Preface to ‘The story of the French revolution’ (De Leon, 1902)

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Préface à l’édition américaine de The story of the French revolution, d’ E. Belfort Bax.

belfortPREFACE TO THE AMERICAN EDITION

The French Revolution is an inexhaustible quarry. Many works have been written upon it; many more will be written; and safe it is to predict that something of
value will be brought out in all. For all that, what has been brought out is ample to justify the popular sentiment that the subject is one of deep and lasting importance.

But it is not merely in a general sense that the story of the French Revolution has permanent interest to the American reader. It is interesting to him in a special sense. Especially if the American reader be a student, he will find the story of the French Revolution to be of invaluable aid to his understanding and appreciating those features of the story of the American Revolution without the understanding and appreciation of which the flavor of the American Revolution is lost, and many of the lessons of both are very materially forfeited.

 » Same causes lead to same results. » Here is a maxim as true as it is exposed to grave error.  » Causes  » run imperceptibly into  » results, » and the reaction of  » results  » upon  » causes  » is so subtle that the two are often confused. Moreover, it is as important as it is often difficult to separate  » causes  » from  » accompaniments  » and properly group them. These are the pitfalls into which the superficial reader falls, and due to which the lessons of history are mainly lost to him. The story of the French Revolution furnishes an instance, and the instance is brought out all the clearer by comparison with the story of the American Revolution.

The French Revolution, like the American, was the revolution of the bourgeois or oncoming capitalist class. And yet we find that, on the one hand, the identity of the  » cause » is lost to many who, wholly unequipped with the key to the understanding of history and blinded by the  » accompaniments  » of each, consider them wholly distinct phenomena; while, on the other hand, others, somewhat but insufficiently equipped with the historical key, detect the identity of the  » cause, » but relapse into barren dogmatism through their incapacity to distinguish between  » accompaniments. » To the one and the other the full significance of the history of the French Revolution is lost, and along with that is lost the pregnant features of the American Revolution.

Numerous are the passages in Belfort Bax’  » History of the French Revolution » that furnish in hand the material with which to contrast the difference in  » accompaniments  » between the French and the American Revolution. Read with an eye to them, his contribution to the store of history is of great value to the philosophy of history.

Material interests determine man’s view-point. But material interests are, in their turn, determined by no one circumstance. The material interests that fretted against feudal restraints gave general direction to the revolt of the French bourgeois, and thereby caused its direction to fall within that quarter of the compass into which the American Revolution fell. But the exact point of the compass touched by each depended upon secondary material conditions. With the French Revolution, a sufficiently defined proletarian class simultaneously mounted the historic stage; none such made or could make its appearance in the instance of the American Revolution. To this secondary material fact touching France, and quite clearly brought out by Mr. Bax, is traceable a feature of the Revolution in France which imparts to that historic occurrence a physiognomy not shared by its American forerunner, and when properly appreciated, elucidates both.

The utterances of the great figures in the French Revolution, of its great apostles, bear for this reason interesting comparison with their American kindreds. Both sets bourgeois; both sets, accordingly, resting on the private ownership of the means of production, did nevertheless present very different aspects. With the former, who, living in a densely populated country, with natural opportunities already preempted, the declarations concerning the  » Rights of Man, » or  » Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, » were an exact reflex of their material surrounding: the proletariat was not included in the  » Rights of Man » or in  » Liberty, Equality, Fraternity « ; with the latter, who, finding themselves in an immense country, barely populated and natural opportunities accessible to all, their utterances included the whole human race.

In the domain of sociology, no less than in that of biology,  » comparative anatomy  » is priceless. A careful reading of Mr. Bax’  » Story of the French Revolution  »
— for the very reason that it is synoptical — will not only enrich the mind on the event that it describes, but it will suggest home studies that enlarge the mind.

Daniel De Leon.

New York, Oct. I, 1902.

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