ORIGINS OF FRENCH REVOLUTION


The French Revolution (1789-99) was a period of social and political upheaval, which resulted in radical changes in France. The system of absolute monarchy, with feudal privileges for the aristocracy and the Christian clergy underwent a change to a new form of government based on the principles of enlightenment and inalienable rights.

It would be wrong to hold only one factor as being responsible for the coming of the French Revolution. Many interrelated political and socioeconomic factors contributed to it. It was the interplay of the intensification of the struggles between the existing orders, political tension, prospering commerce and the beginnings of industrialization, resulting in the rise of new social groups, and the impact of ideas such as the Enlightenment. The question of the origin of the French Revolution should be studied taking all these factors into consideration.

The French society was divided into different orders: the church, the nobility and the third estate consisting of the bourgeoisie and the common people. It was the first two estates that generally enjoyed a great deal of privileges. Despite their small representation of the whole population they held a large chunk of the land in France, fiscal privileges, right of jurisdiction and even seats in the parlement, the law making body. However, by the second half of the 19th century these were not homogenous in nature and a great deal of differentiation had come into each and every order. For instance, through the practice of ennoblement a number of wealthy bourgeoisie could buy their way into the noble class. Similarly, even the third estate was marked by a great deal of differentiation between the rich merchants and bourgeoisie class and the urban poor, working class and the peasantry. Thus, France had a complex society, which was marked by variations at all levels. 

The first phase of this revolution, according to Lefebvre was the ‘aristocratic’ phase, which saw the intensification of the age-old political struggle between a centralising monarchy and an aristocracy resisting this effect. The immediate context for this struggle was provided by the unprecedented fiscal burden that the court faced.  Financial troubles and indebtedness were a regular feature of the imperial court, which was characterised by reckless expenditure and an expensive bureaucracy. However, in this case it was the French participation in the American War of Independence that had intensified the financial concerns. The state now faced a fiscal deficit of 112 million livres, excluding interest. In order to resolve this crisis the officials were obliged to institute radical reforms, which included the resumption of the fiscal privileges of the church and nobility. This attempt faced obvious resistance from the privileged orders, since exemption from taxation had become almost central to noble identity. The nobles struggled against these reforms through the parlement by attacking royal “tyranny” and defending noble privileges as “traditional rights”. Stating that Estates-General (National Assembly) alone had the right to vote new taxes, they demanded its convocation (defunct since 1614), with the ulterior motive of restoring their own power vis-à-vis the monarchy. Louis XVI was forced to agree and elections were ordered in August 1788, arousing hopes of liberal and constitutional reforms. The decision to call the Estates-General is seen by many as the capitulation of the monarchy. Thus, the French Revolution seen in this context, as G. Lefebvre puts it, was inaugurated by the aristocracy. However, a new revolution against them had already begun, by associating the middle and lower classes in common action against King and aristocracy. This was by no means what the aristocrats had intended or foreseen. 

There was a great deal of debate regarding the composition of the estates-general. The Third Estate no longer wanted to play a minor role in the state and thus demanded that there should be one assembly and that it should have double representation. This would have ensured their majority with respect to the other orders.  The privileged orders, however, wanted to revert back to the assembly that existed in 1614, whereby each order met in a separate assembly and had an equal number of deputies. This exposed the intentions of the Parlements and of the conservative majority of the aristocracy who were unwilling to compromise on their privileges. This acted as a force of solidarity and bondage uniting the highly divergent bourgeoisie. Thus, the earlier phase of the struggle against royal despotism was transformed into a conflict between the privileged and the unprivileged classes, demanding equal rights and privileges. They were able to muster enough support and generate substantial political opinion in their favour through distribution of pamphlets and propaganda that the court was compelled to represent the third estate in the estates-general.

The Estates-General met in 1789 at Versailles, with a high degree of expectations for drastic social and political reforms. However, as the assembly opened it was unable to meet such expectations and the Third Estate was constantly made aware of its inferior status. It was the failure of the Estates-General that instigated the Third Estate into declaring themselves as the National Assembly in 1789 and they invited the two other orders to join as well. As the popularity of the National Assembly increased with the clergy and some of liberal nobles joining it, the king had no option but to legalise the National Assembly.

A number of Marxist historians have viewed the French Revolution in terms of a class conflict; one between the Bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Prominent among them were George Lefebvre and Albert Soboul. They argued that in the old regime, land was the basis of wealth and position in society. This arrangement became increasingly obsolete because of the rise of commerce, which gave rise to the numbers and economic power of the bourgeoisie. While, they retained a predominant position in society, they resented the growing influence of the Bourgeoisie and attempted to preserve their traditional rights and privileges at the cost of the interests of the Bourgeoisie. This is what had led to the aristocratic reaction as described above, and it was their stubbornness to cling on to their birthrights and obstructing the king from making the necessary reforms that they lost out. Thus, they viewed the French Revolution as a shift from feudalism to capitalism, which was brought about by the Third Estate’s struggle against the landowning nobility. 

However, this has been criticised by a number of revisionist historians in recent years. For instance, Francois Furet denounced this “revolutionary catechism”, which emphasised so much on the antagonism between the classes that it failed to see the similarities that existed between them. Furet, George Taylor and others argued that in economic outlook both the nobility and the bourgeoisie have much in common and hence, socio-economic values made them more or less a single group. Moreover, some scholars have argued that most of these classes were divided within themselves and hence couldn't have formed a class. For instance, Cobban argued that there was no common interest between the Bourgeoisie of the professions and those of trade. Thus, it can be seen that it may not be correct to view this as a class conflict but more as a clash rooted in distinction of status. This has been emphasised by Colin Lucas, who used the failure of the Estates-General to prove his point. He argued that the Bourgeoisie was provoked not because of the unwillingness of the nobles to initiate reforms but resurrection of the distinctions between the nobles and the non-nobles, which had become obsolete by now. 

The political victory for the Third Estate was enforced by popular pressure, through revolts that broke out in the towns and the countryside. The Fall of Bastille saved the National Assembly from dissolution and later that year, the march of Parisian women to Versailles exerted pressure on Louis XVI to return to Paris and accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, firmly establishing the Revolution. In fact, the popular movements through their fusion with the political revolution were critical in the success of the ongoing political struggle. However, these popular movements had an autonomous course and objective, were not merely the tools of the revolutionary leadership summoned at their will, even though the middle class played an important role in raising their level of political consciousness. 

Popular unrest was closely allied with economic realities and tended to flare up in times of economic crisis. Thus, a number of scholars have emphasised on the economic origins of the revolution. However, there is a debate over whether the economy of pre-revolutionary France was in a state of crisis or not. Scholars like J.Michelet argued that growing misery among the people resulted in a popular uprising against an unjust order. Tocqueville, on the other hand, saw 18th century France in a state of prosperity in which the peasantry had control over 1/3rd of the land. Ernest Labrousse has tried to merge both these viewpoints by showing that between the 1730s and 1770s, France was a growing economy but it had begun to slow down in the decades before the Revolution. This was made worse by the free trade treaty concluded with England in 1786, the fiscal crisis faced by the state, fall in production and the agrarian crisis of the 1780s. Thus, according to him the political crisis came at a time of high prices, falling wages and mass unemployment; and this did much to explain the intensity of popular violence, which was a product of this misery. Through bread riots, attacks on food convoys, bakers, millers and speculators the starved masses had expressed their grievance.

William Doyle goes on to say that Labrousse’s argument contains a broader perspective of the origins of the Revolution. The crisis described by him illustrates the weakness of an under-developed economy that depended overwhelmingly on a weak agricultural sector. It was the inefficiencies within the agrarian sector that prevented development on other fronts as well resulting in overwhelming misery. Thus, Doyle concludes that if a weak economy was an important factor resulting in the events of 1789 then it can be said that the revolution broke out because of the absence of an agricultural revolution that could have led to development as it had in the case of England. 

However, there has been general criticism against the economic origins of the French Revolution. It has been argued that if a miserable economic condition was reason enough to provoke such large-scale violence from the peasantry than why had such incidents not occurred in the past when the economy was in a poor state? It is for this reason that in recent years scholars have begun to reemphasise on the political factors that led to the outbreak of the revolution and which had been ignored for a long time by historians. Scholars like Marcel Marion, Pierre Gaxotte, Lefebvre etc believed that it was the parlement and the aristocracy that was responsible for the overthrow of the ancien regime. They tried to emphasise that the king was genuinely interested in reforms but his efforts were opposed by the nobility that was more interested in preserving their privileges. This in turn gave rise to a reaction against the whole system. Cobban wrote that it was the dismissal of Chancellor Maupeou, who had succeeded in restoring the authority of the monarchy that led to the downfall of the regime. If he had been given some more time to initiate and sustain the changes that he sought people would have come to appreciate the system and there would have been no demand to restore the parlement. However, he was not given such time. 

Since the 1960s, however, the parlements have come to be looked upon with a great deal of sympathy. J.H.Shennan argued that they were the defenders of the law and the rights of the commoners against the authoritarian rule of the crown. William Doyle and Jean Egret stressed that the crown was highly unwilling to initiate changes nor did they have the perception to deem them necessary. Moreover, both of them stressed that Maupeou’s brilliance has been over-stressed. His reforms were limited and after the restoration of the parlement they never caused any troubles for the crown. Thus, they argue that the old order was brought down because of the new social groups’ lose of confidence in the ability of the crown to manage their affairs and not because of the strength of the noble opposition. Some scholars have also stressed that the decision to remove Calonne, who stood in support of reforms and for the Third Estate had made the revolution inevitable. For instance, Albert Goodwin wrote that with the fall of Calonne the last person who could save the toppling of the Ancien Regime had been removed. Such view points were also echoed by Egret.  However, the efficiency of Calonne and of Necker, the man many believe to be solely responsible for destroying the Ancien Regime have been brought under scrutiny as well. The earlier view of Necker being responsible for the financial crisis of the regime has now been challenged on many grounds. Firstly, it is believed that he introduced radical reforms in financial administration, which if they hadn't been abandoned by Calonne would have probably created a sound financial base for the regime. Moreover, the financial plight of the regime also at this point of time seems to be highly exaggerated and it is possible that the royal finances were in modest surplus as claimed by Necker. All this goes to show that the political crisis was not only because of the clash of principles between the crown and the nobility. It was also the outcome of the factionalism and ministerial rivalries that existed in the court, which prevented a number of good measures from coming into existence that could have prevented the downfall of the monarchy.

Another important political factor was the role played by the King in the Revolution. He oscillated between his role as a traditional monarch and thus a defender of privilege; or an Enlightened monarch. Thus, although he declared a policy to tax the privileged classes, he did not have the courage to go through with it. Such a decision required a monarch with more skill and a resolute personality. If the King had proved himself more trust-worthy as a champion of reform, events might have turned out differently and the Third Estate might have settled for a compromise. But, after a point it had become too late and the king because of his wavering and disappointing conduct, and his feeble intrigues with court and nobility, he had already lost all chance of being accepted as the leader of a national movement of regeneration. 

The role of the army, the traditional bulwark of the Crown, must also be noted. Political disaffection in the officer corps was so widespread that it was impossible to rely on the army to confront the National Assembly or, still less, to disperse seething Parisian mobs. Further, the French Guards and other mutinous elements of the army provided the military know-how to the mob to seize the Bastille on 14 July. Thus, although it was only one factor among many, the army played a decisive role, not only ensuring the survival and expansion of the Revolution at home, but within a few years achieving a succession of military victories which would preserve and consolidate the Revolution.

The question to be really asked here is as to what extent was the Revolution and the revolutionaries rooted in the dominant intellectual current of the time, represented by the Enlightenment, without undermining the complexity of what either represented. The ideas of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau, and those of many others, were being widely disseminated among the aristocratic and middle class. Meanwhile, such terms as “citizen”, “nation”, “social contact”, “general will” and the “rights of man” were entering into a common political vocabulary. The opening of the political atmosphere in 1789 fostered liberal ideas associated with the Enlightenment, particularly under political clubs. This political liberalism, rationality that ran through the Enlightenment, the belief in the enjoyment of in alienable natural rights by all men, freedom of thought and expression was reflected in the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and the Citizen. The secularization of politics, by removal of the Church from the arena of political life, the opening of clerical posts to election, may be rooted in the thought of the philosophers  Voltaire particularly. This has been agreed upon by scholars like Lefebvre, who believed that the Enlightenment was the ideology of the Bourgeoisie. Its emphasis on utility, rationalism, individualism and merit were the obvious products of Bourgeoisie mentality and they seemed to have spread as the Bourgeoisie rose in the 18th century. Similarly, Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret emphasised that the nobility had been inspired by the enlightenment. He argues that their rigidity and exclusivity was just an exaggeration and they in fact did look upon themselves as the natural leaders of a regenerated nation in which they would be open to all on their merits. They were hostile to the old regime and anxious to create a state that was liberal, representative, and that protected and promoted the enterprising individual. Denis Richet has also argued that in the 18th century men of property, noble and bourgeoisie alike, found in the political theory of the Enlightenment powerful arguments to direct against a government that seemed extremely oppressive and autocratic. 

However, some other scholars like Daniel Mornet believed that the climate ideas did not bring about the revolution in any direct way. He concedes that a climate of opinions had been created as a result of the ideals and values preached by the Enlightenment that encouraged people to demand reforms from the regime. However, this climate was not threatening enough and posed no serious danger to the regime until it began to collapse for other reasons. Thus, according to him, it was political factors that brought about the collapse of the regime and not any ideology. Moreover, he stressed that while the writers of this period were extremely popular and articulated their opinion superbly they had did not preach nor did they plan any revolution.  Robert Darnton has similarly argued that the Enlightenment had an indirect effect. He argued that by the last two decades of the Regime, the Enlightenment thoughts had become extremely popular in France but the new bunch of thinkers and writers had nothing new to add to the preaching of the original thinkers of the movement. This brought in a certain amount of stagnancy in the movement, which gave rise to a great deal of resentment among the ‘literary rabble’ of Paris, who believed they had a lot to say and could write their way to fame and fortune. However, they found that this had already been monopolised by people, who had become extremely comfortable in their acquired place in society and didn't even put pen to paper. It was this cut-throat competition within the literary circle that gave rise to an army of potential revolutionaries. Thus, it was these people, who disillusioned by the potential of enlightenment thoughts that no longer threatened the regime, were being driven increasingly into writing their own destiny through the medium of a revolution.
  
On the other hand, we have scholars like Albert Cobban and George Taylor, who have outright denied any impact that the Enlightenment may have had on bringing about the revolution. Cobban said that the influence of the Enlightenment on the revolution was far too sporadic and often too contradictory for it to represent a coherent programme and in many ways the revolution acted as a counter-measure to what the 18th century thinkers had stood for. He went on to say that the revolutionaries had acted almost entirely from material motives. Taylor said that, while the initial manifesto of the revolution like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, might have been inspired by a number of ideas made familiar by the Enlightenment but it would be wrong to assume that the entire document had been made popular by that movement. 

But the origin of notions of popular sovereignty, of the redefinition of the nation that emerged during the course of the revolutionary crisis is more complex. It is argued by Cobban, that if any of the Enlightened thinkers even came close to popular sovereignty, it was Rousseau, but his thought on general will an idealized will did not imply popular sovereignty on the extensive scale that it emerged during the Revolution. Even though ideas provided symbols for political struggles, beginning with the defence that the Parlements present for their privileges, the course of the Revolution is dictated by circumstances and material concerns. Lefebvre too has argued that despite a streak of genuine idealism among the revolutionaries, material concerns dictated the course of the Revolution. In fact, practical circumstances influenced ideas and political theory.

Finally, there is the whole viewpoint regarding the cultural origins of the French Revolution propagated by the post-revisionists. Francois Furet revitalised the long neglected work of Tocqueville who believed that the Revolution emerged from the cultural structures of the Old Regime that had become strained as the French state became more centralised. Furet believed that this was a political culture, which from the beginning was extremist and non-pluralistic. There was no place for honest disagreement or debate and only by exterminating the enemy could unanimity be achieved. It was on these grounds that Furet justified the violence used by the Jacobins. 

The other significant post-revisionist was Keith Baker. He downplays the role of ideological movements like the Enlightenment and instead puts forward a cultural interpretation. His vital contribution is the emphasis on the importance of discourse as he feels that it’s more important to look at the actual language used during this period, rather, than focus on abstract issues. He concluded his opinion by saying that it was the rise of a political language, an outcome of rising political consciousness, which helped the people articulate their opinions and demands in a more constructive manner. This, for Baker, was the most important pre-requisite for the revolution. Baker argues that Louis XVI’s Paris was studded with cafes, pubs etc where politics was an important topic of discussion. Baker draws attention to this public space, where observation and criticism of the monarch’s rule came from. This new concept, public opinion, laid the ultimate principle authority for this nascent political culture, which created an expectation for change and public anticipation. In addition to the public opinion, the politically literate culture set the stage for the French Revolution. 

The essence of the post-revisionist school was that the French Revolution could not be reduced to a by-product of class conflict or even friction between interest groups. A new political culture emerged from the dynamism between various interest groups vying for Revolutionary legitimacy and this culture was a mortal struggle to decide which one faction would interpret the people’s will. 

The Revolution essentially began as a political movement by the aristocratic classes, a struggle for the possession of power and over the conditions in which power was to be exercised. But it paved the way for the opening of a new political atmosphere within which new ideas and socio-economic struggles were to grow. Popular participation, arising from socio-economic grievances, won the political struggles that characterized the Revolution in all its stages - the struggle between monarchy and aristocracy, between the Third Estate and the aristocracy, between the monarchy and the National Assembly, between Revolution and what was perceived to be counter-revolution. Thus, an interplay between a complex of factors – social, economic and ideological, all within a political framework – led to the French Revolution.