The Politics of Rural Life: Political Mobilization in the French Countryside, 1846-1852.

The Politics of Rural Life: Political Mobilization in the French Countryside, 1846-1852. – book reviews

Gregor Dallas

How the Second Republic was beautiful! How neat and accommodating were those events as they were played out again and again in the texts of the professional historian: the economic crisis, the common man’s call for justice, the initial revolutionary enthusiasms, the deceptions, the treason, the reaction; bare-chested workers shot down in the streets, rural “notables” in felt top hats conniving with capitalism and tyranny, the press gagged, the army sent out, the repression, the prisons–a socialist democracy cut short. The conservatives appeared so evil, the leftists so heroic. Surely only Nazi Germany and the Second World War could compete in issues as black and white as this.

For a very long time the only grey zone in the story was the peasants, though this was a rather unfortunate defect since they made up the majority of the population. Marx, we know, dismissed them as a sack of potatoes; lesser luminaries regarded them as stubborn and bewildered blockheads who retarded civilization’s forward march and were manipulated by any wicked, reactionary despot that came along. Then, about twenty years ago, a team of scholars made a concerted effort to restore this zone by giving it a fresh coat of paint–in black and white. The peasants of the Second Republic became “politicized.” Not only were they now regarded as active participants in French national politics but, by some accounts, they marched at the vanguard of the forward socialist and democratic movement. Dr. Peter McPhee’s book is in that tradition.

The first hint of this is on the book’s dust jacket, which shows a bare-chested peasant swinging high the red flag of “1852” while the tiny figures below him, the crowned members of the old elite, file humiliated into the netherworld of history. The text inside corresponds to the image in both idea and style. McPhee obviously owes enormous debt to the dean of progressive peasant studies, Professor Maurice Agulhon of the College de France. But it is clear that the principal inspiration here comes from a younger generation of historians, what McPhee at one point refers to as the “American school” which “has analyzed with great skill the dialectical process of radical activism and its repression.”

Now, one could sympathize with some returning voyager from a foreign star who innocently confuses this with the “Soviet school” of the 1930s–it after all subscribes to the theory that “speculators” were the cause of high grain prices in the 1840s, that rural elites survived by extracting “surplus” from the producers and that all history is essentially a matter of class struggle. But, no, this is indeed the “American school.” Half way through his book, McPhee explains its origins; it was founded “in the years 1960-75 by scholars as excited by the discovery of a revolutionary peasantry in the mid-nineteenth century as they were aware of peasant-based wars of liberation in former European colonies.”

That probably accounts for the odd flights Dr. McPhee makes to Egypt in 1952, to Japan “in the 1950-63 period,” to “contemporary Malaysia,” to “England in 1381” and to nineteenth-century East Anglia. But let us concentrate on what he has to say about rural France during those six years of political crisis, 1846-1852.

The author’s basic idea is to provide a national synthesis out of the plethora of local studies that, if they have made this one of the most scrutinized periods in history, have been the cause of a certain amount of confusion. McPhee’s intention is “to make creative use of the tension between local, regional, and national dimensions of rural life, within a narrative framework.” He reviews the food crisis of 1846-47, the attacks on grain dealers, food convoys, mills, chateaux, and threats to hang administrators “from the highest poplars around the lake”–a style of violence familiar enough to any student of the eighteenth century. McPhee argues that “all these protests were ultimately political, confronting as they did power-holders within the community.” Yet when it came to February 1848 the rural crisis had virtually disappeared: the fall of the monarchy was quite unexpected. What happened now was that the Parisian events set off a different series of troubles, not in the same areas as in the preceding year, and this time more “ideological.” They were marked by appeals, for example, for “agrarian law,” that primal call that “no one should possess more than another”: “Tremble, ye aristocrats of Cogny!”

There follows a series of elections and plebiscites which McPhee argues–in line with the “American school”–gradually polarizes French rural society. It is, he says, “a process of political praxis.” By May 1849 “a clear choice had been made” when peasants voted either for the party of Order (in the North and the West), or the democ-socs (in the South); the moderates–to McPhee’s delight–had been routed. The peasants who voted for the democ-socs became yet more radicalized on learning of the failure of the attempted leftist coup in Paris the following month. Then came the electoral law of May 1850, which reduced the electorate by over 30 percent, and peasants living chiefly in the South became more incensed than ever. Provencal cafes and chambrees were filled with angry men. Sickles, pitchforks and the old hunting gun were unhooked from the walls, and an appeal swept the land for the rapid establishment of the peasants’ and artisans’ republic. Louis-Napoleon’s successful coup of December 1851 actually saw peasants imposing la Rouge in several communes of southern France in a rising which–if it only lasted a little over a week–was the most extensive rural revolt since 1789.

For McPhee these events are the proof that peasants were not passive objects acted upon by urban political manipulators; they were, on the contrary, “acutely aware of living through a momentous crisis of uncertainty and optimism, fear and solidarity.”

One has to understand that McPhee’s demon here is what he calls “diffusion or trickling-down theory”–the idea that the political choice of peasants was determined either by rural notables or by urban radical activists. As Dr. McPhee observes, this idea is derived from the twin facts that historians base their work on documents compiled largely by bureaucrats, reflecting the bureaucrats’ hierarchical Weltanschauung, and that historians themselves pass most of their lives in bureaucratic hierarchies (surviving, presumably, on “surplus” extracted from society’s producers). The historians thus feel a certain affinity with the hierarchical views expressed in their bureaucratic documentary sources.

The problem I have with this book is that McPhee’s own answer to the question of political choice is itself rigidly hierarchical–hierarchical in time, hierarchical in space, hierarchical in social conception. For in the end, of course, it all comes down, in McPhee’s rural world, to dialectics: “the dialectical relationship between the structures of the specific community or region, the historically produced but not static perceptions rural people had . . . , and the specific conjuncture in 1849 of economic crisis. . . . ” (my emphases).

On community structures McPhee sticks to Agulhon’s schema of things: communities that were “vertical” went along with their notables and voted conservative, communities that were “horizontal” listened to newspapers being read in cafes, sang songs, and voted for the left. On “historically produced perceptions” McPhee follows a straight line from local ritual to national political ideology: if the communities thought of the French Revolution as the good old times, their rituals and carnivals developed, after 1848, into expressions of “reasoned political ideology”; if the memory of the Revolution wasn’t so happy (like in the Vendee) . . . well, McPhee doesn’t delve into the details here. McPhee spends much space analyzing songs, though most of them seem to have been composed by urban residents, journalists, or what would usually be described as an elite. It was perhaps some powerful copyeditor at Oxford who made the disastrous decision that all these songs should be translated, in the main text, into English–the result verges on caricature (“On capitalism I declare war,/ We must attack with great hammer blows/ The paying of interest, the pernicious abuse/ Of this system called laissez-faire/ By the aristo”).

The one area which would really give McPhee an opportunity to break out of hierarchy and “diffusion theory” is in economics and demography. Oddly (though McPhee may cite the example of Japanese smallholders in the 1950s increasing their output by 38 percent) the author is indifferent to the dynamics of the smallholding system, for it has to be said that McPhee’s rural economics–like many in the “American school”–is extraordinarily primitive. In Dr. McPhee’s France, if it is the “speculator” who causes high prices in 1846, it is “merchant collusion” that leads to over-supply in 1848. What could be more hierarchical than that?

McPhee’s understanding of demography is equally disappointing. He describes the demographic crisis thus: “Postponing marriage to a loved one, avoiding conception, or deciding that some family members would go to towns, themselves hit by unemployment and high food prices could not in the end ensure that the household would be able to afford sufficient flour or bread.” Now there is, in fact, something very dynamic which could be explored here, something born within the rural household, something that would in the end affect the whole structure of France’s economy. What was going on in those households in the 1840s?

I cannot help but remark that in a footnote I discover a book by this reviewer, cited as an example of the argument that rural society did not change in the mid-nineteenth century. This is, in fact, a rank misrepresentation of my position; I did actually argue that there was a major change in rural economic and demographic strategy at that time, and used this as an example of how dynamic and adaptable a smallholding system could be! The character of that change completely passes McPhee by.

But, in truth, so does most of rural France. Alongside The Politics of Rural Life, I happened to be reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey which describes the Cevennes, a region touched on by Dr. McPhee. RLS describes the hedge-inns, the peasants in green coats, the ringing of cattle-bells, the stony drove-roads, a shepherd leading flocks to the note of a rural horn, the gross turf highland frontier separating the deserted mountainous Cevennes from “the Cevennes of the Cevennes,” the deep turning gullies of the Tarn and the Spanish chestnuts standing four-square to heaven. The people troop out to their labors at dawn and return home in threes and fours at night. RLS, with a revolver in his pouch, driving his donkey forward, gives life to this busy, breathing, rustic landscape of the French South. What a useful introduction it would be for an American undergraduate. In contrast, I am not sure–beyond the “American school”–at what public Dr. McPhee’s book is aimed (at $69 no peasant I know will buy it). Could it be used in a course? Maybe. But “Rural France” would be the wrong one–because this is not so much a book about France and its peasantry a century and a half ago as it is about America (or Australia?) and the dreams of its students just two decades ago.

The book is dedicated “To George Rude and to the memory of Albert Soboul,” a useful reminder that the pupils are rarely the equal of their masters.

Gregor Dallas Anet (Eeure-et-Loir)

COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group