Introduction upheaval of the French Revolution, there are



The French Revolution is the one
of many revolutionary events in the history that are often discussed. The
debate over this incident has continued for two hundred years. It has an
important impact on the modern world. In the twentieth century, it is full of
sectarian opinions on the controversy of origins of the revolution. The most
influential one is Marxism. However, until the mid of 1950s that it was criticized by British and
American historians.
The essay will demonstrate
the French Revolution based on the content of the video and illustrate how they
complement each other in support of their position with the scholarly journal

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Background of the French Revolution


According to the video clip, during the upheaval of the
French Revolution, there are a couple of questions challenged the entire nation
such as what rights people have and where they come from, who gets to make
decisions for others and on what authority, and how we can organize society to
meet people’s needs. By the end of 18th century, Europe had
undergone a profound intellectual and cultural changes, known as the
Enlightenment. Philosophers and artists have traditionally and religiously
promoted reason and human freedom. At that time, France was one of the largest
and richest countries in Europe and still governed by an ancient regime of
three rigid social classes called Estates. Estates were divided into the First
(the Catholic clergies), Second (the nobles) and Third (middle class merchants
and craftsmen) Estates.


The monarch King Louis XVI granted special privileges to the
First and Second Estates with his divine right. However, over 20 million
peasants, had less power and they were the only ones who paid taxes, not just
to the king, but to the other Estates as well. In poor harvest years, taxation
could leave peasants with almost nothing while the king and aristocrats lived
lavishly on their extracted wealth. Moreover, as France sank into debt due to
its support of the American Revolution and its long-term war with United
Kingdom, the king thought that change was needed. King Louis appointed finance
minister, who promoted tax reforms and won public support by openly publishing
the government’s finances, but the king’s advisors strongly oppose these
initiatives. Consequently, the first time in 175 years the king convened an assembly
of three representatives. Although the Third Estate represented 98% of the
French population, it is unfair that it votes was equal to each of the other
Estates. Unsurprisingly, the upper classes favored keeping their privileges. The
Third Estate realized that they couldn’t get fair representation, so that they
broke off and declared itself as the National Assembly. Moreover, they drafted
a new constitution with or without the other Estates. Then, King Louis dismissed
his popular minister. In response, thousands of outraged Parisians joined with
sympathetic soldiers to storm the Bastille prison that was a symbol of royal
power and a large storehouse of weapons. The French Revolution had begun and rebellion
spread throughout the country, the feudal system was ultimately abolished. All
in all, the Revolution saw three constitutions and five governments within ten
years, followed by decades alternating between monarchy and revolt before the
next Republic formed in 1871.


The orthodox theory of the French Revolution


According to Feudalism and the French Revolution, the French Revolution has long been regarded as a
bourgeois revolution against the feudal system. The French historian Georges
Lefebvre proposed a typical Marxist framework to explain the nature and origin
of the French Revolution. This interpretation is concise and convincing in the
literature of the French revolution. Besides, it had supreme and profound
influence on post-war British and American scholars on the history of the
French Revolution.


Lefebvre’s basic thesis is that the
French Revolution was essentially a bourgeois revolution which origins were in
fact the result of the rise of the bourgeoisie. French society is a feudal
society which the aristocracy monopolized its social and political status by
owning the wealth of the land, even formed a closed class. With the growth of
industry and commerce, a new type of wealth has emerged in European society
that was the bourgeoisie. The class was getting stronger and stronger than the
feudal class. Nevertheless, the political structure of the old society has not
been adjusted to reflect the new economic reality. Although the aristocracy has
gradually fallen through the ranks, the emerging bourgeoisie has economic
strength but no social and political status. The bourgeoisie cannot endure such
social repression and unfair policies for a long time. The bourgeois-oriented
society, especially of industrial development and personal interests, has
replaced the one that has not changed its basic anatomy since the Middle Ages.
The old regime was characterized by limited commercial and industrial
expansion, commercial inertia, exclusive aristocracy, exploited peasants, and
an increasingly active but socially excluded middle class. This old society was
considered “feudal” and allowed the continuation of traditional genetic laws
and social inequalities while preserving the integrity of the land ownership
system and preventing major changes in the pattern of farming and land tenure. According to the orthodox position, the
French Revolution constituted an explosion resulting from the sudden release of
deep-seated middle-class resentment against the restrictive feudal regime of
economy and society. Additionally, they think
that the propose of the French Revolution is that breaking the old social distinction
and striving for its social status. In short, Lefebvre believed that the French
Revolution was a “class struggle” between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, and
the bourgeoisie won and rose to the midst of the new order. Lefebvre’s
interpretation of Marxism was widely accepted by scholars, it seemed to be the
orthodoxy of the French Revolution.



of the French Revolution


However, the orthodox thesis of the origins of the French Revolution was
challenged, According to The French Revolution and “Revisionism”, the
attack on this venerable position is most closely associated with the name of Alfred Cobban. He after having taught modern French history for several
years in the University of London, he inaugurated his chair in modern French
history with a public lecture on the provocative title of “The Myth of the
French Revolution.” In this lecture, he presented the “Revolution of 1789” as a
fiction and put into question the “bourgeois” and “anti-feudal” character of
the event.1


Alfred Cobban
questioned the argument of Lefebvre, the so-called French Revolution was the
validity of “the replacement of the feudal system by the capitalist order.” He
thinks that this view is not consistent with the historical facts and is merely
a “myth.” In his point, “feudal system” refers to a set of aristocratic social
and political systems based on land ownership. Cobban convinces that this
meaning of the feudal system has long disappeared before the period of the
revolutionary France. On the one hand, the French feudal aristocrats had not
monopolized the land because a long period of sale and resale, about a third of
the aristocratic land had already flowed into civilians; on the other hand,
they virtually no longer ruled France because French aristocrats have been
forced to leave politics since King Louis XIV ruled France. Therefore, it is
not true that the so-called French revolution overthrew the “feudal system.”
Cobban pointed out that during the French Revolution, the abolition of the
“feudal system” by the National Assembly actually meant “seigniorial rights” such
as sovereignty, hunting rights, mills, wineries and ovens and so on. The
abolition of these rights does not mean the abolition of the feudal system. Alfred Cobban further
reviewed the Lefebvre’s theory of bourgeois revolution. Lefebvre argues that
the French Revolution originated in the rise of the bourgeoisie, while the
so-called “rising bourgeoisie” refers to the great merchants, industrialists,
financiers and specialized professionals and so on, who the characters of the
development of business. However, Cobban’s statistical analysis of the
background of the representatives of the French National Assembly has found
that the French Revolution did not actually dominate the wealthy bourgeoisie
but a group of middle-lower bourgeoisie mainly composed of bureaucrats, lawyers
and professionals.

Therefore, Alfred Cobban revised
Lefebvre’s view that the middle and lower bourgeoisie what the main force of
the French Revolution. Here, although Cobban remanded Lefebvre’s point of view, he
failed to deny its basic explanation structure: the French Revolution
originated from the “class struggle” between the aristocracy and the

He just
simply replaced Lefebvre’s “rising bourgeoisie” with what he called the “declining
bourgeoisie.” However, after the mid of 1960s, a new generation of British and
American historians continued to examine Lefebvre’s views from different angles
with rigorous research. Their efforts gradually shake the
explanation structure of the “class struggle” of the Marxism. For example,
George Taylor points out that scholars are used to separating the French
society under the old order into two opposing classes, the aristocrats and the
bourgeoisie, and hold that the former upholds the inherent feudal order while
the latter represents emerging capitalism. In his opinion, this dichotomy is
too simple and does not reflect the reality of French social classes. He also
found that French aristocrats were not completely conservative and were in fact
very entrepreneurial and actively involved in investment activities. In other
words, the phenomenon of capitalism or bourgeoisification arose in the French
aristocracy. By contrast, after becoming wealthy, the bourgeoisie likes to
invest its wealth in “non-capitalist wealth” such as land, government
bonds and public debt, and imitates the aristocratic way of life. It hopes to
one day rank among the ranks of the aristocracy. In other words, the French bourgeoisie
is also aristocratic or feudalized. Therefore, the actual situation is that the
French capitalism and the feudal order are intertwined, it is not in keeping
with the historical facts that they should be absolutely painted and put on the
opposite side. Taylor mainly prove that the French bourgeoisie and the
aristocrat class in the eighteenth century tended to converge rather than move
toward opposites. This standpoint disrupts the Marxism of “class struggle” interpretation
of the structure because there is no class antagonism, naturally there is no
class struggle.


Furthermore, George Taylor tried to come up with a new explanation that the French
Revolution was caused by political factors. He thinks that the reasons that the
revolution took place in France and the bourgeoisie opposed the aristocrats
during the revolution are the financial problems in the latter part of the old
regime and the political crisis caused by this problem. Therefore, by its very
nature, the French Revolution is “a political revolution with some social
consequences; it is not the political consequence of a social revolution.”




In the late
nineteenth century, the study of the French Revolution was almost monopolized
by the orthodox theory. Until the late twentieth century, the term “revisionism”
of speaking of the Revolution appeared, but it failed to deny Marxism of basic explanation
structure. It is probably that there will be more new
interpretations for the French Revolution in the future.


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