Scholarly Debates on Causes of the French Revolution
©Brian Maregedze and Vincent Chenzi
Since the turn of the 19th century, various academic interpretations about the French Revolution have dominated the subject of European history. There exists a corpus of scholarly debates about the revolution in France which have been postulated by both individual members of the academia and entire schools of thought. A case in point, are the Marxists and the revisionists who have posited various interpretations about the French Revolution.
- a) The Marxist School of Thought
Inspired by the writings of Karl Marx, the Marxist or Orthodox school interpreted the French Revolution as a ‘bourgeois revolution’ and the French socialist and historian Georges Lefebvre’s writings in the 1930’s asserted that the Revolution resulted in a shift in power from the old landed feudal class to the new middle class (bourgeoisie). Marxists viewed the French Revolution as a ‘bourgeois’ revolution or class struggle between the French aristocracy or monarchy and has been used to explain the transition from feudalism to capitalism. They believe that the French revolution was a major event of history that penetrated the political facets of innumerable societies and new ideas of republicanism spread like wildfire to Austria and German states
- b) Socialist interpretation
The socialists also backed this orthodox view as they saw the revolution as a prototype of proletariat revolution. It must be remembered that the French Revolution was the first major social revolution of far greater dimensions and of deeper purpose than the American Revolution that had preceded it. Only the Russian Revolution of November 1917, the one that ushered in modern Communism, would rival it in importance. Underlying this extended dramatic development was the new belief that revolution was the most effective means to achieve political and, consequently, social change. Not reform from within, but overthrow from without appeared to be the new law of political physics.
- c) Revisionist School
This became popular among historians because of the new research on the Second World War. Revisionist scholars such as Alfred Cobban viewed the French revolution through the lens of a modern, industrialized capitalist France rather than the old struggling agrarian society. They don’t believe that the French revolution was a war between the old social classes as they believe that if it was a bourgeoisie revolution then capitalism would have been prosperous and would have produced a capitalist economy like the one which was in Britain.
To this end, Cobban put forward what he termed, “The myth of the French Revolution.” Feudalism was long dead before the French Revolution in 1789. He also argues that a recognisable bourgeoisie in Marxist terms did not actually exist in 1789 – the ‘middle classes’ who dominated the Revolution far from being a new assertive industrial class were in fact lawyers, professionals and state officials – a class in decline out to protect their narrow interests. Revisionists like Cobban are therefore far more likely to see the Revolution as a response to a financial crisis than a massive social upheaval.
Other than Cobban’s revisionist approach, the second revisionist argument posits that the French revolution gave nothing to France and the world when compared to the terrible costs it incurred. The loss of life, the total destruction of society and all existing conventions drove people to madness as government after government collapsed painfully bringing everyone back to square one. When the revolution finally ended, Napoleon, a so-called product of the revolution convened another empire similar to the one the French society had painfully sought remove. Revisionist Historians regard it as a bloody uprising rather than a revolution with new ideals because it failed to establish France as a republic.
Revisionist scholars also posited that the revolution was a conflict among the homogeneous elite over political power, a conflict not rooted in any social base but fuelled by the ‘autonomous political and ideological dynamic’ of struggle between the elites’, This focus goes along with a turn away from seeing the revolution as having anything much to do with the underlying social conditions of the mass of people. The bourgeoisie were the most significant economic element within France. The wealth they generated and the professions they filled were far more important than the political role they were allowed to play by tradition and law to play. Through revolutionary ideology and institutional change, the bourgeoisie gained a political authority not known before in any European country.
The Marxist Response to Revisionism
Marxists dismissed revisionist evidence by arguing that what the assemblies did was far more important than who they were. The assemblies set the conditions by which industrial capitalism could develop and bourgeois dominance assert itself – votes for the middle classes, a constitutional monarchy, confiscation of church and aristocratic lands, formal abolition of feudalism – ending of feudal rights and duties.
Individual or Cultural approach
Historians like Daniel Mornet interpreted cultural factors (ideas and values) as far more important than economic factors. Mornet describes the French revolutions as a ‘conspiracy of Enlightenment intellectuals.’ Enlightenment ideas and the central importance of key thinkers therefore were seen as more important than big social and economic factors. Mornet argues that the ‘pillars’ of the old order – church, monarchy and feudalism – were brought down by the power of revolutionary ideas.
Philosophers and enlightenment
The 18th century Enlightenment may be represented as a new way of thinking about mankind and the environment. The proponents of this intellectual movement were primarily men of letters-men like Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Their views stemmed from the scientific revolution of the previous century. They were convinced that all creation was similarly rational, so that it was possible for man to uncover laws which regulated society, politics, economy and even morality. These laws would teach mankind not what they are but what they should do and ought to be. In France in the early 1700’s and onwards ‘despotism, feudalism, religion and clericalism’ as well as other matters of the day became the object of their criticism and satire. It allowed the French public freedom of speech, religious toleration, injustice, abuse of power and any other views they held against the monarch or government. It is hard to assess their influence after 1789, yet all the foundation documents of the Revolution-the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Constitution of 1791 clearly reveal the debt owed to Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire.
Edmund Burke was one of the first to suggest that the philosophers of the French Enlightenment were somehow responsible for the French Revolution, and his argument was taken up, and elaborated on, by many historians, including Tocqueville and Lord Acton. The philosophers undoubtedly provided the ideas. It may well be that the collapse of the old regime was the consequence of other factors – economic problems, social unrest, conflicting ambitions of groups and individuals – but in the unfolding of the Revolution, what was thought, what was said, and what was advocated, was expressed in terms and categories that came from political theorists of the Enlightenment.
Those theorists were far from sharing the same ideas; however, the French Revolution was itself was not animated by a single revolutionary programme. Unlike the English and American Revolutions, the French Revolution went through a series of phases, each of which almost amounted to a revolution in itself; and as the Revolutionists repudiated one policy to adopt another, more or less its antithesis, they were able to turn from one philosopher of the Enlightenment to an alternative, competing or rival theorist from the same stable.
The first phase of the French Revolution was the one in which the dominant ideas were those of Montesquieu, notably those expounded in his masterpiece, L’Esprit des lois, “The Spirit of the Laws” first published in 1753. Montesquieu claimed that a liberal constitutional monarchy was the best system of government for a people who prized freedom, on the grounds that by dividing the sovereignty of the nation between several centres of power, it provided a permanent check on any one of them becoming despotic. Montesquieu suggested that the English had achieved this by sharing sovereignty between the Crown, Parliament and the courts of law. The French, he suggested, would need, if they were to adopt the same idea, to make use of the estates with which they were themselves already familiar: The Crown, the aristocratic courts, the Church, the landed nobility and the chartered cities.
The Comte de Mirabeau, the leading orator among the revolutionists of this early phase, was very much the disciple of Montesquieu in his demand for a constitutional monarchy. On the more abstract level, Mirabeau believed that the only way to ensure freedom was to institute a divided sovereignty, but he did not agree with Montesquieu as to which estates in France should have a share in that divided sovereignty. Despite being a nobleman himself, Mirabeau was out of sympathy with most of his peers. Indeed, one big difference between the French liberal noblemen who were prominent in the early stages of the French Revolution – Lafayette, Condorcet, Liancourt, Talleyrand, as well as Mirabeau – and the English Whig aristocrats of 1688 is that they did not represent the views of a large section of their own class.
Even before Mirabeau’s death in April 1791, Montesquieu’s dream of devolving a large share of national sovereignty on to the peerage and the Church had been rendered unrealisable by the attitude of the First, the ecclesiastical, and the Second, or the noble Estates when the Estates-General first met in May 1789. The privileged orders proved more eager to hold on to their privileges than to accede to the powers Montesquieu had wished them to have. Instead, it was less privileged groups represented in the Third Estate – the commons – who demanded to share the sovereignty of the nation with the Crown.
Nevertheless, while the idea of shared sovereignty continued to inform the struggle for freedom, Montesquieu remained the most important political philosopher of the French Revolution; even those orators and journalists who invoked the name of John Locke as the great theorist of modern freedom did not move far from Montesquieu’s conception of things, since Montesquieu saw himself as Locke’s successor in the liberal tradition, and modestly claimed only to wish to adapt Locke’s general principles to the particular conditions of France.
But there was one element of Locke’s thinking that Montesquieu was less attracted to than were the Revolutionists of 1789, and that was Locke’s theory of the natural rights of man to life, liberty and property. The French revolutionists made much of this because the American revolutionists had done so in 1776. Lafayette, having taken part in person in the American war of independence, and Condorcet, who had been made an honorary citizen of New Haven, were among those most active in having the French Revolution justify itself to the world and the people, by proclaiming the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen as early as August 1789. However, as later critics pointed out, a ‘declaration’ has no force in law, and the proclamation made no material difference to the institutions and procedures by which the constitutional monarchy was governed. The division of sovereignty between the Crown and the legislature was still thought of as the central achievement of the Revolution of 1789.
What put an end to all this was the king’s flight to Varennes, which made it fairly obvious that he did not want to share his sovereignty with the legislature; and the failure thereafter of liberal monarchists to patch up the constitution gave a signal to those who had no desire for the people to share sovereignty with the Crown. Thus, the theory of divided sovereignty came to be overthrown in favour of the theory of undivided sovereignty; the constitutional monarchy gave way to a republic: Montesquieu, in effect, yielded to Rousseau.
Burke, with remarkable prescience, saw Rousseau as the chief ideologue of the French Revolution as early as 1790; but it was only after the king’s flight to Varennes had undermined his liberal reputation that republicanism came to the fore front of the revolutionary agenda. As Rousseau replaced Montesquieu, his conception of the meaning of liberty replaced that of L’Esprit des lois. Where Montesquieu had understood freedom as being unconstrained and unimpeded in doing what one chooses to do so long as it is lawful, Rousseau defined freedom as ruling oneself, living only under a law which one has oneself enacted. On Rousseau’s philosophy of freedom, there was no question of the people dividing and diminishing sovereignty, because the people were to keep sovereignty in their own hands. In Rousseau’s conception of a constitution, the nation became sovereign over itself.
The second phase of the French Revolution can be dated as it is in the revolutionary calendar from September 1792, or Vendemiaire of Year One, to Napoleon’s coup d’etat of November 1799, or 19 Brumaire of Year Eight. This is the republican phase, for which Rousseau not only furnished the terminology of revolutionary discourse but was generally acknowledged to have done so. Unlike Montesquieu whose name had been cited with the same passionless respect as that of Aristotle or Locke, Rousseau was idolised and venerated. His body was disinterred from its grave in Ermononville, taken in a solemn procession to Paris and placed in the Pantheon. It is said that not many people had actually read the book called The Social Contract where Rousseau expounded his republican theories, but Rousseau had made his ideas well known in more popular writings and his personality became familiar through his Confessions.
He had contrived to make himself known as the man of the people, one who had not only proclaimed his love of virtue and freedom but had demonstrated that love in an exemplary life and a constant struggle against oppression. He was the plebeian among philosophers, Jean-Jacques the martyr and champion of the poor; but he also provided arguments which served the purposes of the Terror. For while he said a people could only be free if it ruled itself, Rousseau also said that a man could be forced to be free; he suggested the cult of a civil religion being established in place of Christianity; he authorised the head of the republic to overrule the dictates of private consciences together with the use of state powers to suppress immorality as well as crime.
It would be unfair to Rousseau to say that Robespierre put the theory of The Social Contract into practice, but he used Rousseau’s language, and exploited – while distorting – several of Rousseau’s ideas in the course of his reign of terror. At all events, the discrediting of Robespierre did not result in the discrediting of Rousseauism. Whereas the departure of Cromwell from the scene had left the English with a lasting hatred of republican government, the execution of Robespierre did not mean that the French had ceased to be republicans. The idea that the nation might be sovereign over itself has never ceased to command a widespread and profound assent in France; and no French king was ever to be secure on his throne after that belief took root in the French national consciousness.
When the First French Republic was ended by Napoleon, his coup d’etat did not mark the end of the French Revolution, but only its passage to the third, or imperial, phase. Again, he had to look no further for his ideas than to those provided by the French Enlightenment. This time it was the turn of Voltaire, and his doctrine of enlightened absolutism. This theory, like that of Rousseau, kept the sovereignty of’ the state undivided, but in Voltaire’s case it was not transmitted to the people but kept, without question, in the hands of the monarch.
Voltaire proclaimed himself to be, like Montesquieu, a disciple of the English philosophers, and having visited England at much the same time, he described the English kingdom, in much the same terms, as the homeland of liberty. Again, like Montesquieu, Voltaire named Locke as the prince of English philosophers, and there can be no doubt that he owed much to Locke’s inspiration. Voltaire’s own Traite sur la tolerance, for example, adds little to the arguments of Locke’s Letter for Toleration. But Voltaire did not join Montesquieu in subscribing to the theory of divided sovereignty and constitutional government as set forth in Locke’s two treatises of Government. Voltaire was far more attracted to the political ideas of another Englishman, Francis Bacon, the philosopher of progress. Although Bacon had died in 1626, Voltaire considered him the most up to date of thinkers: one whose message had a kind of actuality and relevance for 18th century France that exceeded –even that of Locke, whose message was mainly a message to the English, who already had experience of parliamentary government which the French had not.
Voltaire admired Bacon first as a man of science. It was not that Bacon had made any scientific discoveries of his own; he simply proclaimed the doctrine that science can save us. What was distinctive about his approach was his stress on utility. Science, he suggested, was not just an intellectual exercise to give us knowledge, but a practical enterprise to give us mastery over our world. Once men knew how nature worked, they could exploit nature to their advantage, overcome scarcity by scientific innovations in agriculture, overcome disease by scientific research in medicine, and generally improve the life of man by all sorts of developments in technology and industry.
Voltaire was thrilled to this vision of progress, and he was no less excited by the programme Bacon sketched out as a means of achieving it. First, the abolition of traditional metaphysics and of idle theological disputes on which scholarship was wasted. Second, the repudiation of old-fashioned legal and political impediments to the efficient organisation of a progressive state. Bacon was frankly in favour of an enlarged royal prerogative at the expense of the rights of the Church, Parliament and the courts. Bacon had in his time, the scheme of fostering the desire of James I to become an absolute monarch so that he himself might enact the role of philosopher at the elbow of a mighty king; Bacon failed, but Voltaire was more than sympathetic to his effort.
Besides, the Baconian plan seemed to him to have a better chance of success in France, because France had had, in Voltaire’s opinion, an altogether happy experience of absolute monarchy under the Bourbon kings of the 17th century. One can readily understand Voltaire’s admiration for Henri IV; it is less easy to understand his veneration for Louis XIV, the persecutor of Protestants, the oppressor of dissent and the protector of the pious. It has been suggested that Louis XIV appealed to the aesthetic side of Voltaire’s imagination, which saw the king as an artist imposing unity on the chaos of society. In any case, Voltaire saw no necessary threat to freedom in the centralisation of royal government. On the contrary, he considered that in French experience the great enemies of liberty were the Church and the institutions controlled by the nobility, including the parliaments. By suppressing or emasculating such institutions, a strong central government could enlarge the citizen’s liberty the way it had done so in the past in France and could do so in the future. He would not accept Montesquieu’s doctrine of power checking power to produce freedom through equilibrium. For Voltaire, one single power that can be trusted is needed not to counter-balance, but rather to subdue those other powers which menace freedom.
The idea of ‘philospher-king’, of course, dates back at least as far as Plato. In the 18th century, several European monarchs were persuaded by Enlightenment philosophy to try to enact the role, among them, the Empress Catherine of Russia, the Emperor Joseph of Austria, as well as several lesser princes. Frederick of Prussia was the one who approached Voltaire in person, and invited him to join his Court at Potsdam. It was a doomed enterprise. Voltaire found himself unable to control the mind of a king who considered himself a philosopher already, and who wanted no advice, but only praise.
The French kings took no interest whatsoever in Voltaire’s ideas: but Napoleon did. And once Napoleon had seized power, he made the Baconian, or Voltairean, project his own. Napoleon could fairly claim to be something other than a military dictator. He introduced what he thought of as scientific government. He gave his patronage to those intellectuals who saw themselves as the heirs of the Enlightenment: to Destutt de Tracy, Volney, Cabanis and Daunou, exponents of what they called the ‘science of ideas.’ He furthered the creation of such essentially Baconian institutions as the Polytechnique, lycees, and the several ecoles normales. He made education a central feature of imperial policy, and he made that education state education.
Assuredly, Napoleon modified the Voltairean theory of enlightened absolutism in directions that Voltaire would not have approved. Napoleon introduced something approaching a democratic element by making his despotism plebiscitary, something which the earlier phases of the French Revolution had made almost inevitable. Voltaire had never cared much for democracy, because he considered the majority of people to be hopelessly unenlightened, but once the people had been brought into the French political arena, Napoleon saw that there was no way of pushing them out. They had only to be persuaded to let themselves be led, and Napoleon, of course, proved something of a genius in doing this. Voltaire, had he lived, might have admired him for this, but he would not have admired, or approved either of Napoleon’s re-establishment of the Catholic Church or his military adventures. It was Frederick’s wars which did most to alienate Voltaire; and Napoleon’s wars would have, pleased him no more; especially as’ Napoleon’s conquests seemed to diminish rather than increase his attachment to the ideals of science and of freedom.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the 15 years of Napoleon’s consulate and empire, while rejecting the institutions of the republic, did much to consolidate and perpetuate the institutions which the earlier phases of the Revolution had introduced into France, and which the ideas of the Enlightenment had inspired. Napoleon was not a counter-revolutionary in any sense. Even his restoration of the Church was the introduction of a cult over which he kept control rather than to which he submitted. The only French royal and noble titles that he recognised were those of his own creation. He kept the republican character of his empire, much as the Romans had done in the ancient world.
Indeed, the very fact that the Romans had transformed their republic into an empire made it all the easier for Napoleon to do so in France. Once the French revolutionists had rid themselves of their king, they began increasingly to think of themselves as the Romans of the modern world. Their art and architecture, the military organisation of their new army, even the names of civil ranks such as ‘consul’ and ‘senator’ were conscious copies of the Roman model. In doing this they did not depart very far from the more modern and democratic ideas of Rousseau; for although Rousseau preferred Sparta to Rome, and believed that freedom could only be realised in a small city state, he, too, was all in favour of reviving Roman ideals in place of Christian ideals, and looked forward to the emergence of a new man in the shape of the citizen-soldier of antiquity reborn.
Rousseau even made the singular prediction that the island of Corsica would one day produce a leader who would astonish the world. That leader owed much of his success, while that success lasted, to adopting the policies of Voltairean enlightened despotism while dressing them all up in republican language and trappings that were inspired by Rousseau; it was not a genuine synthesis, because it took the substance from one and the appearances from the other, but at least it enabled Napoleon to achieve all the popularity he needed in France, so that his regime could only be overthrown by a coalition of foreign governments and armies.
France in the 18th century had many revolutionary thinkers. Among them were Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Diderot. Their revolutionary ideas encouraged people to fight for their rights. They exposed the inefficiency of the monarch and his government and aroused the people to challenge authority. Voltaire attacked the Catholic Church. He believed man’s destiny was in his own hands and not in heaven. His ideas encouraged people to fight against the privileges, and dominance of the Church without guilt.
In brief, John Locke propounded the ideas refuting divinity and absolute rights of monarchs. Montesquieu’s philosophy on the other hand outlined constitutional monarchy and division of powers. He believed all powers should not be concentrated in one person’s hand. Rousseau asserted the doctrine of democracy and popular sovereignty. He believed that government should be based on the consent of the governed. In his book Social Contract, he talks of a contract between the ruler and the ruled. Implied in his writings was the belief that men had the right to change their government, if they were not satisfied.
Thus, although the philosophers did not directly cause the revolution, their ideas were a direct attack on privileges and feudal rights which protected the upper classes. They thus helped rouse the people from inactivity and instilled in them a desire to root out social inequalities and establish a government responsive to their needs. They played a vital role in focusing the discontent and bringing about the Revolution.