John Hardman on Barnave

John Hardman

Amie Strachan met with the author of a new book on the favourite of Marie Antoinette who lost his head in the Revolution.
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John Hardman, who was Antoine Barnave?

Barnave (1761-93)  was a young  barrister from Grenoble who gained national recognition in 1788  with pamphlets attacking the government. At the age of 27 he was elected to the estates-general and played  a prominent radical role from the start. By 1791, however,  he felt that the Revolution ‘must be ended’ before it led to the destruction of the monarchy and a redistribution of property. He then became Marie-Antoinette’s secret adviser and the two governed France by correspondence. As the country slid towards a war which negated his policy of entente with Austria, he withdrew to Grenoble and was arrested there in August 1792. In prison he wrote a brilliant analysis of the origins and progress of the Revolution to  date.

How did you find the process of going through Barnave’s manuscripts? Was there anything particularly challenging?

Barnave’s papers are a jumble -thousands of pages largely unclassified either by himself or those who confiscated them for use at his trial. Many are in note form  with heavy use of abbreviations. His writing is hard to read because written quickly. Much represents first thoughts but these  often tell us more than final versions.

The main premise of this biography is to dissect the many faces of Barnave. How would you describe him as an individual having completed this work? 

Barnave was a mass of contradictions, starting with his birth: son of a bourgeois father and noble mother -an explosive mixture at the time.  He appeared arrogant to all but his intimate friends who adored him. He attacked and then defended the monarchy. He wanted to ‘end’ what he, more than most, had begun. An ‘infamous cartoon’ shows him as a two-headed dandy, one ‘the man of the people’ (1789) and the other ‘the man of the court’ (1791). He was both but concurrently not consecutively. He served the one by serving the other.

What do you think Barnave’s encounters with female relatives/peers/political adversaries says about attitudes towards women at the time?

The only detailed evidence we have of  close relations with women concern his mother and Marie-Antoinette. Women were not meant to ‘wear the trousers’  -that is a major reason for Marie-Antoinette’s unpopularity. Barnave at first thought she was ‘frivolous and incapable of logical thought;’ but close contact made his revise his opinion. He treated his mother as an intellectual equal but his amorous encounters were disastrous to judge from his desperate drafts letters and induced in him a degree of misogyny.

Do you think that France’s failure to implement a constitutional monarchy was inevitable?

The problem was that, in contrast to England’s ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688, Revolutionary France was saddled with an incumbent but distrusted king. Therefore the new constitution deprived Louis XVI of the means to govern effectively and he told them so in no uncertain terms. Barnave realized that the constitution was inherently republican and would have to be modified in time. But time was denied by the onset of war with Europe which revolutionized the Revolution.

You compare Barnave’s Introduction à la Révolution française to Karl Marx’s later work in the 1800s. To what extent do you think Marx was influenced by Barnave’s work?

Barnave’s  Introduction was published together with those of his papers which were not confiscated in 1843 -five years before the Communist Manifesto. So Marx could have read it. So could de Tocqueville. But neither mentioned it. Marx may have plagiarised it. Jaurès’s Histoire Socialiste (1900-03) was the first to recognize Barnave as a precursor of dialectical materialism.

Are there any lessons to be taken by todays politicians from those formative years of the French Revolution? 

The cardinal mistake made by the Constituent Assembly was the ‘fatal decree’ preventing deputies from becoming ministers. This entrenched warfare between the executive and legislative powers. This is still the case in France and is especially dangerous when as now ‘cohabitation’ is impossible . Macron had to issue his pension reforms by decree.

Do you see a lot of similarity between French revolutionary tradition and protest culture in France today? 

France, especially Paris has a long tradition of violence e.g. the massacre of Huguenots in 1572. I ask the question: was the Terror a Revolutionary or a Parisian phenomenon?  That said there is no doubt that the Revolution ushered in a period of instability and political violence which is still with us. The Capetian dynasty celebrated its 800th anniversary in 1787 -since then there have been ten political systems: five republics, one consulate, two empires and two monarchies.  Modern vandalism is the inheritor  of the ancien regime  jacquerie  (mindless peasant violence). Political violence -barricades- may be said to date from the Revolution. 

Can you tell us anything about your next work?

I am working on a book which will consolidate all the work I have done on the politics of the ancien régime, the pre-revolution, the constitutional monarchy and the first republic. It will be not a general but a political history of the Revolution, 1787-95, based on my archival work on the breakdown of the relationship between the crown and the Parlement, the 1787 Assembly of Notables, my trilogy of Louis XVI,  Marie-Antoinette and Barnave, and a short book on Robespierre plus two published collection of documents. It will highlight the failure to establish parliamentary democracy in France -a failure which continues to this day.

John Hardman is the author of Barnave: The Revolutionary who Lost his Head for Marie Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Amie Strachan is an Assistant Editor at Aspects of History.