We are not supposed to like the French Revolution too much. We acknowledge the virtues of its founding principles, liberal notions that persist to this day: liberty, equality and fraternity. When it comes to the public killing of aristocrats and royalist sympathizers, however, we condemn the Reign of Terror as an early form of totalitarianism, where the state decides who lives and who dies, who serves the common good and who threatens it. Liberalism praises the slow, organic process of evolution, of gradual reform reached through negotiation and compromise. It opposes the bloody and righteous severing of a new order from the status quo. Such a righteousness crusade, it is claimed, leads to the ends outweighing the means, inevitably resulting in purges and deliberate famines — or even outright genocide. In the popular imagination, the guillotine represents not just the specific time of the Terror, but also an early form of state-sanctioned terrorism. It is the epitome of the state using political violence to quash dissenters and silence critics. In a liberal and pluralistic society such as ours, where freedom of thought and speech are valued, the Terror stands as an aberration, a warning to us that the French Revolution ultimately betrayed its noble goals of bringing France from feudalism to modernity.
The problem with this perspective is that it presumes peaceful pacts toward progress are the norm. The reality is that harsh departures from the past are sometimes necessary. In the context of the French Revolution, the victory of liberal republicanism was not assured; on the contrary, it was under constant and continuous assault by an array of reactionary forces. Noble émigrés, religious peasants, and foreign invaders all desired a return to the traditional feudal system. Moreover, the revolutionaries themselves competed to shape the final product of their social upheaval. Constitutional monarchists, moderate liberals and radical utopians from the middle class shifted between allegiances with aristocratic reformers, the urban poor and starving peasants as they sought to steer the revolutionary state through uncharted waters to the unknown shore of a more just and prosperous society. Unlike “the Party” in George Orwell’s 1984 that desires only power for its own sake, even the most despotic figures in the latter stages of the Revolution believed they were imposing order to lay the foundation for a better world. They wanted to wreck any chance of the old order restoring itself, and while in the short-term they failed, in the long-run they succeeded. They showed that society arranged according to the feudal era was in essence antagonistic to the class relations created by the socioeconomic and cultural changes witnessed in the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution made the French Revolution unavoidable. The French Revolution in turn has undermined the ability of tyrants and oligarchs worldwide to rule, their very regimes constantly called into question.
Monarchs wielded political power after the Revolution (and inexplicably still do in many countries), but never in the same way again. Common laborers, though failing to achieve many of their demands, came away realizing the potential of people power. Most importantly, power in France shifted irreversibly to the bourgeoisie. Although many would become supporters of imperialism (under Bonaparte) or the monarchy (the Legitimists and Orléanists), they believed such regimes would be the best for France, not because they desired to exclude themselves from politics. The French Revolution taught its contemporaries and continues to teach future generations about their ability to affect incredible political and social transformations when adequately organized.
Interpreting the French Revolution
In academia, debate rages over two rival interpretations of the French Revolution. The classic Marxist interpretation, associated with historians Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, describes the Revolution as a bourgeois uprising against feudalism to obtain the economic freedom to develop early capitalism. Revisionist historians like Albert Cobban and François Furet argue that the Revolution did not advance the development of France into a capitalist state, and rather than a equalizing event, regard it as a precursor to totalitarianism. In their view, the Revolution was more about barbarism than progress.
It is rather comforting to find parallels between the killings of the Terror and, say, the killing fields of Cambodia. It is easy to lump the two together and condemn them both. This knee-jerk judgement rests on the fallacious presumption that, historically, liberal democracy has relatively little blood on its hands. Truthfully, liberalism was just as violent as fascism and communism in remaking the social fabric, especially in its promotion of capitalism. Marx never wrote about the French Revolution, but he wrote extensively about the blossoming of capitalism. He makes it clear that capitalism and classical liberal views about free trade and individualism did not grow peacefully out of feudalism; they destroyed it and replaced it. We remain ignorant of this fact because textbooks recount the killing of kings and nobles, but are largely silent on the main victims of early capitalism: the peasants and craftsmen who once enjoyed secure places under feudalism. The turn to commercial agriculture and industrialization that defined the Industrial Revolution uprooted these people and removed their very livelihoods. They could either cling to the old ways or become workers in the new proletariat class. Marx writes eloquently not just about their exploitation under capitalism, but also about their alienation and creation of a false consciousness. People who had at least been connected to their labor under feudalism became unskilled wage-earners. The whole of their economic activity fell under the control of the developing bourgeoisie.
Even in places where the liberal replacement of feudalism went mostly unopposed, such as England and the nascent United States, regular people suffered in the name of capitalist progress. The major difference between those cases and France is that the bourgeois revolutionaries of the French Revolution attempted to create a new society in a matter of years, not decades or centuries. As we shall see, vested interests fought intensely to deny that. In 1800, it was possible for Jeffersonian republicans to lead a political revolution in the U.S., but in 2016, it is easier to imagine an end to the world than a major change to the political or economic system. Similarly, in 1789, the idea of challenging a feudal system that had ruled France for over 600 years was considered extremist and dangerous. That is, however, what the Revolution sought to do, and in so doing, inspired generations of people to question the present order and struggle to create a better world.
We should also consider the path France could have taken had it undergone peaceful reform rather than violent revolution. There is no assurance it would have become a liberal democracy. Barrington Moore touches on this in his seminal work on dictatorship and democracies. In Germany and Russia, the nobility allied with the bourgeoisie to organize industrialization through state-directed initiatives. When those countries underwent revolutions circa World War I, the republics that emerged were too weak to rule, leading to states of alternative ideologies. These states attempted to impose their own systems and principles as the liberal order they opposed, but with the swiftness and audacity of the French Revolution. Many observers take this to mean the French Revolution inspired fascism and Bolshevism. It is more apt to say Bolshevism and fascism were inspired by liberalism and how it forged new views of seeing the world. We often take for granted that the default ideas and systems of today were once considered radical and revolutionary.
The Absolute Monarchy
In order to understand the causes of the 1789 Revolution, it is necessary to consider both long-standing structural problems as well as more short-term crises that prompted a complete social collapse. To start, France was (ostensibly) an absolute monarchy in 1789, with power primarily centralized in the throne. While we might think feudalism is inherently dictatorial, in fact the opposite is true. The cornerstone of feudalism is vassalage: regional counts and barons ruling at the local level, but swearing their fealty to a higher lord. The king (or queen) was at the very top of the social pyramid, but his (or her) rule depended on the continued obedience of the vassals. To keep those vassals mollified, it was common practice for monarchs to extend their nobles special rights. The most infamous of these was the droit du seigneur (or jus primae noctis) that permitted nobles to have sexual relations with their female subjects on their wedding nights. There is no actual proof French lords (or any European nobles) invoked this right. French nobles did, however, exercise rights to rents from those who worked on their estates or domains, as well as a percentage of the crops harvested by peasants on the nobles’ lands.
It was not until the 17th century that the French monarchy began to erode the liberties vassals enjoyed under feudalism. These, of course, were the freedoms that protected nobles from the power of the monarchy. For example, French nobles had been able to take complaints on royal overreach to appellate courts called parlements (not to be confused with English parliaments) that would invalidate regal pronouncements if they infringed on convention. (Compare this to the unwritten constitution that still perseveres in British politics to this day.) The 16th century had closed with wars of religion across Europe, as the Protestant Reformation ruptured the glue that held the feudal order together: Catholicism. Cardinal Richelieu, the de facto head of the French government and well-known nemesis to the Three Musketeers in Dumas’ novel, sought to keep France in a strong position on the Continent and to profit from the disorder caused by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Local lords were brought to heel and the religious tolerance of Protestants was revoked. Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin, furthered these policies until the nobility tried in vain to reassert its power independent from the crown in a series of civil wars that finally ended in 1653. In the meantime, Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun King,” grew up as a child king, accustomed to unrivaled power. Under his reign, from 1643 to 1715, France was perpetually involved in wars over succession disputes, expansionism and counter-expansionism. France had become the hegemonic power of early modern Europe and behaved as such, diplomatically and militarily.
The Aristocracy & Bourgeoisie
The French nobility, although having lost some of its autonomy, remained quite powerful. The upper ranks of the military and the clergy, the pillars of absolutism supporting the crown, included only nobles. The most affluent attended the royal court at Versailles, engaged in intrigues and entertainment, living off the taxes and duties leveled on the peasants who worked their land. (Some hereditary peers living in rural areas, however, fared little better than the peasants they lived beside.) For those outside the noble class, it was possible to become ennobled through the sale of judicial and administrative offices. In the 17th century, the sale of offices was so common in order to fund constant warfare that, in the 18th century, access to the nobility became much more restrictive. The hereditary nobility had contempt for the bourgeoisie “diluting” their class through the purchase of a savonette à vilain (the commoners’ soap). The bourgeoisie who had already bought their way into the nobility also had incentive to block others from reaching their level, as they wanted their titles to become hereditary as well, securing fortunes for future generations. By 1789, social climbing was still possible, but much more daunting for members of the bourgeoisie. They were paying for the operation of the state, but were excluded from participation: a form of taxation without representation. This was a huge motivation for revolution.
The very nature of the French economy also discriminated against the bourgeoisie. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to the Sun King, had implemented a mercantilist system that featured heavy protectionist policies meant to develop French industries by promoting exports and depressing the demand for imports. Although France never equaled the English or the Dutch in foreign trade, the French state became incredibly powerful in terms of state-led production. The early bourgeoisie were thus merged into the existing feudal structure, overseen by a powerful bureaucracy. As a result, legal defenses of property rights and private economic competition did not blossom; on the contrary, the state reigned supreme in economic matters, just as it did politically.
As discussed, members of the bourgeoisie that wanted greater power exchanged trade and commerce for titles and fiefdoms. For example, a financial counselor to Louis XIV, Antoine Crozat, rose from peasant stock to become a wealthy merchant before purchasing the barony of Thiers in 1714. Like many other bourgeoisie of his time, Crozat was heavily involved in France’s overseas colonies. In 1712, he received a royal charter granting him dominion over all trading and moneymaking licenses in Louisiana for 15 years. Sadly for Crozat and other bourgeois colonial overlords like him, the once profitable fur trade in North America had diminished, and colonialism on the new continent never prospered for the French empire the way it would for the United Kingdom. Crozat lost around $1 million even with his trade monopoly in Louisiana. When France lost the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) with Great Britain, the peace agreement stipulated that France turn over control of its North American colonies to the British. (It would later regain Louisiana from Spain, only to sell that territory to the U.S. in the Napoleonic era.) France was humiliated, leaving the feudal system in debt and in doubt. Absolutism and mercantilism had made France the strongest country in the world, but perpetual conflict and divergent class interests had taken their toll. The government could no longer take the “commoners” for granted. Importantly, this materialistic conflict also coincided with an intellectual movement that supplied an impetus to bourgeois reformers to challenge the very character of the feudal regime.
The Enlightenment & Rousseau
Political change in the late 18th century was synonymous with the Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution that sought to bring the rigor and dispassion of scientific analysis to human behavior, including theories of government. Direct experience and concrete evidence became privileged over blind faith and static doctrines. Operating according to reason and rationality, Enlightenment philosophers argued, educated men could rule themselves rather than be ruled by feudal lords or organized religion. The French philosophes included Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Diderot, the primary editor of the famous secular Encyclopédie, the most famous Enlightenment publication. It embodied the desire to provide general information to the public (or, more accurately, the literate classes.) On political issues, the philosophes opposed arbitrary power or rule through fear and superstition, but fell short of unanimously endorsing participatory democracy and universal suffrage. As men of letters, they believed in their own intelligence and judiciousness, but did not extend this faith to the illiterate, “unenlightened” masses. (It should be noted that U.S. revolutionaries like James Madison, influenced by Enlightenment ideals, argued for the “protection of the minority of the opulent from the tyranny of the minority.”) Most philosophers wanted to remove the obstacles that hindered them from realizing their skills and talents as intellectuals; this was their definition of “freedom.” In terms of enabling the impoverished, uneducated working classes to obtain the same advantages and resources they possessed, the leading lights of the Enlightenment were silent. Still, their strident atheism and devotion to reason pervades all stages of the French Revolution.
The later, more radical Revolutionary period is more accurately tied to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was a contemporary of the Enlightenment philosophes, but philosophically their opposite. In his Discourse on Inequality (1754), he argued that people are innately decent, but that institutions corrupt and degrade them. He admired the “noble savage,” primeval man innocent of education and the sciences, and his ability to live in harmony with the natural world. This looking backward with rose-tinted glasses was anathema to the philosophes. In his commentary on the work, Voltaire wrote: “One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours.” Whereas Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers saw higher learning as separating man from beasts, Rousseau believed that human morality in the raw state of nature was rough but organic. “Civilized” society brought with it private property, and by extension, inequality and disillusionment. People come into the world without distinctions or obligations; it is society that confers upon them different backgrounds and statuses, dividing them and driving them into competition with each other.
This viewpoint would become the foundation for Rousseau’s chief political work, The Social Contract (1762), which would have an immense impact on the French Revolution. He argued against an elective representative system, calling such a system “elective aristocracy,” and supported democratic rights for everyone, including women. Like Hobbes’ Leviathan, the sovereign for Rousseau is the sum of all individuals coming together and forming the “general will” – the conceptual manifestation of what is in the common interest. Each individual, motivated by virtue, willingly pledges himself or herself to the shared general will, as it comprises rudiments of each person’s desire. If there are incongruities about what should be the general will, these conflicting opinions annul each other, leaving the general will to arise naturally. This spontaneous direct democracy may sound utopian, but Rousseau was a romantic. His emphasis on emotion and virtue expressed an extensive estrangement with the world as it was. Rousseau craved dynamism and change, repressed in a cold and conservative feudal culture, and he yearned to restore the suppressed springs of life. Many shared his restive spirit, and it can be perceived in the sentimental novels and poems of Goethe, Pushkin, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and other Romantic artists. As we shall see, many of the most radical leaders of the Revolution (especially the members of the Jacobin Club) regarded Rousseau as their philosophical guide. His political theory was incompatible with the old order; it had to be overturned and destroyed, with a more virtuous popular democracy created in its place.
The role of ideology in social revolution is vital. It is important to consider how a new ruling class attempts to convince other classes to assent to its ethical, political and social values. It was not enough for the bourgeoisie to affirm their economic power in their historical moment; they had to transmit their mindsets through cultural power. As the educated class, 18th century intellectuals made a case for “rule by experts” that is still deployed in modern politics. It is the language of meritocracy: rule by talent, not birth. This argument omits that some people are born with more advantages than others. The thinkers who influenced the leaders of the Revolution articulated a negative liberty that suits the bourgeoisie: freedom from government regulation, censorship, and social immobility. This libertarian mentality is still the one most often deployed in our current politics, where government is constantly criticized for its invasion of our private lives, rather than as a democratic system of empowerment for the people.
Rousseau, however, was a deviation from the norm. He railed against inequality and argued for a positive freedom that would level the playing field in a sort of primitive communism. It would be erroneous to draw parallels between Rousseau and Marx’s scientific socialism, as science and Rousseau’s romanticism are integrally conflicting. It is more accurate to compare Rousseau with the utopian socialists that preceded Marx: Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Like Rousseau, these thinkers sought to spread a “new social Gospel” (as Marx and Engels call it in the Communist Manifesto) without paying due diligence to class antagonisms or revolutionary potential. In the manner of other philosophers, Rousseau plucked his idealized republic from his own imagination, more as an intellectual exercise than a program for action. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the social aspect of the French Revolution ran into great difficulty when philosophy was put into practice. The theoretical strength of Rousseau’s work did, however, form a union of bourgeois and working class interests that would take the Revolution in its final decisive direction.
The Petite Bourgeoisie & Peasantry
Minor property holders made up the bulk of the lowest stratum of the 18th century French social hierarchy. The vast majority were peasants, emancipated serfs who owned or rented land and made up the backbone of the agrarian economy. They had to pay noble lords for the “right” to use mills and wine presses required for agricultural production. In the main, they were more concerned with the concrete duties of the state — namely, to provide them with bread and security — than the changing of their social existence. As Marx observed, peasants tended to be conservative, prone to protecting their minor holdings and not putting it at risk. It is an underappreciated fact that the French peasantry were instrumental in moderating the Revolution and bringing the Terror period to an end.
In the cities and towns, factories were still a relatively new development, and the proletarian class was small. There were, however, artisans and craftspeople that produced basic consumer goods. There were also traders and shopkeepers that sold them. Marx referred to this class as the “little” or “petite” bourgeoisie. In the context of the French Revolution, they are known as the sans-culottes, so called because they wore trousers rather than the knee breeches of the upper classes. In 1789, the bourgeoisie had been so squeezed by war and economic crisis that the “little bourgeoisie” was essentially indistinguishable from common urban laborers. Like peasants, their priority for joining the Revolution was greater economic security and the provision of food at fair prices. The sans-culottes saw the benefits of the philosophical principles espoused by the “big bourgeois,” but their continued support for the revolutionary government depended on whether their more immediate basic needs were met. They were willing to give their support to any government that would intervene in the economy to ensure an affordable price for food, whatever its philosophical principles. If the bourgeois members of the Revolution hungered for freedom, the sans-culottes simply hungered for bread.
Bread and Taxes
In 1774, newly crowned King Louis XVI appointed the economically liberal finance minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Turgot sought to improve France’s economic situation by liberalizing commerce, subscribing to a “laissez faire” philosophy. This included deregulating the grain industry, which was significantly monitored and policed by the state. Grain merchants tended to hoard their grain rather than sell it, inflating the price and raising their profits. They would also dilute flour with other material, including chalk and grinded-up bone. This caused the working classes to riot in 1775, in the “Flour War.” The riots were put down by force. Although the riots indicated the precariousness of the feudal regime, the negative impact of economic freedom on affordable food was a working class grievance, not a bourgeois one. As such, bread alone fell short of cutting across class differences and inducing revolution. The bourgeoisie would not be motivated to commit to insurrection until the monarchy attempted to do the most vile sin in the eyes of bourgeoisie anywhere, everywhere: the government tried to raise its taxes.
France had joined the American Revolution around the same time as the Flour War, seeking revenge for the embarrassment England had inflicted on the French by taking France’s North American colonies. The American Revolution succeeded and humbled the English, but it cost France 520 million livres in loans, issued at incredible interest rates. A series of finance ministers all wanted to raise taxes, but French appellate courts all feared higher taxes would place more of a burden on the nobility (especially the bourgeoisie who had bought their way into the nobility precisely to escape taxation). These courts, once rendered irrelevant to royal diktat, reasserted their influence and blocked the increasingly vulnerable crown in its desperate attempt to raise more funds.
To break the impasse, the king assembled the Estates-General, an assembly made up of representatives from the three estates of the realm: those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (the nobility) and those who worked (the commoners). It had not been summoned for over a century, and it in no way mirrored the complex and multilayered reality of 18th century French society. It did, however, provide an avenue by which the monarchy could, with the help of the old nobility, impose a greater tax burden on the bourgeoisie. The calling of the Estates-General, however, had a major unintended consequence: it gathered the bourgeoisie together and gave them a platform by which they could express their dissatisfaction with the regime. The concerns of the poor masses went unheeded; the delegates of the Third Estate were uniformly called from the “big” and “little” bourgeoisie. As such, the Estates-General was primed for a bourgeois hijacking.
A political pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate? by Abbé Sieyès became the unofficial bourgeois manifesto. He called for double representation of the Third Estate – that is, the Third Estate having twice as many members as the other two estates combined. He also asserted that all three estates should meet together instead of separately, as was custom. With votes counted numerically rather than by status, the Third Estate would essentially control the political agenda. The nobility and clergy would essentially have token representation but little influence. Most of the representatives from the Second Estate, parish priests rather than bishops and archbishops, sympathized with the Third Estate. This was because many low-ranking priests were the second or third sons of the bourgeoisie. A handful of nobles also defected to the Third Estate, the most famous being Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans. He belonged to a cadet branch of the ruling Bourbon dynasty and supported a constitutional monarchy. When the Third Estate finally met in Versailles, in June 1789, it proclaimed itself a National Assembly. Far from semantics, the bourgeois delegates consciously distanced themselves from the Estates-General and thereby all the trappings of the feudal past. The crown was not amused. Barred from their meeting hall, the Assembly met in a nearby tennis court, and swore the Tennis Court Oath: a pledge to not convene until they had drafted a new constitution for France. Public support swung to the National Assembly, especially in the cities.
Like the American Revolution, the French Revolution was posed to be bourgeois revolution. The old system depended on the fruit of capitalism but shunned capitalists. Encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy, the bourgeoisie made a case for society being constituted around them. Despite their conviction, they preferred reform to violence. The Revolution, however, would not proceed as the bourgeoisie alone wanted; they could not impose themselves on the other classes. The monarchy especially would resist the abandonment of feudalism. The nobility, with some exceptions, wanted to retain their feudal privileges and opposed modifying France’s economic orientation, as they were its main beneficiaries, along with the crown. Most nobles feared what would happen if their minor commercial investments had to compete in a more liberal economy. Some open-minded aristocrats favored a constitution to give certain bourgeois freedoms legal backing, but they did not want to be made a secondary or even symbolic element of society. They were “superior” to the “common” people by their very nature, and did not want to be subordinated to them – especially when some noble families had spent decades clawing their way up from peasant or merchant stock into the upper classes. Those nobles that did defect to the bourgeoisie envisioned some form of advisory role for themselves in the new system, similar to the oversight function of the House of Lords in Great Britain.
Storming the Bastille
In July 1789, Louis XVI sacked Jacques Necker, his reformist finance minister. Necker had not respected the Estates-General as anything other than a means toward changing the tax system. It was rumored, however, that he supported political reform if it meant coming closer to resolving France’s major economic problems. The royal dismissal of Necker indicated to the bourgeoisie that the monarchy refused to brook any challenge to its authority. For the working classes, this meant that a suppression of dissent would not be long in coming. They had experienced the pattern over numerous uprisings, including the recent Flour War. The entire Third Estate, bourgeois and laborers alike, realized that the monarchy would use its most powerful extension, the military, to quell any rebellion.
Both groups sought weapons, and it made sense that arms could be found at the Bastille, a medieval fortress prison that stood in the center of Paris. Its presence represented the antiquated, passé ideas of the Middle Ages. In function, it served a state that operated according to dictatorial measures that afforded no respect to the average person. Bourgeois leaders sought to negotiate with the soldiers holding the Bastille, and even accepted an invitation to breakfast with the fortresses’ governor. Apprehension gripped the sans-culottes that were present, however, as time was not on their side. They were acutely aware that the army would start massacring residents in the poorer Paris districts at any moment. The masses fought their way forward, raging through the prison, releasing inmates and seizing gunpowder. Fighting erupted, but the Bastille governor surrendered when the rebels fixed cannon on his men. The raiders killed the governor and placed his head on the bike. Other members of the garrison also died. The Republic rewarded the original Bastille insurgents with medals, and mostly, they were sans-culottes. They had the most to lose if there was a counterrevolution, and thus were the most proactive in wanting to neutralize a potential reprisal by the state. The “big bourgeoisie” may have dominated the Assembly, but it was the “little bourgeoisie” and the urban poor who directed the Revolution from below.
In the countryside, the collapse of central authority throughout July 1789 resulted in the “Great Fear,” major peasant revolts that featured improvised farmer self-defense leagues commandeering manor houses. Peasants feared that, with all the unrest in the capital, they would continue to be ignored unless they took matters into their own hands. They also knew that by taking control of noble estates that they would be massacred if the Revolution failed. In the meantime, bandits would exploit the lawlessness of a divided France to prey on the vulnerable peasantry. All this chaos led to the hysterical hoarding of weapons and property. Bit by bit, the regular people of France were dismantling the old regime and throwing their support behind the National Assembly. The slate had been cleared; the question became what new system should be created in place of the old one.
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