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An important debate that has dominated the thinking of the French Revolution is the question of whether it was a Bourgeoisie Revolution or not. The classical interpretation of the revolution from the time of Michelet to prominent 20th century Marxist historians like George Lefebvre and Albert Soboul have viewed the French Revolution in terms of a class struggle between the Bourgeoisie and the landowning nobility, which led to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The revisionist historians like Alfred Cobban and George Rude argue that this class based interpretation is obsolete.


Before we go on to analyse the nature of the revolution it would be important to understand the social structure of pre-revolution France. The French society was divided into estates: the clergy, the aristocracy and the Third Estate. 96% of the population belonged to the Third Estate but it was a very broad category that included several diverse groups within it. One such group was the bourgeoisie. However, this group was also highly differentiated. It included the extremely rich and wealthy bourgeoisie, who derived their wealth from land or from the world of finance and commerce; professionals like lawyers, doctors, scientists etc; members of the royal administration, officers etc There were differences between the upper bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie as well. The vast and heterogeneous petty bourgeoisie were poorer and possessed very small holdings of land. The upper bourgeoisie had more in common with the nobility; and its corporate organization fostered the same exclusiveness it resented in the nobility.

However, their traditional attitude towards the aristocracy was one of aspiration rather than hostility. There were frequent inter-marriages between the two. However, as the bourgeoisie grew in power and influence on account of the rising commerce and finance of that time the nobility began to resent this group. Moreover, their rise coincided with the attempts of the monarchy to take up away their fiscal privileges in order to resolve the financial crisis that the state was undergoing. However, the aristocracy tried to cling on to their traditional rights and privileges more strongly and thwarted all the reform efforts of the crown. 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. However, Lefebvre argues that it was the stubbornness of the aristocracy to give up their privileges that offset a reaction against them, which ultimately led to their overthrow as well.

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. The rationale behind this defunct distinction was that the first two orders would be able to outvote the Third Estate and thus blocked reforms that attack their privileges.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. A “patriot” party was formed, demanding constitutional reform. Though mainly voicing the hopes of the Third Estate, it included some liberal aristocrats like Talleyrand, Lafayette and Condorcet. Similarly, many of the young nobles in the Parlement of Paris were in favour of abolition of fiscal 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 at Versailles on 5 May 1789 against a background of mounting crisis and popular unrest in Paris. Earlier in the year, people had been invited to prepare their cahiers de doleances, or lists of grievances, to guide their estates in their deliberations. Innumerable cahiers had come pouring in from the provinces, making it clear that sweeping political and social reforms, far exceeding the object of its meeting, were expected from the Estates-General. But as the assembly opened, nothing was done to spare the Third Estates’ susceptibilities or to realize their high hopes of early reform. In every way, they were made mindful of their inferiority of status. The Crown was indecisive, vacillating. The growing impatience of the Third Estate lead them to declare themselves as the National Assembly on June 17, 1789, and they invited the other two orders to join them. Majority of the members of the clergy (parish priests) joined the Assembly, splitting the first order, and so did some liberal nobles. When the king had their meeting place closed, they adjourned to an indoor tennis court, and there took an oath (June 20) not to disband until a constitution had been drawn up. On June 27, the king yielded and legalized the National Assembly.

It is because of this role played by the Bourgeoisie that some of the classical writers on this subject have labelled it as a “Bourgeoisie Revolution”. According to this classical theory, the French Revolution of 1789 that led to the establishment of the National Assembly was the product of a class war between a decadent nobility and a rising bourgeoisie, whose ambitions were frustrated by the aristocracy’s monopolisation of power. Lefebvre claimed that the origins of the French Revolution can be traced back to the rise of the bourgeoisie and 1789 was the year when this class took power in France. He argued that it was possible for the bourgeoisie to take power only because of the destruction of the ancien regime, which was due to the aristocratic class thwarting the reform efforts of the monarchy. 

Sans-Culottes were the most serious challenge to the Bourgeoisie hegemony and once the alliance between the two collapsed in 1794, the Bourgeoisie reasserted control but it could not consolidate itself through representative institutions. It then surrendered to the military in 1799 and it was finally with the restoration of 1814-15 that the Bourgeoisie found a regime most suited to it. Thus, for the classical school, the history of the French Revolution is the history of the consolidation of the Bourgeoisie.

However, this interpretation has come under the strict scrutiny of the revisionist school. Cobban has refuted the thesis that the revolution was led by a rising bourgeoisie that shattered the feudal system. He points out that the capitalist bourgeoisie made up of only 13% of the constituent, while 2/3rd of the deputies of the Third Estate were liberal professionals. Moreover, 43% of the bourgeoisie deputies were petty office holders and government servants and it was the frustrations of such people, doing the work of the government without getting any credit and seeing the value of the venal offices in which they had invested their money declining that provided the revolutionary impetus of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Thus, it was not a rising bourgeoisie that was responsible for the revolution but a declining one.

 The orthodox portrayal of the revolution as a struggle between two distinct classes has been challenged by a number of scholars in recent years. Firstly, Cobban has argued that the legal division of the French society into the three estates bore no relation to the social and economic reality of the 18thcentury. Moreover, rarely did a person belong to one category alone. For instance, a noble could be a local official or a judge, an army officer or a landowner. Thus, the social structure of the ancien regime was possessed a greater degree of flexibility than what was portrayed by the Orthodox historians. Jean Egret echoed similar views, who said that the exclusivism of the nobility that resulted in an aggressive bourgeoisie reaction was over exaggerated as was the rigidity of the pre-revolution class structures in France. 

Francois Furet denounced the class struggle thesis as a “revolutionary catechism”, which emphasised so much on the antagonism between the classes that it failed to see the similarities that existed between them. Furet 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.

D. Sutherland argues that the ancien regime nobility was very open to money and noble status could always be acquired by wealthy men purchasing either an office or an estate. The prominent contributions of nobles to capitalist ventures and the strong bourgeoisie proprietorship of land blurred the economic distinctions between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Similarly, John McManners argued that it was wealth and not privilege that was the key to pre-revolutionary society in France. Wealth transcended all social barriers and bound great nobles and upper bourgeoisie together into ‘an upper class unified by money’. G.V. Taylor estimates that nearly 80% of bourgeoisie and aristocratic wealth was ‘proprietory’ i.e. invested in land, urban real estate, venal offices and bonds. Despite great regional variations, the nobility and bourgeoisie were everywhere the important landowners. Thus from the point of view of relations of property ownership and economic functions the nobility and bourgeoisie were a single class. Moreover, he went on to argue that even though the bulk of the commercial and industrial wealth was in the hands of the Bourgeoisie the nobility had a great deal of investment in it.

Thus, in light of such arguements it becomes slightly difficult to accept the notion of a class struggle between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie as there was very little to choose between the two. This, then, raises the question as to what caused the split between these two groups, who shared similar tastes, interests and more or less similar wealth as well. Sutherland explains the split by saying that the Bourgeoisie-aristocracy alliance to overthrow the monarchy was an unequal partnership. The aristocracy was only willing to go so far and not prepared to surrender its privileges. This had become extremely clear during the debates on the composition of the Estates-General. The aristocracy wanted to revert back to the forms of 1614, which would have ensured that the first two orders be able to outvote the Third Estate thereby suppressing any attempts to take away their privileges. The imposition of artificial barriers between nobles and non-nobles was a catalyst that brought latent antagonisms to the surface and is taken by historians to represent the turning point when the aristocratic revolution gave way to the bourgeoisie revolution. This has been supported 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. It was this that forced the bourgeoisie into quarrel with their former partners and to ally themselves with the poorer bourgeoisie and the common people with whom they had nothing in common except for their non-noble status and their hatred for the aristocracy. What had earlier been an arguement about the content of the reforms that would affect all the privileged people now turned into a conflict between the legally privileged and non-privileged.

It is possible at this stage to make certain observations about the nature of the revolution. That the French Revolution was a bourgeoisie revolution is generally accepted by most historians. However, the revolutionary bourgeoisie was not believed to be a rising one of industry, commerce and finance but a declining one of venal officers and liberal professionals. Moreover, the revolution was not an attack on aristocracy per se because economically the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy were essentially a single group. In essence the French Revolution attacked privilege not property. The intervention of the rural and urban poor added a new dimension to this struggle. However, instead of seeing them only as appendages within a broader bourgeoisie framework it’s more appreciable to understand their role in the context of the rich-poor divide.  

This brings us to the second aspect of this question now; whether a new capitalist order had come in place of the old feudal system as asserted by the classical school. Whether this is true or not can be understood under three different heads: (1) the aim and nature of the bourgeoisie class during the revolution; (2) the economic consequences of the revolution and (3) the nature of the new ruling class in France.

Soboul admits that by legal definition France in 1789 was not ‘feudal’, however, feudalism continued to exist as a social reality, symbolic of ‘servitude to the land’ and by corollary to the inalienable tithes, dues, rights, taxes and payments that weighed on it. Far from being a myth, Soboul argues, feudalism constituted a heavy burden on the peasantry and were an important source of seigniorial income. Hence, the nobility had good reason to resist the abolition of feudalism, while, the peasantry had an equal cause for revolt.
The important fact that remains to be investigated is whether the revolution did infact represent an important stage in the economic history of France. The accepted view is best expressed by Soboul, who argues that prior to 1789 the bourgeoisie were the masters of production, exchange and commerce. But all these activities according to him had taken place within a feudal framework that was now broken. He goes on to say that this transition can be best attested by studying the economic consequences of the revolution. For instance, the abolition of ancien regime corporations, trading monopolies, privileges and barriers were characteristic of this new capitalist mentality that the Bourgeoisie had brought in. However, a number of scholars have argued that if one analyses the legislation on economic matters that were introduced post-1789 then they would see a great deal of continuity from changes that had already been initiated and hence, cannot be symbolic  of a revolutionary break from the past as suggested by the classical school. For instance, the demand for freedom of trade was not purely in the interests of the bourgeoisie economic individualism, instead it had arisen much before as part of a movement for the abolition of internal customs that was always led by reforming individuals and not by members of the commercial class.
Cobban has argued that the orthodox portrayal of the revolution as an overthrow of feudalism is a myth created by orthodox historians for feudalism as a mode of production no longer existed by that time. However, once his thesis was attacked he wrote in his “Social Interpretations of the French Revolution” that feudalism was characterised by seigniorial rights and dues but this was opposed and overthrown only by the peasantry and not the bourgeoisie. Seigniorial dues were becoming heavier in the years before 1789 because of their growing commercialisation following the large-scale penetration of urban financial interests in the countryside. These new non-nobles were determined to get the maximum return on their investment and thus, Cobban argues that the ‘bourgeoisie revolution’ was not meant to promote capitalism but to retard it as it went against the material interests of the bourgeoisie. Cobban went on to say that theoretically bourgeoisie are a class of capitalists, industrial entrepreneurs and financers of big businesses but those of the French Revolution were landowners, rentiers and officials. Moreover, Taylor has argued that those members of the bourgeoisie, who were capitalists were largely uninterested in politics both before and during the revolution, except as a possible vehicle for protecting their own commercial and industrial privileges. The implication was that they didn’t share the same aspirations of the reformers in the assembly.

Soboul argued that the overthrow of the feudal system did not result in the simultaneous appearance of new social relations and new economic structures but created the conditions that accelerated the emergence of a new capitalist order. Similarly, Lefebvre also argued that even if the revolutionary bourgeoisie wasn’t capitalist it favoured the development of capitalism. Cobban has further refuted this viewpoint by claiming that the revolution was not a step forward towards capitalism but a step backwards. Instead of accelerating the growth of a modern capitalist economy in France, the revolution may infact have retarded it. French trade and industry were worse off in 1815 as compared to the pre-revolutionary days. Land continued to be major source of income and investment at the cost of other sectors of the economy.
Cobban argues that inspite of such a major social and political upheaval, the economic consequences of the revolution as a whole were astonishingly small. France remained essentially a rural country- there were only 6 cities with more than 50,000 people and 3 cities with more than 100,000 people- and its old agricultural methods remained largely unchanged. Cobban goes to the extent to say that this was a period of economic decline. Similarly, Morineau argues that nothing new was really happening in 18th century France and structural modernisation took place only at a later stage. Roger Price has also said that the revolution only brought down a political regime. The old economic regime continued to exist till the 1840s and it was only with the advent of the railways that economic integration was achieved that put France on the right path of development.

Thus, in light of recent research it would be correct to say that the revolution did not suddenly transform the fragmented, low-level economic life of 18th century France into a bourgeoisie-capitalist economy. The sale of national lands did not revolutionise French agriculture. Instead the flow of new property into the hands of those who were already landlords or tenants tended to confirm the general economic patterns of each region and to ensure the continuing dominance of established notions of cultivation and management. For instance, medieval agriculture persisted in much of Northern France till 1850. As far as the industrial sector is concerned it was still dominated by artisan production and the putting out system in the 1840s; there was very little technological development and land continued to remain the chief source of income and investment. F. Crouzel and Henri See insist that the revolution held up rather than promote large-scale industrialisation. As far as France’s colonial and foreign trade is concerned, the revolution proved to be a disaster. Cobban argues that external trade suffered due to war and blockade. 

One final aspect left to be discussed is regarding the constitution of the new ruling class  in France. Soboul argues that those sections of the bourgeoisie, which had derived their wealth from seigniorial dues, revenues of venal offices and rents were adversely affected and they were replaced by a new bourgeoisie dominated by the heads of commerce and industry. Cobban, however, argues  that while the bourgeoisie may have lost as owners of seigniorial dues they gained as owners of land. He rejects Soboul’s views that venal officers were ruined as a large number of them were part of the assembly that carried out the abolition. The abolition was meant to be compensated through judicial and administrative positions. As far as the prosperous commercial and financial bourgeoisie is concerned Cobban categorically states that the revolution was neither led by them nor was it in their interests. Businessmen received perhaps even less recognition than before the revolution. According to Reinhard, the new ruling elite was one of soldiers and bureaucrats. Moreover, Napoleon preferred a peasant and agricultural society and the idea of a capitalist economy was completely alien to him. Thus, JM Roberts concludes that France continued to be dominated by ‘notables’, whose wealth and influence was based on land. Thus, in effect, the new ruling class of France was above all one of landowners.

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