The following guest post is by William J. Upton
The Daily Caller’s Eric Owens has an interesting piece up on a bizarre section in Barron’s AP European History (a study guide aimed at preparing high school students for the Advanced Placement European History exam – a test that could earn them college course credit). The guide provides a chart that details the political factions and ideologies behind the French Revolution – Owens ran with the bizarre conflation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the Ku Klux Klan as the “Reactionary/Fascist” forces (more on the use of “fascism” later). As outrageous as that is – and it is definitely outrageous – the real lede is buried completely. If you look at the chart, it gets pretty much nothing right.
I present, how Barron’s sees the French Revolution:
Photo Credit: The Daily Caller
Let’s begin from left to right on their “Political Spectrum.” The sans-culottes are placed somewhat reasonably – though the chart misspells the term as “Sams Culottes,” like a Sam’s Club but for pants only). Here, though, it would also be appropriate to note that the sans-culottes were less of a mob and more along the lines of a motley group of radicalized laborers who became militant partisans during the Revolution. They weren’t so much “Communist” as they were radical democrats and republicans spurred on by anarchist factions like the Enragés and anti-Christian/terrorist factions like the Hébertists. The inclusion of the Enragés and Hébertists would have given some perspective into the radical nature of the far-left drive of the revolution.
As you begin to move to right from the sans-culottes, the chart becomes a mess of inaccuracy. The Montagnards weren’t just some “leftist” group that wanted to “regulate banks and corporations.” Led by Maximilien Robespierre, the Montagnards held down the far left of the Legislative Assembly. Their political rivals – only slightly to their right in terms of ideology – were the Girondists (not the Girendists as Barron’s spells it). The Girondists, as with the Montagnards, were anti-monarchy. The key difference between the two factions, however was over the general course of the revolution. The Girondists were killed in mass executions during the Reign of Terror in which the radical-Jacobin Montagnards and Hébertists hunted down and murdered their political rivals. The Barron’s chart bizarrely insinuates that the Jacobins were anywhere from leftist to moderate/centrist – a laughable designation when you take into consideration that the chart has the Girondists to the right of the Feuillants.
The Feuillants were a faction in the Legislative Assembly who broke with the more left-wing Jacobins over what form of government France would take. While the radical Jacobins wished for a republican or democratic form of government, the Feuillants pushed for a constitutional monarchy – rejecting the more radical Jacobin propositions. As mentioned above, the ideological beliefs of the Feuillants should see them placed to the right of the Girondists as the Feuillants were far more “conservative.”
The supposedly “liberal” Jacobins were in favor of “small gradual change … Most Democrats.” This is also problematic because the Jacobins, as led by Danton, Marat, and Robespierre, were radical and preferred a radical change in the government of France. The Feuillants are the better fit for the chart’s category of liberal with the Jacobin-Montagnards to the far left and the sans-culottes and the Girondists between the two. For the sake of the chat’s attempt to explain the revolutionary factions though, it could be reasoned that the Feuillants represent the conservative block on the spectrum.
The “Right Wing” block equating the Royalists/Monarchien with the Tea Party is equally humorous, and Mark Lilla, writing a few years back at The New York Review of Books, might agree. The fact is, in the American political sense, there is no real analog to the royalist factions in Revolutionary France. Perhaps the loyalist factions during the American Revolution would be the best stand in, but even then, the connection is imperfect.
Another serious issue with the chart’s spectrum is the distinction that the royalists were right-wing while only the wealthy emigrees were “reactionary.” The royalist faction had ideological allegiences that spanned the political right in France – from those who supported a return of the Ancien Regime to stalwarts of the Catholic Church that opposed the de-Christianization program of the Hébertists to Christian peasants in the Vendee who rose up in an attempted counter-revolution.
This brings us to the final, and headline grabbing problem with the Barron’s chart. The “Reactionary/Fascist” block. In a most inappropriate decision, one that Eric Owens at the Daily Caller jumped on, the authors decide to label Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (who is African American) and the Ku Klux Klan as analogous to reactionary forces during the French Revolution. Justice Thomas is hardly a reactionary, most political observers would probably agree that he is a political conservative with an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. The Ku Klux Klan is also a bizarre comparison as the organization was infamously anti-Catholic and proto-Southern nationalist, two concepts (anti-Catholicism and nationalism) that would have been repulsive to the French counter-revolutionaries. The other serious problem with the far right end of the spectrum is the inclusion of the term “fascist.”
Fascism is a political ideology that borrows from both the political right and left, resulting in a nationalist syndicalism (nationalist socialism). Its origins are the subject of much debate in the world of political philosophy but what makes its presence on the Barron’s chart so egregious is that in terms of a coherent ideology, it didn’t come to be until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The modernist concept of nationalism that has infected much of the far-right traces much of its roots to the radical left during the French Revolution who envisioned a unified, nationalist French Revolutionary state standing against the trans-national monarchical empires such as Great Britain, Spain, and Austria-Hungary. The Bonapartist government (post-French Revolution) added to the concept of nationalism – especially in terms of a French nation standing against the old empires – and in many regards made it “safe” for the right to adopt nationalist ideas. The inclusion of the term on the Barron’s chart then is obvious, it is meant to smear those that stood against the French Revolution and the Terror – pure historical revisionism.
The lesson that should be taken from this story about Barron’s and their AP European History study guide is simple and sad. The American education system is woefully inadequate. Complex ideas and historical moments of importance are oversimplified and sometimes warped to fit an agenda. This isn’t an adequate lesson in history. It’s a lesson in crackpot pop-culture where one political faction has always been correct and the other always wrong. Barron’s should be ashamed that such a poor quality lesson made it into their publication. Next time, I suggest they make sure their editors run it by accredited academics and scholars whose focus is on the subject area — it would seem this time they did not.
Editorial note: Barron’s just tweeted at the author of the piece, saying “the book in its current form is being destroyed.”
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