French Revolution

(1789)
   Events in the summer of 1789 heralded the transition of France from the rule of monarchy and ancien régime to that of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” and, eventually, the First Republic. Opposition to the ancien régime and the privileged establishment it maintained mounted throughout 1789, with peasants attacking their landlords’ estates in the countryside and anti-monarchy agitation in Paris. Economic hardship was the central cause of nationwide disillusionment with the status quo, as high prices and food shortages conspired to create a state of famine in many areas, and the sheer poverty of a majority of citizens led to a yearning for political change. The American Revolution and the impact of the Enlightenment movement enhanced this rebellious climate. The paucity of finance ran right through to state level, and with those within the establishment unwilling to compromise any of their own personal wealth, on 5 May 1789 King Louis XVI summoned the Estates General to thrash out a solution.
   The Estates General consisted of three groups, the Clergy, the Nobility and the Commoners (or Third Estate), and despite convening to discuss fiscal matters it soon became affected by the clamor for reform throughout France. Having quarreled with the other two groups over the system of voting that the Estates General would employ, the Commoners made a dramatic decision to declare themselves the sole governors of France, and on 17 June announced the creation of the National Assembly to enable them to bring about rapid change. With political violence threatening to spill over, radicals inside the National Assembly were able to pass far-reaching reforms as moderates feared anarchy should the French population not be placated. On 20 June members of the Third Estate gathered and vowed not to disband until they attained for France a written constitution, in what became known as the Tennis Court Oath (forbidden to enter the Palace of Versailles, the rebels had gathered in an adjacent tennis court). With popular pressure escalating, the king saw fit to recognize the legitimacy of the National Assembly and ordered the Clergy and the Nobility to join.
   The National Assembly immediately set about transforming France’s political, social and economic landscape, adopting a succession of radical reforms. Between 4 August and 12 August, feudal rights and privileges were swept away, the ancien régime confined to the history books and legal and fiscal equality between all proclaimed. At the same time, the Assembly was working on a new constitution limiting monarchical powers and installing a unicameral elected legislative. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was drafted and adopted on 26 August, marking the birth of egalitarian France, and the Nobility was abolished to reaffirm this. The Clergy, having possessed so much of France’s wealth, fell victim to the revolutionary tide as its estates were confiscated and nationalized to solve the government’s financial predicament in November, and early in 1790 the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was forced upon them, reorganizing relations between church and state and decreeing that Clerics be paid by the government. In December the Assembly eradicated provincial divisions and parliaments, and divided the country into departments whose rule would come from elected assemblies.
   Despite these radical reforms, as Karl Marx would later observe, the revolution remained at this stage essentially the preserve of a moderate bourgeoisie which sought to create a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic. This propagated in France a suspicion among the proletariat and peasantry that the Royals and the Assembly were both against the revolution, and unrest continued to manifest itself, for instance in the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, and the forceful removal of the royal family from Versailles to the capital following agitation by the “Paris Mob” on 6 October.
   France remained in a constant state of volatility, and in 1791 events came to a head that would eventually see the full abolition of the monarchy. On 20 June 1791, King Louis XVI, fearing the insurrectionary masses, attempted to flee abroad, but got only as far as Varennes, at which point he was returned to Paris with his popularity and trustworthiness at a new low. With France fighting the Revolutionary Wars against hostile foreign states abroad, and constant turmoil domestically, the bitter factional disputes characterizing the country were accentuated, and rioting was widespread. The National Assembly was supplanted by the Constituent Assembly in September 1791, and in an atmosphere of such instability radicals came to dominate the government. In 1792 the monarchy was formally abolished, with the king executed the following year, and the First Republic established, while the National Convention replaced the year-old Constituent Assembly, an event that sparked the beginning of the so-called Reign of Terror. The Reign of Terror was characterized by the National Convention’s suppression of bitterly split factions such as the Jacobins and the Girondins, and of counter-revolutionary royalist forces. Violence ceased midway through 1794, and a year later the Convention remolded itself into the government of the Directory. However, such cosmetic changes only stood to mask the split administration of the young republic, and in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte put down the government in the Brumaire coup d’état and began his rule. Subsequently, many of the reforms made following the revolution were reversed, but the long-term legacy for France could not be erased, as the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity had entered the nation’s psyche and shaped what it later became.
   Marx considered the French Revolution of 1789 to be a classic example of a bourgeois revolution as feudalism had been replaced with a capitalism able to prosper via more suitable improved legal conditions. As the revolution favored the bourgeoisie, so it was a bourgeois revolution, a characterization Marx applied too to the 1848 Revolutions. The French Revolution was thus to be the first stage of an eventual worldwide proletarian revolution.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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