Sep 1, 1982

Marxist Historiography & the French Revolution

“Economic evidence does not support any sudden change in the means of production and exchange in eighteenth-century France.”

Joseph I. Shulim
Brooklyn College, CUNY

“The Continuing Controversy over the Etiology and Nature of the French Revolution.”Canadian Journal of History 16 (December 1981): 357–378.

New historiographical information requires us to objectively appraise the traditional Marxist interpretation of the etiology of the French Revolution. Marxist historians agree in viewing the causation of the Revolution as materialist: the Manifesto claims that the Revolution represented the growth of capitalism and the triumph of “bourgeoisie” since the ancien régime’s “feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed (bourgeois) productive forces.” The essential cause of the Revolution, in Marxist materialist terms, was the newly asserted power of bourgeois productive forces translating themselves into law and property. Marxists also claim that the Revolution was preceded during the century by an aristocratic reaction which reached its climax in 1787–1788, in what Mathiez called the “revolte nobiliaire.” In other words, the Revolution that followed 1788 opened the way to untrammeled capitalism by changing the juridical and political superstructure of France in favor of bourgeois class interest.

This Marxist interpretation is shown to be invalid by the research of the past several decades. Prof. Shulim presents in summary form the evidence and facts which, he claims, undermine the Marxist preconceived theory of dialectical materialism as a historical framework for the Revolution.

Economic evidence does not support any sudden change in the means of production and exchange in eighteenth-century France. Agricultural wealth predominated and there was no “Industrial Revolution” in whose wake some allegedly homogeneous bourgeois class came to power. Nor was there any homogeneous antagonist “social class” called the “nobility” which was defeated by the emergent bourgeois “class.” The heterogeneous noble order had interlocking economic interests with their alleged “class” enemies. For both “classes” proprietary wealth was the stepping stone to higher status and power. “There was, between most of the nobility and the proprietary sector of the middle classes, a continuity of investment forms and socio-economic values that made them, economically, a single group. In the relations of production they played a common role.”

Likewise, recent historical studies debunk as exaggerated myth an alleged “Aristrocratic Revolution” of 1787–1788. The nobles were not a single class, had many rivalries among their grades, and did not unite to prevent the rise of a middle class. On the contrary, the middle-class Third Estate found entry into the noble Second Estate relatively easy. “The social history of eighteenth-century France thus reveals in general not an aristocratic reaction but rather the victory of wealth.”

Shulim also critically assesses evidence of the lower classes and peasantry, a “feudal reaction,” and the nature and role of the Enlightenment. He notes that the philosophesdid not spring from a single class or social group and that the “consumers of the Enlightenment” came from every stratum of educated society. Finally, the author calls into question the alleged capitalist attitudes and motivations of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary legislators. Even some leading Marxist historians, he claims, now admit that the “bourgoisie” did not mature by 1789.