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The best books on The French Revolution

recommended by Peregrine Worsthorne

For anybody wanting to go into politics a mastery of the French Revolution is an enormous help and a knowledge of history essential, says Peregrine Worsthorne, the columnist and former editor of Britain’s Sunday Telegraph. He recommends the best books on the French Revolution, both for and against.

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Which book shall we begin with? Is there one particular book that you felt was the defining one of all of these?

Well, there are two French writers among my recommendations. One of them puts the case for the Revolution as far as it can be put, in my view. And it’s a beautifully written book, a marvelous book to read: that’s Jules Michelet: who wrote his History of the Revolution in two volumes. And what it does, really, is to describe the ancien regime in a way that convincingly makes one clear that the Revolution had to happen. It doesn’t underplay the horrors of the French Revolution, but neither does it underplay the horrors of the ancien regime. So it seems to me that even if you regard the French Revolution as having done more harm than good, you can still see that it was in fact inspired by idealism, however squalid and brutal the eventual form that it took. I don’t think you can do better than start with Michelet, who gives you a marvelously clear and eloquent explanation of why it had to happen and how the ancien regime failed to mend itself, and therefore had to be violently removed. I think he puts the case for that as well as it could be put.

Against that of course, the other French historian, Hippolyte Taine, does exactly the opposite. He makes you think that despite its high ideals, the French Revolution was an absolute disaster. Neither of these are weekend reading: they are very serious books, but they are both in fact beautifully written, and both well translated.

Is the Michelet more of a justification than a history?

No. Both of them are extremely serious historians. Neither of them could be regarded as propagandists or apologists. But on the whole, Michelet believes that the Revolution is necessary, and in fact started a new period of glory for France. And Taine rather thinks it was the end of France: I mean that getting rid of the old order in a violent fashion troubled French politics for the next century. And like all these great historians, you read the one and you feel convinced, and then you read the other and you feel you’ve got to see the other point of view. They’re a model of how history should be written. You don’t just find out about the French Revolution (and this is true of all great histories), you find out much more about politics in general, society in general, human nature in general. You don’t just broaden your knowledge of the particular subject, you begin to understand the richness of the human condition, and how interesting it is to study. These histories bring all of the problems of social organisation into perspective. You come away understanding not only more about French 17th and 18th century politics, but about politics today. And politics in general. For anybody wanting to go into politics, to be able to have a mastery of the subjects the French Revolution involved is an enormous help, and will deepen their understanding of what they ought to be doing today. In my view, that’s the trouble today: so few politicians do know any history. More than a trouble, it’s a disaster. I mean, you can’t be a politician without being deeply interested in history. In any case those are two books that provide the pro and con of the French Revolution.

Let’s look at Tocqueville, because here is someone who was absolutely personally involved in the historical process.

Tocqueville, yes: of course his book is about the American Revolution. But if you read it, it’s more about the French Revolution than the American Revolution. Well, it’s about democracy in general. But as Tocqueville perceives it the great problem… well, in a way, perhaps his book should be called the American Aristocracy rather than American Democracy, because it’s really all about the need in democratic politics to have a public-spirited aristocracy. Of course you didn’t use the word aristocracy then, because despite being the ideal, the word was out of fashion, and Tocqueville was writing about democracy. But he did worry that America didn’t have that aristocratic element and that a democracy without that aristocratic element would not work. The Americans hadn’t by then—at the time he was writing—found a substitute for the French aristocracy in France. And then Tocqueville began to see the glimmerings of possibility in America, and found an aristocracy suitable for democracy, and again I suppose you would argue that this is a subject relevant to today: as we’ve just got rid of our aristocracy, or toffs, or grandees as they’re called, and the meritocracy that has taken their place is a disaster, rather as it happened in Republican France, and still in a way pertains, because they never found a political elite which the public was prepared to trust. All of these subjects are beautifully considered in Tocqueville’s books: two volumes about the American democracy.

What was Tocqueville’s answer?

He never found one. It’s a sort of gaping hole: he struggled and struggled and struggled to find an alternative. I suppose what has taken its place in France although it hadn’t quite materialised in his day was—what are those French schools called the brightest children go to?

The Grandes Ecoles?

Yes, they do have in France an educational aristocracy, and that in itself has to some extent now become hereditary, because the children of the very clever tend to be very clever too, so you’ve got a case where there are very many families who are top notch in France—not the old aristocracy, but the political aristocracy—much as our hereditary peers kept producing people for the House of Lords, there’s this group in France who go on producing the high technicians, the elite, who are all running the civil service and the banks and even the newspapers.

Do you think Tocqueville was writing very much with a view to influencing events in France?

Absolutely. Precisely what he was doing—not perhaps in a clear conscious way, but that is what it amounts to. He was going over and over again, trying to find a way that France could overcome this gaping hole. If you suddenly, violently and in a short period of time, destroy the church hierarchy and the political hierarchy, the aristocracy, the great historical governing orders of France—you break them, get rid of them, humiliate them, kill them—you leave a gaping hole. Tocqueville was desperately searching, by looking at America, to find out how that hole could be filled, and he was finding hope that it was working in America, but he despaired (of course he lived to become an MP for the 1848 French Revolution), and he despaired of it ever happening in France and he went on searching and always writing, but it never really materialised in France in his lifetime.

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He was writing much more from a pragmatic and idealistic point of view than that of a historian.

Well, he was a great idealist, and, I suppose, a pragmatist. But for anybody today, rather like reading Taine and Michelet, this is a marvelous and enlightening book about politics in general, and democracy in general, and public opinion in general, and all the things that we’re still battling with in modern times are illuminated by reading these books. All these books seem to me necessary, if you want to understand contemporary politics. Certainly in politics you have to read about our civil wars too. I’m not saying this is sufficient, but one should definitely start with Michelet, Taine, Tocqueville.

And now I come to the absolute central one for anybody interested in politics—Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. There of course you get the conservative case at its most formidable—against change, in favour of tradition, in favour of hierarchy.

Coming from the point of view of somebody who couldn’t conceive of how change could be for the better.

He could conceive that you could improve, which is not of course what revolutions do because the very word revolution means more than just “improve”. You should never change unless absolutely necessary: no unnecessary change. But of course, although he was an English Whig, he was an Irishman: his family had been Catholic, but he became a Protestant because he wanted to get on in English politics. He was an outsider, he was not a grandee, but he did flatter the English aristocracy in a way, by giving them a cleaner bill of health than they probably deserved. He did think it was an essential, that the English aristocracy was an essential part of our constitutional arrangements. He would be appalled to see it all got rid of in the way it has been totally got rid of in recent years. But he summarises, in a marvelous piece of writing, the case for tradition to a greater degree than any other writer I can imagine, and that’s an absolutely pure pleasure book to read: the language is absolutely glowing with eloquence and passion, and marvelous stuff.

Did he have any direct experience of France?

He’d certainly been to France because everybody had been to France, but he never worked in France or anything. He was a leading Whig in England during the French Revolution. He certainly didn’t pretend he had a deep knowledge of French Politics, but I suppose what he was doing was saying at all costs we must stop this from happening in England. A lot of English people, English politicians like Charles James Fox, with whom he had a great battle, I mean they were both Whigs but their personalities were very different, cheered the French Revolution. Fox of course was in favour of the French Revolution, and supported Napoleon. Today it’s unbelievable really, to think that during the Napoleonic Wars prominent British politicians would be supporting the French cause. Very strange. But in any case anybody who reads Burke’s Reflections is in for a literary treat: it really is a historical work of genius so it’s not hard work: it’s a marvelous read.

And Burke died before the big social changes

Yes, he was at the peak of his powers and political life in 1790 and was absolutely contemporaneous with the Revolution, but he died in 1797.

So there is an overlap between Burke and Tocqueville, in that he was writing about France with an eye on Britain, and Tocqueville was writing about America with an eye on France.

Well yes, Burke was obviously very much doing that, and Tocqueville was very much writing about the American Revolution with an eye on the French Revolution. I mean obviously anybody writing about politics more or less since the French Revolution has had to come to grips with it, and think about its consequences.

And its causes.

Yes, you could argue that it led to Napoleon, it led to military dictatorship. There are many reasons to distrust democracy, if you’ve studied the French Revolution. The consequences for France and for the world were a quarter of a century of terrible wars, and of course a military dictatorship in France: so it had almost the opposite effect. In the short term, at any rate, it didn’t serve democracy. But just to throw in one book as a bonne bouche and it’s just such a pleasure, and I didn’t read it until I was quite old and I regret it…

I want to talk about Montaigne’s Essays. There’s a collection of his essays in English and it’s the most civilised reading you could have if you want to know how a civilised, educated honourable, religious—progressive but deeply religious—man can think about the human condition. They’re fantastically frank. I mean, this is a man mostly writing very sort of highbrow stuff, but there’s one essay about why the human brain can control every part of the human body: arms, mouth, eyes and so on, but the only part of the human body that cannot be bullied is the human penis. And somehow it’s quite true, you can’t demand that an erection go down or come up. And to read Montaigne, a 17th century writer writing in this completely sort of uninhibited way, is very cheering.

A nice antidote to the French Revolution.

Yes, I mean there are essays about freedom and about class issues and so on but I think it’s a marvelous counterpoint to reading these 18th and 19th century…

Gory tales of revolution.

Yes, and it takes you back. I mean he lived through the religious wars in France, and he wrote from his tower—which you can still visit, by the way, I mean it’s open to the public. He’s sublimely profound but they’re so reposeful, so thoughtful, so reasonable, they represent civilisation. It’s a lesson in civilisation just to read them, if one could be like him the world would be a better place. I wish somebody had told me to read them and I’d done them all together, and consistently, and kept them by me and learnt them by heart and, my goodness, I wish that every journalist who writes about politics would do the same.

Shall we go on to Machiavelli’s The Prince?

This is of course a very, very different thing. If you want a complete contrast with Montaigne then read Machiavelli. Well of course, Machiavelli wrote two great books—the most famous of which was The Prince, a sort of cynical primer for these new people. You see in Italy at the time, the new people, the new warrior princes like the Medici and so on, they were coming to power without any royal tradition behind them. They weren’t hereditary princes, they had fought their way to the top—they were the original “man on the white horse”, and they’d fought themselves into positions of absolute power. What Machiavelli was saying to them was, you can’t rely on any sense of decency. Kings had divine right; it was easy for them to rule because they had god on their side, and the public was frightened, or in awe of them. But these new princes, they had none of that. They had no veneration so they couldn’t behave like gentlemen, they had to behave like ruthless tyrants. I mean Machiavelli would say if you’re going to get rid of your opponents don’t just get rid of a few, get rid of the whole lot of them. If you get rid of a few, the ones you don’t get rid of will be so angry they’ll never forgive you, and you’ll have made mortal enemies. So make a clean sweep, have no mercy. In Ireland you know we would have simply killed all the Irish. Machiavelli was an advisor to these princes, and this was his, so to speak, his realistic advice to them if they wanted to stay in power: never trust anybody.

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And Napoleon spent a long time writing his own notes in the margins of his copy of The Prince. Was there a sense, do you think, in which Napoleon imagined himself as a condottiere?

Well, he certainly came from nowhere didn’t he? But then of course he did try and turn himself into a hereditary emperor. I’m sure everybody in that position did or should have read The Prince, but it isn’t at all fashionable nowadays, and it never has been fashionable in this country because we somehow or other have managed to keep a sort of continuous tradition of orderly and civilized, or relatively civilized government, and we never got a wholly new lot of people who didn’t benefit by the habits of the people to accept their authority, but we’re getting that now. It’s a good point that: we’re getting these new people, who absolutely know we don’t trust them an inch, or respect them. I mean a prime minister today is almost in the same position, in that he can’t afford to think the public are going to give him a second chance. We’re almost reverting to the time when reading Machiavelli might be necessary in English. That would be a thought for today—if Gordon Brown were to start mugging up on his Machiavelli, then he’d have to kill off David Cameron mighty fast.

A nice thought on which to end, thank you very much for your suggestions.

Before Cameron kills him off.

This interview was published on August 6th, 2009

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Peregrine Worsthorne

Peregrine Worsthorne (1923-2020) was a journalist, writer and broadcaster. He was a 'high Tory' and a staunch defender of aristocratic government. He thought having a ruling class which was rich and hereditary was a good thing. The longer-established, the better. But his views were unpredictable and he was never dull. When asked what he wanted as his desert-island luxury, he chose LSD.

He was a leader writer and foreign correspondent for the Times from 1948-1953. In 1961 he joined the Sunday Telegraph as its first deputy editor and was editor from 1985 to 1989, remaining as a columnist until 1997. He also contributed to the New Statesman and to the online magazine The First Post. He was the author of The Socialist Myth, 1972, Tricks of Memory, 1993 and In Defence of Aristocracy, 2004. He died in October 2020, aged 96.

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Peregrine Worsthorne

Peregrine Worsthorne (1923-2020) was a journalist, writer and broadcaster. He was a 'high Tory' and a staunch defender of aristocratic government. He thought having a ruling class which was rich and hereditary was a good thing. The longer-established, the better. But his views were unpredictable and he was never dull. When asked what he wanted as his desert-island luxury, he chose LSD.

He was a leader writer and foreign correspondent for the Times from 1948-1953. In 1961 he joined the Sunday Telegraph as its first deputy editor and was editor from 1985 to 1989, remaining as a columnist until 1997. He also contributed to the New Statesman and to the online magazine The First Post. He was the author of The Socialist Myth, 1972, Tricks of Memory, 1993 and In Defence of Aristocracy, 2004. He died in October 2020, aged 96.