The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview
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Cities, Bourgeois, and the French Revolution

Charles Tilly

In a delightful dialectic, the decay of one social interpretation is giving rise to another. The pamphleteering Marxist account of the French Revolution, with its transfer of power grounded in a straightforward succession of ruling classes and modes of production, lies in tatters after a generation of critical flailing. Judging from the titles of papers presented during the bicentennial conference, The French Revolution of 1789, few specialists get any joy from beating that nearly dead horse. But is it dead or just sleeping? The critique of the social interpretation has often led away from any serious consideration of the actual processes by which France changed in the critical years after 1787. In its better moments, however, the critique has called attention to the importance of changes in state power Marxist historians long neglected, which in turn has made it possible to see that a "social interpretation" actually has a good deal of explanatory power. Although recent rhetoric has gone in quite a different direction, historians are on the way to rediscovering the bourgeois revolution in a more precise and sophisticated form.

If we insert the French state's history in the general transformations of European states as we have long inserted the transformation of France's social classes in the general history of European capitalism, we will understand both better. Let me sketch a line of explanation stressing the interaction of cities and states, the shift from indirect to direct rule, and the place of capitalists in both momentous processes. It will give some reasons for thinking of revolution and counterrevolution as complementary elements of the same processes of state formation, and for considering the French Revolution to have been a bourgeois revolution after all.

In its simplest form, my argument runs as follows: In France, as elsewhere in Europe, towns and cities formed two analytically distinct hierarchies: an imposed top-down hierarchy defined by coercion, conquest, and state power, and a bottom-up hierarchy defined by capital, trade, and manufacturing. The two hierarchies linked the same places in different ways, with some centers such as Versailles occupying very high positions in the coercive hierarchy and relatively low positions in the hierarchy of capital. War, preparation for war, and extraction of the means for war created the top- down hierarchy and crystallized it into a connected administrative structure.


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