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History Through Humor

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It's a rare occasion that a book comes along that redefines the genre it represents. It's an even rarer occasion when that book is a history book. Mark Steel's recently released history of the French Revolution, Vive la Revolution, is such a book. Steel, a British comedian and activist has not only rewritten the French Revolution, he has reinvented it in an incredibly humorous and radical way. Gone are the royalist sympathies one finds in so many of the period's histories. Gone too, are the dishonest portrayals of the Jacobins as nothing more than a bloodthirsty minority of leftists. Although he honestly describes the revolutionary excesses of the Jacobins and their allies, he just as honestly describes the comparable excesses of the royals and their cohorts, from the Prussians to the Girondins, who despite their desire for a change in the power structure, had much more in common with the royals they helped displace. Unlike the Jacobins, the Girondins wanted to share the nobles' power with the hope of eventually gaining most of it, whereas the Jacobins wanted to end it immediately and forever. Indeed, one thing Steel makes clear in this history is the the French Revolution was a war about class. Furthermore, if it hadn't been for the workers and peasants along with their intellectual leaders, the revolution would not have been as revolutionary as it was. Where the US war for independence left off is where the French revolution began, at least for the most radical elements of the revolution. Jean Paul Marat and Danton wanted a complete reversal of society, not just a shuffle from monarchist to bourgeois rule. Unfortunately, murderous revenge fueled by class paranoia got in the way and the Jacobins have been relegated to the role of guillotine crazed murderers. Naturally, part of the reason this role has been hung on their necks is because they did not write the history books. After all, it's not like the royals or the conservative Girondins were without blood on their hands. When it came to the royals, that blood was exponentially more, but as it happens after every social clash, the victors of the revolution were the ones who wrote the histories. The Girondins won the battles between them and the Jacobins (in part because of the paranoid excesses of the radical Jacobins) after the king and queen were killed, so it is their myth that has become fact. Steel understands this better than most and reminds the reader throughout the book of this fact, lifting quotes from other histories of the period and poking deserved fun at their often ridiculous assumptions and portrayals. Vive la Revolution is fun to read, but it's not just fun and games. The story of the revolution's transformation from a reform minded movement trying to convince the French nobility to share its power to a truly revolutionary situation is educational for anyone interested in how social change of this magnitude occurs. The serious student of social change can learn from the lessons Steel puts forth as eh comments about the events he describes. Poking fun at the way establishment media often portrays mass sit-ins and other forms of direct action as the work of a minority, Steel points out that all actions in history--by the state and against the state- are usually the work of a committed minority. It's when those actions represent the will of the majority, however, that they are successful. "After the Battle of Britain," writes Steel, "Winston Churchill didn't say, 'Oh typical, just a handful of activists with big mouths and airplanes.'" Besides the mass action described in this book, Steel's descriptions of the major players in the Revolution are lively and sharp. He turns these men and women into human beings: Robespierre the calculating puritanical revolutionary. Danton, the carousing, hard-drinking radical and Marat the enigmatic and incredibly popular rabble rouser. Although Steel's sympathies seem to lie with the radicals, he fairly represents the "moderate" Girondins and the Royals and the positions they took. This in itself is unlike most every other book I have read on this topic, all of which had a side to take, a point to make; and none of them making many points in favor of the radicals. This text is great history. It is also great fun to read. I read most of it while taking public transit to work and garnered at least a few stares as I led out the occasional loud laugh, thanks to Steel's uproarious writing. Like I told a friend, it's as if "The Daily Show" was reporting the French revolution and the writers were all sans-culottes and Jacobin sympathizers. If I were a teacher trying to teach my students about the French Revolution, this is the book I would use. Who knows, those students might even begin to like history.
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Ron Jacobs is a writer, library worker and anti-imperialist. He is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American (more...)
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