Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this special podcast edition, Tim spoke with David A. Bell about his book, Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Timothy Shenk: Historians have recently described the French Revolution—a period you’ve spent much of your career studying—as a “historical backwater” and an “interpretive cul-de-sac.” How did you end up there?
David Bell: Well, back when I was drawn to it, it wasn’t a backwater. Revolution was still a very live and interesting concept in the Western world, and it seemed to me that the French Revolution was in many ways the starting point of modern politics. One of the astonishing things about the French Revolution is just how politically fertile it was.
Shenk: You call it a “the most important political laboratory the world had ever known.”
Bell: Exactly. In a period of just five years an absolute monarchy turns into a constitutional monarchy, which is overthrown and replaced by a democratic republic, the first time that you have universal adult, male suffrage really in Western history. Then within a couple of years that is basically overthrown and replaced by an unstable ideological dictatorship, which itself collapses very quickly, is replaced by an unstable, illiberal republic, which is then overthrown by a military coup. In a period of ten years, you have so many basic political forms that would influence the Western world for the next two hundred years.
Read or listen to the full interview at DissentMagazine.org.