Laughing all the way to the guillotine

Issue 

Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution
By Mark Steel
Scribner, 2003
299 pages, $29.95 (pb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

On June 20, 1789, Dr Guillotin made a significant entry into history. Locked out of their meeting place by King Louis XVI, he escorted the "Third Estate" (elected representatives of the French people who were not aristocrats or clergy) to an indoor tennis court (Guillotin knew the court manager) where they set their parliament up as the new government of France. The reign of the absolute monarchy was over.

"The doctor", writes Marxist comedian and English Socialist Alliance candidate Mark Steel, "must have assumed that as a result of this incident, future generations would remember his name for ever as the bloke who found a place for the Third Estate to meet" but "perhaps he also thought, 'That's a shame because I've always fancied myself as an inventor, but I don't suppose anyone will ever remember me for that'".

The guillotine as an instrument of execution is not the most fertile field for humour but Steel manages the feat with aplomb, combining a serious analysis of the French Revolution with rib-tickling laughter, without trivialising either the grandeur or the tragic troughs of the revolution.

For political conservatives, the guillotine symbolises the sheer awfulness of the French (and all) revolutions, but, as Steel says, "once you remove the prejudice that anyone involved was fundamentally rotten, an entirely different picture emerges". In Steel's treatment we see in the leaders and unsung heroes of the French Revolution "a story of people not very different from those we know today, who found themselves participating in an extraordinary journey", when "every idea thought to be eternal was swept away".

Just as humour features in the ideological arsenal of protest today, so it did in pre-revolutionary France. The labouring classes viewed with satirical scorn Queen Marie Antoinette's dress allowance of 300 times what the average carpenter was making, or Louis and Marie's place (the Palace at Versailles) with its 300 cooks, 700 rooms and 20 kilometres of roads.

To the French peasants, labourers and artisans, whose main role in life was to be taxed, while having to fork out two-thirds of their tiny incomes on bread, royalty was no laughing matter. The monarchy held absolute power. The poor, in alliance with the capitalist class, had to resort to revolution. As the streets, cafes, pubs and villages came alive with political ferment, the revolution found its leaders. At their head was Maximilien Robespierre.

"One of history's pantomime villains", twirling his moustache while sharpening the blade of the guillotine, Robespierre would not be your first choice to share a pint with (he was the archetypal "humourless leftie") but he had the single-minded focus to drive the revolution forward and his compassion for the poor was genuine. When he stood for election, he meant it when he said, "Our countryside offers the spectacle of an unhappy people, who spray with tears of despair the soil their sweat has fertilised in vain". Which, says Steel, "has to have the edge over, 'I am married with three children and wish to serve the people of Croydon North by reducing crime'".

Most popular among the poor, however, was Jean-Paul Marat, though he could be a bit confrontational, for example demanding that the republican constitution should contain the phrase, "Man has the right to deal with their oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts" (Marat's doctor tried to cure Jean-Paul's over-exuberance by cleansing his blood with leeches).

The French Revolution's energy came from the physical presence of the poor. It was their search for weapons to counter aristocratic resistance which led to the storming of the Bastille (a giant armoury and prison) in 1789. It was the 10,000 women who force-marched an absconding king back to Paris, and the diligence of a village postmaster who captured the king when he again tried to escape to plot a foreign invasion to crush the revolution.

In 1792, the alliance of Robespierre's Jacobins (radical bourgeois republicans) with the labouring classes (the "sans-culottes", Marat, the "Enrages" [Madmen], the Society of Revolutionary Women) prevailed, taking all power from the monarchy. This second revolution is what causes the blood-pressure of moderate historians to rise. It was the "undemocratic" act of a handful of activists, say the likes of Simon Schama, who calls the "whole of the sans-culotte 'movement'" the work of 2000 zealots.

This portrayal of revolution as undemocratic has an ancient lineage, notes Steel: "As the Romans walked through the field of slaves to ask, 'Which one is Spartacus?', they probably said to each other, 'Look at this, the usual suspects. Most of this lot are probably middle-class students pretending to be slaves'."

When, however, conservatives attack revolution as undemocratic, not only do they contemptuously deny the ability of the majority to take an active part in the direction of society, they are also being hypocritical: "History, for them, revolves solely around kings and queens, presidents, popes and generals. Or, to put it another way, a handful of activists."

But perhaps blood doesn't lie and the 1792 revolution stands condemned by the guillotine? Around 40,000 people were executed by the blade in "the Terror", the civil war that followed the revolution, but, as grisly as this was, context matters and Paris was under threat from foreign armies promising the wholesale massacre of every last republican.

Yet, says Steel, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to professional academics, "the war of which the Terror was one part is ignored, leaving the image of a handful of maniacs bent on blood-lust and vengeance. It's as if a history of the British suggested we all went insane around 1944, blacking out windows at night, sleeping in underground stations and sailing across to Normandy to shoot thousands on the beach for no apparent reason."

While hypocritically focusing on radicals spilling blood, conservatives are ideologically blind to the positive side of the revolution — price controls, radical extension of democracy, land distribution to peasants, free primary education, outlawing discrimination against Jews, election of officers in the revolutionary army, banning corporal punishment and the abolition of slavery. Enough there to excite any 18th century shock-jock (and their descendants).

These changes reflected a profound restructuring of social values. Robespierre had taken lodgings in the spare room of a cabinet-maker's family, whereas "at the start of this business, the ruler of France was waited on throughout several palaces". Now, "at the height of the Revolution, the most important man in France, on his way to dealing with war and famine and establishing a reign of equality, would have to wait for a carpenter to leave the bathroom so he could clean his teeth".

Victory in the war, however, exposed the fault-lines of class in the republican camp. For the business-friendly republicans, the Revolution stopped at the rights of property holders. Robespierre now turned "the Terror" against the radical leadership of the labouring classes. This isolated the Jacobins, who became victims of the guillotine as, first, conservative capitalists, then Napoleon, declared the Revolution to be over.

Steel's history of the French Revolution brings alive and humanises the people and the politics of the revolution by using the contemporary language and subversive humour of people today. He finishes his book with what is surely the funniest bibliography by a revolutionary Marxist stand-up comedian on the French Revolution, ever (OK, not a lot of other contenders but why quibble). Mark Steel proves that socialist humour is worth its weight in laughs.

From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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