The Sacred French Revolution: Emile Durkheim, Lynn Hunt, and Historians

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Blake Smith

The French Revolution was a spiritual phenomenon, a manifestation of the sacred. Its legacy and commemoration have become a religion with rituals, festivals, and idols. This was the provocative thesis of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), who founded sociology as an academic discipline in France. Still more provocative was Durkheim’s insistence that the religious nature of the French Revolution did not make it incomprehensible, irrational, or illegitimate. Instead, its “sacredness” was precisely what allowed it to be understood by scholars, and to be a source of inspiration for modern democracies. It was religious in every aspect—a historical event as creative as Genesis, an object of memory venerated by the faithful, and a topic of study for the scholars who partake in its truth and power.

In her article, “The Sacred and the French Revolution,” published one year before the bicentennial of 1789, historian of the Revolution Lynn Hunt recalled Durkheim’s influence on her field and her own scholarship.[1] The theorist of the sacred played a critical role in her development of a new perspective on the Revolution guided by questions about culture, identity, and experience. This post retraces Hunt’s engagement with Durkheim and argues that this encounter, now thirty-one years old, poses fresh possibilities and challenges not only to historians of the French Revolution, but to scholars of revolution everywhere.

After hundreds of pages describing Aboriginal rituals, Durkheim’s final monograph, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: The Totemic System in Australia (1912), suddenly begins to prophecy, predicting of the future that:

Again there will come a day when our societies will feel moments of creative effervescence…once these moments have been felt, people will need, spontaneously, to experience them again…We have already seen how the Revolution created acycle of festivals to rejuvenate the principles that it inspired…although this work was stopped short…everything encourages us to think that sooner or later, it will be taken up again.[2]

This burst of messianic fervor is key to Durkheim’s understanding of the French Revolution as a religious phenomenon and to his contribution to its historiography. It contains, in condensed form, three propositions about the Revolution as event, memory, and topic of scholarship. First, the Revolution was one of a number of moments of “creative effervescence” that have erupted in history, generating new values and identities. Second, these moments are remembered through collective practices such as festivals. Finally, the Revolution is a force that, although perhaps temporarily suspended, may resume its work in the world to shape events and our understandings of them. It is, all at the same time, a sacred event, a model for ritual, and a spirit within us.

As Hunt observes, Durkheim had been reading the work of French historian Albert Mathiez—whom Durkheim’s own earlier scholarship had influenced. Looking beyond the revolutionaries’ clashes with the Catholic Church (and clashes between the Church and the French Republic in his own day), Mathiez saw revolutionaries not attacking religion in general, but rather developing their own forms of spiritual life oriented towards the celebration of humanity and the nation instead of God. In his studies La théophilanthropie (1903) and Les origines des cultes révolutionnaires (1904), Mathiez reconstructed the practice and theory that had guided the diverse efforts of governments in the 1790s to replace Christianity not only with republican beliefs, but with republican practices and “sentiments.” The latter may seem a strange, vague term—but “sentiments,” or emotions with an irreducibly intersubjective orientation, transmitted from one person to another, were critical elements of eighteenth-century social theory (e.g., Adam Smith’s 1759 study on the social role of emotions, The Theory of Moral Sentiments). Mathiez was particularly attentive to the ideas of the revolutionary député Louis-Marie La Revellière-Lépeaux (1753-1824), who had argued that: “secular ideas of liberty, equality and patriotism…needed to be felt in collective gatherings.”[3] The Republic could not survive merely as notions and norms—it had to live in its citizens’ shared feelings.

The work of Mathiez and the ideas of La Revellière-Lépeaux inspired Durkheim to redefine religion. If the Revolution saw the emergence of new cultes, or religions, as Mathiez suggested, then religion could not be defined as the something directed towards the divine or even the supernatural—there could be religions that worshipped an abstract humanity or reason. Nor could religion be defined on the basis of belief alone. As Mona Ozouf, building on Mathiez’ work, showed in her work on the revolutionary “festivals” (fêtes), leaders like La Revellière-Lépeaux did not see the “religions” of the French Revolution as the sum of private acts of faith. Rather, they saw them as public, social practices that would create new communities.[4]

As Durkheim reflected on the French Revolution, however, he came to realize that its religious aspects went deeper than the cultes and fêtes organized by politicians. Indeed, there was something artificial and untenable about such made-to-order religions. A “living religion (culte),” he claimed, could only emerge “from life itself.”[5] The Revolution appeared to him as a stream of vital energy, animating the political leaders who imagined that the specific rituals and practices of their devising were what really provided its power. Religious experience, Durkheim insisted, was not just something that revolutionary actors instilled or manipulated, a sort of ideological tool in the hands of politicians. It was, more radically, the origin of the Revolution, its condition of political possibility—not what revolutionaries created through festivals and rhetoric, but what they had to undergo before the Revolution could begin.

In a passage midway through Elementary Forms, Durkheim tried to prove to readers that action taken in common with other people can have a “sacred” force, that is, an energy that astonishes and transforms those involved. Think, he urged, of the Revolution’s “Night of August 4th, when an assembly was suddenly brought to an act of sacrifice and self-denial that each of its members had refused the day before and by which they were all surprised the day after.”[6] That night, over the course of a late-running session of the National Constituent Assembly, its members, mostly noblemen, voted for the abolition of their own privileges and indeed nearly all the legal inequalities that constituted the Old Regime. By sacrificing together in this spectacular, unforeseen eruption of solidarity, Durkheim argued, the members of the Assembly discovered themselves as members of a new society, with new values, orientations and identities—it was as though a god had descended upon them.

For Durkheim, this transformative, unplanned experience—one that made revolutionaries as much as revolutionaries made it—was truly a religious phenomenon. Such a view challenged the theories of Karl Marx, who saw social change as the product of conflict between objective social groups defined by their material conditions and their economic activity, acting in their interests to the extent they were not bamboozled by illusions such as religion. Durkheim, in contrast, insisted that social groups, and entire societies, emerge in an essentially religious way. Individuals become connected to each other through shared patterns of activity (Marx was right enough on this point). Along these networks, individuals share concepts, vocabularies, and orientations to the world, creating a shared “consciousness.” In certain moments of “effervescence” or heightened energy like the Night of August 4th, a swell of emotion rises through individuals sharing a collective consciousness, transforming them—making them capable of such otherwise unthinkable acts as giving up their privileges. They encounter something “sacred,” totally different from their normal experiences yet intimately a part of themselves and shared with many others. This sacredness, in fact, is precisely their experience of acting collectively.

The transformative exhilaration of religious experience is not, as in Marx’s account, a reality-clouding “opiate of the people,” nor are religious practices and references the crowd-duping instruments of elites. Rather, Durkheim argues that both the ecstatic, spontaneous events that initiate Revolution and the choreographed festivals that perpetuate corresponded to normal, legitimate aspects of social change in general. After such a spectacular event like the Night of August 4th ends, ordinary life seems insipid. Individuals want to experience again those feelings of belonging, transformation, and sacredness—and to preserve that sense of community.  The storming of the Bastille, a spontaneous and singular historical event, becomes Bastille Day, an annual ritual. With marches, flags, and songs, crowds worship sacred objects that represent the primordial event, the generative force, and the community brought to awareness of itself. These objects, Durkheim observes, do not have to be material—in an 1898 essay he argued that the religion of the French Third Republic worshipped the rights-bearing human being.[7]

Durkheim’s theory of revolution as an unpredictable collective emotion that comes, like tongues of holy fire, to give a new spirit to a community was at first neither well-understood nor well-received by scholars in the United States.[8] One of Lynn Hunt’s mentors, Charles Tilly, with whom she worked in the mid-1970s while a fellow at the University of Michigan, was perhaps Durkheim’s most exasperated critic. Tilly sought to develop a historical sociology that would account for how groups interact to transform societies. In a pair of 1977 working papers, Tilly despaired of finding anything of value in the French sociologist’s work.[9] He complained that Durkheim seemed to offer no hypotheses with any predictive value, no analytical frameworks to anticipate how and when social changes would take place. Durkheim, he declared, was “useless.”

Hunt began her scholarly career working within the sort of framework Tilly envisaged, studying the composition and interaction of collective political actors in the French Revolution. But she discovered, along with a number of other “revisionist” scholars of the period, that the groups she expected to find hardly seemed to exist. This realization led her away from Tilly’s historical sociology, and into conflict with the long-reigning Marxist interpretation of the Revolution. French Marxist historians presented the Revolution as a step forward for humanity, linking 1789 to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and providing legitimacy for the French Communist Party. Hunt’s book Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984) revealed how poorly the constellations of late-eighteenth-century French political actors seemed to align with the categories of Marxist theory. Cheekily suggesting in an essay published that same year that Tilly had been, in fact, a “prodigal son of the Durkheimian tradition,” Hunt began to ask new kinds of questions about how and why groups come together—questions that lead her to Durkheim and the sacred.[10]

Taking the French Revolution seriously as a religious event meant breaking with the Marxist paradigm. It also meant confronting the weaknesses of the most forceful “revisionist” historian, François Furet (1927-1997). In the 1970s, the anti-Marxist thinker had shocked the French academy with his interpretation of the Revolution—borrowed to a large extent from the ideas of nineteenth-century conservatives Alexis de Tocqueville and Augustin Cochin. The Revolution, in Furet’s eyes, produced no significant social or economic change, only escalating rhetoric and outbursts of violence as political actors, blinded by ideology, pursued illusions. This view of the Revolution, ironically, shared with Marx’s vision of society a sense that actors ought to be rational but become, somehow, duped and beguiled by false beliefs of which religion is the great example.

For Furet, not only had the Revolution been a kind of religion—and thus an episode of superstition and irrationality, a distraction from real politics, but so too were Marxism and the scholarship inspired by it. His 1978 Penser la révolution française is a denunciation of the “catechism” of Marxist historiography, its “traditions, canons, vulgate.”[11] His critique of twentieth-century Communism, Le Passé d’une illusion (1995) attacks not only Marxism but “revolutionary passion” in general as a “pseudo-religious investment in political action,” a perversion of the (presumably rational) political process by spiritual enthusiasm.[12] Furet, like Hunt, played a role in the historiographical ‘linguistic turn,’ recognizing that, historical processes are shaped by the discourses in which actors speak, think, and experience themselves. But he saw the religious aura of revolutionary political speech and of Marxist historiography as a kind of infection that his own work—skeptical, sarcastic, and distant—could diagnose and purge.

When she spoke in 1985 before a French academic audience divided between Marxists and Furet’s camp, Hunt remembers, she considered herself “a friend” of both sides.[13] It might be said, however, that in her rediscovery of Durkheim and of the religious character of collective identity and political activity, Hunt was offering both sides a grave challenge. Against the Marxists, Hunt used Durkheim to claim that social groups were not objective entities bound by economic interests, but spiritual communities that imagined themselves through performances. Against Furet, she suggested that the Revolution was not to be judged by its rationality but by its creativity. Against both, she posited that belief, emotion, and identity were not distractions from politics and from serious historiographical topics but were the originating forces that created the objects with which politics and scholarship concern themselves.

In the following years, Hunt would build on her Durkheimian moment of the mid-1980s to explore the cultural and emotional foundations of the Revolution and its legacy in books like The Family Romance of the French Revolution (1992), and Inventing Human Rights (2007). However, specific references to Durkheim’s work became uncommon in her work, as did an engagement with the religious nature of the Revolution.[14] She pursued other sources of insight such as psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and global history as these flashed in and out of historiographical trendiness. Her later work nevertheless reveals the lasting value of Durkheim’s insights, and suggests new prospects for future research.

Inventing Human Rights, for example, traces the emergence over the eighteenth century of a sense that individuals’ physical and moral autonomy possessed a “sacredness”: a transcendent value, the inviolability of which was expressed in the form of “rights.” Slowly developing and disseminating through patterns of shared cultural practice, this inchoate consciousness of the sacrality of the individual and individual rights suddenly crystallized in the Age of Revolutions. Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Hunt notes, held “these truths” to be “sacred” rather than merely “self-evident.” While no longer characterizing her work in Durkheimian terms, Hunt’s point that the origin of modern democratic politics is the story of how the individual became the center of a new religion is one Durkheim surely would have endorsed.[15]

From the perspective that Durkheim and Hunt offer, historians can ask how other “sacred events” like the Night of August 4th have taken place, been remembered, and incarnated new “sacred things” like the individual, the nation, or humanity. We can also ask what the religious nature of revolution means for our own scholarly practice. From the vantage of Durkheim, Furet was not quite wrong to say that his Marxist colleagues had formed a kind of church, with historian-priests venerating the sacred event of the Revolution and the sacred objects it had created. He was wrong, however, to imagine that historiography can do without such a sense of the sacred. To say so is not an excuse for carelessness with historical evidence or deliberate mythologization of the past. But if Durkheim is right, historians—even the most unimaginative empiricists or most Foucauldian skeptics—turn to the past because we feel it to be a creative force that has produced moments of revelation whose traces and memories still orient our lives—and because we hope, with Durkheim, that by recalling that such works “stopped short,” we may help them to be “taken up again.”

Blake Smith is a Fellow at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on exchange between South Asia and France, and on French intellectual history. He is also the translator of the works of francophone South Asian author K. Madavane.

Title image: Vue du jardin national et des décorations, le jour de la fête célébrée en l’honneur de l’être suprême (Festival of the Supreme Being), 1794.

Further Reading:

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated Karen Fields. The Free Press. 1995 (1912).

Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights: A History. W.W. Norton. 2007.

Ozouf, Mona. Festivals and the French Revolution. Translated Alan Sheridan. Harvard University Press. 1988 (1976).


[1]   Lynn Hunt, “The Sacred and the French Revolution,” in Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies, ed. Jeffrey Alexander (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 25-43. The sociologist Edward Tiryakian wrote a remarkably similar article on the topic of Durkheim and Mathiez’ relationship at the same time as Hunt. See Tiryakian, “Durkheim, Mathiez and the French Revolution: The Political Context of a Sociological Classic,” European Journal of Sociology, vol. 29, 2 (1988), 373-96.

[2]   Emile Durkheim, Les Formes Elementaires de la vie réligieuse. Le système totémique en Australie (1912). Accessed  vol. III, 147.

[3]   Tiryakian, 386.

[4]   Mona Ozouf, La fête révolutionnaire, 1789-1799 (Gallimard, 1976).

[5]   Durkheim, vol. 2, 146.

[6]   Durkheim, vol. 2, 205.

[7]   Steven Lukes, “Durkheim’s ‘Individualism and the Intellectuals’” Political Studies, vol. 17, 1 (1969), 14-30.

[8]   On Durkheim’s reception, see Anne Rawls “Durkheim’s Epistemology: The Initial Critique, 1915-1924,” The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter, 1997), 111-45; “Durkheim’s Epistemology: The Neglected Argument,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 102, No. 2 (Sep., 1996), 430-82.

[9]   Charles Tilly, “From Mobilization to Revolution,” Center for Research on Social Organization Working Paper n. 156 (1977); “The Useless of Durkheim in the Historical Study of Social Change,” CRSO Working Paper n. 155 (1977).

[10] Hunt, “Charles Tilly’s Collective Action,” in Vision and Method in Historical Sociology ed. Theda Skocpol (Cambridge University Press, 1984).

[11] Furet, Penser la révolution française (Gallimard, 1978), 135.

[12] Furet, Le Passé d’une illusion (Laffont/Calmann-Lévy, 1995), 13.

[13]Lynn Hunt, la passion de la Révolution,” L’Histoire  (June 2014).

[14] An exception is Hunt’s recent article, “Revolutionary Time and Regeneration,” Diciottesimo Secolo, 1 (2016), 62-76.

[15] Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, 29, 18.

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