ORIGINS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
The causes of the French Revolution of 1787-1789 (Solé 3) is a subject worthy of investigation because the revolt is an event of crucial importance in Western History. It marked the end of feudalism and the beginning of democracy in France, and can be seen as a turning point for liberty in Europe. To quote the German author Goethe, ‘From this place, and from this day, commences a new era in the world’s history’ (Wright 2). In 1774 when Louis XVI ascended the French throne, he had the potential, if he exerted strength, to rule absolutely over France (Hampson 24), a powerful European nation. Less than twenty years later his monarchy had been replaced by a revolutionary government (Rudé 34), and he was executed at the guillotine (Wright 65).
The opening stages of the revolution are often regarded as an ‘unfolding’ of three minor rebellions. The aristocratic revolution, or révolte nobilitiare, involving the elite, was a reaction against the monarchy’s attempt to remove their privileges (Hampson 31) and ended with the calling of the Estates General
on August 8th 1788 (Wright 19). The bourgeois revolution, or révolte bourgeois, was an uprising of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy and the monarchy which began in the meetings of the Estates General (May 1789) (Hampson 64). It was a Parisian insurrection, led by the bourgeois, carried out largely by the urban poor, and is the most commonly known and romanticized phase of the entire affair. Less known is the popular revolution, a nationwide peasant uprising against high food prices that became a battle against seigneurial
privileges (Rudé 37). This ‘backdrop’ revolution began in December 1788 during the Aristocratic revolt and continued during the bourgeois rebellion of 1789.
There are two major schools of thought concerning the origins of the French Revolution. The Marxist/Orthodox School was unchallengeable in the first half of the twentieth century (Rudé 17-19). Its ideas, propounded by historical giants Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, and Albert Mathiez (Kates 3), presented the revolution as the culmination of an age old struggle between the rising capitalistic bourgeoisie
and the feudal aristocracy (Cobban 8-9). This view was also put forth by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ par 2/3). The first major attack on the Marxist school was put forward by Alfred Cobban. He questioned the idea of a capitalistic bourgeoisie (Kates 5) and also argued that France’s middle class formed no ‘single cohesive class’ in eighteenth century France (Cobban xviii). Cobban’s major problem with the Marxist ideology was that it seemed to be assuming the characteristics of a religion (Cobban 11). Its interpretation of the French Revolution had the appearance of being tailored to its ‘theory of the evolution of classes’ without heed of contradictory facts (Cobban 11-12).
Cobban’s arguments fathered the Revisionist School, to which historians such as G.V. Taylor, Colin Lucas, and Francois Furet would soon join and add their ideas (Kates 5). The debate on the French Revolution’s origins still rages today.
The purpose of this essay is to evaluate the extent to which the French Revolution represents the conclusion of a long struggle between a rising capitalist bourgeoisie and a feudal aristocracy.
The question of whether or not the bourgeoisie formed a cohesive, capitalist class that was antagonistic to feudalism, and whether their grievances stemmed from these roots, is examined. The influence of the bourgeoisie on the events of 1787-1789 that led to the storming of the Bastille is analyzed and compared to that of the aristoracy and the peasantry. Finally, the origins of the aristocracy’s and peasantry’s involvement in the French Revolution are...
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