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Was the French Revolution of 1789 a Bourgeois revolution?

George Lefebvre and historians of a Marxist persuasion claim that the revolution was1 an achievement of a rising bourgeoisie determined to challenge the social pretensions and political dominance of the nobility. It represented a turning point in history, a decisive moment bringing about the final and much delayed ending of the feudal system and so in this essay I am going to explore the influence of these rising bourgeoisie had on the revolution and explore whether the bourgeoisie did indeed steer the revolution or was there other contributing factors. The concept of the bourgeois revolution was invented by liberal historians like Mignet in the 1820s and refined by Karl Marx. Marx believed the revolution was a positive force and that
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1789 had marked the triumph of the bourgeois

over the aristocracy, an end to feudalism and the emergence of a capitalist economy. The two main interpretations for the French Revolution are Marxism and Revisionism. Revisionist historians stress the importance of ideological and political causes and their impact on the revolution rather than socio-economic factors, whilst Marxists focus more on the social and economic factors that contributed to the revolution. Marxist orthodoxy dominated the field of interpretation with Albert Mathiez who viewed the revolution of 1789 as a 3 bourgeois revolution, first pitting the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy and
1 Roger Price, A Concise History of France,(2nd edition, Cambridge University Press), p97
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2 Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p3


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3 Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p4


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By Sarah Galvin

then pitting the bourgeoisie against the san culottes. He saw that class struggle lay at the heart of his interpretation which emphasized both social and economic factors in its analysis of both the causes and the dynamics of the revolution. 4The protagonists of the revolution were the rising bourgeoisie, growing in numbers and in wealth during the 18th century but long denied social status and political power by the privileged aristocracy. Revisionism however has been criticised as an 5intellectual dead end and that efforts to understand the context within which political ideas have led to a re-assertion of the importance of social class as an explanatory factor. Alfred Cobban presented one of the first major critiques and argued that 6the revolutions deputies were not from the commercial or capitalist bourgeois, but was instead predominantly lawyers and other professionals, many of them local officeholders. He continues to argue 7The revolution may have been a social revolution but it was not an attack on feudalism led by a new capitalist bourgeois. George Taylor argues that if the French revolution was a bourgeois revolution then 8one should be able to find evidence of a capitalist economy activity by those who led it. Instead what he found was investment patterns of prominent figures in the third estate were strikingly similar to the French aristocracy. Other historians such as Denis Riches and Francois Furet believe that

4 Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p4


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5 Roger Price, A Concise History of France,(2nd edition, Cambridge University Press), p100
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6 Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p6


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7Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p6


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8 Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p7


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By Sarah Galvin

it 9was not an economic crisis that caused the revolution, not a social clash between the rising bourgeoisie and declining aristocracy but rather a constitutional crisis that paralyzed the old regimes monarchy creating a void in which competing discourses vied for political supremacy. One of the biggest factors that influenced the bourgeoisie was the socioeconomic reasons that have also been named the aristocratic reaction. The bourgeoisie were part of a class of citizens who were wealthier members of the Third Estate, full of merchants, lawyers, doctors and other intellectuals, but were not powerful enough to be part of the aristocracy in the Second Estate of Nobles. The bourgeoisies key objectives were that they wanted to end the monopolizing of the highest offices in the government, military, church and judiciary to the aristocracy as well as rise socially with increased political power as they were isolated and feared further exclusion. This is shown within The Course of French History by Pierre Goubert
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Noble monopoly reinforced the opinion of those who

saw an aristocratic reaction in the second half of the century. This reaction provoked the rancor of some of the excluded ones, many of whom were very competent and rich bourgeois as well as
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the bourgeoisie of talent experts, men

of letters, lawyers, rentiers and businessmen warmly desired to acquire offices for which they had the qualifications. Due to these restricting limitations the bourgeoisie became restless and demanded to be equal to the aristocracy
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the

9 Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p7

10 Pierre Goubert, Course of French History, ,(Routledge, London and New York), p186
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11 Pierre Goubert, The Course of French History,(Routledge, London and New York), p186
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12 Alfred Cobban, A history of Modern France, Volume 1: 1715-1799, (Penguin books), p141
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By Sarah Galvin

bourgeois in the towns demanded equality of status with the privileged classes, relaxation of royal taxation, both direct and indirect, the redirecting of the tithe to its proper purpose and the ending of what seemed as a general exploitation of the country by the town. In Roger Prices A Concise History of France he examines how limitations were imposed on the central authority and how it affected them;
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severe limitations were imposed upon the powers of the central authority by the

relationship between the king and social elites. These produced senior personnel for the civil service, army and judicial institutions including sovereign courts and most notably the parliaments. Overall the bourgeoisie were feeling underappreciated and financially suffocated with unbearable taxes that the other two estates were exempt from, in D.M.G Sutherlands France 1789-1815 he looks into exactly who were exempt from taxation and how much14 nobles were exempt from compulsory billeting, militia service, the corvee or compulsory road work and the gabelle or salt tax. They were exempt too from the taille personnelle which covered three quarters of the country , this exemption was worth up to 2000 livres and the reduced taxes on farms of tenants allowed noble landlords to demand higher rents. The bourgeoisie decided enough was enough and that something needed to be done about the situation. The Enlightenment Movement is another contributing factor in the bourgeois revolution as it opened the bourgeoisie mind and introduced them to new philosophers who believed in equality, freedom and fairness, all the qualities

13 Roger Price, A Concise History of France, (Second edition, Cambridge University Press), p101
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14 D.M.G Sutherland, France 1789-1815 revolution and counterrevolution, (Fontana Press), p21
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By Sarah Galvin

the bourgeois saw were missing in French society. The enlightenment allowed the distribution of ideas to the masses, inspiring more to join in. Jean Jacques Rousseau is a key example of this and later became one of the most influential figures to the masses preaching the need for action through many of his publications such as The Social Contract. Contesting the French Revolution by Paul R. Hanson believes that he
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developed his concept of general will, asserting

that sovereignty resided in the people rather than in the person of the king. He also goes on to explain that its well known that Rosseaus writings profoundly shaped the political thinking of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the prominent leaders of the revolution and a member of the bourgeoisie. However Joan McDonald argues that
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The Social Contract was not widely read before 1789 and

had a limited audience. What cannot be argued however is that the enlightenment movement opened the door for more literature questioning society to be published an example of this is Sieyes Qu est-ce que la tiers etat? which was an attack on the privileged orders and was an assertion that the third estate was the nation.
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for Sieyes, the full power of the absolute and unlimited

sovereignty of the people was attributed to a representative assembly which it was assumed being the embodiment of the people, was not susceptible to any limitations. Another key element to consider is the Political side of the debate and how the bourgeoisie influenced new policies. I believe the bourgeoisie were key in
15 Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p14
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16 Paul R. Hanson, Contesting the French Revolution, (Wiley-Blackwell Ltd Publication), p14
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17 Pierre Goubert, The Course of French History,(Routledge, London and New York), p165
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By Sarah Galvin

building new policies and controlling the revolution and that without their guidance the revolution would not have been successful,
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without the intervention of the

poor people and the modest bourgeoisie of Paris, who captured the Bastille on July 14th 1789, the king and court would have had their loyal subjects disperse the insubordinate subjects who pretended to represent the nation. The bourgeoisie specifically wanted to reform the voting system 19 They demanded that the third estate should have as many representatives as the other orders and by implication that voting by head should replace voting by orders, thus destroying the noble veto and that of the judicial system 20They sought a complete reform of the judicial system to make it clearer, more unified, more humane and non-venal. It was the bourgeoisie who had control of the revolution and the people behind it and in A history of Modern France by Alfred Cobban he outlines that
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The

prosperous professional men and officials of the third estate who had seized control of the revolution from the privileged classes had no intention of letting it slip from their hands and that after the affair at the Bastille, they regained control of Paris with the aid of the new municipal authorities and National Guard. Roger Price even goes as far as
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without this, the representatives of the third

18 Pierre Goubert, The Course of French History,(Routledge, London and New York), p184
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19 Roger Price, A Concise History of France, (Second edition, Cambridge University Press), p109
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20 Pierre Goubert, The Course of French History,(Routledge, London and New York), p186
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21 Alfred Cobban, A history of Modern France, Volume 1: 1715-1799, (Penguin books), p157
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22 Roger Price, A Concise History of France, (Second edition, Cambridge University Press), p101
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By Sarah Galvin

estate would remain in a strictly subordinate position. This debate and representation had the crucially important effect on re-aligning the political conflict. The Economic Crisis is the last key element I will be looking at; although it did not play a major role to the bourgeoisie, it did critically affect the poor who the bourgeoisie rallied for support of the revolution. The poor suffered terribly during 1789 from poor harvests and were left in a situation where the price of food increased but the amount of produce decreased. Bread was truly the stuff of life; it constituted the major element in the cost of living for every poor family, which is between three quarters and four fifths the population of France. Overall I believe that the revolution of 1789 was indeed a bourgeois revolution however I believe that without factors such as social, economic and political then the bourgeoisie would not have guided the revolution with the success they had. I believe that the masses also contributed into the revolution but not as much as the bourgeois. I believe that D.M.G Sutherlands preface sums up the bourgeois revolution 23 that its aspirations were frustrated by the aristocracys monopoly of power, that the financial crisis of the old regime monarchy and the eventual calling of the Estates General provided the occasion for the bourgeoisie to seize power and reshape social, legal and political institutions according to its own interests and that the bourgeoisie reasserted control but could not consolidate itself through representative institutions. The history of the French Revolution is the history of the consolidation of the bourgeoisie.

23 D.M.G Sutherland, France 1789-1815 revolution and counterrevolution, (Fontana Press), preface
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By Sarah Galvin

By Sarah Galvin