Book Review: “The French Revolution.”

The French Revolution has been a favourite topic with historians of all countries, and it has probably called forth more books than any other event in the history of the world. Yet in the whole literature of the subject one can find little that is consistently good; there is a disproportionate amount of chaff. A book that has just come into my hands, “A Brief History of the French Revolution,” by F. W. Aveling, is, however, so really bad, that I think it deserves notice, if only to warn those who might, in their hurry, confuse the author with Edward Aveling, and buy it.


In his preface the author states that the book is intended primarily as a school textbook. No doubt it will have success as such, for it is moulded on the true lines of all modern school histories. It is a string of events, with nothing to connect them, each one seemingly an accident. The true causes of the revolution and its meaning, the knowledge of which might cause pupils to grow interested in a dangerous field of inquiry, are hidden, and instead the reader is offered a few trumpery excuses, which explain nothing and lead nowhere, but which satisfy that craving for sensation which springs from faulty education and the degrading influence of the press. Aveling’s causes of the Revolution bear the same relation to the real origin as does the popular idea of profiteering to the profit-making system. They serve only to hide the relevant facts.


Three reasons are given, viz. :


  1. The vices and extravagances of the kings and their court.
  2. The writings of the philosophers and literary men, particularly of J. J. Rousseau ; and the growth of unbelief in religion.
  3. Bad government on the part of the rulers of the land : the oppression of the poor by aristocrats : the absence of any political power on the part of the great mass of the people.


No mention is made of its being a Revolution of the bourgeoisie ; rather it is made to appear as working class in its objects, and this, although it is now agreed that the French Revolution was the homologue of the English Revolution of 1640-60, 1688, that it was the triumph of the Capitalist class and the final overthrow of feudalism. Such an omission might be excused to a contemporary, but in a modern history it becomes a suppression, and one is compelled to think that the author is deliberately misleading.


The immorality of the Bourbons had as little to do with the French Revolution as did the morality of Charles I. with the English.


And in view of the fact that the poor in France had always been oppressed by the aristocrats and had never had any political power, it is useless to suggest that this oppression and lack of political power alone could have precipitated the Revolution of 1789. Why 1789 rather than 1400?


The prominence of the philosophers and their sceptical teaching themselves require an explanation. Our author does not, or will not, see this, and so it is not given.


Let us see why the revolution came in the eighteenth rather than in the fifteenth century.


In the first place, it is necessary to remember that this, like all others, was an economic revolution. It arose owing to the necessity to industrialism of the abolition of the remnants of the feudal barriers. It was a revolution of the French bourgeoisie, which was confronted with impotence and ruin unless it could seize political power and enter on the same course of expansion as England and the newly-freed American Republic.


Up to then political power was concentrated in the hands of a bureaucratic despotism. The nobles and clergy retained their social positions, feudal privileges, and rights. This hampered the development of the industrial and trading classes, for which a free working-class, as opposed to feudal serfs, and a free circulation of commodities were essential. The Gabelle, a government monopoly of the sale of salt, and the Banvin, or the right enjoyed by the lord of the manor to sell his own wine in the parish, to the exclusion of any other, are but two examples of the many feudal privileges which stood in the way of free development of commerce and industry.


Again, taxation was high, and owing to the exemption from it enjoyed by the nobles and clerics, its burden fell on the propertied commercial class. In the army aristocrats held the chief posts, so that the ambitions of bourgeois officers were checked. This explains the willingness of the lower officers to usurp authority and lead their troops against the dominant class.


It was the growth of the bourgeoisie in France, with its accompanying necessity for a new philosophy and set of ideals, which gave rise to the liberal spirit noticeable earlier in the century. In particular, intercourse with other countries and with England, from which the newly invented machinery was beginning to be imported, fostered this spirit, of which the writings of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau are but the expression. To place too great an importance in the effects of their books is dangerous, especially as only about 4 per cent. of the population could read.


They were the philosophers of the rising capitalists, and it was among the members of this class in the main that they found readers and popularity.


To say, as the author does, that they spread democratic ideas among the masses, is to show a complete ignorance of their works.


Rousseau looked longingly to the Roman State and a return to nature. Montesquieu and Voltaire aimed merely at adopting the English constitutional system. Buckle, in his “Civilisation in England,” lays great stress on this, and Gustave Le Bon, a middle-class author, writes : “Although the philosophers, who have been supposed the inspirers of the French Revolution, did attack certain privileges and abuses, we must not for that reason regard them as partisans of popular government ” (“Psychology of Revolution“).


When Louis XVI., owing to the financial difficulties of the government, was forced to summon the States General, the time for the seizure of political power by the revolutionary bourgeoisie had arrived.


To obtain control of the Tiers Etat, they, with their cry of “Free the land!” obtained the support of the peasants, but “they were as undemocratic at bottom as men well could be; their feeling for the masses was nothing but a mixture of scorn and fear; the perfect type of the bourgeois of ’89 combined hatred of the nobles with distrust of the mob ” (“French Revolution,” Louis Madelin).


Thanks to the support of the lesser clergy, who suffered from the tyranny of the great prelates, they obtained control in the National Assembly, and at once proceeded to destroy all that remained of feudalism. In a short time seigneural rights were abolished, serfs were freed, and later the Church lands were confiscated.


Meanwhile, in the, towns unemployment, consequent on machine production superseding hand labour in many trades, together with lack of bread, occasioned by bad harvests, destruction of the crops by agents of the bourgeoisie, and the speculations of the grain merchants, who were holding back supplies, caused the workers to support the rising class. This provided them with a force which at need they could bring out to overcome the Royalists.


The weakness of Louis and the need to crush the nobility and clergy completely, rendered the introduction of a constitutional monarchy impossible, although certain sections favoured it. And so Louis was executed and a Republic proclaimed.


The rising of the Revolution from the National Assembly to the Directory, which paved the way for Napoleon to consolidate the gains of the triumphant class, is a history of struggles between sections of the bourgeoisie, and of their efforts to drive back the workers into subjection after they had served the needs of their masters.


Even the Terror is a period of bourgeois domination.


But our author would not stain the honour of the master class, our present rulers, so he reviles the workers for the executions. And this in spite of the fact that “out of 2,750 victims of Robespierre only 650 belonged to the upper or middle classes. The tumbrils that wended their way daily to the Place de la Revolution and afterwards to the Faubourg St. Antoine were largely filled with working-men” (“French Revolution,Belfort Bax).


Robespierre himself was merely a tool, although perhaps an unconscious tool, of the bourgeoisie; he served them by destroying the more liberal-minded Herbertists, and was destroyed himself when his task was accomplished.


But although it was not, and could not be, a working-class revolution, study of the French Revolution is of value to the proletariat for two reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates the truth of the Materialist Conception of History.


Society rests on an economic basis and it is only by examination of this foundation that one can understand the nature and development of the institutions, ideas, and cultural activities of the classes of which the particular society is composed, and explain outstanding historical and political movements and events.


Secondly, it shows the futility of working-class action without class-consciousness.


The workers allowed themselves to be stirred up to do the behests of a higher class, they fought their battles for them, and then, when they had clone all that was wanted of them, they were forced into a new and worse servitude. They were surrounded and disarmed on their return from the army. Their organisations were broken up by “Jeunesse Dorée” (the White Guards of the period) armed with weighted canes!


And attempts of the workers to achieve their emancipation will always end in failure until they, by study, learn their position in society as slaves of the propertied class, and then, acting as a class, gain control of political power and the force it commands.


W. J. R.