Popular Movement

Popular Movement:

In every mass or political revolution in history, there is a tendency to overemphasize the institutional and heroic aspects of that phenomenon. The masses are seen as “mobilized” without any real sense of their own history. Thus, agency, consciousness, and the capacity for autonomous political action are denied to the subordinate groups. In the case of the French Revolution, however, George Lefebuere and Albert Soboul have shown that this is a lopsided view. The masses-constituting the rural peasants and urban Sans-culottes played significant roles that gave shape to the unfolding of the French Revolution. This pivotal role of the masses was especially noticeable in 1789, 1792, 1793, and 1794.

Here it may be of some relevance to mention that it was to be a radical movement and on this count, stood in opposition to the bourgeois revolution. Nonetheless, the two movements fused themselves into each other in the hour of crisis. This fusion was viable insofar as the negation of the ancient regime was concerned. Once the victory appeared over in terms of broad bourgeois parameters, they turned against their subordinates to curb their radicalism. It must be qualified, however, that the popular movement was itself not a monolith, it tended to be differentiated in terms of the diversity of respective interests. Hence, the development of the popular movement needs to be studied in all its complexities.

Lefebuere suggests that popular participation occurred from the progressive mobilization of the masses, the ravaging impacts of the economic crisis, and the convocation of the Estates General. Immediate factors of his contention notwithstanding, the economic crisis had long-term implications rooted in what may be called the limited penetration of capitalism in the French economy. What was happening was a penetration of commercial and capitalist tendencies into agriculture by feudal methods. Besides, the political mechanism (feudal arrangments combined with those of royal absolutism whereby the extraction from the peasants was possible) was crucial. Nor did this limited capitalism mean the development of trade and industry. This is to argue that the seemingly feudal-capitalist dialectic tended to antagonize a large social chunk. Partly for this reason, the radical thrust behind the revolution based on the Sans-culottes and sections of the peasantry was explicitly and strongly anti-capitalist.

At a more immediate level, the grandeur of Louis XV was curbed by difficulties rooted in agricultural fluctuations a continual problem of the old economy. These setbacks became established in cyclical depressions and accounted substantially for the decline of Louis XVI. First, heavy grape harvests triggered off a dreadful slump in the wine market, prices fell by as much as 50%. Further, famine, flood, and drought were enough to make matters worse.

This depression led to a vicious cycle. Rural inhabitants forming the majority of consumers were left with reduced purchasing power. Industrial production was under serious threat from 1786. Unemployment spread. The countryside with domestic industries suffers as much as the cities.

But it is a moot question if the enormity of the economic crisis alone would have made people to aid the bourgeoisie. It is all more paradoxical since the bourgeois stood in sharp opposition to popular hostility towards capitalism. This was explicitly manifest in bitter antagonism to Turgot’s idea of free trade in grain. This suggests the demand for a controlled economy of a very old-fashioned variety. At this juncture the role of the Estates-general becomes important.

The summoning of the Estates-General rendered a glimmer of hope for those who had constantly been under immense strain. It arose the hope of a better future. This vision of the future united the heterogeneous elements of the Third Estate and became a dynamic force of revolutionary idealism. They were imbued with what Lefebuere calls the “revolutionary mentality”.

Lefebuere contends that fear, defensive reaction, and punitive will constituted the three aspects of the revolutionary mentality. He contends that these elements in aggregate constitute one of the keys to the unfolding narrative of the French Revolution. The menace of aristocratic conspiracy slackened initially but only to reappear again and foreign power collided. The resulting defensive reaction first stimulated the volunteers who poured in and then were responsible for the mass upsurge. Punitive will provoked the massacres of 1772 and when danger again loomed large, in 1793, the convention warded off further perils only by setting up the “Reign of Terror”.

These earmarks were typical to reappear in each of the main surges of the revolution. Significantly enough, the revolution began with an aristocratic offensive and became more radical as it proceeded. More radical sections of the bourgeoisie came to power and followed more radical policies until shortly before the fall of Robespierre on July 27, 1794. When the conservative forces tried to stem the revolutionary tide, a radical offensive from below propelled it forward. Three great popular upheavals can be easily discerned: the fall of Bastille, the storming of the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, and the third uprising (May 31, 1793) leading to the “Reign of Terror”. There is no denying the fact that the main impulse of the revolution came from the Parisian Sans-culottes but each movement showed agility as long as it was backed up by active support between the Sans-culottes and the property-owning peasants arose, the impulse behind the radical revolution petered out and its urban vestiges were easily repressed. But the repression of the popular movement is an objective reality and the more pressing questions are the role of the popular movements in the total revolution and eventually the reason for which the bourgeoisie repressed it.

We need to notice the fact that the bourgeoisie had serious limitations under the French conditions. Becuase of their qualitative inferiority they had to depend upon the popular constituents of the French society. It is the latter who helped greatly in materializing their ideas into reality. Further, the fact that the outbreak of the revolution in 1789 did not confirm in large to the bourgeois ideas and that it was so violent suggests the pivotality of the masses in dismantling the ancient regime. Moreover, whenever France came to be pitted against the external menace it shouldered with the bourgeoisie under the dominant theme of “Patriotism”.

But the evidently romanticized role of the masses had serious limitations. Apart from the heterogeneity in its constituents, it lacked a proper class consciousness and a definite programme of action of its own. Interestingly, the bourgeoisie, its copartner, attempted desperately to curb the potentialities of the masses lest it became too radical to adjust. It must be added that this imposed limitations on the popular movement stemmed from the limitations of the bourgeoisie itself i.e. in its inability to go too far. In broad terms, the bourgeoisie was fighting not because it meant a “turn upside down”, it was because, of the vast incompatibility between its material conditions and its socio-legal status in the ancient regime. Thus, once it perceived the fruition of its aspirations or rather saw a potential threat coming from the masses it became reactionary. It must be seen in the context of the ideological hegemony of the bourgeois over the masses and the distorted manner in which it interpreted the passionate revolutionary ideas. One more crucial limitation comes from the inter-divisions in the divergent social constituents of the mass movement. The rich peasants would be unwilling to permit their subordinates to go too far. Similarly, the Sans-culottes lacked a social raison d’etre of its existence. When the revolution began unfolding the paradoxes in open, the incompatibility between those who had property and those who had not made the revolution being halted.

But despite the aforesaid limitations, the popular movement substantially shaped the course of the French Revolution between 1789 and 1794.

We need to begin with the fact that the popular movement helped in dismantling the feudal fabric- although its vestiges lasted longer. The formal declaration on August 4, 1789, regarding the abolition of feudalism was revolutionary even if there were limitations. A streak of equality before law, talent being the yardstick, abolition of the sale of offices, outright suppression of the tithes, etc. meant the abolition of the raison d’etre of the ancient regime- hence rendering “justification to the phrase- death certificate of the ancient regime”. It must be added that the aforesaid reforms came under the pressure of “revolutionary radicalism” and not a matter of bourgeois munificence and generosity.

Further, as a consequence of the uprisings during 1791-92, the peasants had won important gains by the summer of 1791. On August 25, 1792, feudal dues disappeared without indemnity. By another act on August 23, villages received back their common lands where the Lord had usurped them. Another decree sought to make it easier for the rural proletariat to acquire land by arranging for the sale of confiscated emigre properties in small units. Moreover, the idea of “communism of property” had a passionate appeal among the poorer peasants.

On a broader level, on the other hand, the role of the popular movement lies in the general success of the French Revolution right from the beginning when the bourgeoisie revolution appeared to retreat before the intransigent ancient regime, the Paris mob exerted decisive pressure at the decisive moment. And internal fluxes, notwithstanding, the passionate appeal of patriotism held powerful sway over them and they fought indefatigable to ensure the French victory and keep the revolutionary spirit alive. The radical thrust of the popular movement eventually led to the “Reign of Terror”.

Despite some inherent limitations, the popular movement was of pivotal significance in the overall French Revolution. It is true that it had its fissures but its overall role cannot be denied. Thus, if at a superficial level, the popular movement was a coalition partner of the bourgeois revolution, at a deeper level, however, the popular movement was directed against both, the ancient regime as well as the bourgeois regime in the aftermath of the revolution. Thus the masses’ role may be seen as an attempt to widen the scope of the narrow bourgeois definitions of equality, liberty, and fraternity. It was an attempt to press the claims of the masses, peasants, urban working classes, and artisans, and soon against those of the bourgeois and equally to force them to relinquish some of their powers over them.

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
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