The Coming of the French Revolution

“But violence is no more adequate to describe the phenomenon of revolution than change; only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at least at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.” – Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

From the vantage point of 1962 America, Hannah Arendt comments on revolution, specifically the French and American Revolutions of the eighteenth century. While philosophical in nature, Arendt’s discourse anchors itself in the history of the two of the most colossal political and social events of the Western world. Violence, oppression, and freedom arise from the revolutionary vernacular of eighteenth century Europe, shaping historical interpretations and fomenting both political and social passions. The French Revolution, the minutely younger cousin of the American Revolution, shattered the social and political norms of the day, eclipsing even the American Revolution in its political reverberations, “Much more than the American Revolution, the French movement raised fundamental political questions,” (Popkin, 43). Questions concerning the French Revolution’s legacy continue to be debated today, did it serve to lay the foundations of Republicanism (a slippery term in many historical circles) or did it sow the seeds of totalitarianism? Moreover, inquires into the nature of the Revolution, its social and political thrust, and its use of popular “insurrection” continue to fascinate historians and social theorists. While much of the historical debate surrounding the Revolution today focuses on Francious Furet’s conservative interpretation, much of the historiography of the Revolution has been dominated by Marxism. Begun in earnest by Albert Mathiez (The Cost of Living and Popular Movements During the Terror), this leftist tradition pervaded much of the scholarship until mid-century.
One of the most influential historians of this “Marxist” period, Georges Lefebvre, produced The Coming of the French Revolution (1939). Lefebvre wrote his interpretation of the French Revolution while France stood on the edge of a collapsing Europe. Immediately to its east, France watched helplessly as the Great Depression and the Treaty of Versailles allowed Germans to embrace Adolph Hitler ‘s fascist Nazi regime. Immediately to its west, France faced Spain disheveled from a brutal civil war, led by a totalitarian Franco. While to its southeast, Benito Mussolini led his “blackshirt” combat squads into the Italian government. Additionally, Stalinist Russia consolidated its Communist vision through purges and violent repression. Moreover, France itself had fallen into disarray as the political middle collapsed, leaving only fringe political elements on its left and right (terms established by the French Revolution itself). France scrambled for a foothold, while Europe held its collective breath in hopes of avoiding the Second World War.

What does Lefebvre’s interpretation of the French Revolution argue? Certainly, Lefebvre’s interpretation does emphasize the popular Marxist interpretations so prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century. However, Lefebvre attempts to do more than create a Marxist landscape for the French Revolution. A tinge of French Republicanism surfaces at opportune times within the book. In his conclusion, Lefevbre writes, “The Revolution of 1789 consisted first of all in the fall of absolute monarchy and advent of liberty henceforth guaranteed by constitutional government; nor on this score can it be doubted that it was a national revolution, since the privileged orders as well as the Third Estate demanded a constitution and a regime in which individual rights would be respected,” (209). Despite class differences, that Lefevbre illustrates, he sees the Revolution as a national cause. It belongs to no one class to any one order. Instead, it is a complex process in which every French citizen from the King to the lowliest peasant participates. While the process fails to include all classes and peoples at one time, it does eventually envelop the entire French nation. Perhaps the most striking passage concerning this Republicanism can be found at the book’s conclusion. Lefevbre echoes the current situation of his day through the accomplishments of the Revolution:
Liberty is by no means an invitation to indifference or to irresponsible power; nor is it the promise of unlimited well-being without a counterpart of toil and effort. It supposes application, perpetual effort, strict government of self, sacrifice in contingencies, civic and private virtues. It is therefore more difficult to lives as a free man than to live as a slave, and that is why men so often renounce their freedom; for freedom is in its way an invitation to a life of courage. And sometimes heroism, as the freedom of the Christian is an invitation to a life of sainthood
Is it possible that Lefevbre is trying to bolster his fellow Frenchman against the temptations of totalitarianism? A free man must fight and sacrifice for his freedom, just as the French had done over a hundred years ago and must do again as Fascism and Communism cast their shadows over France.
According to many historians, Lefebvre’s work bristles with Marxist interpretations. What exactly does this categorization entail? Gary Kates argues that “ [the] Marxist interpretation could be summarized in the following manner: the French Revolution was not simply a political struggle from (evil) absolute monarchy to (good) democratic republicanism, but represented a deeper shift from feudalism to capitalism. The Revolution was led by an alliance between a bourgeoisie elite (owners of liquid capital), and popular classes (artisans and peasants) against the landowning nobility. The greatest success of such an alliance occurred in 1789, but after that it began to show signs of strains. By the summer of 1791, revolutionary events were marked by class conflict between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the popular classes,” (Kates, 3). Certainly, the reader needs only to examine the five sections of the Lefebvre’s work to see class divisions. However, how does Lefebvre explain the Revolution? According to Lefevbre how does the Revolution unfold and who are its main actors? Moreover, is there more present than just Marxist dogma?
Lefebvre’s work focuses on the Revolution’s initial stages and ending with The October Days. Thus, this study of the Revolution encapsulates the 3 years of the Revolution into five separate sections or chapters. Beginning with its pre-Revolutionary stage, The Aristocratic Revolution, Lefevbre describes France as a country drowning in its own privilege. France’s economic expansion created a new form of wealth, difficult for the aristocracy to control. With this economic expansion, came a new class of Frenchmen, the bourgeoisie. Threatened by the success of this new class, aristocrats (nobles) sought to gain control of France, “In short, the nobility, not content with monopolizing the higher public employments, nourished an ambition to share in the central government and to take over all local administration, “ (Lefevbre, 19). While many Frenchmen grew in wealth, the government was losing money at an alarming rate. France’s social hierarchy, allowed nobles to escape taxation, “In short, under the Old Regime the richer a man was, the less he paid,” (23). The support of the American Revolution had cost the French government dearly, leaving its financial leader Calonne to a final conclusion, “Technically the crisis was easy to meet: all that was necessary was to make everybody pay,” (23). However, the aristocracy did not wish to sacrifice its social distinctions and feudal rights, “The aim is evident; even in fiscal matters distinctions were to remain, despite equality, between the aristocracy and the commoners. There was all the more reason for wishing to preserve the other noble prerogatives. The petitions of nobility without exception called for the maintenance of the feudal rights and especially the honorific rights,” (36). Thus, Lefevbre argues, “There can in fact be no doubt that the aristocracy had entered into a struggle against absolutism in the name of the nation, but with the firm intention of governing the nation and especially not being absorbed into it,” (36). Therefore, while the aristocracy saw a need for reform, they wished to be the arbitrators of this reform. However, their obstinacy creates the first ebb in the French Revolutionary tide.
Many historians today criticize Lefebvre’s conclusion. As Jeremy Popkin notes in A Short History of the French Revolution, “Many recent scholars … have questioned the notion that the aristocracy as a whole felt that its economic position was seriously threatened before 1789. The judges of the parlements and other aristocrats who challenged royal authority during the pre-Revolution were reacting to primarily a political threat … they recognized the need for major reforms. But they argued that the discredited Absolutist system could not be trusted to regenerate itself … [they] insisted that the French “nation” be consulted about fundamental changes in its constitution. And they saw themselves as the natural spokesmen for the rest of the population,” (22).
While the aristocrats fought for a new, more powerful role in France’s government, the newly created class of the bourgeoisie also desired political expression. According to Lefebvre, unlike the “nation within a nation” aristocracy, the bourgeoisie lead France more naturally, “The bourgeoisie was intermixed with the rest of the population. That is why it was able to assume the leadership of the Revolution,” (Lefevbre, 42). The bourgeoisie was diverse ranging from merchants to artisans, with varying degrees of wealth. However, the bourgeoisie shared points of discontent among its members, “It has therefore often been thought surprising that this class, whose spirit was so far from democracy, should have been so imprudent, in attacking the aristocracy, as to strike at the very principle of social hierarchy itself. But the bourgeoisie had its reasons. The abolition of legal hierarchy and of privilege of birth seemed to it by no means incompatible with the maintenance of hierarchy based on wealth, function, or calling. Since at best only a small number of bourgeois could enjoy the advantage of becoming nobles, the rest of them wound up by execrating what they envied without hope,” (47). Thus, what the bourgeois wanted was system based on merit not birthright. Therefore, Lefebvre argues, “Among bourgeois of diverse kinds was forged a link that nothing could shatter—a common detestation of the aristocracy,” (48). Inspired by the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, this middle class desired to raise humanity to new heights, “But the bourgeoisie believed sincerely that it worked for the good of humanity. It was persuaded that it prepared the way for the advent of justice and right,” (50).
Again, however, historians argue against this interpretation. Popkin comments, “According to this “bourgeoisie revolution” thesis … the explosion of 1789 was the inevitable result of a system in which economic expansion swelled the ranks of the bourgeoisie, while the workings of the system of privilege excluded them from real social and political power… Much recent historical research has tended to criticize this explanation of the Revolution by emphasizing the degree to which the bourgeoisie at the end of the Old Regime shared common interests with many of the nobility. Members of both groups shared characteristics that set them apart from the remaining 90 percent of the French population,” (12). According to Popkin and more recent historians, the bourgeoisie often elevated themselves to the level of nobility investing in “seigneurial rights” and buying landed estates. Similarly, the nobility invested in bourgeois business. Additionally, marriage between social groups was not uncommon and they often socialized at the theatre or the Masonic lodge. Thus, as Popkin argues, “In many respects, the nobility and the bourgeoisie seemed to be merging into a mixed elite, separated from the bulk of the population by its wealth and lifestyle,” (12).
Nonetheless, the bourgeoisie embarked on its revolutionary course. Within the Third Estate, bourgeoisie leaders argued for reforms. Increasingly, the Third Estate argued for a unified Assembly rather than a three-tiered Estates-General. However, while Louis XVI was willing to concede a constitutional monarchy, “the monarchy threw all its influence toward preserving the traditional social forms, including the pre-eminence of the aristocracy,” (87). Unfortunately, for the nobility, this fight was to be lost. Thus, when the National Constituent Assembly finally met the bourgeois revolution had unfolded successfully “without recourse to violence”. However, when the Assembly is saved by the revolt of the Parisian masses (14 July 1789), the “popular revolution” begins. This recourse to violence reshapes the Revolution. The Assembly left with little choice must accept this answer and harness its power. Following this stage of the Revolution, historians such as Lefevbre argue that the bourgeoisie began to betray the Revolution through self-interest.
Popkin offers, an opposing viewpoint concerning this stage of the Revolution, “Many historians have called this period the ‘liberal revolution’ because it was characterized by the enactment of fundamental legislation incorporating the principles of individual liberty announced in the Declaration of Rights, but this phase of the movement has also been labeled the ‘bourgeois revolution’ because the Assembly’s interpretation of liberty favored educated property owners. Only they could fully exercise the rights of citizens, as the new constitution outlined them,” (44). Instead, Popkin states that the Assembly argued, debated, and agreed collectively, never allowing any one group or leader to dominate. Thus, according to Popkin “to define the liberal phase of the Revolution as the capture of the movement by a self-interested minority overlooks the extent to which the revolutionary legislators were actually striving to transform the traditional French bourgeoisie into something new,” (44).
Much of Lefebvre’s thesis has been disproved. However, Jeremy Popkin praises Lefebvre’s work remarking, “his clear and readable thesis, The Coming of the French Revolution, published in 1939, introduced several generations of French and American students to Revolutionary history. Lefebvre offered a sophisticated Marxist analysis that explained the course of the Revolution in terms of changing alliances between four basic social classes: the aristocracy, whose blind resistance to necessary reforms set the Revolution in motion, the bourgeoisie, which provided leadership and a revolutionary program, the peasantry whose uprising in 1789 assured the Revolution’s success, and the urban working class, whose pressure drove the bourgeois leadership to take the measures necessary to protect the Revolution after 1792,” (145). Ultimately, The Coming of the French Revolution provoked discussion that eventually led to today’s understanding of the events in 1789.

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