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Manual The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution

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I too have been influenced by the turn from social to intellectual interpretations of the French Revolution. I fully accept the revisionist critique of Lefebvre and Soboul and am convinced that the revolution cannot be understood apart from the language and conceptual vocabulary of the revolutionaries. For this reason I will illustrate some of the good points made in the essays by Sewell, along with those by Colin Jones, Timothy Tackett and John Markoff, by restating what I believe is the correct general understanding of the revolution.

The need to do this is further underlined by a weakness in the orthodox tradition, as exemplified here by Soboul. All the historians in this tradition drew on what they believed was some version of Marxism. Unfortunately it was really Stalinism. This meant a tendency towards a mechanical, deterministic approach. At times reading some of their work gives the impression that all was pre-ordained, that history inevitably progresses and that, at the appointed hour, a revolutionary bourgeoisie with a fully formed consciousness of what it is fighting for springs up and seizes power.

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Too little room is left for conscious human intervention in making history. Not enough attention is paid to the fact that the consciousness of those engaged in the revolution developed in response to a crisis over which they had little direct control-and then went on developing in response to conflict and battles. Fortunately Lefebvre, Soboul and others were good enough historians not to be totally derailed by these influences. Their work, especially on the movements from below, pulled in the opposite direction. Yet there is a tension between the real history and the distorted framework within which they tried to locate it.


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Another weakness was a tendency to overplay the 'unity of the Third Estate' against the old order in the revolution. Again the real history uncovered all the conflicts and divisions wonderfully. The limitations on different movements and how they affected the revolution were brought out. Yet this sat in a framework which stressed republican unity to an unwarranted degree. Of course it takes no leap of imagination to see how such an idea of an all-class alliance of the Third Estate against the old order fitted Stalinist popular front politics. The main revisionist argument is that the revolution had no connection with the development of capitalism.

Of course the development of capitalism and bourgeois revolutions are not the same thing. Capitalism had been developing long before the revolution. Reading the revisionists you could believe that nothing much was changing in France in the years before the revolution. They ignore the enormous social and economic changes that were going on in pre-revolutionary France. An indication of the scale of these changes can be given in a few figures. French trade grew by percent in the 60 years before the revolution, iron production by percent and coal by percent.

There is much more to it than that-but such figures are one reflection of a pace of change that seemed amazingly rapid to people at the time. One could add to the list the enormous transformations in agriculture in at least some areas of France, the development of transport links such as canals, the growth of ports and much more. Such economic developments did not take place in a vacuum. They involved new relations between people, whole new ways of life, new classes-in short, the development of capitalism.

And certainly capitalism also continued to develop after the revolution. The revolution itself, then, did not give birth to capitalism.


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Rather, it was a fight over political power and the nature and structure of the state. But the reason for that fight and the shape it took cannot be understood unless the way changes in society produced tensions within the existing state and political structures is grasped. And the state which emerged from the revolution was one which was refashioned in such a way as to further the development of capitalism-and the class which led the revolution, fashioned that new state and benefited from the new structures was the bourgeoisie.

As soon as one does, one cannot help but be struck by the extent to which it furthered the interests of the bourgeois. At both a national and a local level it was they who benefited most from the new political arrangements'. Revisionists argue that those who led the revolution and dominated the revolutionary assemblies were in fact often liberal professionals-lawyers and the like. Yet as Colin Jones points out, 'If one assumes that the liberal professionals who made up such an important constitutive part of the assemblies are socially autonomous from the economic bourgeoisie, then reforms as classically capitalist in character as the formation of a national market, the abolition of guilds, the introduction of uniform weights and measures, the removal of seigneurial excrescences, the redefinition of property rights come to be seen as the product of conspiracy, accident or hidden hand'.

Revisionists like Furet, following earlier writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, make much of the fact that the revolution 'completed' a process of centralisation and 'modernisation' of the French state that was already under way before the revolution. This is true, and the state that resulted was crucial in creating the conditions for the 19th century flowering of capitalism and industrialisation of France.

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But they assume that this process could, and in reality they mean should, have been carried through without any violent upheaval or revolution. There is no doubt the French monarchy did push for reforms but, as I will argue below, the path of reform was repeatedly blocked and the result was a revolutionary crisis.

Only through the upheaval of the revolution was the refashioning of the state carried through. Of course history may have turned out differently, but we are seeking to explain what did in fact happen, not what later opponents of all radical social change would like to have happened. The revisionists are right to say the bourgeoisie in France were often landowners, and that both nobles and the bourgeois were part of the 'ruling elite'. This is true in the sense that both bourgeois and nobles exploited the mass of the population. But to leap from that to the conclusion that there were no differences between the various elements of the exploiting classes is wrong.

It reduces history to a simple tale of a crude division between one class, the exploiters, and another, the exploited. One will not get very far with such an approach in understanding any period of history. In the years before the revolution in France there was a real growth in wealth based on commerce, manufacture and trade. And all landowners, noble or bourgeois, were increasingly producing for the market.

Of course this all took place within the existing structures of society-how could it do otherwise? A landowner could be involved in commercial grain production, for instance, yet still be involved, directly or indirectly, in exploiting the range of feudal dues and privileges, internal tolls, taxes, monopolies and so on, to extract surplus rather than accumulating through investment in technical improvements. The same is true of the non-landowning bourgeois. In seeking to increase their wealth and position within society they would naturally attempt to exploit the existing structures in whatever way possible.

However, significant elements of the bourgeoisie were hindered by the privileges and restrictions imposed on them by those very structures.

The Ancien Régime and the Revolution

And many bourgeois, hit by noble monopolies, internal tolls, unequal tax burdens and so on, had a very material interest in the destruction of these structures. Above all, the idea that all the bourgeoisie were integrated within a single ruling elite alongside the nobility is simply false. Colin Jones quotes research which demonstrates the growing commercialisation and production for the market of French society in the decades before the revolt: 'The main intermediaries and beneficiaries of this growing commercialisation were the allegedly "traditional" [in the sense of being primarily landowners or office holders in the ancien regime] bourgeoisie.

He also points out that despite the partial integration of elements of the bourgeoisie within the old political order and the nobility, the vast bulk of the bourgeoisie remained excluded. There were some , nobles in France in Yet, 'The size of the bourgeoisie grew over the century from , or , individuals in to perhaps 2. The new revisionist orthodoxy that bourgeoisie and nobility were somehow identical in economic terms thus seems rather wide of the mark'.

The revisionists, despite their intentions, cannot wish away the existence of real tensions among those they prefer to call the 'elite', including both the bourgeoisie and nobility.

The French Revolution: Marxism versus revisionism

So Colin Lucas, for instance, admits 'the existence of very real antagonisms, divisions and antagonisms within this elite'. To give one example, Emmanuel Sieyes wrote a famous pamphlet at the time of the revolution, 'What is the Third Estate? A spirit of fellowship leads the nobles to favour one another in everything over the rest of the nation. Their usurpation is complete, they truly reign. This interpretation of the Revolution not only prioritised the efforts of the poorest classes—the sans-culottes —but also vindicated the importance of the ideals of for present-day France.

For Furet, then, the Revolution was, at bottom, a liberal reform movement, while the period after was a detour from the path of enlightened moderation. The book was castigated by social historians as ahistorical and anti-French, and Furet was denounced for succumbing to the ideological tensions of the Cold War. By this time Furet had rejected his earlier two-part account of the Revolution Enlightenment moderation followed by Terror. Now he argued that the Terror was inseparable from This vocabulary carried within it, Furet argued, the seeds of the demagoguery to come.

His revisionist views had successfully reoriented studies of the Revolution away from social history towards cultural and intellectual history. Furet was a media darling—on air he simply out-charmed his opponents, much to their irritation. Anderson argued that the revival of liberal themes in France in the mids had less to do with the power of ideas than with an organisational strategy which relied on the media and bodies like the Saint-Simon Foundation.

Why look to France when it no longer offers political and social alternatives to Anglo-American political thought? Christofferson is simply disguising his political disagreements with Furet with academic arguments. Prochasson sees this interpretation as too reductive and psychological.

Furet wanted the left to accept that the market economy and capitalism were here to stay. But this did not mean abandoning the Revolution entirely. Even if utopia was no longer possible, the Revolution contained elements that remained alive, not least the Enlightenment tradition of moderate reform. But the battle over Furet is not yet won—Christofferson is currently at work on his own biography of him. These are sensitive questions, and they will not go away. Yet it would be a mistake to lose faith entirely. Perry Anderson, for instance, has recently returned to the subject of France , with a new message: Stop concentrating on Paris and look instead on smaller cities, such as Nantes, which are home to some of the finest intellectual and cultural life that Europe has to offer.

Anderson, it seems, has made his peace with France by giving up on Paris. Forgotten password? A generation later this powerful historical intervention is n Alfred Cobban's Social Interpretation of the French Revolution is one of the acknowledged classics of postwar historiography. A generation later this powerful historical intervention is now reissued with a new introduction by the distinguished scholar Gwynne Lewis.

It provides students with both a context for Cobban's arguments, and assesses the course of Revolutionary studies in the wake of The Social Interpretation. Get A Copy. Hardcover , pages. More Details Original Title. Other Editions 4. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution , please sign up.

Lists with This Book. Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. More filters. Sort order. Nov 13, Jonathan rated it really liked it Shelves: 18th-century-france , academic-reading-and-research.

The French Revolution - OverSimplified (Part 1)

The founding document of French Revolution revisionism. It's a set of essays, not a research project, but these are interesting essays. What is particularly striking is that Cobban calls not for a non-social interpretation, but for a new social interpretation; he actually accuses Marxist historians of trying to pass off political categories as social categories. He argues that the aristocracy and the sans-culottes, for example, were functioning as political interests rather as social classes dur The founding document of French Revolution revisionism.

He argues that the aristocracy and the sans-culottes, for example, were functioning as political interests rather as social classes during the Revolution. Socially, he claims, the Revolution was not a victory for a nonexistent industrial bourgeoisie, but it was a victory for a landowning class that cut across the old estates. It is amusing to contrast Cobban's approach with that of the postrevisionists; in some respects, Cobban has more in common with the Marxists than with the Furetians.

Jun 06, Eduardo Paez rated it it was amazing. Completely changed my understanding of the French Revolution. It was a revolution against the evolution of capitalism where it was not the poor against the rich but instead the new meritocratic middle and upper class taking the reins of power against the nobles.

The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution by Alfred Cobban – Book Review

Only in the most extreme parts of the revolution were reforms made for the poor such as laws that redistributed large land tracts in the countryside. Yet, even these did not come into effect because the rich landowners held out long enou Completely changed my understanding of the French Revolution. Yet, even these did not come into effect because the rich landowners held out long enough to reverse these proposals.

In the end, there was only a change in power from aristocrats to meritocrats. The new meritocrats were harsher than the aristocrats because at least the meritocrats were marked by traditions and customs which showed much grace to the poor. We have an eerie similarity in the transfer of power that took place in the United States. Those who took power show contempt more for the poor than there has ever been because these meritocrats have no commitment to the American community or God.

Nor do they follow the customs and traditions of their forefathers which shows grace for the poor in every sense. Noblesse oblige died with the French Revolution and it has already died in the United States too in a spiritual revolution that has led to economic, social, and spiritual stagnation. A great book. You will unlearn whatever positive thought you had of the French Revolution and learn that it was worse than you ever thought possible.