Rise of the working class

2. The French Revolution

Ted Tripp

Source: Labor College lecture
First published: Labor College Review, November 1986
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

From the time of the discovery of America and the discovery of the sea route to India (end of the 15th century) there began a shift of power in Europe from Italy and Germany to the countries on the Atlantic Ocean: England, Holland and to a lesser extent France. In these countries an ever stronger commercialism developed. The cities grew and a purely capitalist industry began to develop. And with this economic ascendancy these countries began to assume cultural and intellectual leadership.

However, this growing capitalism could not in the long run find room in the old political forms of medieval feudal society. The bourgeois becoming conscious of its social importance was no longer satisfied with its humble position. The bourgeois had to demand a voice in commercial politics, taxation and foreign policy. It had to oppose upper-class privilege and impose political forms within which its social and economic interests could be uninterruptedly pursued. As the new class grew stronger it strove for a new form where whatever the trappings, the centre of gravity would lie in a representative assembly where the wealthy bourgeoisie would have the upper hand. In England and Holland this change had long since taken place. In France everything was in a rut. The king had unlimited power but the high nobility and the church hierarchs had preserved and extended their privileges, which more and more had become utterly senseless, unreasonable and untenable under the new social conditions.

The class structure

The court and the two upper estates (nobility and clergy) represented an exploitation that became more and more flagrant.

The nobles, who numbered 147,000 out of a total population of 26 million, consumed 20 per cent of the national income and with the king owned 75 per cent of the land. The burden of taxation kept the urban as well as the rural population down while the nobility and the clergy were exempt from all taxation. The immense, magnificent and costly household of the court with its fabulous subsidies for the long train of royal favourites represented an endless squandering of the national wealth. The great nobles, particularly the 4000 families presented at court shared in the 33 million livres (a liver was the equivalent of about a franc) expended on the household of the king and princes. Marie Antoinette was said to own more than 2000 horses, 28 million livres went in pensions and 46 million livres went to pay 12,000 noble military officers — more than half the military budget. No military training was required to become an officer. A courtier with less than 10,000 livres was considered poor. By 1789 the servicing of the public debt took up 60 per cent of the total state revenue of 500 million livres. The noble’s private income was a fixed feudal payment, a sort of perpetual rent yielded them only 100,000 livres per year.

They paid for their life of luxury by taking numerous sinecures such as the offices of provincial governors. Only the nobility had access to the higher posts, while the bourgeois was excluded. All sorts of personal privileges widened the chasm between the two upper estates and the rest of the people who were called the third estate. The second estate, consisting of the church magnates, owned about 25 per cent of the land.

By 1789 all of the 143 bishops were noblemen, most of whom lived at court, sometimes openly living with mistresses in a style indistinguishable from other members of the nobility. The small-fry of the clergy had their pittance increased just before the revolution to 700 livres for parish priests and 350 livres for curates. The ruling class was becoming demoralised, the state was simply an object of exploitation that was being squeezed dry, state offices were sold, bribery was common, the administration of justice was a mockery. The peasants were fleeced through taxes and feudal obligations and were always on the verge of starvation. Although 92 per cent of the people lived on the land, agriculture was in a wretched condition. A series of bad harvests and crippling taxation resulted in peasants leaving the land and about one-third of the soil lay waste. The ruined peasants fled to the towns and were treated as beggars. The peasants were the beasts of burden of this society. Tithes to the church, rent, forced labour (the corvee), taxes, service in the militia. They lived in mud huts, the lords’ game ravaged their crops with impunity and yet they were less miserable than their forefathers, or peasants in most other European countries. Poverty may lead to riots but poverty alone cannot bring about social upheavals. These always arise from a disturbance of the balance between the classes. The overall wealth of the country had increased gradually. Foreign trade since 1717 had increased nearly 500 per cent and the export of industrial products had increased 300 per cent. The textile industry in the 100 years prior to the revolution increased 500 per cent. Marseille and other towns became centres of industrial growth although it was small-scale and machinery did not play a big part.

Yet the bourgeoisie encountered numerous obstacles, chief of which were:

(a) no free market.

(b) a country divided into provinces with different laws and different weights and measures.

(c) a variety of tariffs, taxes on goods traveling through each province. For example, wine transported from Orleans to Normandy rose in price 20 times because of these taxes. This hindered the development of trade and was deeply resented.

The middle classes (the bourgeoisie) possessed the greater part of the fortune of France, whereas the privileged orders were ruining themselves. This growing wealth and expectation made them acutely sensitive to their inferior legal status. Madame Roland complained when asked to dinner at the Chateau of Fonfenay that it was served in the servants’ quarters. The middle classes owned the money but they also acquired the moral power. They wrote for the great public, scoffing at every facet of the old order of things, especially the religious idea in the name of reason and enlightenment. Liberty and equality became the slogans raised by the bourgeoisie to win the masses. Their zeal was devoted not to celestial but earthly bliss, but not for everyone for liberty was understood to be for the wealthy class only and equality meant only formal equality before the law. The philosophical ideas of the enlightenment reflected the demands of the bourgeoisie for political and social rights. Within the bourgeoisie there were several layers: those who lived off the old regime like the tax collectors and financiers, who did not want the golden feudal egg destroyed; and the manufacturers of luxury items whose customers were largely among the nobility and the clergy. It was the trading and industrial capitalist, bloated from colonial trade and the slave trade, who had most to gain by removal of feudal obstacles to trade and the abolition of the absolute power of the king and the privileges of the nobility. These latter two demands united the population in common action. A pamphlet of the time said: “What has the Third Estate been heretofore? Nothing! What does it demand? Something! What ought it to be? Everything.”

The revolution begins

Finally, in 1789 the clash came. The financial affairs of the state were in a desperate condition. The impoverished people could pay no more and as a last resort the Estates General was called. This was an obsolete feudal body that had not met since 1614. The Third Estate, led by the bourgeoisie, faced with obstruction to reform from the king and the privileged estates, walked out and declared themselves to be the National Assembly. The king sent for 20,000 troops to disperse the assembly by force. The assembly shouted defiance but this would have been short-lived if the people of Paris, organised into a bourgeois-led National Guard had not on July 13, 1789, seized arms from the Invalides and the following day stormed the Bastille, an armed prison. Paris was aflame, the king retreated and recognised the popular organ the new and revolutionary National Assembly. This was the signal for peasant risings, with burning of title deeds and seizure of land all over France. Even before the news reached the provinces the artisans burned toll gates; revolutionary municipalities were set up throughout France. A middle-class-led National Guard was set up to maintain order, for the middle-class was becoming anxious, as they owned a good part of the nobles’ estates.

On August 4, 1789, the assembly introduced progressive taxation and abolished personal servitude for the peasant, although other feudal obligations had to be redeemed by monthly payments. Until the law came into effect the peasants were to continue as before — thus except where the masses took action things remained as they were before. Church tax privileges were removed and church land was confiscated.

On August 4 also, the assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which read: “The equality of rights for all men. The law should be the same for all. All citizens have the right to co-operate either personally or through their own representatives in its formation.”

Having failed to satisfy the peasants, the assembly turned to the interests of the trading and industrial bourgeoisie — as represented by the leading group in the assembly — the Girondins. It:

(a) abolished obstacles to trade in the home market.

(b) dissolved the craft organisations.

(c) banned workers’ organisations and strikes, for they said that such “would violate the principles of the equality of man”.

The next two years saw a growing alliance between the uppermost layers of the bourgeoisie and the moderate elements of the nobles and the church for mutual resistance to the further progress of the revolution. They tried to make the government form a constitutional monarchy, with the parliament representing only the very wealthiest. Citizens under the 1791 Girondin constitution were divided into active citizens, those wealthy enough to pay taxes — they got the vote — and passive citizens, who were all the rest, who were excluded from all political rights. A new tax law put the burden on the small traders. However, the revolutionary tension in society was too strong to be kept down. The bourgeoisie, having won recognition of their interests, sought to stop the revolution. A Girondin paper wrote: “Now the revolution must stop, otherwise we risk everything which we have achieved. It is not ridiculous to speak of the sovereignty of the masses.”

With the connivance of the Girondins, the king continued counter-revolutionary plots with foreign feudal rulers, and an attempted escape by the king from Paris was frustrated by revolutionaries.

Demonstrations against the king were crushed by the National Guard, a graduated tax rate was rejected and price control of necessities such as bread was scornfully rejected as “an outrageous interference with free competition”. When starving Parisians plundered some bakery shops, the Girondin press denounced this “mob” as “this pack of robbers”. At the end of 1791 disorders broke out throughout the country because of rising prices and scarcity of food.

At this point the main tasks of the revolution had not been achieved. The king remained the centre of counter-revolution, feudal burdens on the peasants had not been abolished. The condition of workers, artisans and large sections of the petty bourgeoisie (Girondins) were afraid to complete the tasks they were interested in because they feared the mass determination to carry the revolution further than their own interests required. To prevent this, the Girondin now defended the old order. For the revolution to continue, new leadership had to be found, and it soon would be in mass support for the commune in Paris and the leading section of the petty bourgeoisie, the Jacobins. King Louis had made overtures to Prussia and Austria to get them to make war on revolutionary France. A phony dispute over border areas was a pretext for the Girondin ministry to declare war on these feudal powers in April 1792. It was widely believed that the war was not necessary but merely a Girondin tactic to rally support for the king and divert the mass demands, which threatened bourgeois interests.

The war went badly for the French and the invaders soon threatened Paris. In August 1792 the masses organised into a commune, dismissed the middle class National Guard leaders and took control of the defence of the city. By the following month the invaders had been driven to the border. Mass demonstrations led to the arrest of the king and the execution of some 1600 counter revolutionaries. The assembly grew frightened and announced the suspension of the king, although a minority in the assembly still wished to save him, but mass pressure forced the assembly to dissolve, and with votes for all a new body called the Convention was elected. So long as France was winning the war the Girondins retained favour and the new Convention had a Girondin majority, with the Jacobins as the major opposition. The Jacobins drew their support from the petty bourgeoisie. They were led by Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat and Georges Danton. An extreme wing of the Jacobins drawn from the artisans and ruined petty bourgeoisie was led by Jacques Hebert. The Commune demanded the trial of the king and as a result of this he was executed January 21, 1793.

During 1793 the Girondins and Jacobins battled round the following issues:

(1) should feudal dues be abolished without compensation?

(2) that the price of basic items be fixed: bread, for example.

(3) that taxation for the rich be increased.

(4) that there be a political dictatorship to defend the revolution.

The Girondins opposed all these measures and began increasing counter-revolutionary activity. Their generals at the front resorted to treachery, they sought to dissolve the Convention and arrest the leading Jacobins, Marat and Hebert, but defeats at the front began their undoing. The Jacobins, uniting with the Commune of the Paris people, succeeded in bringing down the Girondins in May 1793, most of whom were arrested and subsequently executed.

The Jacobins were now the majority in the Convention. Robespierre was able to have the following passed in June 1793.

(1) the property of nobles who had fled was divided into small lots and sold on easy terms, as was the property of the communes.

(2) all feudal dues and payments were abolished without compensation.

The Jacobins voted a liberal and popularly endorsed constitution, which included manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. They introduced the metric system, free education out of church control, and accepted that society should provide work for those who could work and support for those who could not. The constitution was suspended while the revolution was in danger and France was placed under a dictatorship of a Committee of Public Safety.

In order to conduct the war the committee resorted to forced loans, grain prices were fixed, pensions for the unemployed and the aged were introduced, maximums were fixed on salaries and many necessaries. Overall control over the whole of French production was established. This economic terror rested upon the political terror. In spite of all its faults, the committee’s program of requisitions and economic control was largely successful.

In October 1793 the great political trials began. The queen, Girondins and supporters of the nobility were executed in their thousands both in Paris and in the provinces by a new machine devised by one Dr Guilotine. Revolutionary terror saved the revolution. By summer 1794 the invading armies had been repulsed and Girondin revolts suppressed.

During 1794 factional struggles had been developing within the Jacobin party. This was inevitable: the petty bourgeois Jacobins had saved the bourgeois revolution from feudal reaction only now to retard its development: its theories limited the scope of capitalist accumulation by its ideas of equality, which in the economics of the day had no chance of success. The peasants, secure on their land, were no longer interested in continuing the revolution. Speculation in supplies to the army had created a new rich. The Jacobins had lost the basis of their support and the way was open for the return of the big bourgeoisie. The right wing of the Jacobins, led by Danton, wanted an end to the dictatorship in order to clear the way for capitalist development. They were supported by the Girondins, who urged them to seize power from Robespierre in the name of safety for property. Robespierre had them arrested and executed in April 1794. The centre, dominated by Robespierre, was supported by the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie. It advocated continued dictatorship and a society of small property holders. This ignored what had happened since 1789, particularly in industry, which was developing rapidly. The left wing led by Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, Hebert and Francois-Noel Babeuf, were supported by ruined shopkeepers and handicraft men. They opposed private property in land: “the land belongs to nobody”. They opposed inheritance and sought equal opportunity. They wrote: “We suggest to the rich that they submit voluntarily to the demands of justice and generously give their surplus to the people” … Utopian certainly, and far too advanced for the reality of 1794, but we have here a real link with the modern working class. They attempted an unsuccessful insurrection without any social program correctly formulated and merely advocated continuation of the terror. They were charged with counter-revolution and executed by an alliance between Danton and Robespierre.

The growth of bourgeois society was now hindered by the social experiments of the petty bourgeoisie. Robespierre was forced to concentrate more and more power in his hands as his base of support fell away. In July 1794, Robespierre was arrested and despite an attempted uprising by the commune, which was crushed, he was executed.

From 1795-99 France was ruled by a Directory. It was a France now quite different to the old regime. The peasant was now an enemy of counter-revolution but also of revolution. With crafts and monopolies abolished, in their place stood an army of small proprietors demanding protection from the nobility and the radicals. The town workers’ position grew worse and the Directory faced agitation from Royalists and Jacobins. The war changed from defence of the French revolution to exploitation of conquered territories in the interests of French capitalism. At first the French armies were welcomed as liberators by the peoples of the neighbouring feudal states, but this gradually changed to opposition. In these circumstances of fluctuating government power the Directory turned to the army when it was necessary to crush a Royalist or Jacobin insurrection.

This situation has been repeated several times in history and is known as Bonapartism, after Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1799 carried through a coup d’etat to establish a strong bourgeois government. The bourgeoisie was prepared to abdicate its own direct political rule in exchange for strong rule enabling them to pursue their interests unhindered both within France and upon the continent of Europe. Napoleon dominated European politics until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Even so, feudalism in France was gone for ever.