For ages I've been reading L’Ancien Régime et la Revolution (see 5 & 6 November 2010) and have now nearly finished. It’s slow work because it’s in French.
I bought it second hand in Brussels but that copy fell to bits so I bought a new one -- identical impression -- from Amazon and read the second half in that.
I'm as impressed as ever. He seems to have conducted the sort of inquiry that no one had thought to do before, looking in the archives of 18th century France and earlier for clues to what made the revolution happen in France in such a unique way and what survived it. In the second book he’s into the literary antecedents: the philosophes who were totally out of touch with the lives of the peasants and yet whose ideas provided them with the language to contemplate their injustices; the économistes, mainly administrators, who cared nothing for liberty and everything for what de T. calls socialist reforms of the state: all-powerful state that individuals exist to serve, standardisation, centralisation, rationality, away with all traditions. Well before the Revolution they wanted to rationalise and rename the provinces; all their planned roads were dead straight.
The elite had no idea that the people would revolt, so long had society been without any public or political life so they had no way of knowing what the people thought. The ruling class were so ignorant of the peasants that they supposed their own exchanges were unintelligible to them; one aristocratic lady used to undress in front of her servants, says Voltaire, because she didn’t realise they were people with human responses.
And the final twenty years before the Revolution were the most prosperous in French history and made most progress towards alleviating the condition of the people. De Tocqueville comments that it’s precisely when oppression starts to ease that it is felt as most intolerable.