On Counterrevolution

Semantic Investigations of a Counterconcept during the French Revolution

in Contributions to the History of Concepts
Friedemann Pestel Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg friedemann.pestel@geschichte.uni-freiburg.de

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After 1789, counterrevolution emerged as revolution’s first counterconcept in French political discourse. While scholars of the French Revolution commonly associate counterrevolution with a backward-oriented political program, often with the restoration of the ancien régime, this article challenges such a retrograde understanding. Drawing on a broad corpus of sources, it emphasizes the flexible and pluralistic meanings of counterrevolution during the 1790s. Rather than designating a political objective, counterrevolution first of all focused on the process of combating the revolution as such, which allowed for different political strategies and aimed beyond a return to the status quo ante. By discussing, next to the French case, examples from the Haitian Revolution, Britain, Germany, and Switzerland, this article also highlights the transnational dimension of the debate on counterrevolution. It concludes with a plea for rethinking counterrevolution as revolution’s asymmetric other in a more relational rather than dichotomous perspective.

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