The first topic we dealt with in my history course during the second semester was the French Revolution. I shall give the background and the events of the revolution before going into the historiography.
By the 1780s, France had been at war for the most part of the preceding 150 years. Although it was a very prosperous country, constant warfare drained both the treasury and the population. The French population was broadly categorized into three estates – the First Estate consisted of the clergy, the Second Estate consisted of the nobility and everyone else belonged to the Third Estate. Although the top two estates owned most of the land and were quite wealthy, they paid no taxes at all. The burden of all the wars and royal extravagances were borne by the Third Estate.
The King, Louis XVI, wanted to reform the economy by imposing taxes on the top two estates but was constantly opposed by the aristocracy and the clergy. Two finance ministers were appointed and dismissed in quick succession. This irked the middle classes (who were the representatives of the Third Estate) a lot. When the Estates-General (the parliament) was called, the Third Estate walked out and formed a National Assembly in order to write a constitution. In order to stave off this challenge, Louis XVI ordered his troops to march into Paris.
Meanwhile, due to a poor harvest, the prices of wheat and bread had skyrocketed, causing massive food riots all over France, especially in Paris. Alarmed by the news of arriving troops, Parisian rioters stormed the Bastille, which was a large fortress, and armed themselves. The National Assembly, which was till then an ineffective bunch of talking heads, immediately moved to support the newly formed militia. With the people’s power behind it, the representatives of the Third Estate gained legitimacy and were able to enforce a constitutional monarchy on Louis XVI.
Although the National Assembly passed many reforms, some sections of the populace were not satisfied. These radicals formed the Jacobin club and grabbed power under their leader Robespierre. A totally radical reordering of society took place with the abolition of all titles, the abolition of the Church and the adoption of a new calendar. In addition, the aristocrats were arrested on the charge of treason and put to death using the guillotine. Although there was widespread support for him, Robespierre went so far that he even started executing his political opponents. At this point, he himself was captured and executed.
After these turbulent times, the French experimented with new forms of governments. However, due to the instability arising from foreign invasions, a rising young general called Napoleon Bonaparte attempted a coup and became the ruler of France, thus effectively ending the “Revolution” in 1799.
During the Revolution and later, monarchists and other conservatives such as Edmund Burke denounced the Revolutionary events as a conspiracy of ‘moneyed-interests’ along with a clique of philosophers. Others blamed the Freemasons, Jews and the Illuminati.
The liberals, led by Alexis de Tocqueville, held the opinion that the Revolution was a logical sequel to the administrative reforms of Louis XVI, and that it occurred precisely because the middle classes were becoming wealthier, more powerful and more conscious. Therefore, they could not accept the vestiges of feudalism. Even though Tocqueville’s arguments are brilliant, he left quite a few questions unanswered.
The next group of historians who studied the Revolution were Marxists. They studied these events not from a political but a social-economic point of view. They went deeper into the role of the peasants and the urban poor. However, they saw the Revolution through the lens of “Feudalism v/s Capitalism”. In other words, the rising “bourgeoisie” combated the landed aristocracy in a classic case of “class conflict” in order to supplant a feudal order with a capitalistic one. Thus, the urban poor and the peasants acted “within the cadre of the bourgeois uprising”. Also, these historians made the Revolution deterministic by asserting that the Revolution was bound to happen given the conditions, calling it “the culmination of a long economic and social evolution which has made the bourgeoisie the master of the world”. In fact, some historians even claimed that the Jacobins were proto-Communists!
However, since the 1950s, revisionist historians under Alfred Cobban have mounted a serious criticism of the dominant Marxist explanation of the Revolution. The “bourgeoisie” of the Marxist interpretation are capitalists; the “bourgeoisie” of the Revolution were officials, bureaucrats, lawyers, etc. “Capitalism” (in other words, large-scale industrialization along with the rise of the modern state) did not arise in France till late in the 19th century. For decades after the Revolution, France remained a rural and agricultural nation. Even though Cobban almost single-handedly overthrew the Marxist interpretation, he failed to provide a coherent explanation – instead he satisfied himself by merely exposing the flaws of the Marxist School. Other revisionist historians like Taylor, Eisenstein, Forster, Doyle, Furet and Richet have carried forward his criticisms of the Marxist dogmas and have come up with a new explanation of the French Revolution and its legacy.