Reinterpreting the French Revolution: A Global-Historical Perspective

Reinterpreting the French Revolution: A Global-Historical Perspective

Reinterpreting the French Revolution: A Global-Historical Perspective

Reinterpreting the French Revolution: A Global-Historical Perspective


This book provides a synthesis of the most recent scholarly literature on the diplomatic, political, social, economic, and cultural history of eighteenth-century and revolutionary France. On the basis of that synthesis, and current theoretical writing on major modern revolutions, the book argues that the outbreak of the French Revolution, and the dramatic developments of the subsequent ten years, were attributable to the interacting pressures of international and domestic politics on those national leaders attempting to govern France and to modernize its institutions. The book furthermore contends that the Revolution of 1789–1799, reconceptualized in this fashion, needs to be placed in the larger contexts of 'early modern' and 'modern' French history and modern 'progressive' sociopolitical revolutions. In staking out these positions, the book offers a unique interpretation of the French Revolution, one that dissents from both the Marxian socioeconomic orthodoxy of earlier times and more recent 'political-cultural' analyses.

  • A unique interpretation stressing the interaction of international and domestic politics
  • Updates the reader on diplomatic, political, social and cultural histories of the French Revolution
  • Relates the French Revolution to revolutionary developments in the twentieth century


The Bicentennial of the French Revolution may have given rise to a flood of commemorative activities, but it has not left in its wake any scholarly consensus on the causation, development, and implications of that vast upheaval. To the contrary, historians barely finished with the pleasurable work of interring a Marxist view of the Revolution regnant in the first half of the twentieth century have turned their spades upon each other, all the while trying to establish their own explanations of cataclysmic events in the France of 1789–99. This book certainly does not expect to restore consensus in a field beset by such controversy, but it can at least hope to put forth some distinctive ideas on the subject. More specifically, it will contend that the Revolution broke out, and unfolded in the way it did, primarily because of competing international and domestic pressures on French governance in the late eighteenth century. By placing the revolutionary experience in such a broad spatial setting, as well as in the broadest possible temporal setting of modern world history, this book aims to present its case in genuinely “global-historical” terms.

Since this study is heavily indebted to the enormous historical and sociological literature on the revolutionary era, a few observations about the debate arising from that literature are first of all in order. We can then outline the argument that is to follow and spell out some of the capital assumptions undergirding that argument.

As intimated above, research and writing on the revolutionary period in France has long mirrored suppositions that were more or less Marxist in nature. Historians laboring in the long shadows cast by Jean Jaurès, Albert Mathiez, and Georges Lefebvre comfortably assumed that behind the collapse of the Bourbons' rule in the late eighteenth century loomed a struggle between an economically retrograde, “feudal” aristocracy and a progressive, “capitalist” bourgeoisie. the entrepreneurial interests, backed at critical junctures by urban artisans and shopkeepers and rural peasantry . . .

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