Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.
The French Revolution is so universally used as a metaphor in social and political writing that it's refreshing to come across a straight narrative history of what actually happened. The French Revolution is a huge, sprawling story, and this is a big, heavy book about it—more than nine hundred pages, with an enormous cast of characters—in large part because each successive set of new bosses cut off the heads of their predecessors. Schama stresses the continuity of many of the aspects of the Revolution with changes already underway in the latter decades of the ancien régime—Louis XVI comes across as kind of Enlightenment Gorbachev—attempting to reform a bankrupt system from the top and setting in motion forces which couldn't be controlled. Also striking is how many of the most extreme revolutionaries were well-off before the Revolution and, in particular, the large number of lawyers in their ranks. Far from viewing the Terror as an aberration, Schama argues that from the very start, the summer of 1789, “violence was the motor of the Revolution”. With the benefit of two centuries of hindsight, you almost want to reach back across the years, shake these guys by the shoulders, and say “Can't you see where you're going with this?” But then you realise: this was all happening for the very first time—they had no idea of the inevitable outcome of their idealism! In a mere four years, they invented the entire malevolent machinery of the modern, murderous, totalitarian nation-state, and all with the best intentions, informed by the persuasively posed yet relentlessly wrong reasoning of Rousseau. Those who have since repeated the experiment, with the example of the French Revolution before them as a warning, have no such excuse.

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