The Origin of the French Revolution

The Origin of the French Revolution:

There is a common and customary assumption that revolution is caused by misery. It is not always by going from bad to worse that a country falls into a revolution. Moreover, the state of things destroyed by a revolution is almost always somewhat better than that which immediately precedes it. As a matter of fact, revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal. This seems to be born out by subtle symptomatic streaks, more particularly the general economic trends, of the 18th century.

The manner in which the French Revolution developed and assumed portentous potentialities in terms of scope and significance, marking, in substantial ways, a major break with the past can not adequately be explained by a simple scheme of cause and effect. The very fact that the French Revolution did not follow a monolithic paradigm. Rather it was a multi-variegated process in which prevalent propensities were inextricably interwoven. These, however, were not without a somber side. So it is necessary to distinguish between the multicausal developments and their relative significance in causing the outbreak of the revolution in 1789.

Although historians disagree on the causes of the revolution, the following reasons are commonly adduced in a compartmentalized framework of long-term causes, short-term causes, and immediate fissiparous factors. The long-term causes are discernable in the snowballing tension within the traditional social order, while the short-term causes smack of demographic fluctuation and consequent economic collapse, and the role of the philosopher. The immediacy stems from the contemporary economic and political crisis which coincided with the long-drawn seething specificities that brought the revolution into transfigurational magnitude.

The fundamental origin of the French Revolution can be traced to the absolutist reign of Louis XIV. In the words of Alfred Cobban, “The sour cause lay in the fact that Louis XIV and his ministers had created a social and institutional structure which was essentially static just at the same time when society itself was beginning to change at a faster rate than ever before”. This perhaps more than sums up the growth in the process of alienation of the 18th-century French institutions from the socio-economic realities of the country.

The roots of the revolution lay in the traditional social order which was divided into three estates with lopsided allocation of privileges. Being the top social order, the clergy enjoyed a host of privileges and was exempted from all taxes and societal burdens. They collected tithe, owned landed property, and received dues. However, the clergy itself was not a homogenous class and divided into two categories- the upper clergy comprising the Bishops who monopolized all lucrative church offices; and the lower clergy consisting of Paris priests who had more common with the third estates in status and stature, from which it invariably came. In fact, the lower clergy did the actual work of spiritual consolation but they were paid abjectly for it, while the upper hierarchy enjoyed a princely income or share. This chasm made the lower clergy mentally ready to join hands with the third estate against the privileged aristocracy.

Next to the clergy in the social hierarchy was the nobility who constituted a small fraction of the French population. Through their law courts and power of jurisdiction, they monopolized all the lucrative officers in the state. They too enjoyed immunity from taxation. Broadly, it was also a privileged class. However, its power and affluence had been gradually eroded since the time of Louis XIV when the state began incorporating a section of the bourgeoisie into the feudal fabric. The feudalization of the bourgeoisie palpably produced far-reaching effects. On the one hand, it deprived the nobility of its political monopoly. On the other hand, it, however, created cleavages within the rank of nobility and a small section of it began graduating towards the bourgeoisie fold.

In this context Georges Lefebvre rightly observes, “French nobility competed both with the royal authority, resenting it for relegating them to an inferior position and the encroachment of the bourgeoisie that threatened its separate entity”.

Some scholars like G. Rude, G. Lefebvre, and Soboul sensed the idea of an aristocratic reaction, building up in the late 18th century when the nobility closed its rank against the entry of the commoners. They also tightened their hold economically, reviving all manorial rights or inventing new ones resulting in greater suffering of the peasantry, the chief pillar of the third estate.

Below the two privileged orders stood the vast mass of the “third estate” chiefly comprising the burgeoning bourgeoisie, the impoverished peasantry, and the urban proletariat.

Being a heterogenous group the bourgeoisie constituted the most dynamic part of the third estate. In the early 18th century France was prosperous on the economic count. Foreign trade had grown fourfold, while agricultural returns were gradually increasing. All this contributed to the prosperity of the bourgeoisie. Still, they revolted- why? Lefebvre aptly points out that the bourgeoisie was becoming class-conscious. Further, he says that their conscience resented the privileges of the first two orders and it was their demand for political power commensurate with their economic efficacy that made them rebel against the ancient regime and the feudalism it stood for.

The peasants constituted the majority of the third estate, around 80% of the total population of France. Ironically, the peasantry as a whole owned 40% of the land in France, on an individual basis most of the peasants cultivated tiny parcels of land that even in the years of good harvests, were quite insufficient to feed their families. Further, though serfdom had ceased to exist as a form of labor control the “free peasantry” was subjugated to a number of feudal obligations in the form of rents and dues to church and taxes to the state. This was enough to antagonize the peasantry. Added to this was the gradual penetration of capitalism in the countryside in the second half of the 18th century. The condition of the peasantry was further worsened by the bad harvests of 1788-1789, resulting in a skyrocketing rise in food prices leading to the relative collapse in the purchasing power of the peasantry. This created extreme social distress and also led to the polarization of the peasantry, some of whom began to migrate to the towns to earn minimal living.

The rest section of the third estate comprised diverse urban elements such as poor labor, small craftsmen, and sans-culottes. For the wage earners, the level of wages was itself a matter of prime concern. George Rude calculates that between 1730 and 1789 wages rose by 22% while the prices by 60%. Thus, prices outstripped wages. The year preceding 1789 saw a rigorous rise in the prices of essential commodities especially bread which created antagonism among sans-culottes.

Demographic expansion was no less important. In the wake of the 18th century, the population of France increased from 18 million to 25 million. Though the total increase as Soboul says, was not so dramatic, this increase was confined to some urban pockets as a result of which the delicate balance between the population and resources was delinked, giving rise to social discontent.

To give cohesion to the discontents and aspirations of widely varying social classes, there had to be some unifying body of ideas or revolutionary psychology. In the French case, the ideological basing was laid by the “philosophies” whose writings sapped the ideological defenses of the ancient regime. Though they did not cause the revolution, their ideas catered to the needs of the bourgeoisie and made them class-conscious. They vehemently attacked the privileges, decadence, and dogmas of the catholic church as well the feudal survivals, imperfection, and arbitrary nature of monarchial administration. The ideas of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau greatly influenced the thinking of the people. They appealed to natural law between maintaining that reason should play an autonomous role in initiating reforms, and defended the third estate on issues like unequal tax and manorial rights. But it must be qualified here that none of the philosophers with their advanced lines showed any marked sympathy for the lower orders.”

There is still a live debate among historians regarding their role and relevance in the French Revolution. In reality, the connection between their ideas and the outbreak of the revolution in 1789 is somewhat remote and indirect. They did not preach revolution and were unusually ready enough to lend support to any absolute monarch who was prepared to patronize them and their teachings. We must remember that the doctrines of philosophes became more important later; if they had any influence at all on the outbreak and the initial stages of the revolution, it was only to the extent that they had fostered a critical irreverent attitude toward all existing institutions. In their capacity, they gave the revolution their language which proved rather effective than causative. And their role can not be seen in isolation with objective material conditions.

These developments were followed by the economic depression. Despite the fact that France was growing commercially prosperous, agriculture continued to remain the mainstay of the economy with obsolete applications which was unable to meet the demands of the expanding population. Wretched weather and consequent poor harvest in 1789-89 further weakened an agricultural economy that was already in a mess. Grain shortage led to a sharp price rise, particularly in the cost of bread.

Though the value of French exports between 1716 and 1788 rose from 120 million to 500 million livres, but France’s internal economy was relatively untouched by this expansion. International trade was bogged down due to poor communication, restrictive tariffs and tolls levied by the government and the privileged land owners, and by various other restrictions. These constituted the long-standing grievances of the bourgeoisie.

Though industry continued to play an increasingly important role in the economy, the great bulk of industrial activity was carried on along old-fashioned and traditional lines. The fact that the prevailing mode of production was a domestic system. Further, French industry and commerce, however, were badly affected because of the inadequate nature of credit facilities. Production therefore declined, unemployment increased and the recession soon spread to agriculture. To make matters worse there was a severe drought in 1785 followed by a bad harvest of 1788-89.

Thus 1770s and 1780s brought with them a serious economic depression. This seemed the worse because it followed a long period of mounting prosperity and it caused a sense of resentment and bitterness as all classes faced a decline in their status. The degree of decline was lower than it had been at various stages during the reign of Louis XIV, but the suddenness of decline in fortune of each class in the 1770s to 1780s had a far more dangerous psychological impact. The bourgeoisie and the peasantry in particular, saw the gap between them their aspirations and their achievements growing ever wider, while the nobility struggled desperately to hold what they had. The result was deep resentment and growing bitterness, both of them more inflammable revolutionary material than suffering by itself. Labrouse argues that the economic depression aggravated the situation and regards the revolution of 1789 as the outcome of political and economic crisis.

The political crisis of 1789, which started the course of events that made the revolution, is explicable only in the setting of deep economic and social crisis. We must notice that throughout the 18th century, there existed a serious annual deficit chiefly because of the constant involvement in wars, undertaken by the state, and luxurious court life. The state was heading towards bankruptcy, symptomatic of financial chaos that set the ball rolling.

The only alternative to tackle the financial chaos was to bring about fiscal reforms by compelling the privileged class to relinquish some of their immunities they had. But the aristocracy clung to their privileges frustrating all government’s efforts at any such reforms. For instance, the reform proposed by Targot (1774-76) provoked a storm of protest by privileged classes leading to his dismissal in 1776.

However, the showdown was brought by the state’s declaration of bankruptcy after the American War of Independence. Calonne proposed wide-ranging reforms which was strongly resented by the nobility leading to his removal from office. This forced the convocation of the Estates General who had not met since 1614. This was what Georges Lefebvre has termed the aristocratic revolution of 1787-88. The French nobility, however, refused to enter into any compromise with the bourgeoisie, class-conscious and dynamic element of the Third Estate, ultimately compelling the latter to raise the banner of revolt. And there smacked a revolutionary situation.

The crux of the revolutionary situation lay in the growing institutional and individual obsolescence at the helm in relation to the new changes overtaking the material and psychological makeup of France. Politically the governmental machinery was spineless at best, an absolute monarchy in theory, but powerless in practice. The state functioned at the dictates and convenience of the first two estates leaving the Third Estate with a burgeoning bourgeoisie at bay coupled with these political and administrative handicaps the economy was marred by structural and temporary imbalances. The economy on the eve of the revolution was faced with a feudal-commercial dilemma; limited penetration of capitalism into the French economy and especially agriculture, guided by feudal relations, only exacerbated the crisis- instead of giving momentum to capitalism. The taxation system or structure was highly arbitrary. The immediate natural crisis worsened the crisis even more. The social aspect of discontent was related to the politico-economic disparities themselves. While the bulk of the third estates were subject to arbitrary, disproportionate taxes, tributes, and other obligations, the bourgeoisie was sored for they had no control over a system to which sustenance they contributed much. The enlightened ideas of the philosophers fostered a critical and irrelevant attitude toward the existing order. They rendered a language of protest to the third estates, especially the bourgeois.

But the dynamics of the “Revolutionary predicament” remain unexplained if we ignore that there was an essential interlocking link between all these factors. In a context in which the state intervention in the economy was more a rule than an exception and legal bottlenecks stifled the development of capitalism, the bourgeois legal status was incompatible with their burgeoning economic status, and supposedly sacrosanct political privileges took a heavy toll from the masses, the situation was nothing but alarming. The ideas of philosophers cast dissenting notes and made people skeptical. In this process, the governmental machinery proved totally incompetent to meet the situation while the king signally failed to take the right stand during a severe crisis.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of 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?
Triumph of Jacobinism
Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship
Importance of the French Revolution
The Course of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
Short Note on Napoleon Bonaparte
Decline of the Napoleonic Empire
Spread of Revolutionary Principles
Popular Movement
Metternich and the Vienna Peace Settlement