great political movement to a certain degree presupposes an organization. These concerns imposed themselves with all the more force because socialism, in the form given it by Marx, rests on a concept whose vigor exercised a strong intellectual attraction, by which we mean, in the ideological field of the period, historical materialism or, more broadly, the economic interpretation of history. Whatever one might think of this doctrine it cannot be denied that it stimulated historical research and oriented it towards new paths. It is unquestionable that Marx’s ideas gradually penetrated the ideas of historians, in the sense that even the most reticent were forced to take economic and social facts into account, and from the turn of the century a purely political synthesis was no longer acceptable. To be convinced of this it suffices to refer to the labors of Philippe Sagnac, who cannot be suspected of complacency towards historical materialism and socialism: his thesis on “The Civil Legislation of the Revolution” dates from 1898 and deals with the condition of lands as well as with that of persons.

However, it was Jaurès who was the first to see in the French Revolution a social phenomenon and thus one of economic origin. The bookseller Rouff’s offer dates from June 1898. The French Revolution and socialism were in the air. Lichtenberger had just defended his thesis and Michelet’s centennial was about to be celebrated. Jaurès published in La Petite République of July 16, 1898 an article entitled “Michelet and Socialism.” Michelet was not a socialist, he was “half-fair concerning Babeuf,” but there was in him a strong love for the nation, allied to a wide love for humanity. His philosophy of history was “both very mystical and very realist.” And Jaurès asked himself how to reconcile this mystical ideal and historical materialism: “It isn’t possible to investigate this here, but there is no attempt that could be more fertile.” In 1901 the “Introduction” to the “Socialist History” responded to this question.

Jaurès posed and resolved the problem before public opinion by publishing from 1901 to 1903 the four volumes with their red cover of the “Socialist History of the French Revolution.” For the first time in Revolutionary historiography he laid bare the history of the Revolution by frankly giving it a foundation in economic and social facts. Not that Jaurès didn’t recognize the importance of the philosophical movement. It is no less true, and Jaurès vigorously demonstrates this fact, that the Revolution was the end point of a long economic and social evolution that made the bourgeoisie the master of political power and the economy.

Jaurès thus inscribed himself in the historiographic tradition inaugurated by Barnave. We know the importance that Jaurès, in the first volume of his “Socialist History,” granted the “Introduction to the French Revolution” that Barnave wrote in 1791-1792 and which was published in 1843 by his compatriot Bérenger de la Drôme, Barnave was the first, Jaurès wrote, to “clearly [formulate] the social causes and, one can say, the economic theory of the French Revolution.”

The historians of the Restoration hadn’t read Barnave, and Jaurès doesn’t seem to have been inspired by him. But thrown into the liberal combat against reaction and strong in their bourgeois consciousness, the historians insisted on the class character of the Revolution. We see this in Thiers himself, in his “History of the French Revolution,” (1823) and even more in Mignet in his articles in the Courrier Français in 1822 and 1823, and in his “History of the French Revolution” (1824) in which the essential explicatory element is the class struggle. This was a “fatalist school,” according to Chateaubriand; the Revolution was necessary in the sense of historical necessity. As for Guizot, in the fourth of his “Essays on the History of France” (1823) he stresses that social institutions are determined by “the social state,” by the relations between the various classes and the “status of persons,” itself fixed in the final analysis by the “status of land,” and the structure of property. We should also re-read the courses on “The History of Civilization in France” that Guizot delivered at the Sorbonne in 1828-1830, particularly the forty-sixth lesson.

We know the passage in Marx’s March 5, 1852 letter to Weydemeyer: “The merit of having discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them is not mine. Long before me the bourgeois historians had described the historical development of the class struggle.” Marx is alluding to Guizot, as well as to Augustin Thierry who, in a letter to Engels dated July 25, 1854, he calls “this father of the class struggle in French historiography.”

The “Socialist History” appears as the arrival point of this historiographic tradition, which I qualify as the classic social interpretation of the French Revolution, this ‘great drama whose essential characters are the classes.”


An arrival point and a departure point: “I have no doubt,” Albert Mathiez wrote in 1904 in the Revue Critique, “that this book will become the departure point of studies as fertile as they are varied.”

We will not speak here of the novelty of the work, of the new paths opened to Revolutionary historiography: further in space, more daringly in time, more profoundly in social and economic and social analysis, as Madeleine Rebérioux magisterially demonstrated. Following Albert Mathiez, let us nevertheless stress two points.

Further in space: “But even more novel is the powerful portrait of political and intellectual Europe that fills the fifth volume. To see how Jaurès analyzes and critiques the great thinkers of the era, Kant, Fichte, Godwin, etc. ; how he disentangles the part events played in their works and that their works played on events leaves one stunned with admiration. Pages like these will live long in the memory of men.”

More daringly in time: Jaurès sought in the French Revolution the seeds of socialism, which would flourish at the dawning of the twentieth century. “No one, even after M. André Lichtenberger’s book, brought together so much information concerning the little known social reformers, Lange, Dolivier, Momoro, who already attacked the problem of property.”

As for Georges Lefebvre, he was especially sensitive, as he wrote in 1932, to the deepening of the economic and social analysis. In Revolutionary historiography this is the great movement that marks its novelty. And Georges Lefebvre gives Jaurès the credit for the creation of the commission “charged with researching and publishing the archival documents relating to the economic life of the French Revolution,” the fecundity of whose work is well known: the publication of an imposing collection of cahiers de doléances, studies on the distribution of landed property at the end of the ancien régime and the sale of national properties, and on the question of communal properties and collective rights, which Jaurès particularly insisted on in his “Socialist History.”

Renewing in this way the perspectives of Revolutionary historiography, Jaurès could not but exercise a decisive influence on the historians of the French Revolution, at the very least on those who intended to promote its classical social interpretation.

Georges Lefebvre recognized no master other than him. As for Albert Mathiez: “I, who had the honor of attaching my name to the reprint of his work, I humbly declare that I found in it not only the excitement without which my research would have been impossible, but many suggestions that served to point me in certain directions. There is no question that I arrive at different conclusions on more than one important point, but it is because he wrote before me that I was able to undertake certain investigations that would not have taken place without him. The best of his spirit lives in me, even when I contradict him.”

More explicit is what Mathiez wrote in 1922 about volume I of the “Socialist History,” “The Constituent Assembly.” We know the famous passage: “Involved in the feverish life of assemblies and parties, Jaurès was more apt than a professor, than an office dweller to relive the emotions, the clear and obscure ideas of the revolutionaries. He was closer to them, and he understood their least hint.” Assuredness of method, richness of documentation, marvelous impartiality, as Aulard already stressed, a perfect order in the story-telling: these were the traits underlined by Mathiez. “This was the first time that an attempt so vast, so daring, and so well-conducted overall was undertaken to join to the portrait of political events a portrait of the economic events that condition and explain them.” And this important note: “It is a banal point of view today to consider the Revolution a conquest by the bourgeoisie. At that time it was more difficult to escape the generalities ordinarily accepted by historians of the Marxist school and to deliver a precise, detailed, and penetrating study of the economic might of the bourgeois class before 1789. Jaurès did just this in his admirable pages.” In conclusion: “The spirit of the great thinker will for a long time yet vivify the hearts of citizens.”

There is no reason to doubt Albert Mathiez’s admiration for Jaurès and the influence Jaurès and the “Socialist History” exercised on him. In fact, it was in the wake of his teacher Aulard, who he long spoke in praise of, that Mathiez at first attached himself to the political, and even more, the religious, element of the Revolution. We see this in 1891-1899 in the Revue Historique, in his “Critical Study of the Days of October 5 and 6, 1789,” and especially in his thesis on “Theophilanthropy and the Décadaire Cult” of 1904. When he began to separate himself for his teacher it was on a question of political history: the personality and role of Danton. This primary influence remained inerasable: political — even parliamentary — history never ceased to be in the first rank of Mathiez’s concerns. There is no doubt but that for a moment he was under the influence of Durkheim, whose oeuvre was at the time entirely new, as is testified to by his complementary thesis on “The Origins of the Revolutionary Cults” (1904). But when he undertook the study of the economic and social history of the Revolution he didn’t approach it from a popular point of view, from below, but rather from above, from the point of view of political parties and the conduct of the war, and thus that of the revolutionary government.

But we cannot underestimate Jaurès’ influence on Mathiez; in fact, it is appropriate that we measure it more precisely. A simple remark from the start: Jaurès does not show himself to be hostile to Danton, but he shows a clear preference for Robespierre: at the Jacobins it is he would sit alongside. Nevertheless, Jaurès principally acted on Mathiez, as on many young university scholars of his generation, through his socialism, by which he reconciled the “democratic and social” republican tradition with the Marxist interpretation of history, and through the intellectual splendor he gave his doctrine.

The First World War arrived. While continuing his previous studies, in particular on Danton, Mathiez oriented himself towards a new sector for him, that of the economic and social history of the Revolution. Here again the influence of Jaurès is undeniable, he who had integrated the Revolution into the economic interpretation of history. Mathiez now arrived at considering the French Revolution as a class struggle, the Third Estate against the privileged, and to interest himself in the social and political dissociation of the Third Estate. The more he deepened his Robespierrist studies, the more he insisted on the social opposition that gradually manifested itself between the Girondins and the Montagnards. The war imposed the economic point of view on Mathiez by making all the economic and social difficulties the Committee of Public Safety ran up against in the conduct of a great national war reappear, obliging the government to have recourse to the same procedures of control and constraint: taxation, requisitioning, inflation, more or less forced loans, state control of economic life. From this came “Victory in the Year II” (1917); from this the studies published beginning in 1915 in the Annales Révolutionnaires and later brought together in “The High Cost of Living and the Social Movement Under the Terror.” (1927)

And so Albert Mathiez, following after Jaurès, contributed more than anyone else to placing the economic and social problems of the Revolution — or at least some of them — on the agenda. These concerns had not reached the cultivated, or even the student, public since the publication of the “Socialist History,” the publications of the commission Jaurès created consisting of works of erudition known to specialists alone.

Whatever the elegies delivered, we cannot hide their points of disagreement. Mathiez wrote in 1923: “My profound admiration for Jaurès’ luminous talent and for the rare penetration of his historical intelligence did not prevent me from occasionally noting points where I couldn’t adhere to his theses and judgments.”

What Mathiez, who wasn’t far from considering the profession of the historian to be like that of a procurator, reproaches Jaurès for is his goodness and the indulgence he shows towards men. Even after his companions betrayed him for the attractions of political power, Mathiez recalls, Jaurès felt no rancor towards them. “He transported this indulgence into the past. He found excuses for the villainies of Mirabeau, Barnave’s and Adrein Duport’s disavowals, and the trickery of a Brissot. In short, he extended the practices of parliamentary camaraderie to the maladapted and the appeased of the revolutionary assemblies.”

Mirabeau: Jaurès felt close to him, he admired him. Mirabeau, Jaurès wrote, “recommended that one day his correspondence with the court be published. This would be, he said, my defense and my glory. How could anyone accuse of treason and baseness the man who, before dying, leaves such a secret to posterity?” Mathiez was indignant about such benevolence, even more so because Aulard praised Jaurès for having written these lines.

Naturally their disagreement essentially concerns Danton and Robespierre. Jaurès “didn’t want to heed the weighty accusations against Danton. And having palliated the faults and crimes of the guilty he demonstrated a sometimes excessive severity towards those who meted out justice. Robespierre, who never sacrificed duty or the public interest to camaraderie, was not fully understood by Jaurès.” And elsewhere: “If Jaurès traced a magisterial portrait of Hébertism, on the other hand he showed an excessive indulgence towards Dantonism, whose many flaws he hid. He was not able to separate himself from a legend that was commonly accepted. He showed himself fair regarding Robespierre during the crisis of the summer of 1793; he no longer understood him starting with the great trials of the spring of 1794.”

Having arrived at a more serene vision we will not intervene in this quarrel. But we agree with Mathiez in recalling how lacking in comprehension Jaurès was of the terrorist mentality and in underlining how weak the chapters dedicated to the Mountain and the revolutionary government are compared to the preceding volumes, as if Jaurès, caught up in militant life, ran out of breath before competing his great work.

Beyond these divergences Albert Mathiez, whose evolution sped up after his brief communist interlude (we are in 1923), spoke of the very orientation of the work. Jaurès had learned the history of the Revolution “in the works of M. Aulard.” From this flows his lack of understanding of Robespierre. “During the period Jaurès sat on the benches of the École Normale it was the done thing to mock the so-called mysticism of Robespierre and to show off a blasé and skeptical philosophy that displayed the usurped name of positivism. That dry-hearted generation was no longer capable of understanding the great men of the Revolution, who were so different from them.” Inversely, “by a lazy and sectarian reaction, the men of the socialist party, under the influence of the apostle Jules Guesde, included in one and the same contempt all the great men of the Revolution of 1789. They saw in the Revolution only a minuscule bourgeois movement from which there was nothing to learn. Being ignorant of history, these socialists were influenced by the teachings of M. Aulard and his school. They shared all his anti-Robespierrist prejudices.”

“Jaurès,” continued Mathiez, “despite his genius, couldn’t free himself from the harmful ambience in which he lived. Marxism had called him to socialism. He thus undertook his history with the prejudices of the school.” However, Mathiez concedes that when Jaurès assembled and studied the documents, when he entered into contact with historical reality, “the light little by little grew stronger in his spirit.” This is an excessive judgment resulting from his position. It was not with “the prejudices of the school” and even less under the influence of Guesde’s summary Marxism that Jaurès undertook and completed his “Socialist History.” If Marxism constitutes its most solid thread, let us not forget that Jaurès also invokes Plutarch and Michelet. And above all that his Marxism isn’t reduced to vulgar economism. More than his explicit — or inexplicit — adherence to Marxism, it is important to clarify the way that Jaurès used it: “Marx himself,” he recalled, “too often made small by narrow interpreters, never forgot that it is on men that economic forces act.”

Such was Albert Mathiez’s encounter with the work of Jaurès. An influence, to be sure, but limited. Not being a socialist, and even less a Marxist, Mathiez couldn’t place himself within the perspectives opened by the “Socialist History.” We would even say that, Robespierrism aside, until the end he remained faithful to the teachings of his teacher, Aulard. From his beginnings used to considering history from above he didn’t — or hardly — concerned himself with the popular masses, their needs and interests, their mentality and their comportment. He wasn’t interested in the peasantry, to which Jaurès justly accorded a large place in his “History.” Mathiez only dedicates a few brief pages in “The French Revolution” (1922-1927) to questions as essential as the abolition of feudal rights and the sale of national properties. Without a doubt his merit was that of having finally realized that the French Revolution can only be explained by its economic and social roots. In this regard Albert Mathiez appears in the evolution of history as a transitional figure between Aulard, a political historian above all, and the social historians in the line of Jaurès, in the first rank of which is Georges Lefebvre.


It is in the footsteps of Jaurès that Lefebvre attached himself in the first years of this century to the study of the peasants of the north during the French Revolution, history from below. It was the “Socialist History” that determined the orientation of his research. The teachings of Georges Lefebvre in turn inspired the following generation in that same Jaurèsian line, in the works on the urban popular masses, particularly on the Parisian sans-culottes. Jaurès’ oeuvre reveals itself to be ever fertile. It is as part of the heritage of the “Socialist History” that are inscribed the current investigations of rural communities and collective rights and on agrarian egalitarianism, to which Jaurès dedicated so many pages that were both erudite and enthusiastic.

Not that we consider the “Socialist History of the French Revolution” to be the Bible and the Prophets. A historical work only remains living if, read and meditated on, it is deepened. Erudite investigation and critical reflection can then arrive at putting the work in question. The problem of national properties, that of the assignat and inflation, envisaged by Jaurès and those who followed him from the standpoint of a transfer of property, can they not be considered as transfers of capital and revenues? Can’t agrarian egalitarianism and the peasant movement be interpreted in a way different from that of Jaurès and Lefebvre? Was the peasant revolution the expression of one of the possible variants of the bourgeois revolution? Do the negative aspects of the evolution of capitalism in French agriculture in the nineteenth century grow as much from what small peasants were able to impose on the bourgeois revolution, that is the persistence of the village community, the “rural democracy” so dear to Jaurès, as much as from what it was not able to wrest from it: the destruction of large-scale property and the disappearance of ground rent? To pose these questions demonstrates the continued fecundity of the work that suggested them.

The “Socialist History of the French Revolution,” as in its first days, maintains its force and grandeur. An act of faith, it still inspires enthusiasm and strengthens liberating convictions. A lesson in civisme, it teaches us patriotism in the literal sense of the term, as a virtue according to Rousseau and Robespierre. A work of science, it teaches us the demands of erudition, the imperatives of method, the need for critical reflection. The last of the vast histories of the French Revolution, Jaurès’ “Socialist History” opened the road to contemporary scientific historiography of the Revolution. It is far from having lost its creative spark. It is a triple heritage of science, civisme, and faith that Jaurès transmitted to us and that is carried on by Georges Lefebvre. It is this triple heritage that we intend to sustain and promote.