The Structure and Role of the Pre-Revolutionary State in France, China, and Russia

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Griffin Weider
Professor Christensen
Comparative Revolutions
November 30, 2012

The Structure and Role of the Pre-Revolutionary State in France, China, and Russia

There are numerous causal factors to consider when analyzing revolutions, and the State is arguably one of the most significant. In this essay I will be comparing and contrasting the ways in which the structure and role of the pre-revolutionary state affected the nature of the revolutions in France, Russia, and China. When the state collapsed in all three of the cases, the old regimes were attempting to modernize in response to unrest and corruption, and all were caught up in an international systemic crisis at the time. However differences can be found in the way they went about modernization and reform, the ways and varying degrees to which unrest and external pressures affected the states, and the consequences of the actions – or failure to act – on the part of the states.

Pre-revolutionary France was an absolutist state: the king of France, in the words of Louis XIV, was the state. However tradition and privileges were central in this system, giving authority to trades and guilds, judges and tax collectors, and the Church; furthermore, certain cities had individual exemptions and each province had privileges as well. To make these various – and often conflicting – arrangements more complicated, the government had limited organizational capacity when it came to travel and communications. The primary focuses of the government were military and foreign policy, and they paid for these through an extensive taxation system. By the end of the eighteenth century, the state was compromised by overwhelming fiscal burdens, mainly due to its repeated voluntary participation in foreign wars. Because the collection of taxes was not entirely under the control of the state, the government attempted to streamline the entire tax system, however this proved unsuccessful because it alienated the upper classes who were powerful enough to block it. Thus by the 1780’s, the central government was powerful but unable to formulate and carry out reform and was facing charges from local parlements of despotism. By 1787-8 the monarchy was unable to carry out practically anything, and fell shortly after calling the Estates General at the demand of the people.

Russia was an absolutist, monarchical empire – the state was trying to build nationalism while simultaneously maintaining empire. Modernization and industrialization were central to the government’s goals, as were creating both civic and ethnic institutions that would incorporate the expanding society into the regime. Alexander II carried out a series of reforms in the mid-nineteenth century in an attempt to ease repression from the government, from the emancipation of the serfs to local government reforms to the radicalization of the legal system. These attempts proved to be problematic in many ways. An example of this is the reform of the education system. For the first time, the Russian state set up good universities in order to enhance the quality of the country’s youth and produce well-educated future leaders. Instead, the universities became a major setting for radicalism over time. Similarly, the easing of censorship gave the people more freedom but also allowed a great amount of new information to circulate and a wave of concerns to be voiced. Although Alexander II’s reforms did improve the economy overall and worked towards modernization, many Russians on the interior remained very poor, and there was no political reform and the people had no representation in the state. Despite his strides to improve the state, Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, leading to increased censorship and repression on the part of the regime. After defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, unrest promulgated through the empire things began to fall apart. Without any support from the...
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