Nature of the French Revolution

Nature of the French Revolution:

Due to the profundity of its ideological matrix and the complexity of its course, the French Revolution has affected a controversial historiography of itself. Various opinions have been offered to explain its nature- the circumstantial theory, the plot or conspiracy theory, ideological and political origins and determinants, and the Marxist description of a bourgeois revolution.

Republican historiography manifests as the “circumstances theory”. According to it the French Revolution occurred and was sustained by the ‘plots and aggression of the reactionary forces’ that is the aristocratic plot.

The plot theory, a brainchild of the conservative Edmund Burke, advances the view that the French Revolution was not the outcome of a widespread feeling for reform, but the evil machinations of a selfish and socially disruptive set of forces the clubs, masonic lodges- the philosophers. The force gritty of his arguments lies in the belief that the revolution was the child of the ‘conspiracy of a few’.

Liberal historians including Theirs and Mighet regard it as a legitimate political protest against the tyrannies and restrictions of the old regime or as a social protest of depressed and impoverished classes.

A more deeper explanation has been attempted by Alexis de Tocqueville. Unlike Burke he does not see this as a part of an organized conspiracy, but rather as the outcome of the vices of the government and of the widespread dissatisfaction with the things as they were.

Jules Mikelet, the great historian of the 1840s’ saw the French Revolution as a spontaneous and regenerative upsurge of the whole French nation against the despotism, grinding poverty, and injustice of the old regime in which the peasantry and the urban poor played a vital role rather than merely being a passive instrument in the hands of the other interested parties and social groups.

Marxist conception interpreted the French Revolution as an epochal social phenomenon- the political expression of fundamental changes in economic conditions and the balance of classes.

In this context, George Lefebure develops that the French Revolution was largely due to the rise of the bourgeoisie. At the same time, he holds that the French Revolution was not a single homogeneous or monolithic phenomenon, but rather a series of class struggles that was initiated by the aristocratic reaction and carried forward by the bourgeoisie for their own aspirations and interests. Further, he says that the revolution followed four stages by four different social classes with class-conflict domination.

According to him, the French Revolution was started and led to victory in its first phase by the aristocracy. The immediate cause was a financial crisis stemming from involvement in the Independence War of USA. When the crown tried to legislate reforms that would hit the economic privileges of the aristocracy, it revolted against the crown and forced the convening of the Estates General which had not met since 1614. This was the aristocratic revolution of 1787-88 which began as an aristocratic attempt to recapture the state.

Remarkably, the convening of the Estates General unleashed forces in which the nobility could not control the bourgeoisie, and the lower classes collectively known as the “Third Estates” emerged powerful.

The bourgeoisie, heterogenous in composition and leading element in essence, found itself opposed to both monarchy and the aristocracy. While the monarchy bore the feudal ethic and ethos incompatible with the bourgeoisie’s capitalist aspirations. It was also against the aristocracy because the aristocracy was trying to freeze the line of upward social mobility.

The Course of events after the ‘Assembly of notables’ signified the domination of the middle class which was able to assume leadership and power by forcing the monarch to make major concessions in its favor. Very soon its leadership began a campaign for constitutional reforms with the primary motive of influencing the electorate. The middle-class initiative was duly rewarded by electoral success. Ironically, the third estates represented only the bourgeoisie middle-class aspirations. And by declaring itself the ‘National Assembly’ in complete defiance of royal authority the bourgeoisie won political weapons to satisfy their aspirations.

Even more significant was the development of an autonomous movement of the Sans culottes in the cities especially Paris often in alliance and sometimes in opposition to the bourgeoisie. Bad harvest, propaganda, and election gave the people’s desperation a political perspective. The most sensational result of the mass mobilization was the capture of the Bastille spread the revolution to the provincial towns and the countryside.

The next phase of the French Revolution was the peasant revolts. Agitation was particularly pronounced in the countryside where the peasantry was faced with increasing land rents. Its apathy against the crown had also been aroused in the wake of enhanced royal taxation. The peasants attacked the vestiges of feudalism and even sometimes the bourgeoisie.

Lefebure’s analysis thus emerges as a revolution led by the bourgeoisie on behalf of the popular masses against the crown and aristocracy- the final product.

Commenting on the sequential explanation offered by Lefebvre, Elizabeth Eisenstein, however, challenges Lefebvre’s view and questions the validity of the term bourgeoisie revolution. She finds that the leaders of the revolutionary reforms in 1789-91 were a loose-knit coalition of such aristocrats as Lafayette, such clergymen as the Abbe Sieyes, and such commoners as Targot, liberal drawn from all three estates. Consequently, she concludes that his sequential explanation of the French Revolution being carried out in different sections by different classes is rather inaccurate.

Cobban has criticized the vertical sociology of Lefebvre and Soboul. He claims that the rich merchants and bankers- a section of the bourgeoisie did not wish to abolish feudalism. In fact, only the lawyers participated in and guided the revolution from among the bourgeoisie. Furet in a recently published book said that statistics do not indicate a closing of ranks by the nobility against the competing elite stated by Soboul.

Moreover, the peasantry merely wanted less royal intervention and taxation. Paul Bois’s illuminating research concludes that the peasant hostility towards seigneur may simply have been the archaic form of his opposition to change.

Sobouls attempt to subsume the whole revolutionary process under a single term “bourgeois” revolution seems imprecise. There is a discrepancy between the forces that led the revolution and the economic roots as traced by Lefebvre.

In the light of aforesaid aspects, it appears difficult to articulate tenable interpretation, since historians’ interpretations are fused with personal prejudice to justify their academic appropriation and scholarly sophistication on the cost of distortion to historical integration. This is a severe limitation. And there should be no flicker of doubt that there must be a nagging negligence to ground realities while explaining the nature of the French Revolution. Grasping attitude and approach must be given a prime position. Nevertheless, these explanations have substantial tenability as they make a broader framework so far as characterization goes. Lefebvre’s analysis helps to explain the socio-economic dynamics of the French Revolution as even Furet has accepted, if one discards the vertical sociological dealt therein. Tocqueville explains the political discards of contemporary France that propelled it into a revolution. Cochin’s theory clearly identifies the nature of current ideology and their manipulations. Finally, nothing can be said so far as totality is concerned. All that can be said not more than that, any interpretation regarding the nature of the French Revolution has to be all-inclusive.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?