Causes of the French Revolution

David Kute

Professor Summerhill

History 191


By late 1789, with the storming of the Bastille, the French Revolution had become irrevocable (WD, pg. 204). A return to the days of the Ancien Regime was unlikely, and the Revolution’s impact on the rest of Europe was extensive. Contemporary observers, witnessing events as they unfolded and from afar, offered perspectives on the true nature of the revolution. The ideas of the Enlightenment, they suggested, had spurred a radical new ideology which eventually culminated in revolution (WD, pg. 25). This was the first attempt to ascertain the cause of the upheaval which led to a new order in France. Others followed, and by the Second World War, the orthodox interpretation of the revolution could be found in the work of French historian George Lefebvre. An avowed Marxist, Lefebvre saw the revolution in class terms, and believed the ultimate cause of the French Revolution was the rise of the bourgeoisie (WD, pg.7). This view was challenged in the postwar years, first by English historian Alfred Cobban and later by many scholars, so that in recent years, the only certainty concerning the origins of the French Revolution is that there is no consensus (WD, pg.40). I will examine how two historians deal with the origins of the French Revolution. In Origins of the French Revolution, William Doyle argues that the revolution was the consequence of successive crises confronting the French people and Revolution was the result (WD, pg. 200). Francois Fauret contends that the Revolution had political and intellectual causes in Interpreting the French Revolution. It is my contention that Fauret provides a more accurate analysis and compelling argument. This is because the approach he employs is distinctive and intriguing, and is likely to be more accurate than Doyle’s.

            Doyle argues that the French Revolution was a consequence of economic, social and political problems confronting the French people, and revolution was their response. His views are contrary to those of Marxist historians such as Lefebvre. While Marxists see history as having an inevitable pattern where the bourgeoisie play a central role (WD, pg.7), Doyle takes the opposite tack. Unlike a Marxist approach, Doyle suggests that there was no expected pattern to the French Revolution, nor was it predictable. “For the French Revolution had not been made by revolutionaries. It would be truer to say that the revolutionaries had been created by the Revolution.”(WD, pg.212) Numerous events leading up to the Revolution were not foreseeable. These included the outcome of the gathering of the Estates General, the calling up of the cahiers, and even the “haphazard way in which the principles of 1789 were formulated….” (WD, pg. 210) Thus, besides offering an interpretation of how the Revolution occurred, Doyle also provides a framework to understand the revolution that is diametrically opposed to a class based interpretation. It was impossible for class conflict to play a centrally determining role in the Revolution. Instead, the Revolution was the product of a complex blend of unpredictable events and the reactions of varying elements of the French people to new circumstances. Therefore, Doyle’s argument has two levels. Doyle offers a plausible sequence of events leading up to the Revolution based on a series of external crises which brought the old order to an end. And at the same time, he understands events as happening one after another, with no apparent order behind them other than what causes them. There was no underlying class struggle behind the Revolution, nor any inevitable rise of the bourgeoisie.

Doyle surveys the conflicting interpretations of the French Revolution, thereby providing the reader with an understanding of the complexity of the problem he is trying to solve. In Origins of the French Revolution, Doyle traces views on the causes of the French Revolution starting with the accepted orthodoxy, represented by Lefebvre and the Marxist school of interpretation. He then moves on to Cobban, who challenged the very question of a bourgeoisie and attacked the prevailing Marxist association of pre- revolutionary rights with feudalism (WD, pg.13). Further studies by historians of the Revolution shattered existing views on other elements of the French populace, such as the understandings of the nobility(WD, pg.17), which in turn was the death knell for the prevalent theories, namely the “replacement of feudalism by capitalism, or of the aristocracy by the bourgeoisie.”(WD, pg.24) Although documents exist which provide clues as to what caused the events of 1789, the reconstruction of events and the discovery of what inner workings led to subsequent ones is a potentially fruitless exercise. Granted, many archival documents dating from the period still exist. However, often the evidence can have many implications and support many arguments, as historians have shown in the dilemma concerning whether or not pre- revolutionary France was a capitalist society (WD, pg. 14). Thus, Doyle attempts to show that scholarly opinion on the causes of the French Revolution is lacking in consensus and that this is due to the complexity of the problem.

The nature of the bourgeoisie and how to define it also plays a role in Doyle’s study. This question was central to Lefebvre’s analysis, and as revisionist historians have shown, defining the bourgeoisie is a highly speculative exercise. Norman Hampson recognized the ambiguities inherent in the term bourgeoisie, and many others followed (WD, pg.15). Confounding matters is the fact that the nobility actually were more capitalist than the so called bourgeoisie themselves (WD, pg.21). Even to assume the existence of a united common class, such as within the ranks of the nobility, or bourgeoisie, is a fallacious proposition (WD, pg.21). Doyle answers the question of who the bourgeois were by stating that they were neither aristocrats nor peasants. (WD, pg. 128) He notes the bourgeois role in the Revolution and recognizes that for the first time, an educated social group examined their own role in politics (WD, pg. 138). Therefore, the bourgeois, so crucial to most studies of the Revolution partly due to the influence of Marxism on the definitive historians of the period, plays a part in Doyle’s analysis.

Numerous forces also potentially influenced the French Revolution. Different classes of French society and their roles in the Revolution represent one of these forces. Other examples of forces include the system of government, the economic crisis, the round of elections in 1788-89, and the calling of the Estates general, all of which are events or conditions which are attested in the historical record. For Doyle, these forces are interconnected yet mutually individual, and their interactions help to create the eventual Revolution. Doyle uses these forces and how they interact to explain the foundations of the Revolution.

Doyle uses historical studies and archival sources as evidence to prove his interpretation. Some examples of these sources are historical works based heavily on primary sources such as Robert Darnton’s The Memoirs of Lenoir; while others are broader historical studies such as N. Temple’s The Control and Exploitation of French Towns during the Ancien Regime, and Cobban’s The Myth of the French Revolution; and even some contemporary writings like Memoire sur les etats provinciaux(1750) and J. Necker’s A Treatise on the Administration of the Finances of France(1785). Overall, Doyle uses literally hundreds of sources. Despite the great deal of research conducted, however, there is little evidence that he seems to manufacture himself. Most of Doyle’s evidence relies heavily on the work of other historians. The problems arising from this use of evidence are many. First, it is impossible to verify the accuracy of another historian’s observations and findings. It is also more than likely that other studies exist which directly contradict them. Second, when using another historian’s work, one is removed from the process of methodology and how the historian came to his findings. Yet, often the reasons why the historian interpreted data or evidence a certain way are as important as the finding itself. Third, Doyle uses the work of historians in a jumbled, kaleidoscopic way. It seems that he is not independently going over each historian’s work and looking for what is right with each one, but instead is taking the most conventional studies and using them to create a story of what actually happened up to late 1789. Granted, to examine each work thoroughly would be a time intensive matter and a near impossible task. Yet, a study dependent on so many findings is bound to be filled with inaccuracies which could discredit the author’s very thesis.

Certain events are “facts,” yet the motives behind the central actors or the occurrence of an event and what exactly caused it is open for debate. For instance, the storming of the Bastille, the calling of the Estates General, and the collapse of the Ancien Regime prior to the Revolution, all of these were “facts” that certainly happened. These happenings Doyle never questions, and neither do most other historians of the Revolution. However, other levels of analysis, or aspects of these “facts” are less certain and more open to interpretation. To know that a Revolution occurred in 1789 is different then knowing its cause. Therefore, the role of various historical forces, as in the particular motives of each of the social classes in the Revolution, cannot be held as “facts.” For instance, there is no question that the old monarchy collapsed in August of 1788. This kind of “fact” and others of its ilk the historian of the Revolution accepts without question. It is the interpretive “fact,” where the historian makes an inference as to what really happened and why, and the nature of the occurrence, which is not a “fact.” In the case of the Old Regime’s collapse, Doyle suggests its demise was not due to opposition forces or its ill conceived policies, but rather to “its own contradictions.”(WD, pg.115) This kind of “fact” is highly subjective and depends entirely on the author’s interpretation. Thus, the kinds of “facts” Doyle deals with are of a very limited type. They provide the only certainty in analysis of the events of 1789. The rest of the story of the Revolution, which cannot be considered “fact” based, is open to interpretation. It is this gap which Doyle and other Revolutionary historians try to fill out.

Francois Furet differs from Doyle in his interpretation of the causes of the Revolution. He proposes that Alexis De Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution in L’ Ancien Regime et la Revolution is the single most important attempt to interpret the events of 1789 (FF, pg. 16). Central to De Tocqueville’s theory is the way he believed the Revolution should be judged by its outcome more than anything else (FF, pg 15). The Revolution was not an event, nor could its effect be associated with the ideas of the revolutionaries who were a part of it (FF, pg.15). It was a process of continuity, where “an administrative State ruling a society informed by an egalitarian ideology, a work largely accomplished by the monarchy before it was completed by the Jacobins and the Empire.”(FF, pg. 15) Therefore, was the Revolution really an overthrow of the existing order and a break with the past, or merely a continuation of it? This view of time, and history, is what Furet finds most compelling in De Tocqueville’s analysis. Furet carefully explains that “objective breaks” in the continuity of history are bound to contain many absurdities, especially when they encompass many levels, as social and economic critiques usually do (FF, pg.13). Any Revolution, or historical event for that matter, “must begin with a critique of the idea of revolution as experienced and perceived by its actors, and transmitted by their heirs, namely the idea that it was a radical change and the origin of a new era.”(FF, pg. 14) Therefore, a political and intellectual analysis of the Revolution, from the inside rather than outside, is more effective than an economic or social interpretation. In summary, the Revolution was the product of the most conclusive level of analysis, political and intellectual causes.

According to Furet, revolutionary historians face many potential problems in their work. First off, Furet dismisses any Marxist histories of the Revolution as being “a confused encounter between Marxism and Jacobinism, predicated upon a linear notion of human progress….”(FF, pg.13) Marxist histories do not provide viable analyses because they reflect their author’s own beliefs rather than history. The Marxist view of linear history informs their historical dialogue. Yet, in the historiography of the Revolution, other problems also loom. The French Revolution long served as a tradition for many, a myth of the beginnings of the new era, of liberalism, and the origins of the political left (FF, pg. 12). As a result of this, the history of the Revolution has been one of the last areas in the historical field to adopt the tools of the historian’s craft (FF, pg. 12). Revolutionary history has been plagued by dogma and belief passing itself off as scholarship (FF, pg.12). Another problem confronting historians of the Revolution is that there are simply too many possible levels of interpretation in the “chronology of the event.”(FF, pg.13) And, as stated above, objective interpretations using solely economic or social levels of analysis usually brim with “absurdities.” In conclusion, Revolutionary historians face many challenges in conducting genuine history.

Furet offers a breakdown of De Tocqueville’s methodology. Because Furet’s thesis is complex, I have described some aspects of his methodology above when discussing the main idea of Interpreting the French Revolution. De Tocqueville uses “ideas” to prove his thesis that the Revolution was the product of “universally held ideas.”(FF, pg.133) This is done by stressing how the aristocratic element dispersed and egalitarian trends became widespread, due in part to intellectual influences (FF, pg.138). For the most part, when reconstructing the course of the historical continuity, Tocqueville uses archival sources from the Bibilotheque Nationale and the Archives Nationales. Some of his thesis has its precedent in earlier writers (FF, pg. 139), as in the case of Guizot. The constituent element in Tocqueville’s work is a hierarchy of causes (FF, pg. 141). Two types of causal explanations appear in De Tocqueville’s writing: longstanding and general causes, and specific and recent causes (FF, pg.141). Another aspect of De Tocqueville’s methodology is how he comes to his conclusions. In determining the origin of ideological underpinnings, there is no single cause. Instead, various ideas play a role, so that an event is a result of the intellectual environment. An example of this is how De Tocqueville concludes that the civil society resulted from moral and political norms (FF, pg. 150). This aspect of De Tocqueville’s analysis, critical to how he comes to his conclusions, illustrates how he handles specific data.

Furet also sees “facts” in De Tocqueville’s work. But these “facts” are not “facts” in the normal sense of the word. Instead, they are observations and ideas of what constitutes elements of French political, economic, and social life. Therefore, because they have little grounding in genuine study of these fields, they instead belong to the world of ideas and intellectual history. For example, only the traditional aspects of class and nobility, the mores that were passed down from generation to generation, interested De Tocqueville. Other aspects concerning these social realities were inconsequential (FF, pg 155). Of course, De Tocqueville did employ a general narrative of events throughout the Revolutionary period, so “facts” in a sense other than ideas certainly are used. However, the types of “facts” De Tocqueville relies on are those of the “idea” form. Hence, “facts” for De Tocqueville are grounded in intellectual and cultural traditions.

The Revolution stemmed from human ideas for Furet, and from a combination of unforeseen circumstances for Doyle. These alternate approaches to the history of the Revolution are entirely different. In one, humans are the primary agent of historical change, while according to the other an odd combination of events and conditions was the catalyst for the climactic Revolution. Both approaches are opposite sides of the same coin, and seek to answer the question: do humans determine their own futures, or is it external forces? Each historian, it seems, has chosen one of these to be the primary explanation of historical change. In conclusion, while “the Revolution created the Revolutionaries” in Doyle’s interpretation, Furet thought the event was “the embodiment of the idea that history is shaped by human action rather than by the combination of existing institutions and forces.”(FF, pg. 25)

Furet and Doyle both recognize deficiencies in the histories carried out by Marxist historians. This is one common point both historians have. As illustrated above, Furet’s work reads like a critique of Marxist, social, and economic based histories of the Revolution. Parts of Interpreting the French Revolution mimic a satire, because Furet pokes fun at the “Jacobin” Marxists and the futility of their historical approach. Doyle does not take the opportunity to discuss Marxist histories as much as Furet, yet he also recognizes the limits of views held by Marxist historians like Lefebvre. Marxist historians once dominated the historiography of the Revolution. Consequently, once the orthodox views were challenged, the weaknesses inherent in Marxist histories were exposed. Because of this, both historians find commonalty in their disdain for a Marxist approach to the Revolution. Particularly for Furet, Marxist historians can never be separated from their historical work. Their own views inevitably pollute any research or studies they conduct.

Different methodological approaches are present in the work of Doyle and Furet. These differences stem from the general theories of both historians. As Furet believes that ideological concerns should be the most important level of analysis of historical events, and particularly the Revolution, his methodology is one where ideas take a central role. So he seeks to prove his conclusions by a combination of a hierarchy of causes. Doyle, on the other hand, examines and combines numerous sources and studies to come to his conclusions. His study is largely based on the work of many other historians. Acute differences consequently exist between the two methodologies. The way they tackle the problem of what caused the Revolution differs dramatically.

When it comes to what constitutes facts, both Furet and Doyle differ. In Doyle’s model, “facts” are actually objective points in time and space, which are known to have occurred. It is known that certain events happened in the course of the French Revolution, and thus, there are certainties in understanding it. Furet proposes that just the opposite is true. While there may be “facts” which exist, as in a general narrative sense, taking certain “facts” outside of the historical continuity as a whole is a worthless endeavor. Interpretation of the historical narrative needs to be separated from Doyle’s type of facts (FF, pg. 25). It also cannot be separated from the outcome of a historical process. Therefore, Furet believes taking certain points in history and analyzing them outside of the context of the rest of the process is likely to lead to absurdities. Doyle, like most other historians, employs this “objectification” of the past which Furet strongly feels to be invalid. Thus, the two are diametrically opposed in their understanding of what constitutes “facts.”

Furet’s views are more intriguing than Doyle’s. Doyle, in presenting his thesis on the origins of the French Revolution, offers a survey of numerous historical studies, and makes use of most of them in his interpretation of events in the final days of the Old Regime. This approach is highly predictable. The majority of histories on the French Revolution take a similar path. The problem with Doyle’s work is it is more of a survey of what already exists in the historiography of the Revolution, rather than a process of discovery. Furet, on the other hand, recognizes a need for history to be about continuity. His argument is more complicated and goes against the conventional wisdom. In a field deluged with economic and social histories, Furet’s intellectual approach is refreshing. Furet’s interpretation is more original and inventive because it seeks to prove that ideas are a more important cause of the Revolution of 1789. It is also the more interesting of the two, as it has complicated philosophical underpinnings. Hence, Furet has the more interesting and compelling argument and analysis of the causes of the French Revolution.

Furet’s interpretation is also better because it has less inclination to be inaccurate. There are two reasons for this. First, as already stated, there is no way for Doyle to examine or even understand the complexities behind the various findings of the scholars in the field. When Doyle utilizes their work, and accepts their conclusions, he is likely passing off false interpretations. Second, a patchwork model like Doyle’s makes arguments on many multiple levels. I happen to believe Furet’s view that when economic or social studies are made on too many levels, they end up being absurdities. A synthesis of so many different types of historical studies obviously takes this risk. Finally, there is strength in Furet’s analysis. As it only attempts to understand the Revolution through ideas, there is no way the methodological approach will make the same mistake of the economic and social histories. The causation of ideas is passed off only as ideas. It does not intrude on other areas where it does not belong as economic and social histories tend to do. Although I buy neither argument for its explanation of the Revolution’s origin, Furet’s analysis, as I have argued, is the more original and convincing.

The question of the origin of the French Revolution has been a source of much dedicated scholarship. Earlier in the twentieth century, Revolutionary historians accepted a Marxist based interpretation of the great events of 1789. However, this interpretation was challenged and replaced by an array of others. I have traced the arguments in two separate histories of the Revolution, one by Doyle, the other by Furet. Furet contends that a work of De Tocqueville holds the key to the cause of the Revolution because it is based on an intellectual and political approach to the historic event. Doyle argues that a combination of unpredictable circumstances and conditions resulted in the Revolution, based on a synthesis of numerous primary and secondary sources. As I have argued, Furet’s argument is the stronger of the two because it is more accurate and original.