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by T.S.Tsonchev


The Montreal Review, November 2010



This essay aims to give a very short answer to the question of the origins of revolution and in particular of the role of the autocratic regime in the revolutionary change in France in 1789. The main argument here is against the popular and superficial opinion that the old regimes play no role in the revolutionary process.

If we do not understand how revolutions happen we will never be able to predict when a revolutionary situation has ripened ( an insight that has often been reserved for political opportunists like Lenin and other revolutionaries with autocratic mentality) and we will always be surprised when we see an authoritarian or totalitarian monolith collapsing. If the Western democracies knew the origins of the revolutionary change to freedom, they would not play the role of "armed missionaries," to use Robespierre's memorable phrase, and export "democracy" as it happened in the recent years in Iraq 1, and the free world would watch with a more realistic eye the events in North Korea, Iran and China.

The main argument in this essay is that the revolution is never successful without a preliminary loosening of the authoritarian (or totalitarian) grip. The successful change towards freedom is always preceded by a deep process of denial of the status quo existing not only among the masses, but also among the ruling elites. This was the case of the French Revolution in 1789, of the anti-communist revolutions in 1987 in Eastern Europe and in certain extent of the Russian Revolutions in 1905 and 1917.

The lack of widespread feeling 2 in an authoritarian state that the political order must be reformed somehow is a clear sign that an occasional unrest against the regime will not lead to a revolutionary change. This explains why the European monarchies in 1789 did not take seriously the events in France. Similarly, few foreign observers expected success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In the second half of the eighteenth century, most of the European monarchies and aristocratic city-states had experience with peasant and burgers riots. Nearly all, at one point of their history, had to deal with the so-called "aristocratic reaction", and they were seeing the French Revolution as a temporary illness that eventually will make the monarchy stronger, immune from future disturbances. Even in France, the early reformers and revolutionary leaders such as Comte de Mirabeau shared this opinion. Mirabeau believed that the initiated reforms in 1789 would lead to a stronger French state and monarchy, based on fair foundations. He, like many of his contemporaries, did not realise that the Revolution had started years before 1789; it was never a controlled process, but a spontaneous result of the decades of absolutist rule without legitimate authority in the eyes of the majority of Frenchmen.

In French society, on the eve of the Revolution, there was a widespread opposition to the existing political, social, and institutional order; nobody was content with the way the monarchical state machine was functioning - neither the monarch, nor the nobles, nor the bourgeoisie and the peasants. This psychological environment of hostility to the existing institutional order was not so obvious in Austria, Prussia and other monarchies on the Continent, 3 and because of that, they did not understand it properly. They did not assess its potential to engulf Europe in flames. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Austria, Prussia and Poland (and other European states) had troubles and were forced to make reforms, but the general population, the "lower" classes, did not emancipate as it happened in France. In addition, in places like Poland, where the events could lead to a revolution like that in France, the revolutionary change was stifled by foreign intervention. Thanks to the size of France and thanks to the belief of the European monarchs that the French crown would not lose control completely, the French Revolution was saved from foreign intervention at least during its critical initial phases. Of course, another factor explaining the initial passivity of the European monarchies is that they regarded the disturbances in France as beneficial for them. As it was mentioned, they did not see the revolutionary processes as an "ecumenical event," to use Hobsbawm's terminology, 4 as an event with spiritual character and power, "broadcasting a gospel" as Tocqueville said in his "The Old Regime and the French Revolution ". 5

The French Revolution was not the first revolution in history, but it was the first of its kind. It ushered a profound political and social change that happened in the conservative social and political environment of Europe. We cannot compare its successes and its outcomes with other revolutions such as, for example, the American Revolution (1776) or the English Revolution (1640 - 1660). Because the former had the advantage of "wilderness," and the latter dealt with a weaker monarch, its rebelling elites did not lose the connection to the "ancient" freedoms.

The French Revolution is an interesting case because it marks the beginning of a new political epoch in Europe and this fact somehow obscures the truth about its origins. It is very easy for us to conclude that revolution means two basic things: change from old to new and liberation of the masses from oppression. These two conclusions lead naturally to a third one -- that the revolution is a process of break up, of discontinuation, of new beginning, where the old plays no part and has no share in the pantheon of human progress. I do not agree with this interpretation. I see continuity, where the conservative powers are equally willing to accept change, and because of that, are ready to permit (or accept) some success of the progressing powers' cause. Yet it is true that in a revolutionary situation, both conservatives and progressives do not know to where they are excatly heading, and the chain of events follows its own logic that is spontaneous, but not without discernable causes.

The French Revolution started years before 1789. 6 I see two contra-arguments to this preposition - one strong and one weak. The strong argument, which is mostly an argument over what we call Revolution, is that the monarchy stopped to exist in 1793 and this was not due to the actions of the "reactionary" forces. The National Assembly in 1789, the "Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen," the Constitution of 1791, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790, the Constitution of the Year One (1793) were not products of the will of the Old Regime. The critic would say that the Revolution is the change. It is not the unintentional preparation for it. However, my point is against the dangers of the obvious. The knowledge of the fact that the political liberals and radicals carried on the Revolution should not lead to disqualification of the role of the Old Regime, hence the obvious should not be an obstacle for us to go deeper into the origin of things.

The second argument is that found in the Marxist historiography. It interprets the Revolution through the simple and convenient prism of class struggle, through theoretically outlined historical process. 7 Because Marxism manifests itself as an ideology of progress and revolution, it is naturally conservative, impatient to the critics of Marxist orthodoxy and to the alternative views. The existence of class struggle of the bourgeoisie against the forces of feudalism is unlikely. In the second half of the eighteenth century, there were nether strong feudal structures and nobility in France, nor a differentiated and organized bourgeoisie, nor a strong monarchy. The Third Estate became conscious of its influence and common interest only when Louis XVI convoked the Estates-General in May 1789. 8 In the eve of the Revolution, the feudal structures were empty; they had started to crumble under Henry IV, Louis XIII and Richelieu and were almost completely eliminated by Louis XIV and his minister Colbert.

In the most part of the eighteenth century, the monarchy was the vehicle of progress and modernization in France. The feudalism had been destroyed by the centralized, bureaucratic state that Louis XIV built with the support of his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The monarch, its Council and the state Intendants governed the French state. It was managed through sophisticated bureaucratic structures that did not rely on feudal practices. This made France de facto non-feudal state before the "explicit" (de jure) abandoning of feudalism with the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Constitution of 1790.

Yet the Declaration and the Constitution were not without a reason, and here is the interesting part. The Revolution was triggered by something more subtle. Years before 1789, the monarchy was searching for ways to get rid of the feudal practices and was unable to find solution. The crown needed money for the government of the state, but the existing feudal practices did not admit full control over the recourses - the nobles and the clergy were excluded from taxation and had a chunk of the national wealth with the tithes and other seigniorial duties and privileges. 9 The monarchy did not have the legitimate means to reform the system. It did not have a blueprint for reform affecting the existence of century old traditions. It did not have landmarks to follow, although it had at its disposal philosophers and educated advisers such as Turgot and the other ministers in charge of the French finances and government. The reforms that the monarchy was initiating were chaotic and partial. Instead to improve the situation, they led to bureaucratic confusion, rising tensions and psychological environment of widespread dissatisfaction. The peasants learned to despise the weakened aristocracy feeling its ungrounded and indefensible claims for privileges. The nobles had contradictions among themselves - the lesser nobles had no access to the lucrative bureaucratic offices reserved for the higher nobility and the upper-bourgeoisie. In the cities, the population despised the parlements that were corrupted and in the hands of rich families. The bourgeoisie was against the feudal privileges and the clergy was hated not because of the Christian idea, as Tocqueville rightly observes, but because it was "a landed proprietor," a part of the "unproductive" social sector.

It should be noted that the social and political tensions preceding the Revolution were reinforced by widely circulating pamphlets and philosophical writings proclaiming new social ideas and alternative political constitutions. French people, in contrast to their British counterparts, had lost their touch with the old institutions of assembling such as the Estates General (they were convoked for last time in 1614). The monarchical centralization undermined feudalism, but along with it, it deprived the nobility of participation in government, and so it destroyed the political means through which reform could be made on a legitimate basis, through relative consensus and participation. Eventually, in the 1780s, the monarchy matured for the idea that consensus is needed for removing the last remnants of feodal order. Louis XVI convoked the Estates General, but when this happened the monarchical absolutism itself had no more authority. The idea of constitutional monarchy was much more appealing to French people: the nobility would accept the abolition of the feudal privileges, but only if it could get access to power; the bourgeoisie would be treated as equal and included in government; and the peasants would be liberated from unjust duties and other feudal chains.

There is one fact that deserves a special attention: the revolutions happen in conservative environments, in which the true culture of freedom is not cultivated. A democracy cannot experience a revolution, because it is a free system of clashing and balancing interests, and people in a democracy have knowledge of both the virtues and the limits of freedom. In the 1780s, France was an old established absolute monarchy. Hence, the expectations of the French people for a new, fairer social and political order were based on intellectual abstractions, not on true political experience. 10 In this, I see the blessing and the curse not only of the French Revolution, but also of the revolutions in general. Blessing, because the lack of political experience expands the horizons of reality, it is the true motor of progress. The abstract ideas, our dreams make us audacious, able to do miracles. And a curse, because the material world has limits that do not correspond to the limitless world of our imaginations. The French Revolution reached its limits with the regime of Terror. The revolutionary terror provoked and reinforced the conservative reaction. What would happen with France if its political change stayed under the principles of the Constitution of 1790? We do not know.

In the 1780s, the French population was wealthier than in the 1740s, but it was more emancipated and impatient, its expectations were much higher than the realities permitted. The French peasants were freer and wealthier than their counterparts in Europe were. The French economy was growing faster than the British one, the government was building roads and facilities and trade was booming. Despite the progress and modernization, the shadowy old world of class privileges still existed and did not permit the advent of one legitimate order. When in 1786 the Controller-General Charles-Alexandre de Calonne announced that France must change its taxation system reforming the domain of old privileges and rights to cover the state deficits, it was a clear sign that the Crown had decided to take the dangerous road of change. 11

The French Revolution started not because of an aristocratic revolt. Nor was it a simple result of the acts of an emancipated bourgeoisie or of class struggle, or of deep economic crisis. 12 It was a result of the ambition of the autocratic regime in Versailles to expand and legitimize its power, abolishing the old feudal institutions in order to open the space for a new system of central government, more efficient and durable. The reform did not succeed because of the character of authoritarian power and rule. The authoritarian regimes do not make reforms through asking for peoples' consent. When they start to do this, they actually open the gates to revolution.




1 The Western strategy during the First Gulf War was based on the permission that the population will revolt against Saddam Hussein's regime and the war will create internal conditions for regime change. These expectations proved wrong. During the second war in Iraq, the U.S.-British strategy was again wrong. Washington and London decided to remove the regime without the help of the population, but missed the fact that Iraqi society has no democratic traditions; it did not have even an original philosophy of liberation like the Russian Socialists who had the Marxism or Frenchmen who had the philosophers of Enlightenment.

2 I intentionally use the word "feeling" as opposed to "rational understanding"

3 Despite the fact that all monarchies had to do reforms to keep their regimes stable.

4 See Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962)

5 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and French Revolution (Doubleday Anchor books, 1955) p. 11

6 Perhaps this opinion is influenced by my personal experience and analysis of what happened in Eastern Europe five or six years before 1989 (Gorbachev's Perestroika and Glasnost, the influence of the television and radio, the ideological weakness of the communist regime felt equally by the people and the ruling nomenclature). Perhaps it is wrong, because I make the "mistake" to associate one period in history to which I have an emotional attachment with another period that happened more than 200 years ago. But who can suppress his or her experience when evaluates human actions? Consciousness of our biases make us if not completely right interpreters, at least honest one, tolerant and in the same time critical to the opinion of others.

7 In " The Coming of the French Revolution " George Lefebvre argues that in 1789 the bourgeoisie took over the power of landed proprietors. He argues that the Revolution ceased the rule of the aristocracy in France. According to Lefebvre in 1788, the aristocracy expected to return in government (which is a contradiction to the argument that it had power) through re-establishing of Estates General and this expectation awaked the bourgeoisie. Lefebvre's interpretation was dismissed by Alfred Cobban (see his lecture "The Myth of the French Revolution "), who argued that at the time of the Revolution there was no feudalism, there were no also capitalists, in the Estates-General in 1789 only 13 percent of the bourgeois deputies came from the world of commerce.

8 George V. Taylor (see Noncapitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution in The American Historical Review, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Jan., 1967), pp. 469-496 ) argued that in 1789 the bourgeoisie was not united, politically engaged and conscious about its "class" interests. Also, along with Francois Furet, he argued that bourgeoisie and aristocracy were actually members of one class with similar interest. Doyle does not agree with this argument (in his Origins of the French Revolution) on the basis that the consequent conflict between them shows the opposite.

9 Tocqueville ("The Old Regime and the French Revolution") and Francois Furet ("Interpreting the French Revolution") argue that the seigniorial duties were not burdening for the peasantry as privileges such as hunting and the tithe.

10 The so-called "post-revisionist historiography" puts public opinion as decisive factor for the beginning of the Revolution.

11 Some historians argue that the financial minister Necker, back in office in 1788, opened the floodgates to Revolution by conceding double representation for the Third Estate in the Estates-General.

12 The financial crisis of the 1780s facilitated the processes toward a change, but it is not the "root" cause for the Revolution.



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