Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

2
Revisionism

Outside the narrow, then largely monolingual world of French scholarship, fundamental doubts had begun to arise much earlier. Alfred Cobban, newly appointed Professor of French History at the University of London, chose the occasion of his inaugural lecture in 1954 to attack what he called the 'Myth of the French Revolution'.1 This myth, which he contended had dominated serious research on the history of the Revolution during the twentieth century, was that the Revolution was 'the substitution of a capitalist bourgeois order for feudalism'. 2 Cobban argued that anything that could conceivably be called feudal had passed away long before 1789, and that to use the term for the complex of rights and dues that were swept away on the night of 4 August 1789 (as had Lefebvre and other writers before him) was to confuse rather than clarify matters. Gleefully, Cobban picked out Lefebvre's own admission that many bourgeois in the National Assembly owned such rights and dues and were reluctant to relinquish them. This would have been awkward to explain if the revolutionary bourgeoisie had been, as Lefebvre contended, the representatives of mobile, industrial, and commercial wealth -- capitalists, in a word. But Cobban argued that they were not. By analysing the social and professional background of the bourgeois elected to the Estates-General in 1789, he showed that only 13 per cent of them came from the world of commerce, whereas about two-thirds were lawyers of one sort or another. Goodwin had already dwelt on this, 3 but Cobban carried the analysis much further. He pointed out that 43 per cent of the bourgeois deputies were not only lawyers, but petty officeholders and government servants. And he went on to argue that it was the frustrations of such people, doing the work of government but receiving none of the credit, and seeing the value of the venal offices in which they had invested their money declining, which provided the reforming impetus of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and its commitment to careers open to the talents. From this, major conclusions followed: the Revolution was not the work of a rising bourgeoisie at all, but rather

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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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