Lynn Hunt’s Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution

Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution

In her work Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, Lynn Hunt examined the transformation of political culture in France during the last decades of the eighteenth century. In Part I of her book, Hunt argued that the origin and legacy of the French Revolution are fundamentally political because the failed political culture of the ancien regime precipitated its fall, and the political culture developed by revolutionaries dynamically articulated the collective intentions and expectations of revolutionaries while also giving rise to a democratic republican tradition that remains the political standard of many nations to this day.

Hunt argued for this thesis by illustrating how the idea of “politics” changed from an abstract concept often reserved for social elites to ponder, into a tangible, compelling force that infused the daily life of thousands with potency and significance. Hunt defined political culture as the “values, expectations and implicit rules that expressed and shaped the collective intent and actions,” and used this definition as a lens through which to examine the symbolism, ritual, and innovation of the revolutionaries in France and the impact that revolutionary tradition had on the larger world community.

Hunt’s analysis was an elaboration on, and in some cases a rebuttal of, previous interpretations of the origins and outcomes of the French Revolution. Marxist, Revisionist and Modernist scholars tended to ignore the political culture of the revolutionaries and focused instead on the social implications, be they class struggle, status anxiety, or the eventual equality of subjects; yet according to Hunt the revolution transformed politics, but largely left social and economic realities unchanged . Hunt did not disregard previous scholarship; instead she builds her argument upon the assumptions, fallacies, and brilliance of other scholars, making particular use of Mona Ozouf’s work on revolutionary festivals and Maurice Agulhon’s study of revolutionary seals and statues.

In order to convincingly portray the collective intent and expectations that motivated and united the revolutionaries, Hunt used the symbolic practices, rhetorical cohesion and political mobilization of the lower classes as evidence. Hunt recounted the proliferation of liberty trees, festivals, pamphlets, signs, republican catechisms, and tri-color cockades, revealing the vast numbers of such symbols. Once the scope of such popular imagery was established, Hunt concluded that these symbolic practices reflected and shaped the politicization of the French people. Hunt contextualized abstract concepts such as the “mythic present” and other revolutionary ideology within the Enlightenment ideals and conspiratorial threats that bound the revolutionaries together. She cited rhetoric found in speeches, plays, periodicals and instructional books.

Hunt used the reorganization and renaming of temporal and special terms, the repetition of meaningful words such as nation, constitution, and patrie, and the usage of revolutionary talking points as evidence to prove the revolutionaries were intent on remaking society while disavowing the past. The very massive amount of words printed, published and spoken about politics during that time persuasively communicated the proliferation of rhetoric, and Hunt used that proliferation to demonstrate the common belief that words could have power and that powerful words could change mankind. The evidence of the politicization of the lower classes was found in the sheer volume of French people involved in elections, political clubs, festivals, marches and publications. Hunt tied this evidence of politicization to her thesis by stating that this level of fervent political involvement was entirely new and accompanied by the belief that politics was “an instrument for reshaping human nature”.

In her examination of the political culture of the French Revolution, Lynn Hunt used a rhetorical style that was at once practical and provocative. Her ability to tie abstract concepts to the details of daily life in Revolutionary France gave her narrative powerful credibility and her confident writing style was both convincing and compelling. While a testament to careful scholarship, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, carried with it no obvious underlying valuational, moral or political point but instead provided insightful analysis founded in meticulous research.

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