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From Eden to Terror: Reciprocity, Redistribution and the French Revolution
My research project offers new answers to the old question: Why did the French Revolution radicalize after 1789? My approach emphasizes the politics of interests . Prior interpretations, which stress circumstances, counterrevolution or political ideology, leave little room for the role of interests. Drawing on the anthropological concepts of redistribution and reciprocity, I show how commitments to economic liberalism, before and during the Revolution, radicalized politics. As Karl Polanyi noted in The Great Transformation (1944), the more authorities try to evacuate material demands from politics, the more those demands storm back into politics with a vengeance. Although he did not apply this insight to the French Revolution, it helps us understand the political dynamics of the late 1780s and early 1790s. The failure to meet redistributive demands for rents (interest on the public debt) and for bread (due to commitments to free-markets) weakened the ability of each successive regime to command allegiances. As redistribution dried up at the top, it exploded in radicalized form at the level of local politics (1792-1794).
Charles Walton is Director of the Eighteenth Century Centre at the University of Warwick and an associated researcher the Institut d’histoire de la Révolution française (Paris I- La Sorbonne). He prepared his BA at the University of California, Berkeley, and his PhD at Princeton University. Before joining the History Department at Warwick, he taught at Sciences Po (Paris), the University of Oklahoma (Norman) and Yale University. His research focuses on Old Regime, Enlightenment and Revolutionary France, with emphases on democratization, rights and obligations, liberalism and socio-economic justice.
His prize-winning book, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: the Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (2009, paperback 2011), explores the themes of honour, public opinion and political violence. It shows how freedom of expression became a contentious, radicalizing issue before and during the Revolution. He has edited a collection of essays in honour of Robert Darnton on print culture and the Enlightenment, Into Print: Limits and Legacies of the Enlightenment (2011).
His current book project, From Eden to Terror: Reciprocity, Redistribution and the French Revolution, examines how cultural patterns of redistribution and notions of reciprocity changed in the transition from a clientelistic, hierarchical regime to a regime of civil equality and market freedom in the Revolution's early years. It relates these changes to the process of radicalisation and the crisis of political legitimacy. The study focuses especially on the politics of patriotic giving and taxes; new kinds of patronage and corruption; economic liberalisation and re-regulation; and economic and social rights.
He has also written on topics related to current events, revolution and freedom of expression:
- 'The Missing Half of Les Mis' for Foreign Affairs (2013). A review of Tom Hooper's film Les misérables.
- 'Revolution and Redistribution: Reflections on France and Egypt', for La Vie des Idées (2013). Version française traduit par Emilie L’Hôte ici).
- 'When Free Speech Becomes a Kind of Fundamentalism', The Conversation (Jan 8, 2015). Reflections on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy of 2015.
- ' "The Right to Spit in the Face of Others": The Changing Meanings of Free Speech in History', Dialogue no. 11 (spring 2015), p. 34-37.