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Book review

Vive La Revolution by Mark Steel. Scribner, 2003

Mark Steel
Mark Steel

Before Simon Schama's recent hit TV series A History of Britain, his main claim to fame rested on a book about the French revolution. In Citizens Schama joined a long list of conservative-minded historians who regard the French revolution as a tragic mistake. Over the years this has provoked a Bolshevik-inclined response from those who derive inspiration from this type of revolution, and this book is to a large extent a reply to the conservative interpretation and Schama in particular. As Steel writes in his Preface, this history of the French revolution of 1789 is “a guide to, and an inspiration for, our own times.”

We can safely assume that Steel doesn't envisage an irate mob with pikes storming Buckingham Palace, followed by the beheading of Prince Charles and assorted aristocrats. A more likely scenario is something along the lines of a generalised poll tax revolt, as favoured by the SWP, of which Steel is a supporter. But what then? In 1789 France they had Robespierre and the Jacobins to lead the elimination of the old order and usher in bourgeois rule. The answer, obviously, is leadership provided by an organisation like the SWP. Steel is fully aware that the French revolution was a capitalist revolution, with a citizenry mostly reacting to events, yet it does not occur to him that this type of revolution is inappropriate for a socialist revolution where the majority know what they are doing and what they want.

Steel is a writer, broadcaster and stand-up comedian. The history of the revolution is told in a mostly jokey style, and it is a story well told. It's the book Trotsky would have written, minus the jokes. But read it – as the SWP say when they tell the electorate to vote Labour – without illusions.