Click on title to link to a chapter,"WORKERS REVOLT: THE GREAT CAT MASSACRE OF THE RUE SAINT-SEVERIN" provided by an unknown Internet source, from Robert Darnton's book reviewed below.
This year marks the commemoration of the 219th Anniversary of the great French Revolution. Democrats, socialists, communists and others rightly celebrate that event as a milestone in humankind’s history. Whether there are still lessons to be learned from the experience is an open question that political activists can fight over. None, however, can deny its grandeur. Well, except those closet and not so closet royalists and their epigones who screech in horror and grasp for their necks every time the 14th of July comes around. They have closed the door of history behind them. Won’t they be surprised then the next time there is a surge of progressive human activity?
The Great Cat Massacre- And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, Robert Darnton, Vintage Press, New York, 1985
Leon Trotsky in his classic three-volume History of the Russian Revolution spent some time describing the small unresolved contradictions of everyday life that had accrued in pre-1917 Russia and that formed the underlying premises for that huge social explosion. Trotsky, using classic Marxist terminology, called that process the molecular process of the unfolding revolution. By that he meant that for long periods the unanswered grievances at the base of society (in that case, like in the French, an overwhelmingly peasant-based society in the process of facing some major changes pointing toward an industrial society) not only go unresolved but unnoticed to the naked eye. However, in retrospect it became easy to see that certain changes almost dictated that a social explosion was in the making. Robert Darnton in the present book makes that same kind of retrospective analysis of some unnoticed points on the pre- French revolutionary cultural map that led up to 1789.
That said, it is rather ironic that Darnton himself is unaware of what he has uncovered. In his introduction and throughout his painstakingly documented work Darnton downgrades the effect that the material he has presented had on that later event. Intellectually, we can argue that point all day- the extent that the cultural superstructure of the old society when under attack can bring forth organizations, cultural phenomena, etc. that form the basis for a, many times, unconscious ‘oppositional’ cultural structure that can form the basis of a new social outlook. But, we are still nevertheless looking at that old friend, the molecular process.
Darnton has presented six different episode of cultural expression beginning in the early 18th century but most of the episodes coalesce around mid-century. In the course of this exploration he investigates the transformations of ‘fairy tales’- from the age-old oral tradition of the peasantry- to see what changes are wrought there over time and location. A key episode is the essay from which the book takes its title on the artisan response to changes in the structure of work as the, let's call it, pre-pre industrial age begins to take hold in France. In short, the class struggle at the base that will reach its height in the emergence of the sans culottes in the 1790’s. Thereafter Darnton investigates an old regime bourgeois's attempt to make sense out of a world (based on observations from his city of Montpellier) that is starting ever so slightly to crumble and that can only be called a masterwork of organization and sociological insight for the period.
The last three episodes detail the emergence of the modern intelligentsia that has since played a key role in many revolutions (and counter-revolutions, as well). Darnton, as is necessity when discussing the creation of a self-conscious intelligentsia, tips his hat to Diderot and Rousseau as representative of the two emerging poles of intellectual discourse. In probably his most insightful essay Darnston describes the new reading habits of the provincial bourgeois- the very type whose break from the old regime is decisive in the early stages of the revolution. One, hopefully, can see by this summary what I mean when I state that Darnton does not fully appreciates the tremendous work that he has uncovered in search of the molecular process of revolution. Nevertheless, kudos, Professor.