A Social History of the French Revolution

A Social History of the French Revolution

A Social History of the French Revolution

A Social History of the French Revolution

Excerpt

From one point of view major social revolutions are like geological faults. The rolling evolution of the historical landscape is suddenly broken and the continuity of its strata interrupted. What follows is conditioned by what went before, but is not a direct continuation of it. Unlike geological faults, however, social revolutions are the product--however unexpected and unwelcome--of human action. Structural changes which have been proceeding at a slow pace, without deliberate central planning and often without any clear awareness of their cumulative significance, suddenly become an object of political attention. The social history of a revolution is therefore essentially different from that of a society in peaceful evolution, since political action becomes more closely involved in the process of accelerated social change. The nature, extent and significance of the revolutionary modifications in the structure of a society are conditioned by the political context in which they are brought about. To quote only one example, the question of whether change is achieved by consent or imposed by force may be a matter of politics, but the solution adopted will influence both the structure and the social cohesion of the community involved.

This fusion of social and political factors is particularly marked in the case of the French Revolution. To an extent that has probably no parallel in modern European history, the Revolution was a maelstrom of social aspirations ranging from the restoration of an aristocratic society to the creation of a welfare state controlled by a monolithic and totalitarian government. In 1789 aristocrats were demanding the appointment of official genealogists to verify noble ancestry. Within five years revolutionary extremists were struggling with the problems of a national health service and wages policy in national industries. Social aspirations, whether 'reactionary' or 'progressive' . . .

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