From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution

By Thomas E. Kaiser; Dale K. Van Kley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Social Origins of the French
Revolution Revisited

Jack A. Goldstone


I. Introduction: The Death of the Social

The bicentennial of the Revolution also seemed to mark the death of the social interpretation of its origins. The notion of a revolution made by and for a distinct social class—the bourgeoisie—had collapsed under the accumulated weight of evidence, showing that neither in the social data nor in the ideological debates of the late eighteenth century could a distinct bourgeois class be isolated, much less shown to be pivotal actors.1

Rejection of the social interpretation put all explanatory weight on political and cultural shifts. Yet while the fresh examination of political and cultural factors illuminated varied aspects of change in eighteenthcentury France, the exclusion of all economic and social factors left an explanatory gap. At one extreme, this left the Revolution as accidental, the result of a conjuncture of deadlocked conflicts over tax reform that forced the king and his ministers to assemble the Estates-General in search of fiscal salvation with a horrific harvest in 1788 that prompted the populace to seek immediate redress for their grievances, pushing events forward on waves of urban and rural revolts.2 Similarly less than satisfying are explanations that take a longer view. One emphasizes decades-long political

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