Age Of Revolution 1789 -1848 (Eric Hobsbawm, 1962)
Age Of Revolution 1789 -1848 (Eric Hobsbawm, 1962)


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(pages 53-64)

An Englishman not filled with esteem and admiration at the sublime manner in which one of the most IMPORTANT REVOLUTIONS the world has ever seen is now effecting , must be dead to every sense of virtue and of freedom; not one of my countrymen who has had the good fortune to witness the transactions of the last three days in this great city, but will testify that my language is not hyperbolical. The Morning Post (July 21, 1789) on the fall of the Bastille

Soon the enlightened nations will put on trial those who have hitherto ruled over them. The kings shall fee into the deserts , into the company of the wild beasts whom they resemble; and Nature shall resume her rights. Saint-Just. Sur la Constitution de la France , Discours prononci d la Convention 24 avril 1793

If the economy of the nineteenth century world was formed mainly under the influence of the British Industrial Revolution, its politics and ideology were formed mainly by the French. Britain provided the model for its railways and factories, the economic explosive which cracked open the traditional economic and social structures of the non-European world; but France made its revolutions and gave them their ideas, to the point where a tricolour of some kind became the emblem of virtually every emerging nation, and European (or indeed world) politics between 1789 and 1917 were largely the struggle for and against the principles of 1789, or the even more incendiary ones of 1793. France provided the vocabulary and the issues of liberal and radical-democratic politics for most of the world. France provided the first great example, the concept and the vocabulary of nationalism. France provided the codes of law, the model of scientific and technical organization, the metric system of measurement for most countries. The ideology of the modern world first penetrated the ancient civilizations which had hitherto resisted European ideas through French influence. This was the work of the French Revolution.

The later eighteenth century, as we have seen, was an age of crisis for the old regimes of Europe and their economic systems, and its last decades were filled with political agitations sometimes reaching the point of revolt, of colonial movements for autonomy sometimes reaching that of secession: not only in the USA (1776-83), but also in Ireland (1782-4), in Belgium and Liege (1787-90), in Holland (1783-7), in Geneva, even—it has been argued—in England (1779). So striking is this clustering of political unrest that some recent historians have spoken of an ‘age of democratic revolution’ of which the French was only one, though the most dramatic and far-reaching.

Insofar as the crisis of the old regime was not purely a French phenomenon, there is some weight in such observations. Just so it may be argued that the Russian Revolution of 1917 (which occupies a position of analogous importance in our century) was merely the most dramatic of a whole cluster of similar movements, such as those which —some years before 1917—finally ended the age-old Turkish and Chinese empires. Yet this-is to miss the point. The French Revolution may not have been an isolated phenomenon, but it was far more fundamental than any of the other contemporary ones and its consequences were therefore far more profound. In the first place, it occurred in the most powerful and populous state of Europe (leaving Russia apart). In 1789 something like one European out of every five was a Frenchman. In the second place it was, alone of all the revolutions which preceded and followed it, a mass social revolution, and immeasurably more radical than any comparable upheaval. It is no accident that the American revolutionaries, and the British ‘Jacobins’ who migrated to France because of their political sympathies, found themselves moderates in France. Tom Paine was an extremist in Britain and America; but in Paris he was among the most moderate of the Girondins. The results of the American revolutions were, broadly speaking, countries carrying on much as before, only minus the political control of the British, Spaniards and Portuguese. The result of the French Revolution was that the age of Balzac replaced the age of Mme Dubarry.

In the third place, alone of all the contemporary revolutions, the French was ecumenical. Its armies set out to revolutionize the world; its ideas actually did so. The American revolution has remained a crucial event in American history, but (except for the countries directly involved in and by it) it has left few major traces elsewhere. The French Revolution is a landmark in all countries. Its repercussions rather than those of the American revolution, occasioned the risings which led to the liberation of Latin America after 1808. Its direct influence radiated as far as Bengal, where Ram Mohan Roy was inspired by it to found the first Hindu reform movement and the ancestor of modern Indian nationalism. (When he visited England in 1830, he insisted on travelling in a French ship to demonstrate his enthusiasm for its principles.) It was, as has been well said, ‘the first great movement of ideas in Western Christendom that had any real effect on the world of Islam’, and that almost immediately. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Turkish word ‘vatan’, hitherto merely describing a man’s place of birth or residence, had begun to turn under its influence into something like ‘patrie’; the term ‘liberty’, before 1800 primarily a legal term denoting the opposite to ‘slavery’, had begun to acquire a new political content. Its indirect influence is universal, for it provided the pattern for all subsequent revolutionary movements, its lessons (interpreted according to taste) being incorporated into modern socialism and communism.

The French Revolution thus remains the revolution of its time, and not merely one, though the most prominent, of its kind. And its origins must therefore be sought not merely in the general conditions of Europe, but in the specific situation of France. Its peculiarity is perhaps best illustrated in international terms. Throughout the eighteenth century France was the major international economic rival of Britain. Her foreign trade, which multiplied fourfold between 1720 and 1780, caused anxiety; her colonial system was in certain areas (such as the West Indies) more dynamic than the British. Yet France was not a power like Britain, whose foreign policy was already determined substantially by the interests of capitalist expansion. She was the most powerful and in many ways the most typical of the old aristocratic absolute monarchies of Europe. In other words, the conflict between the official framework and the vested interests of the old regime and the rising new social forces was more acute in France than elsewhere.

The new forces knew fairly precisely what they wanted. Turgot, the physiocrat economist, stood for an efficient exploitation of the land, for free enterprise and trade, for a standardized, efficient administration of a single homogeneous national territory, and the abolition of all restrictions and social inequalities which stood in the way of the develop¬ ment of national resources and rational, equitable administration and taxation. Yet his attempt to apply such a programme as the first minis¬ ter of Louis XVII in 1774-6 failed lamentably, and the failure is characteristic. Reforms of this character, in modest doses, were not incompatible with or unwelcome to absolute monarchies. On the con¬ trary, since they strengthened their hand, they were, as we have seen, widely propagated at this time among the so-called ‘enlightened despots’. But in most of the countries of ‘enlightened despotism’ such reforms were either inapplicable, and therefore mere theoretical flourishes, or unlikely to change the general character of their political and social structure; or else they failed in the face of the resistance of the local aristocracies and other vested interests, leaving the country to relapse into a somewhat tidied-up version of its former state. In France they failed more rapidly than elsewhere, for the resistance of the vested interests was more effective. But the results of this failure were more catastrophic for the monarchy; and the forces of bourgeois change were far too strong to relapse into inactivity. They merely transformed their hopes from an enlightened monarchy to the people or ‘the nation’.

Nevertheless, such a generalisation does not take us far towards an understanding of why the revolution broke out when it did, and why it took the remarkable road it did. For this it is most useful to consider the so-called ‘feudal reaction’ which actually provided the spark to explode the powder-barrel of France.

The 400,000 or so persons who, among the twenty-three million Frenchmen, formed the nobility, the unquestioned ‘first order’ of the nation, though not so absolutely safeguarded against the intrusion of lesser orders as in Prussia and elsewhere, were secure enough. They enjoyed considerable privileges, including exemption from several takes (but not from as many as the better-organized clergy), and the right to receive feudal dues. Politically their situation was less brilliant. Abso¬ lute monarchy, while entirely aristocratic and even feudal in its ethos, had deprived the nobles of political independence and responsibility and cut down their old representative institutions—estates and parlements —so far as possible. The fact continued to rankle among the higher aristocracy and among the more recent noblesse de robe created by the kings for various purposes, mostly finance and administration; an ennobled government middle class which expressed the double dis¬ content of aristocrats and bourgeois so far as it could through the surviving law-courts and estates. Economically the nobles’ worries were by no means negligible. Fighters rather than earners by birth and tra¬ dition—nobles were even formally debarred from exercising a trade or profession—they depended on the income of their estates, or, if they belonged to the favoured minority of large or court nobles, on wealthy marriages, court pensions, gifts and sinecures. But the expenses of noble status were large and rising, their incomes—since they were rarely businesslike managers of their wealth, if they managed it at all—fell. Inflation tended to reduce the value of fixed revenues such as rents.

It was therefore natural that the nobles should use their one main asset, the acknowledged privileges of the order. Throughout the eighteenth century, in France as in many other countries, they encroached steadily upon the official posts wliich the absolute monarchy had pre¬ ferred to fill with technically competent and politically harmless middle class men. By the 1780s four quarterings of nobility were needed even to buy a commission in the army, all bishops were nobles and even the keystone of royal administration, the intendancies, has been largely recaptured by them. Consequently the nobility not merely exasperated the feelings of the middle class by their successful competition for official posts; they also undermined the state itself by an increasing tendency to take over provincial and central administration. Similarly they—and especially the poorer provincial gendemen who had few other resources—attempted to counteract the decline in their income by squeezing the utmost out of their very considerable feudal rights to exact money (or more rarely service) from the peasantry. An entire profession, the feudists, came into existence to revive obsolete rights of this kind or to maximize the yield of existing ones. Its most celebrated member, Gracchus Babeuf, was to become the leader of the first com¬ munist revolt in modern history in 1796. Consequently the nobility exasperated not only the middle class but also the peasantry.

The position of this vast class, comprising perhaps 80 per cent of all Frenchmen, was far from brilliant. They were indeed in general free, and often landowners. In actual quantity noble estates covered only one-fifth of the land, clerical estates perhaps another 6 per cent with regional variations. 3 Thus in the diocese of Montpellier the peasants already owned 38 to 40 per cent of the land, the bourgeoisie 18 to 19, the nobles 15 to 16, the clergy 3 to 4, while one-fifth was common land. 1 In fact, however, the great majority were landless or with insufficient holdings, a deficiency increased by the prevailing technical backward¬ ness; and the general land-hunger was intensified by the rise in popu¬ lation. Feudal dues, tithes and taxes took a large and rising proportion of the peasant’s income, and inflation reduced the value of the re¬ mainder. For only the minority of peasants who had a constant surplus for sale benefited from the rising prices; the rest, in one way or another, suffered from them, especially in times of bad harvest, when famine prices ruled. There is little doubt that in the twenty years preceding the Revolution the situation of the peasants grew worse for these reasons.

The financial troubles of the monarchy brought matters to a head. The administrative and fiscal structure of the kingdom was grossly obsolete, and, as we have seen, the attempt to remedy this by the reforms of 1774-6 failed, defeated by the resistance of vested interests headed by the parlements. Then France became involved in the American War of Independence. Victory over England was gained at the cost of final bankruptcy, and thus the American Revolution can claim to be the direct cause of the French. Various expedients were tried with diminishing success, but nothing short of a fundamental reform, which mobilized the real and considerable taxable capacity of the country could cope with a situation in which expenditure outran revenue by at least 20 per cent, and no effective economies were possible. For though the extravagance of Versailles has often been blamed for the crisis, court expenditure only amounted to 6 per cent of the total in 1788. War, navy and diplomacy made up one-quarter, the service of the existing debt one-half. War and debt—the American War and its debt —broke the back of the monarchy.

The government’s crisis gave the aristocracy and the parlements their chance. They refused to pay without an extension of their privileges. The first breach in the front of absolutism was a hand-picked but nevertheless rebellious ‘assembly of notables’ called in’ 1787 to grant the government’s demands. The second, and decisive, was the desperate decision to call the States-General—the old feudal assembly of the realm, buried since 1614. The Revolution thus began as an aristo¬ cratic attempt to recapture the state. This attempt miscalculated for two reasons: it underestimated the independent intentions of the ‘Third Estate’—the fictional entity deemed to represent all who were neither nobles nor clergy, but in fact dominated by the middle class—and it overlooked the profound economic and social crisis into which it threw its political demands.

The French Revolution was not made or led by a formed party or movement in the modern sense, nor by men attempting to carry out a systematic programme. It hardly even threw up ‘leaders’ of the kind to which twentieth century revolutions have accustomed us, until the post-revolutionary figure of Napoleon. Nevertheless a striking consensus of general ideas among a fairly coherent social group gave the revolutionary movement effective unity. The group was the ‘bourgeoisie’; its ideas were those of classical liberalism, as formulated by the ‘philosophers’ and ‘economists’ and propagated by freemasonry and in informal associations. To this extent ‘the philosophers’ can be justly made responsible for the Revolution. It would have occurred without them; but they probably made the difference between a mere breakdown of an old regime and the effective and rapid substitution of a new one.

In its most general form the ideology of 1789 was the masonic one expressed with such innocent sublimity in Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791), one of the earliest of the great propagandist works of art of an age whose highest artistic achievements so often belonged to propaganda. More specifically, the demands of the bourgeois of 1789 are laid down in the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens of that year. This document is a manifesto against the hierarchical society of noble privilege, but not one in favour of democratic or egalitarian society. ‘Men are born and live free and equal under the laws,’ said its first article; but it also provides for the existence of social distinctions, if ‘only on grounds of common utility’. Private property was a natural right, sacred, inalienable and inviolable. Men were equal before the law and careers were equally open to talent; but if the race started without handicaps, it was equally assumed that the runners would not finish together. The declaration laid down (as against the noble hier¬ archy or absolutism) that ‘all citizens have a right to co-operate in the formation of the law’; but ‘either personally or through their repre¬ sentatives’. And the representative assembly which it envisaged as the fundamental organ of government was not necessarily a democratically elected one, nor the regime it implied one which eliminated kings. A constitutional monarchy based on a propertied oligarchy expressing itself through a representative assembly was more congenial to most bourgeois liberals than the democratic republic which might have seemed a more logical expression of their theoretical aspirations; though there were some who did not hesitate to advocate this also. But on the whole the classical liberal bourgeois of 1789 (and the liberal of 1789— 1848) was not a democrat but a believer in constitutionalism, a secular state with civil liberties and guarantees for private enterprise, and government by tax-payers and property-owners.

Nevertheless officially such a regime would express not simply his class interests, but the general will of ‘the people’, which was in turn (a significant identification) ‘the French nation’. The king was no longer Louis, by the Grace of God, King of France and Navarre, but Louis, by the Grace of God and the constitutional law of the state, King of the French. ‘The source of all sovereignty,’ said the Declaration, ‘resides essentially in the nation.’ And the nation, as Abbé Sieyes put it, recognized no interest on earth above its own, and accepted no law or authority other than its own—neither that of humanity at large nor of other nations. No doubt the French nation, and its subsequent imitators, did not initially conceive of its interests clashing with those of other peoples, but on the contrary saw itself as inaugurating, or taking part in, a movement of the general liberation of peoples from tyranny. But in fact national rivalry (for instance that of French businessmen with British businessmen) and national subordination (for instance that of conquered or liberated nations to the interests of la grande nation ) were implicit in the nationalism to which the bourgeois of 1789 gave its first official expression. ‘The people’ identified with ‘the nation’ was a revolutionary concept; more revolutionary than the bourgeois-liberal programme which purported to express it. But it was also a double-edged one.

Since the peasants and labouring poor were illiterate, politically modest or immature and the process of election indirect, 610 men, mosdy of this stamp, were elected to represent the Third Estate. Most were lawyers who played an important economic role in provincial France; about a hundred were capitalists and businessmen. The middle class had fought bitterly and successfully to win a representation as large as that of the nobility and clergy combined, a moderate ambition for a group officially representing 95 per cent of the people. They now fought with equal determination for the right to exploit their potential majority votes by turning the States General into an assembly of indi¬ vidual deputies voting as such, instead of the traditional feudal body deliberating and voting by ‘orders’, a situation in which nobility and clergy could always outvote the Third. On this issue the first revolu¬ tionary break-through occurred. Some six weeks after the opening of the States General the Commons, anxious to forestall action by king, nobles and clergy, constituted themselves and all who were prepared to join them on their own terms a National Assembly with the right to recast the constitution. An attempt at counter-revolution led them to formulate their claims virtually in terms of the English House of Commons. Absolutism was at an end as Mirabeau, a brilliant and disreputable ex-noble, told the King: ‘Sire, you are a stranger in this assembly, you have not the right to speak here.’

The Third Estate succeeded, in the face of the united resistance of the king and the privileged orders, because it represented not merely the views of an educated and militant minority, but of far more power¬ ful forces: the labouring poor of the cities, and especially of Paris, and shortly, also, the revolutionary peasantry. For what turned a limited reform agitation into a revolution was the fact that the calling of the States-General coincided with a profound economic and social crisis. The later 1780s had been, for a complexity of reasons, a period of great difficulties for virtually all branches of the French economy. A bad harvest in 1788 (and 1789) and a very difficult winter made this crisis acute. Bad harvests hurt the peasantry, for while they meant that large producers could sell grain at famine prices, the majority of men on their insufficient holdings might well have to eat up their seed-corn, or buy food at such prices, especially in months immediately preceding the new harvest (i.e. May-July). They obviously hurt the uiban poor, whose cost of living—bread was the staple food—might well double. It hurt them all the more as the impoverishment of the countryside reduced the market for manufactures and therefore also produced an industrial depression. The country poor were therefore desperate and restless with riot and banditry; the urban poor were doubly desperate as work ceased at the very moment that the cost of living soared. Under normal circum¬ stances little more than blind-rioting might have occurred. But in 1788 and 1789 a major convulsion in the kingdom, a campaign of propaganda and election, gave the people’s desperation a political perspective. They introduced the tremendous and earth-shaking idea of liberation from gentry and oppression. A riotous people stood behind the deputies of the Third Estate.

Counter-revolution turned a potential mass rising into an actual one. Doubtless it was only natural that the old regime should have fought back, if necessary with armed force; though the army was no longer wholly reliable. (Only unrealistic dreamers can suggest that Louis XVI might have accepted defeat and immediately turned him¬ self into a constitutional monarch, even if he had been a less negligible and stupid man than he was, married to a less chicken-brained and irresponsible woman, and prepared to listen to less disastrous advisers.) In fact counter-revolution mobilized the Paris masses, already hungry, suspicious and militant. The most sensational result of their mobiliza¬ tion was the capture of the Bastille, a state prison symbolizing royal authority, where the revolutionaries expected to find arms. In times of revolution nothing is more powerful than the fall of symbols. The capture of the Bastille, which has rightly made July 14th into the French national day, ratified the fall of despotism and was hailed all over the world as the beginning of liberation. Even the austere philoso¬ pher Immanuel Kant of Koenigsberg, it is said, whose habits were so regular that the citizens of that town set their watches by him, post¬ poned the hour of his afternoon stroll when he received the news, thus convincing Koenigsberg that a world-shaking event had indeed hap¬ pened. What i3 more to the point, the fall of the Bastille spread the revolution to the provincial towns and the countryside.

Peasant revolutions are vast, shapeless, anonymous, but irresistible movements. What turned an epidemic of peasant unrest into an irre¬ versible convulsion was a combination of provincial town risings and a wave of mass panic, spreading obscurely but rapidly across vast stretches of the country: the so-called Grande Peur of late July and early August 1789. Within three weeks of July 14th the social structure of French rural feudalism and the state machine of royal France lay in fragments. All that remained of state power was a scattering of doubt¬ fully reliable regiments, a National Assembly without coercive force, and a multiplicity of municipal or provincial middle class adminis¬ trations which soon set up bourgeois armed ‘National Guards’ on the model of Paris. Middle class and aristocracy immediately accepted the inevitable: all feudal privileges were officially abolished though, when the political situation had settled, a stiff price for their redemption was fixed. Feudalism was not finally abolished until 1793. By the end of August the Revolution had also acquired its formal manifesto, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Conversely, the king resisted with his usual stupidity, and sections of the middle class revolu¬ tionaries, frightened by the social implications of the mass upheaval, began to think that the time for conservatism had come.

In brief, the main shape of French and all subsequent bourgeois¬ revolutionary politics were by now clearly visible. This dramatic dia¬ lectical dance was to dominate the future generations. Time and again we shall see moderate middle class reformers mobilizing the masses against die-hard resistance or counter-revolution. We shall see the masses pushing beyond the moderates’ aims to their own social revolu¬ tions, and the moderates in turn splitting into a conservative group henceforth making common cause with the reactionaries, and a left wing group determined to pursue the rest of the as yet unachieved moderate aims with the help of the masses, even at the risk of losing control over them. And so on through repetitions and variations of the pattern of resistance—mass mobilization—shift to the left—split- among-moderates-and-shift-to-the-right—until either the bulk of the middle class passed into the henceforth conservative camp, or was defeated by social revolution In most subsequent bourgeois revolutions the moderate liberals were to pull back, or transfer into the conservative camp, at a very early stage. Indeed in the nineteenth century we increas¬ ingly find (most notably in Germany) that they became unwilling to begin revolution at all, for fear of its incalculable consequences, pre¬ ferring a compromise with king and aristocracy. The peculiarity of the French Revolution is that one section oi the liberal middle class was prepared to remain revolutionary up to and indeed beyond the brink of anti-bourgeois revolution: these were the Jacobins, whose name came to stand for ‘radical revolution’ everywhere.

Why? Partly, of course, because the French bourgeoisie had not yet, like subsequent liberals, the awful memory of the French Revolution to be frightened of. After 1794 it would be clear to moderates that the Jacobin regime had driven the Revolution too far for bourgeois comfort and prospects, just as it would be clear to revolutionaries that ‘the sun of 1793’, if it were to rise again, would have to shine on a non-bourgeois society. Again, the Jacobins could afford radicalism because in their time no class existed which could provide a coherent social alternative to theirs. Such a class only arose in the course of the industrial revolu¬ tion, with the ‘proletariat’ or, more precisely, with the ideologies and movements based on it. In the French Revolution the working class— and even this is a misnomer for the aggregate of hired, but mostly non¬ industrial, wage-earners—as yet played no significant independent part. They hungered, they rioted, perhaps they dreamed; but for practical purposes they followed non-proletarian leaders. The peasantry never provides a political alternative to anyone; merely, as occasion dictates, an almost irresistible force or an almost immovable object. The only alternative to bourgeois radicalism (if we except small bodies of ideo¬ logues or militants powerless when deprived of mass support) were the ‘Sansculottes’, a shapeless, mostly urban movement of the labouring poor, small craftsmen, shopkeepers, artisans, tiny entrepreneurs and the like. The Sansculottes were organized, notably in the ‘sections’ of Paris and the local political clubs, and provided the main striking-force of the revolution—the actual demonstrators, rioters, constructors of barricades. Through journalists like Marat and Hubert, through local spokesmen, they also formulated a policy, behind which lay a vaguely defined and contradictory social ideal, combining respect for (small) private property with hostility to the rich, government-guaranteed work, wages and social security for the poor man, an extreme, egali¬ tarian and libertarian democracy, localized and direct. In fact the Sansculottes were one branch of that universal and important political trend which sought to express the interests of the great mass of ‘little men’ who existed between the poles of the ‘bourgeois’ and the ‘prole¬ tarian’, often perhaps rather nearer the latter than the former because they were, after all, mostly poor. We can observe it in the United States (as Jeffersonianism and Jacksonian democracy, or populism) in Britain (as ‘radicalism’), in France (as the ancestors of the future ‘republicans’ and radical-socialists), in Italy (as Mazzinians and Gari- baldians), and elsewhere. Mostly it tended to settle down, in post¬ revolutionary ages, as a left-wing of middle-class liberalism, but one loth to abandon the ancient principle that there are no enemies on the left, and ready, in times of crisis, to rebel against ‘the wall of money’ or ‘the economic royalists’ or ‘the cross of gold crucifying mankind’. But Sansculottism provided no real alternative either. Its ideal, a golden past of villagers and small craftsmen or a golden future of small farmers and artisans undisturbed by bankers and millionaires, was unrealizable. History moved dead against them. The most they could do—and this they achieved in 1793-4—was to erect roadblocks in its path, which have hampered French economic growth from that day almost to this. In fact Sansculottism was so helpless a phenomenon that its very name is largely forgotten, or remembered only as a synonym of Jacobinism, which provided it with leadership in the year II.


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