The French Revolution was based on and succeeded in establishing a new concept of society, according to which society consists fundamentally of individuals, each of whom have natural rights. According to this view, the organization of society should be based on voluntary contract among legally and politically equal individuals; any inequality that emerges should be based on differences in capacities, talents, initiative, or work. This bourgeois concept of society was fundamentally different from the feudal, which assumed that society is divided into different ranks and statuses, each with its own rights, privileges, and duties (Ianni 2011:32-33).
The bourgeois concept of society was expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, adopted on August 26, 1789. It proclaimed that “men are born and remain free and equal in their rights,” and these include the rights to liberty, property, personal safety, and resistance to oppression (Soboul 1975:176-82).
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen also expressed fear of mobilization from below; it sought to end domination by the nobility, but not domination of one class by another. This perspective can be seen in its proclamation of the right of property, without placing limits to this right on the basis of the needs of society as a whole. In effect, the Declaration promoted the transformation of feudal property into bourgeois property (Ianni 2011:48-50; Soboul 1975:332).
The bourgeois character of the revolution is reflected in the Constitution of 1791. In opposition to the interests of the nobility, it abolished feudal rights and privileges and established a constitutional monarchy. In opposition to the interests of the popular classes, it restricted the right to vote on the basis of income and permanency of residence (Ianni 2011: 53-54).
The bourgeois program was characterized by economic liberalism. It sought to remove taxes and other obstacles to the free circulation of merchandize. These measures, however, had negative consequences for the people, the protection of whose interests would have required government intervention in the economy with the intention of controlling prices and wages (Ianni 2011:81-82).
Thus, in spite of the active participation of the popular sectors, the revolution had not established a government that protected popular interests. This contradiction led to a radicalization of the revolution. By 1792, the popular sectors had taken control of the revolutionary process, leading to the adoption of more radical measures, including universal male suffrage. The new Constitution of 1793 proclaimed certain social and economic rights, such as the rights to work, public assistance, and education. But even the new Constitution did not subordinate property rights to human rights and to the needs of the society as a whole, and it implicitly sanctioned the exploitation of labor (Ianni 2011:71, 87, 94-98; Soboul 1975:315-16).
By 1794, popular control of the revolutionary process had come to end, and by 1796 the popular movement dissipated, a victim of the powerful forces operating against it as well as its own internal contradictions and errors, a theme that we will be discussing in subsequent posts. For its part, the bourgeoisie would find its interests consolidated in the Napoleonic Empire (Ianni 2011:119-47).
All revolutionary processes should be understood in global and historical context, and this theme will be the subject of the next post.
Ianni, Valera. 2011. La Revolución Francesa. Ocean Sur: México.
Soboul, Albert. 1975. The French Revolution 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
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