Georges Lefebvre: Historian and public intellectual, 1928--1959

Date of Completion

January 2001


Biography|History, European|History, Modern




This dissertation is an intellectual biography of Georges Lefebvre (1874–1959), one of the most influential historians of the French Revolution in the twentieth century. The years 1928 to 1959 form the chronology of this study, since they represent his formative years as a historian and his most prolific years as a scholar and public intellectual. ^ As a historian, Lefebvre was a pioneer in the study of the French peasantry and was a proponent of the “social” or “orthodox” interpretation of the Revolution. The dissertation explores the positive contributions his scholarship made toward reconciling the social and cultural aspects of the Revolution through the study of peasant and revolutionary mentalité . It argues that his scholarship can stand as a model for contemporary historians who wish to reconceptualize the social history of the Revolution. Revisionists such as Alfred Cobban and François Furet attacked Lefebvre's social interpretation as a Marxist teleological rendition of the meaning of the Revolution that obscured the real legacy of 1789, the inauguration of modern political culture. While the revisionist claim has its merits, the success of revisionism has had the unfortunate effect of denying Lefebvre a proper place in the historiography of the Revolution. ^ The dissertation also argues that Lefebvre's role as a public intellectual is an aspect of his career that has been misunderstood by historians of both the political left and right. During the Popular Front years he pursued a program of constructive political commitment that sought to unite diverse elements of the pro-republican left against what he believed were threats to the stability of the Third Republic at the hands of fascists and the French right. After World War II he became a fellow-traveler of the French Communist Party, whom he credited with defeating the Germans and preserving the republican tradition. The dissertation argues that the divisive politics of the Cold War encouraged revisionist historians to focus on his alignment with the Party to the detriment of the constructive political commitment he pursued in the 1930's. ^