Vive La Revolution: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution by Mark Steel

I’ve been dipping in and out of the French Revolution quite a lot over the last year or so; and it’s quite clear from the start that this is often a grim affair with heads rolling and blood flowing left, right and centre. So humour is not something you’d expect to associate with that era and conflict, is it? Nevertheless, you’d be mistaken if you thought there were no laughs available, as I found when I picked up this random and unexpected find at the charity shop…

Mark Steel is a well-known comedian in this country, doing stand-up and appearing on TV and radio, as well as writing books and newspaper columns. His left-wing views are well-known, and he was a long-term member of the Socialist Workers Party. However, I wasn’t aware he had an interest in the French Revolution, so this book was something of a welcome surprise.

First up, it needs to be understood that this is a book with an agenda, and it never hides that. As Steel argues, most of the histories of the French Revolution have a bias against it, decrying the violence and deploring the loss of the aristocracy. The main revolutionaries are parodied, insulted and described in frankly bizarre and over-the-top terms; and the real social change which was desperately needed and was brought about by the conflict is usually dismissed. Steel displays his left-wing credentials plainly, quoting Clash lyrics at the start of the chapters and making plenty of attacks on those in power then and now, and the results is a refreshing alternative to all the hysterical misinformation chucked at the Revolution.

Steel’s mission is also to make the Revolution approachable, understandable and funny; as the blurb says, “the Revolution was one of the most inspirational event in human history – a moment when ordinary people became extraordinary and changed the world. It deserves better jokes.” And actually, it is very, very funny indeed, particularly when Steel uses a modern analogy to point out how daft something was, or takes one of his regular sideswipes at the stupidity of modern politics or our relics of the monarchic system.

Aside from the humour, though, the book manages to be very informative in a completely accessible way. Steel clearly knows his subject (the list of further reading at the end makes that plain!); he follows the progress of the conflict, paints often quite moving portraits of the main players, and discusses why things went pear-shaped enough to allow Napoleon into power and then the restoration of the monarchy (albeit in a truncated form). It’s always vastly entertaining reading and I kept thinking how much more fun history would be if it was taught like this. I also kept laughing out loud while I was reading the book, which must have irritated Mr. Kaggsy no end…

(Musée Carnavalet [Public domain])
Robespierre – variously described by his enemies as repulsive, green-veined, ugly and having the face of a tiger… But he voted *against* introducing the death penalty!

I was particularly interested in Steel’s take on Marat, Danton and Robespierre, and the ridiculously bad press they got. He makes a particularly good case for the rehabilitation of the latter (who seems to have been a man of the people, very much in the mould of Jeremy Corbyn), and indeed he’s pretty even-handed in his treatment of all concerned. Steel doesn’t condone the bloodletting (who would?) but seeks to understand the reasons for the descent into terror. He covers the various ends of the main players with empathy and allows all of them some humanity.

You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the Earth belong to no one and the Earth itself belongs to everyone. (Rousseau)

But the issues concerned are always at the centre of the book, and Steel pauses regularly to remind himself (and the reader) just how far things moved on and just how radical the changes were. The book puts the Revolution in the context of the Enlightenment, and against the background of total control by the monarchy and the Catholic Church. The King had previously been beyond all criticism, appointed by God and answerable only to him presumably; which makes the actions of the sans-culottes and the changes which took place in France unbelievably far-reaching. Many of the revolutionaries’ ideas and ideals (particularly Robespierre) seem to have anticipated theoreticians like Marx, and it’s quite clear that the French Revolution was in many ways the conflict that started the modern world.

“Vive La Revolution” is not only a subversive – and seriously funny – slice of popular history, it also sheds much light on the world we live in nowadays. The regular parallels Steel draws between the past and our present world are telling, making it clear how much has changed but also how much has remained the same. We still have a royal family in this country; class is still a major issue, no matter how much it is claimed that it isn’t; and the gap between the haves and have-nots widens every day. “Vive…” came out on 2003 and I would be very interested in seeing an updated version and finding out where Steel thinks we’ve gone in the interim.

So this was a wonderful, funny and very rewarding read which shed some left-wing light on the French Revolution, and also gave me a list of books to read and books to avoid… I think it’s an important contribution to the historiography of the Revolution, too, as there has been so much right-wing commentary and revision of the viewpoints of the past, that Steel’s clear-eyed stance on just how radical and important the conflict was is really refreshing. “Vive La Revolution” was one of those accidental finds that turned out to be quite brilliant, and if you want a great introduction to the French Revolution, with built in laughs, this would be a good book to start with!

(NB – there is a dearth of quotes in this post. I could have quoted *tons* of it, funny and serious, but in all honesty it’s better experienced as a whole, and I urge you all to go out and read it!)