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Jason Ye

Professor John Zammito

HIST 101

30 November 2016

Interpreting the French Revolution

From Albert Soubol to George Taylor, many modern historians have disputed the cause

and interpretation of the historic French revolution. One could group the two opposing sides as

the Marxist interpretation versus the Revisionist interpretation. In more recent times, as historian

George Kates (of Pomona College) phrased, the original Marxist interpretation has come under

fire by a new wave of Revisionist thought. In my own humble analysis of the French Revolution,

I would argue that both interpretations contain grains of fact, and ultimately one must piece

together arguments from both schools of thought while weighing equally the causes and

consequences to achieve a full picture of the French Revolution.

With respect to both schools of thought, I would like to preface the bulk of my argument

by stating that I find it hard to completely disown one school of thought in favor of the other.

Although I am in favor of the Revisionist school for its better usage of empirical evidence, it is

clear to me that both interpretations contain principles that historically cannot be denied. What

stunts my enthusiasm for arguments for the Marxist interpretation seems to be fueled in part by

potential bias in personal ideology by Marxist scholars. Regardless, both schools of

interpretation lay out developed arguments that are impossible to completely dismiss from my

point of view.

In rejecting the Marxist interpretation, it seems inconceivable to completely disown the

role of the “peasant and popular revolution” such as the storming of the Bastille in the French
Revolution (Soboul 33). Much of the French Revolution presented by the American educational

system has been presented as a peasant and bourgeois-fueled revolt that sought to achieve

socioeconomic revolution. Albert Soboul’s The French Revolution in the History of the

Contemporary World (1969) best encapsulates this Marxist interpretation of the French

Revolution, arguing that the French Revolution was indeed a socio-economic revolution spurred

by the lower social classes, the bourgeois and the sans-culottes (peasants), in that power and

wealth transferred from the aristocracy to the bourgeois. Soboul provides an excellent narrative

of this bourgeois revolution, providing a chain of events that explains this narrative though he

fails to satisfactorily corroborate that chain with evidence. Many of the available primary and

secondary sources written closer to era of the French Revolution seem to validate the Marxist

notion that the French Revolution was truly a struggle amongst social classes for economic

change. Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man (1791) seemingly confirms that the French

Revolution was indeed a social revolution against “the despotic principles of the Government”

arguing that the rights of man had been suppressed for too long under the government and the

social order to which it belongs (Paine 18). Written shortly before the French Revolution,

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès’s What is the Third Estate (1789) also frames the French Revolution as

the stratified social struggle, in turn, “harnessing the energies of the bourgeoisie to a project of

political and social revolution – a project that triumphed in the summer of 1789” (Sewell Jr.

149). Sieyès in his pamphlet explicitly himself warns against the “multifarious agents of

feudalism” arguing that “[for] it is the odious remnants of this barbaric system that [the French

people] still owe the division of France…All would be lost if the lackeys of feudalism came to

usurp the representation of the common order” (Sieyès 6). In a turn to more recent times, Colin

Jones, in Bourgeois Revolution Revivified: 1789 and Social Change, argues that large swaths of
the French elite participated in “market capitalism…Such new forms of capitalism created sharp

social antagonisms” thus presenting the conditions that engendered an economic-social

revolution, a true bourgeois revolution (Kates 137). The principles of the Marxist interpretation

of the French Revolution rely heavily upon the stratification of French society between the

disparate and the affluent. As the social stratification occurred in addition amongst economic

divisions, the Marxist French Revolution occurred because of the desire for equal economic and

social rights.

In contrast to the Marxist interpretation, the Revisionist interpretation provides empirical

evidence to argue the greater role of the aristocracy in sparking the French Revolution, arguing

that the bourgeois was an ambiguous class “whose authorities overlapped with noblemen, and

whose lifestyle imitated noblemen” (Kates 44). George V. Taylor’s Noncapitalist Wealth and the

French Revolution (1967) provides a credible explanation for dismantling the Marxist

socioeconomic revolution, arguing that there was no bourgeois revolution since the bourgeois

themselves were also partly aristocratic. Taylor presents empirical evidence that “between most

of the nobility and the proprietary sector of the middle classes, a continuity of investment forms

and socioeconomic values that made them [the bourgeois and landed nobility/aristocracy],

economically, a single group,” thus making the French revolution a “political struggle between

democracy…and aristocracy” that resulted from the “bankruptcy that left the monarchy

discredited and helpless” (Taylor 487, 491). In addition to the absence of a social revolution,

Taylor also attributes the ambiguity of the bourgeois to lack of an economic revolution as well,

stating that there is “no economic explanation for the so-called ‘bourgeois revolution’” as there

were “nobles who were capitalists [and] merchants who were nobles” (Taylor 489-490). Colin

Lucas in Nobles, Bourgeois, and The Origins of the French Revolution (1973) too arrives at a
similar conclsion, but also extends the ambiguity of the bourgeois class to the penetration of the

sans-culottes amongst the bourgeois’ lower ranks, a “division, in common with all those in this

society, [that] was neither rigid nor absolute…[a] no man’s land” (Lucas 47). Francois Furet in

his lecture, The French Revolution Revisited (1980), expands upon Taylor’s idea that the

Revolution resulted from the shortcomings of the French monarchy and reframes it as a political

revolution that “mobilized society and disarmed the state” (Furet 84). Furet argues that the

Revolution simply filled the vacuum left by a weakened monarchy and “continued trends begun

under the absolute monarchy,” simply a political revolution ushered in by the change of authority

(Kates 71). It is through this change in authority that political revolution occurs “through which

the Revolution, by destroying the traditional forms of the former society, creates the conditions

for the omnipotence of the centralized state” (Furet 82). The principles of the Revisionist

interpretation rely heavily upon the ambiguity of the bourgeois as an economic and social class.

As a result, the Revisionist French Revolution was a political revolution that saw the shuffle of

political power that in the end had social consequences especially for the monarchy.

In my evaluation of both interpretation of the French Revolution, I find it necessary that

in the pursuit of an accurate record of a historical event, one should neither solely concentrate on

a historical event’s causes or consequences, but should focus on both to develop a holistic

portrait to conduct analysis. Focusing solely on the consequences of a historical event ignores the

Butterfly Effect. Historical consequences can result from entirely different intentions. No one

can be a hundred percent sure of the resulting consequences of one’s actions. Consequently,

focusing solely on the causes of a historical event also narrows perspective and fails to consider

impact. Thus by considering both causes and consequences as well as the arguments, I find that it

is best to rely on a blend of both interpretations of the French Revolution in creating a


wholesome view of the French Revolution. Although the Revisionist interpretation presents a

better and more plausible argument on the definition of the French bourgeois at the time of the

French Revolution, it is still hard for me to deny the potential social origins that may have caused

the French Revolution.


Works Cited

George V. Taylor. “Noncapitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution.” The

American Historical Review, vol. 72, no. 2, 1967, pp. 469–496. www.jstor.org/stable/1859237.

Colin Lucas in Nobles, Bourgeois, and The Origins of the French Revolution (1973)

Kates, Gary, ed. "Review: THE PIONEERS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION." The Journal

of Education 103.12 (2572) (1926): 336. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

<http://1.droppdf.com/files/BD2lh/french-revolution-gary-kates.pdf>.