More thoughts on the French Revolution

May 16, 2016


Marxism and the French Revolution.— Let’s grant that the French Revolution was precipitated more by the nobility’s grievances than the bourgeoisie’s. And let’s grant that it had definitely un-bourgeois phases, such as Robespierre’s Terror and his obsession with “civic virtue,” republicanism, the general will, a phase that briefly approached totalitarianism. Let’s also grant that people directly from the bourgeoisie were not most of the main actors in the Revolution. None of this implies that the Revolution was not ultimately in some sense, or several senses, a largely “bourgeois” event, or that the Marxist emphasis on class is inapplicable to it. First of all, class dynamics can be fundamental to an event even if its actors don’t interpret their actions in class terms or don’t seem to be motivated by material interests. The sans-culottes may have been consciously inspired by ideas of republicanism or resentment of the rich or status-envy, but mild self-deception isn’t exactly an unknown thing. It’s quite possible that an important motive—even if they didn’t like to admit it to themselves—was their desire for greater material comfort, greater economic power, less living-on-the-social-and-economic-margins. What “republicanism” meant for them, in fact, was more power, more power over their political, economic, and social lives. Questions of motivation don’t matter much, though. The point is that economic relations, economic conditions, are significant determinants of people’s acts, especially groups’ acts. What your position is in production relations conditions what kind of information you receive, the kind of people you spend time with, the sorts of places you live in or frequent, etc. Political and cultural solidarity, therefore, are structured largely around the occupation of similar locations in economic relations, due to the similar sorts of experiences that tend to correlate with that.


Besides, resentment or status-envy of the aristocracy, despite not seeming to be a “materialistic” motive, is basically a classist thing. And economically determined (beneath appearances).


As for the Revolution’s significantly—though not completely—bourgeois character, at least two things establish that. First, among its long-term consequences were the facilitating of capitalist economic activity and the spreading of bourgeois cultural norms.[1] The Code Napoléon was quite bourgeois, as was the political liberalism that prevailed off-and-on and then made several comebacks in the mid-1800s and then finally was permanently established (in France) in the 1870s. Economic liberalism, too, which capitalists favored, was in the air in the 1780s and 1790s—and later—even if under wartime exigencies and the influence of the sans-culottes and peasants it was periodically held in abeyance. The dismantling of feudal restrictions encouraged capitalist activity, as did the Le Chapelier law of 1791 effectively banning trade unions (as guilds), strikes, etc. Aside from consequences, you can also consider origins. The Enlightenment ideas that inspired the revolutionaries had partially originated in England, the most bourgeois country at the time, and were propagated by Protestants and deists, who mingled in bourgeois, liberal circles. It was through such things as trade, the opening up of markets, the international exchange of ideas, the development of manufacture and science, and the increasing popularity of travel—all rather bourgeois phenomena—that the ideological, political, and cultural currents that helped undermine the ancien régime and lead to the Revolution spread. Liberalism in all its forms is quintessentially bourgeois, and most of the Enlightenment ideas on which idealist historians like Furet prefer to focus were nothing if not liberal. Even the idea of popular sovereignty is liberal in its milder manifestations. In the 1790s it was used to justify un-bourgeois things—which were a product mainly of the sans-culottes’ activism, counter-revolutionary upsurges in France, and the foreign wars—but, yes, in revolutions the people and their representatives tend to get out of hand (from the perspective of the bourgeoisie and its hangers-on). The situation gets out of control, but in the end it subsides to normality. I.e., bourgeois stability.




More reflections on the Revolution.— An endlessly thought-provoking event. Parallels with both fascism and Soviet Communism. On fascism: think of the resentment, the desire for revenge, against aristocrats felt by the lower middle class of Paris, similar to the desire for revenge against Jews felt in Germany later. An old society dying, throwing up enragés, the “mob,” with their “passion for punishment and terror, nourished by a deep desire for revenge and the overturning of society” (p. 131 of Furet’s book but reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism), a desire that led to the massacring of aristocratic Others, enemies to the Nation, outsiders corrupting the body politic—“strangers in our very midst” (to quote Abbé Sieyès)—instantiations of nearly the same category that Jews instantiated in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. French nobles in the 1790s, German Jews in the 1930s—classes of people who had already lost most of their power and so were socially/economically/politically expendable (as Arendt says), hence the perfect scapegoats for social misery. Symbols of the old regime that had smothered the “mob’s” pride, spat at it, but now powerless and thus contemptible. The chaos of an old semi-urban civilization in transition, everything in flux, wage-laborers joining with artisans joining with shopkeepers in burning resentment. And the necessity for Bonapartism (Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler) because of the government’s inability to transcend and subdue political divisions.[2] And then the nationalistic expansionism.[3] And then the internationally orchestrated passage to a more stable order, as happened after the fall of both Napoleon and Hitler.


But on the other side, there’s the element of so-called Communism. Thus, in France, the lower classes were already becoming hostile in the mid- and late 1790s to the bourgeoisie. “Before it had definitively vanquished the ancien régime and the aristocracy,” says Furet, “the bourgeoisie was already standing alongside the accused [i.e., the nobility] in the court of revolutionary equality.” That could be said of the Russian bourgeoisie in the years before and after 1917. And Robespierre’s Terror against “counterrevolutionaries” surely had a clearer class element than Hitler’s persecution of the Jews; in any case, it reminds one of Lenin’s and Stalin’s terror against supposed counterrevolutionaries. In general, the French Revolution signified a vastly greater social revolution than fascism—for it was genuinely egalitarian!—and it happened in a country maybe comparably primitive to Russia in 1917. But it ended up going in a bourgeois direction, not an anti-bourgeois direction, unlike the Russian revolution. The historian Robert Brady remarks, in Business as a System of Power, that Italy could have gone either fascist or Communist after World War I. These primitive riven-by-social-conflict countries in transition....they can go either way. Either to the right or to the left. But France simply couldn’t go pro-oppressed in the 1790s (aside from brief phases) because of its lack of industrialism and urbanism, the lack of identical social interests between sufficient numbers of the urban oppressed—no massive factories, for example, which workers could take over. It had to go bourgeois eventually, just because the bourgeoisie, or capitalist economic structures, had far more power and more resources than its (or their) enemies. Unlike in Russia in 1917.


I’ve said it before, but here it is again: all these national convulsions were primarily, from a long-term perspective, capitalist revolutions.[4] Not socialist, not post-capitalist. They were stages in the transition to a society structured around capital. That was always the inevitable outcome, because of long-term global economic dynamics. In Russia, or the Soviet Union, and China there was the detour through ultra-state-planned economic authoritarianism (and remember that capitalism itself is nothing but relatively fragmented economic authoritarianism), but in a world globalizing around the dynamic of capital, such an anti-market economy was slowly going to be hemmed in on all sides, challenged, eroded (by black markets, etc.), until it either fell apart (as with the Soviet Union after perestroika) or adapted itself (as with contemporary China). Marx himself would have predicted these outcomes, and effectively did predict them. “Socialism in one country” is impossible.


[1] If you take a really long-term perspective, as Furet does in Revolutionary France—all the way up to 1880, which is when he thinks the Revolution finally ended—then its bourgeois nature is undeniable.


[2] Admittedly, there are differences here between France and, on the other hand, Germany and Italy.


[3] Furet states that “one of [France’s] most powerful passions” in the 1790s was “national greatness inseparable from glory.” Sound familiar? As in, fascist?


[4] At the same time, though, they were to some extent popular revolutions, since capital’s undermining of the ancien régime gave the masses relative freedom (and causes (such as intensified exploitation and communal breakdown)) to rise up against their age-old oppressors. In some places, such as Russia in 1917 and China in 1949, the popular revolution temporarily got the upper hand of the bourgeois revolution. But that was bound not to last in the long run. (In a sense, it didn’t last at all: new “Communist” elites took control immediately.)


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