Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

1
The Classic Interpretation

The year 1939, which saw the outbreak of the Second World War, is also remembered among students of the French Revolution as the 150th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. In France the occasion was marked by extensive celebrations and a spate of new writings on the Revolution and its significance. Undoubtedly the most distinguished product of this activity was Georges Lefebvre's concise account of the origins of the Revolution andits outbreak, Quatre-Vingt-Neuf. Unashamedly exulting in the achievements of 1789, Lefebvre's book itself had an eventful history in the years following its publication. Much of the edition was destroyed, as subversive literature, on the orders of the Vichy government. In 1947, however, it was translated into English by the American scholar Robert R. Palmer; and under the title of The Coming of the French Revolution it rapidly became essential reading wherever the French Revolution was studied throughout the English-speaking world. By the time of Lefebvre's death in 1959 it had sold over 40,000 copies in English. It remains, and will remain, a model of historical writing by a master of his subject. For many years its analysis of the death throes of the old order in France, and the diseases which killed it, remained the definitive statement of what by the 1980s was beginning to be called the 'classic' version of the Revolutior's origins.

The ultimate cause of the French Revolution, Lefebvre believed, was the rise of the bourgeoisie. 1 A lifelong socialist, by 1939 he was falling increasingly under the influence of Marxism -- a theory of history which assigns a central role to the bourgeoisie as the representatives and beneficiaries of capitalism. 2 According to Lefebvre, 1789 was the moment when this class took power in France, after several centuries of growing numbers and wealth. Medieval society had been dominated and ruled by a landed aristocracy, for land was the only form of wealth. By the eighteenth century, however, 'economic power, personal abilities and confidence in the future had passed largely to the bourgeoisie', who were buttressed by 'a new form of wealth, mobile or commercial' and a

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Origins of the French Revolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Prefatory Note vii
  • Contents *
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Writings on Revolutionary Origins Since 1939 3
  • 1 - The Classic Interpretation 5
  • 2 - Revisionism 10
  • 3 - Post-Revisionism 35
  • Part II - The Breakdown of the Old Regime 43
  • 4 - The Financial Crisis 45
  • 5 - The System of Government 54
  • 6 - Opposition 65
  • 7 - Public Opinion 76
  • 8 - Reform and its Failure, 1787-1788 91
  • Part III - The Struggle for Power 109
  • 9 - The Nobility 111
  • 10 - The Bourgeoisie 121
  • 11 - The Election Campaign, September 1788 to May 1789 131
  • 12 - The Economic Crisis 148
  • 13 - The Estates-General, May and June 1789 157
  • 14 - The People of Paris 166
  • 15 - The Peasantry 178
  • 16 - Conclusion: The New Regime and its Principles 189
  • Notes 197
  • Further Reading 226
  • Index of Authors Cited 229
  • General Index 233
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