In his long and distinguished career, William Doyle has established himself as both the pre-eminent British scholar working on the politics of late-18th-century France and a combative campaigner for close, empirically based analysis of high politics. This kind of approach was not uncommon among historians writing on Britain in the 18th century, even before Lewis Namier gave it his particular spin from the 1930s onwards. But in France, it has been both rare and largely depreciated in regard to the causes of the French Revolution of 1789, which is Doyle’s area of expertise. Louis XV reigned from 1715 to 1774, yet the first 20th-century scholarly biography worthy of the name, Michel Antoine’s brilliant study, was published as late as 1989. Many prominent Ancien Régime ministers have never received even one biography. Moreover, not only have historians of 18th-century France neglected high politics, but it has also been widely viewed as intellectually impoverished and politically reactionary. This made Doyle’s early writings all the more daring and indeed courageous.
Before the 1970s and 1980s, history writing about the French Revolution was dominated by a version of Marxism watered down to conform with the left-wing Jacobin tradition in French politics that stressed radical authoritarian centralism. ‘Jacobino-Marxism’ regarded the Revolution of 1789 as the result of a structural crisis of feudalism