Albert Soboul

Albert Soboul
Born (1914-04-27)April 27, 1914
Ammi Moussa, French Algeria
Died September 11, 1982(1982-09-11) (aged 68)
Nîmes, France
Resting place Père Lachaise Cemetery
Citizenship French
Alma mater La Sorbonne
Subject French Revolution, Napoleon

Albert Marius Soboul (April 27, 1914 September 11, 1982) was a historian of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. A professor at the Sorbonne, he was Chair of the History of the French Revolution and author of numerous influential works of history and historical interpretation. In his lifetime he was internationally recognized as the foremost French authority on the Revolutionary era. However, since the 1990s his Marxist interpretation has been largely abandoned by most historians.

Early life

Albert Marius Soboul was born in Ammi Moussa, French Algeria, in the spring of 1914.[1] His father, a textile worker, died later that same year at the front in World War I. He and his older sister Gisèle grew up first in a rural community in Ardèche in southern France before moving with their mother back to Algeria. When she too died in 1922, the children were sent to be raised by their aunt Marie in Nîmes.[2][3]


The children's aunt was a primary school teacher, and under her care Soboul blossomed in his education at the lycée of Nîmes (1924–1931). He was uniquely inspired by the educator Jean Morini-Comby, who was himself a published historian of the Revolution.[4] Soboul excelled in his studies and developed a lifelong passion for history and philosophy.[2]

After Nîmes, Soboul studied for a year at the university of Montpellier, then transferred to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He published his first work of history, an examination of the ideas of the revolutionary leader Saint-Just,[2] originally attributed to a pseudonym, "Pierre Derocles".[5][6] Soboul completed his agrégation in history and geography in 1938.[1]


Called up for military service that same year, he served in the horse-drawn artillery before being demobilized in 1940. He had already become a member of the French Communist Party and remained committed to them even under the German occupation.[3] He received a teaching position at the lycée of Montpellier, but was dismissed by the Vichy regime in 1942 for supporting resistance activities.[3] Soboul spent the rest of the war years doing historical research under the direction of Georges Henri Rivière for the Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris.[3]

After the war's end, Soboul returned again to Montpellier to teach, then moved to the Lycée Marcelin Berthelot, and finally the Lycée Henri-IV. He became a close friend of the eminent historian Georges Lefebvre and under his direction Soboul wrote his 1,100-page doctoral dissertation on the revolutionary sans-culottes, The Parisian Sans-culottes in the Year II.[3] Soboul was later promoted to the University of Clermont-Ferrand.[3] After a decade as a combative academic presence and prolific author, he was made Chair of the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne in 1967.[3][7] He served also as editor of the Annales historiques de la Rèvolution française and lectured frequently throughout the world, acquiring a reputation as "the leading French authority on the Revolution."[3]

In his writings, Soboul promulgated the concept of overarching class struggle as the basis of the Revolution.[3] He carried forward many of the central viewpoints of earlier historians like Aulard and Mathiez,[1] and his extensive body of work is characterized by a clear, unfettered writing style and deeply detailed research.[2] He always rejected labels of his work as Marxist or Communist, describing himself as "part of the 'classical' and 'scientific' school of historiography represented by Tocqueville, Jaurès and Lefebvre."[3] Nonetheless, Soboul remains considered a principal architect of the Marxist school of historical analysis.[8][9]

Soboul propounded the Marxist interpretation arguing the Terror was a necessary response to outside threats (in terms of other countries going to war with France) and internal threats (of traitors inside France threatening to frustrate the Revolution.) In this interpretation, Robespierre and the sans-culottes were justified for defending the revolution from its enemies. Soboul's position and the entire Marxist model of the French Revolution have come under intense criticism since the 1990s. François Furet and his followers have rejected Soboul and argued that foreign threats had little to do with the terror.[10] Instead, the extreme violence was an inherent part of the intense ideological commitment of the revolutionaries – it was inevitable and necessary for them to achieve their utopian goals to kill off their opponents. Still others, like Paul Hanson, take a middle position, recognizing the importance of the foreign enemies and viewing the terror as a contingency that was caused by it the interaction of a series of complex events and the foreign threat. Hanson says the terror was not inherent in the ideology of the Revolution, but that circumstances made it necessary.[11]

Soboul emphasized the importance of the sans-culottes as a social class, a sort of proto-proletariat that played a central role. That view has been sharply attacked as well by scholars who say the "sans-culottes" were not a class at all. Indeed, as one historian points out, Soboul's concept of sans-culottes has not been used by scholars in any other period of French history.[12]


Soboul died in Nîmes, on the estate of his late aunt Marie. The Communist Party gave him a lavish burial ceremony at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, near the graves of prominent Communist Party leaders and the Communards' Wall, where the last Communards were shot in May, 1871.[13] A biography, Un historien en son temps: Albert Soboul (1914–1982) by Claude Mazauric, was published in France in 2004.[14] Toward the end of his life, Soboul's interpretations faced increasing opposition by new historians of the revisionist school, but his work is still regarded as a major contribution to the study of "history from below."[3]

Published works

Major publications in English

French publications

Soboul authored scores of books and articles in his native French; he also updated and revised numerous earlier works, and often collaborated with other historians in compilations and other projects.[15] After his death, his extant writings formed the basis of several further publications:

Posthumous publications

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Kelly Boyd (1999). Encyclopedia of historians and historical writing. Chicago: Taylor & Francis. p. 1,110. ISBN 978-1-884964-33-6. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 McPhee, Peter (2010). Philip Daileader; Philip Whalen, ed. French historians 1900–2000. Chichester, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 589–598. ISBN 978-1-4051-9867-7.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Friguglietti, James (1988). Cannon, John, ed. The Blackwell Dictionary of Historians. Oxford; New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd. pp. 383–385. ISBN 063114708X.
  4. For a list of Morini-Comby's works, see
  5. "Author: Pierre Derocles". OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. 2012. Retrieved 2 June 2012.
  6. "Notice d'autorité personne". (in French). BnF Catalogue Général. 2012. Retrieved 2 June 2012.
  7. University of California Press (2010). "Albert Soboul: 'A Short History of the French Revolution'". Regents of the University of California. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
  8. Haydon, Colin; Doyle, William (1999). Robespierre. Cambridge University Press. pp. 272–274. ISBN 0-521-59116-3.
  9. McGarr, Paul (September 1998). "The French Revolution: Marxism versus revisionism". International Socialism. Socialist Workers Party [Britain] (80). Retrieved 1 June 2012.
  10. François Furet, "A Deep-rooted Ideology as Well as Circumstance," in The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations, ed. by Frank Kafker et al. (2002). p. 222.
  11. Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution (1999)
  12. Paul R. Hanson (2009). Contesting the French Revolution. John Wiley. pp. 95–96.
  13. Cobb, Richard (1985). People and places. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN 0192158813.
  14. Mazauric, Claude; Huard, Raymond; Naudin, Marie-Josèphe (2004). Un historien en son temps, Albert Soboul (1914-1982) (in French). Narrosse: d'Albret. ISBN 2913055079.
  15. "Author: Albert Soboul (French language)". OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. 2012. Retrieved 2 June 2012.
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