More on Bourgeois Revolution (Part 2) By Way of a Reply to Anthony and Richard

Ed George edgeorge at
Sun Apr 7 03:56:28 MDT 2002


To return to how the Marxist model - in mainstream historiography dubbed
the 'social interpretation' - of the French revolution was developed, I
didn't intend to make Lefebvre alone responsible for the final form of
the classical model: I did, after all, reference a number of other
writers. Nevertheless, Lefebvre's work, and especially The Coming of the
French revolution, occupies a pivotal position in its development. There
were, of course, others who went before him: Lefebvre placed himself
clearly within the 'Great Tradition', begun by the Restoration
historians François Mignet and Adolphe Thiers, who both began to publish
their accounts of the revolution in the 1820s. It was Thiers who had
expressed the judgement that what 1789 had finished with was a feudal
constitution, in a feudal society which had already been undermined by
'a population [which] had progressively enriched itself by industry, the
primary source of wealth and liberty, [and] devoted [
] [itself to]
commerce and manufactures.' [Adolphe Theirs, History of the French
Revolution, 5 vols. (London, 1838), vol. 1, 1-2.] And it was Mignet who
had judged the achievement of the revolution to have:

'Substituted a system more conformable with justice and better suited to
our times. It substituted law in the place of arbitrary will, equality
in that privilege, delivered men from the distinction of classes, the
land from the barrier of provinces, trade from the shackles of
corporations and fellowships, agriculture from feudal subjection and the
oppression of tithes, property from the impediment of entails, and
brought everything to the condition of one state, one system of law, one
people. [François Mignet, History of the French Revolution (London,
1846), 1.]

Lefebvre's The Coming of the French Revolution was published in 1939, a
date significant one in more than one respect. In the first place it
marked the 150th anniversary of the great event: an occasion marked in
France by extensive celebrations and a fresh surge of new writings on
the revolution and its consequences. In addition more pressing
contemporary problems were exercising French minds, and it is difficult
to cast doubt on Norman Hampson's judgement that what Lefebvre was doing
was 'deliberately appealing to history to encourage Frenchmen [sic] to
unite in defence of what he believed to have been the values of the
revolution against the threat from National Socialist Germany.' ['The
French Revolution and the Historians' in Geoffrey Best (ed.) The
Permanent Revolution: The French Revolution and its Legacy (London,
1988), 213. In fact, the Vichy regime destroyed every copy of The Coming
of the French Revolution it could lay its hands on, and the work
practically disappeared until its republication in 1947.] I make this
point because it is necessary to remember the conditions in which these
ideas were developed: history is never objective and is always a in one
way or another a statement about the present as much as it is about the

What marked Lefebvre's account of the revolution as distinctive was his
identification within the overall process of four distinct 'acts': the
revolt of the nobility against the suggested reform of noble tax
privileges; the revolt of the bourgeoisie over the proposed manner of
the constitution of the Estates General; the 1789 popular rising in
response to the threat of a coup d'état against the National Assembly;
and the peasant uprising, that remarkable and unprecedented phenomenon
that has gone down in history as the grande peur. For Lefebvre, these
four 'acts' constituted a single bourgeois revolution by virtue of the
fact that what was common to each was the objective effect 'to dislocate
the administration of the Old Regime, to the advantage of the
bourgeoisie.' [The Coming of the French Revolution, 89] This process was
driven forward by an inexorable historical logic:

'The growth of commerce and industry had created, step by step, a new
form of wealth, and a new class, called in France the bourgeoisie, which
since the fourteenth century had taken its place as the Third Estate in
the General Estates of the kingdom. This class had grown much stronger
with the maritime discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries
and the ensuing exploitation of new worlds. [...] In the eighteenth
century commerce, industry and finance occupied an increasingly
important place in the national economy.  It was the bourgeoisie that
rescued the royal treasury in moments of crisis.  From its ranks were
recruited most members of the liberal professions and most public
employees. It had developed a new ideology which the 'philosophers' and
'economists' of the time had simply put into definite form. The role of
the nobility had correspondingly declined; and the clergy, as the ideal
which it proclaimed lost prestige, found its authority growing weaker.
These groups preserved the highest rank in the legal structure of the
country, but in reality economic power, personal abilities and
confidence in the future had passed largely to the bourgeoisie. Such a
discrepancy never lasts forever. The Revolution of 1789 restored the
harmony between fact and law. This transformation spread in the
nineteenth century throughout the west and then to the whole globe
[...].' [Ibid., 1-2]

Thus for Lefebvre the revolution was precisely 'bourgeois', but in its
objective outcome, rather than in terms of the social character of its
leadership: even though, summarising his views in a later work, he noted
that revolution was 'the crowning of a long economic and social
evolution which made the bourgeoisie the mistress of the world.' [The
French Revolution from its Origins to 1793 (London, 1962), 246]

How did Lefebvre view role of class in the revolution? Rejecting the
idea that here were three orders within French society - by noting that
'strictly speaking the clergy, as Sieyès said, was a profession and not
a social class' - Lefebvre concluded that 'there were in reality [...]
only two classes, nobles and commoners.'[Coming, 9]. Who were the
nobles? After rejecting a number of possible approaches of definition -
land-ownership was inadequate, since commoners also owned land; neither
could tax privileges designate the nobility, since many 'bourgeois' also
enjoyed exemption from the taille; neither could income serve, because
in this respect they were a most disparate group - Lefebvre settled on
birth: 'What really characterised the nobility was birth; it was
possible to become a noble, but in the yes of everyone the true nobleman
was born.' [Coming, 9-10]

But as regards the 'commoners' Lefebvre adopts a different outlook: its
basis, he argues, is 'purely legal': its only real elements were the
social ones - and of these the most important, the one which led and
mainly benefited from the revolution, was the bourgeoisie.' [Coming, 35]
As Anthony has already quoted, what was for Lefebvre important vis-à-vis
the bourgeoisie was its diversity: Lefebvre describes its various
'levels', from financiers, bankers, merchants, industrial capitalists
(chiefly noticeable by their absence), skilled workers and craftspeople.
In addition Lefebvre included the 'liberal professions [who] also
belonged to the bourgeoisie', the educated and the articulate, and
lawyers. [Coming, 39, 86]

Thus, for Lefebvre the bourgeoisie more or less amounted to everyone in
the Third Estate who was economically active in some manner but who was
not a peasant, a journeyman or a worker. 

It should not need pointing out, but it appears that it is, that as much
for Marx as for Marxists 'class' is a concept rooted in the sphere of
the socio-economic: classes are defined in relation to their position
within the economic infrastructure. Of course, I take on board the
terminological advice courtesy of Hal Draper that Richard offers us:

'It would be useful to make a terminological demarcation, with
capitalist narrowly reserved for the strictly economic relationship of
exploitation, and bourgeois for the broader and more varied social
relationships that cluster around the capitalist class. In this sense
the bourgeoisie would be viewed as a social penumbra around the hard
core of capitalists proper, shading out into the diverse social elements
who function as servitors or hangers-on of capital without themselves
owning capital. I suggest this distinction not because it was followed
by Marx but to alert the reader to the need for interpreting different
cases from their context. Marx often used middle class for

While I would agree that there is indeed a danger in using the term
'bourgeoisie' or 'capitalists' too restrictively, that there is a
certain value in being able to refer to 'the social penumbra around the
hard core of capitalists' as well as to the capitalists strictly
speaking themselves (and, as the material from Lefebvre that Anthony
quoted indicates, often the line between the 'penumbra' and the' hard
core' often stands rather blurred and fuzzy), I would argue that when
making this distinction it is important not to exclude the actual --
rigidly defined in socio-economic terms -- capitalists from the
bourgeoisie more widely defined. If not, the bourgeoisie -- the
'penumbra', the social milieu at the heart of which are to be found the
capitalists strictly speaking, appears as separated off autonomous
social layer, distinct to and differentiated from the capitalists
properly speaking - and in this way its definition stands as completely
arbitrary - and the procedure turns into a rhetorical trick to define
the leading cadre of, for example, the French revolution as 'bourgeois'.
For if it is possible to find a clearly demarcated class of capitalists
in pre-revolutionary France -- and I am not sure that it is possible to
do this -- then they are not to be found in the leading forces of the
revolution itself, although, depending on how exactly the procedure is
carried out, what could be called its 'penumbra' actually is.

This is, for example, precisely Ellen Meiksins Wood's mistake, when she
attempts to makes a similar distinction between the 'bourgeoisie' and

'We may be utterly convinced that the [French] Revolution was
undoubtedly "bourgeois" [...] without coming a flea-hop closer to
determining whether it was also capitalist.  As long as we accept that
there is no necessary identification of "bourgeois" (or burgher or city)
with "capitalist", the "revolutionary bourgeoisie" can be far from being
a fiction, even - or especially - in France, where the model
revolutionary bourgeois was not a capitalist or even an old-fashioned
merchant but a lawyer or office-holder.' ['Capitalism, Merchants and
Bourgeois Revolution', International Review of Social History 41.2
(August 1996), 225]

Yet I would argue that 'bourgeoisie' without 'capitalism' renders any
attempt at a class analysis useless. If we want still to be Marxists
that is. And this, in effect, is what Lefebvre is up to as well --
although to be fair to Lefebvre he never called himself a Marxist
(although Marxism - as much as Restoration historiography -- had a
significant influence on his work, and he was widely regarded as a close
fellow-traveller of the PCF).

Now if Lefebvre offers us something of an admixture of the Great
Tradition and Marxism, his successor to the Sorbonne Chair of French
Revolutionary History, Albert Soboul, paints a picture of the revolution
altogether more faithful to the canonical texts of historical
materialism: 'the Revolution is to be explained in the last analysis by
a contradiction between the social basis of the economy and the
character of the productive forces.' [Albert Soboul, The French
Revolution 1787-1799 (London, 1974), 21].  The deeper causes of the
French Revolution are to found in the contradictions Banarve stressed
between the structures and institutions of the Ancien Régime, and the
state of economic and social development on the other.' [The French
Revolution, 110] ' Carried through by the bourgeoisie, the Revolution
destroyed the old system of production and the social relations deriving
from it and in so doing destroyed the formally dominant class, the
landed aristocracy.' [ The French Revolution, 553] 

(We should note, however, that here we have three distinct explanation
of the forces driving to revolution: respectively, one based on the
contradiction between the forces and relations of production, on based
on conflict between relations of production and the state, on one based
on a supposed clash of modes of production. Soboul's fidelity to the
fundamental texts of historical materialism - 'At the end of the
eighteenth century, the system of property holding and the organisation
of agriculture and manufacturing were no longer relevant to the needs of
the new burgeoning productive forces and were seen to hamper the
productive forces. The authors of the Manifesto wrote that "these chains
had to be broken". They were broken.' [ The French Revolution, 22] - was
in fact purely formal in character, a point I return to below.)

In addition, in Soboul, the idea that the French revolution is the
'classic' revolution stands out in sharp relief: 'The Revolution, child
of enthusiasm, still excites men and women. [...] Still admired and
feared, the Revolution lives on in our minds.' [The French Revolution,

Nevertheless, as to the consequences of the revolution, Soboul seem
aware of its contradictory legacy. On the one hand, 'Henceforth, with
entirely new relations of production, capital was removed from the
tresses and strains of feudalism.' [The French Revolution, 8] But on the
other: 'Years were to pass before capitalism was definitely established
in France. Its progress was slow during the revolutionary period;
industry was usually on a small scale and commercial capital retained
its preponderance.' [The French Revolution, 9]

Notwithstanding these reservations, the picture that Soboul paints is
one in which the 'revolutionary bourgeoisie' is not only the beneficiary
of the revolution but also its central driving force: 'the bourgeoisie
constituted the most important class within the Third Estate: it
directed the course of the Revolution and benefited from it.' [The
French Revolution, 44] And: 'The commercial and industrial middle class
had an acute sense of the social evolution and economic power which they
represented. With a clear realisation of their won interests, it was
they who carried through the Revolution.' [The French Revolution, 51]
Soboul's problems really begin when he tries to identify just exactly
who and what the 'revolutionary bourgeoisie actually is. He identifies
four fractions within it: rentiers, entrepreneurs, professionals and
artisans and shopkeepers. The first of these groups, who grew with the
bourgeoisie, had sources of income which were 'widely varied' and they
'played little active part in economic life.' [The French Revolution,
45]. The 'professionals', whence came the greater part of the
revolution's cadre, constituted a 'highly diversified group'. For the
shopkeepers and the artisans, they passed 'almost imperceptibly into the
popular classes in the real sense of that term,' and they were moreover
'hostile to the capitalist organisation of production.' [The French
Revolution, 47] As far as the entrepreneurs were concerned, they 'were
often linked by marriage with the aristocracy of birth [...] In 1793
tax-farmers were sent to the guillotine.' [The French Revolution, 48]

Again the central problem that we are faced with - as much with Soboul
as with Lefebvre - is that to designate the French revolution a
'bourgeois revolution' within the theoretical framework of the 'social
interpretation' one has to find a 'revolutionary bourgeoisie'. And they
only way one can do this is to stretch the term bourgeoisie to mean
something like 'urban, professional and enlightened'. This may be
etymologically sensitive to the origins of the word but it does not
amount to a Marxist class analysis: to break the connection between
social class and that class's position in the socio-economic structure -
to define class in terms of its consciousness, culture, mode of life,
customs, habits and so forth to the exclusion of its socio-economic
position - is not Marxism but idealism. Thus not only does the 'social
interpretation' model of the French revolution fail as an accurate
interpretation of the French revolution (and by extension as a
conceptual explanation of the bourgeois revolution in general, since it
is the social interpretation model of the French revolution that has
been passed down to us as the general norm by which other bourgeois
revolutions are compared and evaluated) but it also fails as an example
of Marxist historical interpretation. And it is for this reason that the
'revisionist' accounts of the French revolution have directed their fire
not only against the 'social interpretation' but also against Marxism
itself. And that is why it is our duty as Marxists to re-examine the
Marxist interpretation and honestly re-evaluate it.

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