George Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution

a tower of used books

bodie robinson | a&c writer

Book Review

A tower of used books by jorge royan

Photo credit: Christian C., Jean Pierre, Dalbera, Oli Henze. Flickr

Two book reviews in one issue? Bring ‘em on.

I remember taking a history class in grade nine when I was about fifteen. By the halfway point of the class, the textbook dealt with causality and history. What are the forces behind the trajectory of history? How and why does humanity abandon one era of history and enter a new one? In other words, what makes history go? The textbook’s thesis is that ideas change the world. Ideas float in the intellectual sphere of a society and constellate into a pattern or model of behaviour, which the text calls a “paradigm.” I quote from the text: “A paradigm is a pattern of thought that has a strong influence on the way individuals or societies act. All of the society’s paradigms taken together make up its world-view.” So what makes history go? The revolution or evolution of ideas—paradigm shifts.

Let’s take the French Revolution, beginning in 1789, as an example. What, then, facilitated such a momentous change in the theatre of history as the French Revolution did? My grade nine history textbook would tell us that it was a paradigm shift. This shift we call The Enlightenment. Philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Denis Diderot brought into question some of the most fundamental concepts of the European “world-view.” These men, among many others both contemporary and in the past, popularized skepticism about God, property, religious dogma, and knowledge. This radical skepticism, which advocated deism, rationalism, “enlightened despotism,” and even free market capitalism, culminated in the American and French revolutions – the birth of liberal democracy.

Despite being a criminal oversimplification, the view that history is a succession of paradigm shifts doesn’t even cover most, or even half, of the story. Georges Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution (1947) is a book that demonstrates how ineffective the “paradigm shift” view of history really is. The first thing to understand about this book is that it deals with history “from below” – a Marxist perspective on the French Revolution which shows that the Revolution was much more than a whimsical experiment inspired by Enlightenment philosophy. Much more than that, the Revolution was a medley of material and metaphysical conditions: economics, law, class, politics, Enlightenment philosophy, and bread.

Lefebvre, born in northern France in 1874, researched the Revolution for most of his life. By the mid-twentieth century, he was considered one of the leading authorities on the French Revolution in the world. Lefebvre’s invaluable contribution to understanding the French Revolution is his view of events “from below.” That is, Lefebvre liked to consider all aspects of French society, from the day-labourer to the agrarian peasant all the way up to Louis XVI and his government.

Lefebvre’s argument is that the French Revolution was really four revolutions in one. Each revolution was constituted by its own demographics, its own goals, and its own methods of achieving those goals. And it was these four revolutions that worked, although fortuitously, in concert to put the French Revolution in motion. The consequences of these revolutions fostered many decades of uncertainty, war, and political turmoil in France. But the result, in retrospect, is unambiguously clear: the French monarchy, and all absolute monarchs in Europe for that matter, could not survive. The French Revolution signed the death certificate of the Old Regime.

The four revolutions are as follows: first, the aristocratic revolution. Louis XVI had bankrupted France’s treasury with opulent spending, as well as sending troops and arms to aid the Americans in their revolution, beginning in 1776, against the English monarchy. The aristocracy saw a crisis in the French monarchy, and they pounced to seize more power for themselves. This included bolstering honorific privileges and exemption from certain taxes.

Next, the bourgeois revolution. As capitalism was taking hold in eighteenth-century France, a formidable group of commercial traders and landowners were gaining power. The bourgeoisie used legislative and political maneuvers to fight for male suffrage, effectively demanding their own full participation in the political process. Their lasting contribution to the Revolution was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The remaining two revolutions were from the lower classes. There was the popular revolution, which occurred in the towns and cities throughout France. Mostly day-labourers and shopkeepers, who were hungry for cheaper bread and fed up with taxes, from which they were burdened the most, enacted these revolts. This revolution culminated in the insurrection of July 14, 1789: the storming of the Bastille. And the last revolution occurred in the countryside by the agrarian peasants. These peasants accounted for nearly three quarters of the population of France at the time. They fought for more access to farmland and forested areas. They also complained vehemently about the crippling taxes imposed on them by landlords and the clergy (which took the form of the tithe, among others). Their contribution to the Revolution was to deal the final blow to the vestiges of feudalism that still existed in eighteenth century France.

Although Lefebvre’s analysis is not purely economic (and it shouldn’t be), it still demonstrates the tenacious potency of the Marxist approach to history. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Marx and Engels wrote. Lefebvre shows that this is exactly what the French Revolution was: total class war, from all angles. And only one class ultimately prevailed: the bourgeoisie. Their class war afforded us a society that is now the envy of most of the world: the modern liberal democracy. Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution details their struggles in careful and sober detail. Posterity owes the revolutionaries of 1789 nothing but gratitude and congratulations.

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