Charles Walton is Reader in the History Department at the University of Warwick. He is a specialist of Old Regime, Enlightenment and Revolutionary France. He is the author of Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (Oxford University Press, 2009), translated into French with a preface by Jean-Clément Martin: La Liberté d’expression en Révolution: Les moeurs, l’honneur, la calomnie (PUR, 2014). He is also the editor of Into Print: Limits and Legacies of the Enlightenment, Essays in Honor of Robert Darnton. He is currently working on reciprocity and redistribution in the French Revolution and is co-directing (with Claudia Stein) a three-year Leverhulme Trust funded network, ‘Rights, Duties and the Politics of Obligation: Socioeconomic Rights in History’.
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).