NPJ Book Review: The Crowd in the French Revolution by George Rudé

NPJ Book Review: The Crowd in the French Revolution by George Rudé (1967)

My take: This history is focused. It captures my imagination even when a bit scholarly and in need of a translation of the French quotes. This is one of several works essential to comprehending the French revolution and the characteristics of the crowd.

The author is not pretending to give us a full chronicle of the French Revolution. For that, one might read the monumental work by Simon Schama, Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution, among many others.

 Rather this classic and realistic study is about the diverse nature of crowds, protestors and what sparked their gathering, leadership and movement. A crowd may be massive but it’s not a singular voice. The pace of development in 18th century – the rising income of the wealthy, the role of science, culture, tradesmen, craftsmanship and an unequal economy, where the horrors of being on the wrong end of the law was far worse than any nightmare one can imagine – the mere struggle to survive depended on one’s class and money. The people in the street were not a mob but a collection of citizens who had felt the yoke of an economy not working for them.

The author writes, ”every great revolution is attended by deep divisions and crises within the governing classes,” To understand any revolt is to suggest – follow the money and power and here it’s to follow the people who produced the labor. Who stands to gain and who stands to lose? In actuality it’s much more complicated as all revolutions and protests are…there’s a beginning, a build up to the crowds forming and protesting, demonstrating and when cajoled, abused and manipulated are forced into a violent response. The Bastille was viewed as a personification of evil. Conspiracy theories developed. 

Violence is never one sided. An innocent person is struck by a bullet, stones are thrown in reply, the citizen clashes with the soldier in the middle of the street, buildings burn, blood spills from the wounds of men, women and children….no one is a casual participant, a massacre follows, more crowds are formed, threats are made, the rich are angry and they assert an invasive power, yet when examining the crowds you find artisans, craftsman and numerous other wage earners who are weary and thoroughly disgusted of the injustices of the regime, the country is like a patient with a fever that needs resolve – a revolution. Riots occur, more blood is shed, arrests are made, the horrors of the French prison are worse than a bad dream.

Fear is used as a means to control crowds. The revolution reaches a juncture where fear is lost. When a person feels they have nothing to lose, anger becomes as diverse as the makeup of the individuals in the crowd. Each person has a reason for being part of the crowd. Crowds have multiple leaders and are more than one voice as others join they are anything but a mob when they coalesce behind a goal. Fear is lost in a crowd and they are complex movements with the potential for violence when provoked.

The crowds in the French revolution contained as many stories as the individuals in the various crowds.

The author examines the multifaceted nature of the crowd while offering insights into human behavior. This is a work of scholarship. Have a French dictionary nearby…this work is one of several works of the past century about crowds and what the world is leaning into – today. It’s a peek into the chaotic nature of a revolution where it’s difficult to tell who is who and what side they are on or represent and who are the outsiders becoming part of the crowds to stir things up in order to create chaos within the crowd to conquer by dividing.

This study is for an academic or urban library and for the person studying the nature of crowds within a revolution. It’s well researched and thought provoking.