Social Aspects in Interpreting the French Revolution, 1789


During the reign of Louis XVI monarchy failed to maintain a careful balance between different social forces. The monarchy tried to reform itself but it was prevented from doing so by the selfish obstruction of the aristocracy. In the eighteenth century there was a gradual deterioration in relations between the Second Estate and Third Estate which particularly widened during 1770s and 1780s due to the severe economic depression after a long period of prosperity. The bourgeoisie especially resented the growing gap between their aspirations and their achievements. The peasantry found the seigniorial dues particularly exacting. For a while the Estates formed an alliance against the absolute power of the monarchy. The king had to yield to the combined demands of the different classes and agreed to summon the Estates General. Freed from the necessity of having to co-operate against the regime, the original antagonism between the Second and Third Estate reasserted itself violently.

           The nobility gave the first blow to the monarchy as part of their reactionary posture. This act of political defiance encouraged the different constituents of the Third Estate to bring about the destruction of the ancient regime. The ultimate cause of the French Revolution was the rise of the bourgeoisie. The eighteenth century had enormously enlarged the middle class. Large sections of the bourgeoisie had enriched themselves by the expansion of industry, international or colonial trade. Strengthened by skill, wealth, and a new ideology put forth by the philosophers, the enlightened middle class overturned the French monarchy. The nobility lost all its privileges and in 1789 the middle class took power in France and became the master in the French society for a whole century.


Social Aspects in Interpreting French revolution, 1789

           In eighteenth-century France the privileges enjoyed by clergy and the feudal nobles were but sorry survivals of their early wealth and power. One of these privileges consisted in immunity from taxation. In the Middle Ages this privilege had been justified because the clergy served the King by praying to God for his prosperity and the nobles provided him free military aid. But in the eighteenth century the feudal levies were no longer called upon for service and the nobles who served in the standing army, received regular pay like any other servant of the state. All over Europe an uneasy relationship existed among monarch, nobility and middle class which was reflected in mutual mistrust and uncertainty. There are many current theories about the social issues involved in the French Revolution. This paper attempts to provide some of the more important interpretations of the social aspects of the French Revolution of 1789.

           The fabric of French society was in danger of being torn apart by the exertion of certain internal factors which had existed during much of the eighteenth century and were now greatly accentuated by the economic crisis. One important factor was the hostility between the Second Estate and the Third Estate i.e. between aristocracy on the one hand and bourgeoisie, peasantry and urban proletariat on the other. The opposition of these two Estates to the power of the monarchy and the implications of absolutism provided another factor. The two Estates formed an alliance against the central power of the monarchy for some time. Placed in a difficult situation, the king yielded to the combined demands of the different classes, and agreed to summon the Estates General. After the collapse of the central authority the original antagonism between the Estates asserted itself so violently that it pierced through the fabric of the ancient regime. The influence of the nobility was now overwhelmed as the bourgeoisie, urban proletariat and peasantry successively tried to achieve their aspirations. The bourgeoisie and peasantry particularly resented the growing gap between their aspirations and their achievements. The social classes looked with increasing suspicion at each other and at the regime itself. The resentment greatly increased after 1776.

            After a long period of prosperity, France witnessed serious economic depression in the 1770s and 1780s which caused resentment and bitterness as all classes faced a decline in their status. Production declined, unemployment increased and the recession soon reached to the agricultural sector. Severe drought in 1785 worsened the situation as the yields were short. Furthermore, in 1788 the harvest was ruined by an abnormally wet summer and conditions became even worse in 1789. Alexis de Tocqueville disagreed with Carl Marx’s contention that worsening conditions create a situation favorable to revolution. Tocqueville noted: ‘It is not always by going from bad to worse that a country falls into a revolution and that the French Revolution broke out when conditions were improving.” He further noted, ‘the state of things destroyed by a revolution is almost always somewhat better than that which immediately precedes it.”In 1962 J. C. Davies supported Tocqueville as he observed, “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 borne out by the general economic trends of the eighteenth century.

              The nobility had managed to reassert its influence over the administration and local government as Talleyrand put it, “the highest positions of authority within the Church had become the preserve ‘presque exclusive de la classe noble.” This was because the nobles had united against the crown on the one side and the commoners on the other. Franklin Ford’s work ‘Robe and Sword’ published in the early 1950s, analyzed the reasons for the aristocratic reaction in the later eighteenth century. He maintained that by 1748 the robe nobility had captured the leadership of the nobility as a whole. In his work ‘a social and economic study of the nobility of Toulouse’ published in 1960, Robert Forster noted that their economic position was to be found in adherence to the so-called bourgeois virtues of thrift, discipline and strict management of the family fortune. However, the nobility feared the ambitions of the wealthy sections of the bourgeoisie and resisted fiercely any attempts by them to break the monopoly of the noblesse de robe over the administrative offices and the Parliaments. The bourgeoisie regarded their ultimate aim as becoming the noblesse de robe by the traditional method of ennoblement. The nobility increasingly tightened up their exactions in order to solve their own difficulties. While under the impact of the recession, the peasantry found the seigniorial dues particularly burdensome. The burden of the depression was thus passed downwards to the section of society least able to bear and the peasantry had to suffer several hardships.

Franklin Ford wrote a series of articles which suggested that in economic outlook the nobility and the bourgeoisie had much in common.According to Voltaire, “The middle-class has enriched itself through industry, and commercial profits have increased; there is less luxury amongst the nobility than formerly, and more in middle-class life, so that the contrast between them is not so marked.” The bourgeois accused the nobility of resisting any rationalization of the economic and financial structure. In the eighteenth century, differences between bourgeoisie and the nobles in wealth, culture and tastes tended more and more to disappear. Nevertheless, differences in legal status between the classes remained clearly defined. The nobles occupied the more honorable and lucrative offices and nobility still regarded itself as superior to the commons in every way.

Yet tension between the social classes did not result in immediate conflict. For some time they were somewhat restrained by a temporary alliance against the absolute power of the monarch. Though their motives greatly differed, each believed that changes must be made in the ancient regime. The banning of the parliaments in 1771 was taken by the nobility as an attack on its power. As the financial crisis worsened after 1787, the nobility demanded the convocation of the Estates General as it was sure that the Estates General would naturally confirm its powers, since the First and Second Estates would outnumber the Third Estate on the traditional voting method. But the desire for ‘equality before the law’ had become almost an obsession with the bourgeoisie and that is why the French revolutionaries wanted to completely destroy the privileges of the nobility.

Georges Lefebvre’s classic study of the beginnings of the French Revolution from the summer of 1788 to October 1789 was published in 1939 to mark the 150th anniversary of the French Revolution. It analyzed the causes which destroyed the old order in France. Lefebvre maintained that the ultimate cause of the French Revolution was the rise of the bourgeoisie. His work was translated into English in 1947 by the American scholar, Robert R. Palmer under the title The Coming of the French Revolution. Lefebvre argued that in 1789 bourgeoisie took power in France after their numbers and wealth had increased over the centuries. Land being the only form of wealth, the medieval society was obviously dominated and ruled by a landed aristocracy, but by the eighteenth century the bourgeoisie had come to acquire economic power and personal abilities. In 1789, the bourgeoisie overthrew the remnants of the aristocratic landed order which had until then retained social predominance notwithstanding its economic decline, and established a regime which reflected the new distribution of economic power.

Lefebvre maintained that there were four revolutionary movements between 1787 and 1789. First to come was the revolt of the aristocracy, which marked the climax of a century-long aristocratic reaction finally destroying the monarchy. The nobility had taken the support of the bourgeoisie in order to bring about that revolution. The second revolution, according to him, began in September 1788, as the bourgeoisie burst in anger when the Parliament of Paris declared that the Estates-General, promised by the government for 1789, should be constituted as it had been in 1614, ensuring aristocratic predominance.

This second revolution was a class struggle against the aristocracy in which the bourgeois aimed to destroy the privileges of the nobility and the clergy. It lasted until the creation of the bourgeois-dominated National Assembly in June1789. The bourgeois wanted to establish a regime which ensured equality before the law, equal opportunities for job and levied taxes on the same basis.

The third revolution took place when workers intervened in October 1789, when the Estates-General was threatened by a royal-aristocratic counter-coup. The urban workers hoped that the new order would resolve their growing economic problems. It was a popular revolution. However, before that happened, the economic crisis of 1788-89 had produced a fourth revolution, the peasant’s revolution. It was a nation-wide uprising caused by fears for the safety of crops against the exaction of seigniorial dues and labor services by aristocratic landlords. It resulted in the abolition of feudalism, the last bastion of the old aristocratic order. His interpretation of the origins of the revolution had taken account of the researches of Ernest Labrousse into the economic origins of the revolution.

               The debates about the revolution showed strong political biases in the earlier part of the century. Leftist historians believed that the revolution was desirable and inevitable. While those of the right, considered it as detestable. Both sides however, agreed that the rise of the bourgeoisie was the fundamental cause of the revolution and that the monarchy tried to reform itself, but it could not do so due to the obstruction by the aristocracy. Further, they believed that the Enlightenment had undermined faith in traditional values. Lefebvre’s views on what caused the revolution were broadly accepted. However, the disagreement between left and right-wing historians was largely about the revolution’s consequences. The first major post-war work was Albert Goodwin’s analysis of the origins of the movement and it owed a good deal to Lefebvre. The French historian, Albert Soboul also praised his position.In 1965 François Furet and Denis Richer disagreed with their views over the course of the revolution rather than its origins.

However, the first effective challenge to Lefebvre’s position came from Alfred Cobban, Professor of French History at the University of London. In his work Myth of the French Revolution, Cobban explained that this myth was that the revolution was “the substitution of a capitalist bourgeois order for feudalism.” His contention was that anything that might possibly be called feudal had ended long before 1789. In The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, Cobban suggested that ‘the revolutionary bourgeoisie was primarily the declining class of officers and the lawyers and other professional men, and not the men of commerce and industry.’Further, instead of promoting capitalism the Revolution retarded it. And this was the fundamental aim of the various revolutionary groups in 1789. Cobban analyzed the social and professional background of the bourgeois elected to the Estates-General in 1789 and held that the revolutionary bourgeoisie were not the representatives of industrial and commercial wealth as Lefebvre had contended. According to him “the bourgeois of the theory are a class of capitalists, industrial entrepreneurs and financiers of big business; those of the French Revolution were landowners, rentiers, and officials”.He showed that only 13 per cent of them were associated with commerce and 43 per cent were lawyers, petty officeholders and government servants.

The discontent of these people provided the reforming zeal of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Moreover, he argued that feudalism wasn’t destroyed by revolutionaries of 1789 but by the peasants.However, W. Doyle’s later research demonstrated that evidence given by Cobban for a declining class of office-holders does not hold good. In his reaction to Cobban’s criticism, Lefebvre said that Cobban’s aim was to belittle the significance of the revolution. He maintained that even if the men of 1789 were not capitalists, their actions supported capitalism’s future development and that was what mattered. Lefebvre argued that even if a ‘myth’, it was a necessary one.

Regarding the nobility, Cobban believed that it was a selfish, increasingly exclusive caste which exercised its political power through the parliaments to prevent the crown from attacking its privileges. Subsequently the noble obstruction brought down the old order.  Cobban also tended to undermine the role of the Enlightenment in the origins of the Revolution. Norman Hampson in his 1963 general survey emphasized the importance of intellectual belief in bourgeois hostility to the old order. In his opinion Cobban simply produced a non-Marxist economic interpretation of the Revolution. Hampson believed that there was a fundamental opposition between the ‘privileged orders’ and their interests on one side, and the bourgeoisie and its interests on the other.

Albert Soboul stressed the development of modern forms of industrial capitalism and concluded that ‘the sight of this economic activity made the men of the bourgeoisie conscious of their class and made them understand that their interests were irreparably opposed to those of the aristocracy.’ From the revisionist camp, Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret refutes the idea that there was a relationship between development of industrial capitalism and the ‘rise of the bourgeoisie’. For the latter, it was the aristocracy, not the bourgeoisie who was in the vanguard of a modern capitalist revolution. Over a whole range of activities and enterprises nobles, either alone or in association with members of the greater business bourgeoisie, showed their dynamism, their taste for invention and innovation, and their ability as economic leaders.Analyzing the types of capitalism that existed in France before the Revolution, G. V. Taylor contended that they had but little resemblance to the industrial capitalism of the future.  In an article published in 1967, Taylor argued that the wealth of all social groups in pre-revolutionary France was overwhelmingly non-capitalist in nature. It was held that before 1789 capitalism had not become the dominant mode of production in the French economy. These works challenged the traditional view point regarding the pre-revolutionary nobility and suggested that the nobility was more and more like the bourgeoisie.

The debates on the Revolution’s social origins which took place in early 1960s, led to the conclusions that it was not possible to draw any clear contrast between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. Taylor’s contention that the wealth of the bourgeoisie was as overwhelmingly proprietary as that of the nobility was not challenged. It was also not denied that the most of commercial and industrial wealth was in bourgeois hands, but it was also held that there was extensive noble investment in these fields. A recent research showed that between 1725 and 1789 about 40,000 people entered the French nobility which came to two persons per day. Therefore, it seems quite indisputable that the nobility was an open elite rather than an isolated hereditary caste. Most evidence suggests that institutions that were largely noble in composition in the 1780s had been so a century earlier, and that apparent attempts to discriminate against non-nobles were really signs of antagonism between different types of nobles.  Researches carried on different aspects of the bourgeoisie lent support to suggestions of Cobban and Taylor that there was a lack of contact or sense of common interest between the bourgeoisie of the professions and that of trade.  Despite Franklin Ford’s contention robe and sword nobles were still attacking each other in the 1780s. An  analysis of the cahiers of the nobility in 1789 showed that they were very much divided ideologically. A large number of them were even influenced by the political liberalism like the bourgeoisie.

Colin Luca’s work published in English in 1973 suggested that, ‘the middle class of the later Ancien Régime displayed no significant difference in accepted values and above all no consciousness of belonging to a class whose economic and social characteristics were antithetical to the nobility.’ Bourgeoisie and nobles were all part of a single propertied élite. And yet they did not unite in 1788-9. This may be explained by the declaration of the Parliament of Paris in September 1788 that the Estates-General should meet according to the forms of 1614. As soon as the bourgeoisie saw that its interests were largely at odds with those of the nobility, the bourgeois campaign set off to capture control of the Estates. However, Elizabeth A. Eisenstein criticized this position in 1965 on the grounds that the mysterious ‘Committee of Thirty’ had many noble members and therefore could hardly be considered the voice of the bourgeoisie alone.  In 1980 Daniel Wick also argued that the ‘Committee of Thirty’ was largely driven in its attack on the old order by the resentment of Court nobles who had lost political influence over the reign of Louis XVI.

Marxian historians reacted sharply to Alfred Cobban’s book The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. Cobban’s attack was directed mainly against the imposition of Marxist laws of development. The revisionist historians did not agree with Soboul that revolutionary action advances the cause of ‘progress’. The French Revolution certainly did not produce an urban, industrialized society. Nevertheless, to deny the importance of the abolition of feudalism and the legal changes introduced by Revolution demonstrates ideological biases. It would be anachronistic to identify ‘socialism’ with the French Revolution as the term was not employed widely until well into the nineteenth century. The population of France rose from 21 million in 1700 to 28 million by 1790s.

The rate of demographic growth slowed significantly during the last decades of the ancien régime due to recession as well as to other factors. Birth-rates fell from 38.8 per thousand during the 1780s to 32.9 per thousand by the early 1800s; death-rates also fell from 35.5 per thousand during the period 1785-9 to 29.5 per thousand during the years 1795-99. The most striking feature was a great fall in infant mortality which reduced from 252 per thousand in the 1780s, to 195 per thousand during the 1800s. Notwithstanding the social upheavals of the Revolution and about half million deaths in internal and external wars, during the 1790s, the population of France increased by about one million during the same period. Figures suggest that throughout France a social ‘evolution’ was afoot leading to increased demand for land to feed more people.

The French peasant paid to his lord, the seigniorial taxes and dues and the tithe (dîme) levied by his local church. He also paid direct and indirect taxes to the government. According to an estimate given by Annie Moulin if we add up all these it would range ‘between one-quarter and one-half of the revenue of the peasant household’. Not only feudalism was cast aside on the night of 4 August, privilege, the fundamental principle of social and institutional life since time immemorial was renounced. For three centuries French social mobility had largely been channeled through the sale of offices but nobility now blocked the access to political positions and this was resented by the bourgeoisie.

The argument that the Revolution was, fundamentally a political event with social consequences is not likely to hold. It is obvious that the social conflict constituted the chief factor of the Revolution which had cast peasant against the seigniorial system for over a century. In quarrel over the rich spoils after 4 August, the peasants were not to go away empty-handed. This explained why Albert Soboul, talked of the French Revolution as a ‘peasant-bourgeois’ Revolution rather than a ‘capitalist bourgeois’ Revolution towards the close of his career.  The success achieved by French peasantry in four years showed that there existed a massive peasant force in French society, which played a significant role in determining the future character of French society. The revolution effected a major redistribution of land. By 1815, the nobility had lost perhaps half of its property while the Church had ceased to be a major landowner.

Abha Trivedi

University of Lucknow


One thought on “Social Aspects in Interpreting the French Revolution, 1789

  1. Pingback: What if… | Verbum Sapienti

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s