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Front cover of Socialist History No 33

ISBN: 978-1-85489-170-9
ISSN: 0969-4331

Origins of the French Revolution

For forty years or so the idea that the French Revolution was a bourgeois and popular revolution with deep long-term economic and social causes has been under sustained attack. Revisionist critiques which began by stressing the absence of an identifiable capitalist class before 1789 have since developed in a variety of not always compatible directions.

It has been variously argued that French economic growth in the eighteenth century was sufficiently buoyant to have modernised the ancien régime had not the revolution intervened; that the French monarchy had already embarked on a programme of political modernisation thus 'flattening out' the significance of a revolutionary rupture; that the revolution was an unprecedented political explosion rather than a social crisis arising from the social relations of the ancien régime; and, more recently that the explanation for its origins should be located in the changing intellectual and cultural discourse(s) of the late eighteenth century.

Professors McPhee, Miller, and Lewis, standing outside the revisionist and postmodernist tide, offer their assessments of some of these issues. Gwynne Lewis places the rise of the bourgeoisie in a wider intellectual and social context. He suggests that the distance between Marx's analysis of the economic origins of the Revolution is in fact not far removed from current scholarship. Stephen Miller tackles head on the argument that the French state performed a progressive function in the eighteenth century. He argues that rooted in structures inherited from the past and dependent on the support of a privileged ruling class, the French state was incapable of significant reform. Peter McPhee reminding us of the reality of social conflict suggests that while the peasants drew on history to describe their plight, they also articulated revolutionary notions of power and rights. Their collective behaviour in the insurrections of 1789 reveals a similar mix of traditional forms and revolutionary goals.

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