Monday, September 16, 2013

France in Modern Times by Gordon Wright.

Gordon Wright’s cogently written France in Modern Times is a historical survey text from 1750 to the present. The author’s approach to teaching France’s modern history is admirably dispassionate. Wright presents a time or topic as simply as possible, then proceeds to offer the reader a number of conflicting interpretations from modern historians. This way, a reader may see the subject from more than one perspective. The professor will then present his own humble, one might even say timid, opinion on which current he supports.  Wright is rarely forceful or too insistent in the process. Because so many books have been written on each period discussed by Wright, and because there are such a variety of opinions on each period, the Professor ends each major section with a full chapter of related books with descriptions of their content. This open-minded, open-ended structure is one of the chief strengths of the book, along with the author’s broad and deep grasp of modern France.

There are two puzzling areas where Wright was unable to maintain the veneer of dispassion. First is his approach to increasing secularism in society, and second his views on what has been called the Revolution of 1848. Regarding his perspective on secularization and anti-clericalism, Wright begins in the Enlightenment. This normally fair-minded author uses the phrase “lunatic fringe” to describe Baron d’Holbach’s atheist views; hardly a politic choice of words (Wright, p. 26). He ignores that d’Holbach facilitated what is arguably the most important salon of the period. Wright’s opinion is not countered by the usual presentation of an opposing analysis. (For a differing view on the importance of atheism during this period, read Philipp Blom’s A Wicked Company. The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment.) Wright continues with his Philosophe-bashing, by talking about the internalized “persecution mania” of these intellectuals, without discussing that they did suffer actual persecution in the form of censorship and jail (Wright, p. 29).

The professor’s prejudice against secularism continues with his characterization of the 1791 Church Settlement reforms, (a set of laws passed by the National Assembly to strip the Catholic Church of its special privileges) as “ill-conceived” and “the worst example” of reform measures because “it brought down the Pope’s anathema upon the revolutionary leaders and turned most of the clergy into stubborn opponents of the new system” (Wright, p. 48). Again, there is no contrary opinion from this proponent of presenting both sides. A countervailing evaluation how the separation of church and state might be a form of progress, and that a self-interested Church would naturally oppose such action, would have been apt here.

As France continues to remove the Church from public institutions, Wright continues to complain. The Professor appears bewildered by the 1870s attempts to further limit clerical influence on education and government. Regarding the country’s political leadership, he asks “why did it overact in the religious sphere? What produced its excessive, almost neurotic emphasis on the clerical problem” (Wright, p. 242)? For a second time, Wright employs the unfortunate phrase “lunatic fringe.” This time he is describing “Freethinkers associations” whose views were anything but lunatic or fringe, given that their ideas were the politically successful opinions of the majority (Wright, p. 243). It’s as if the professor did not himself live in a society that valued separate spheres for religion and public institutions.

Regarding the second puzzling area in Wright’s narrative, his perspective on the Revolution of 1848, the professor begins his analysis by calling it “a result far out of proportion to the cause” (Wright, p. 128). He explains this statement by claiming that “Frenchmen were not being oppressed or tyrannized (Wright, p. 128).” But the rest of the chapter about 1848 offers evidence to refute his initial statement. Wright discusses the “long-endured misery” of the working class and censorship in the form of opposition leadership “denied the right to hold public political meetings” (Wright, p. 130). In spite of this curious self-contradiction, the author writes a superb encapsulation of 1848 according to Marxist historians. While he did not share their political goals, Gordon Wright was open-minded enough to admit that “some aspects of Karl Marx’s original analysis and of the modernized Marxist version are undoubtedly sound” (Wright, p. 135).

This openness to differing ideas, and an ability to effectively present them, is more typical of Wright than are his views on the secularization of French society. Throughout his career, Wright rarely permitted his examination to fossilize. He was continually incorporating new perspectives. As historiography diversified to include People’s History, and Women’s History, so did France in Modern Times with each new edition. Since Wright himself was always learning and evolving, those who read this history will obtain a generally wide and balanced view.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1981.