As we have seen (“The French Revolution in Global Context” 11/26/2013), the bourgeoisie consisted of the great merchants, the financiers, the owners of the industrial factories, and professionals tied to the state bureaucracy. They had emerged from an incipient merchant class that had been taking shape since the tenth century, as a result of the expansion of commerce. They had an interest in pushing the process of modernization that had emerged as a consequence of historic human tendencies toward conquest and centralization of political structures. Of particular relevance here were: the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula; the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of America; and the formation of nation-states in Spain, England, and France. In its pursuit of modernization, the French bourgeoisie abolished the feudal privileges of the nobility and the Church and established, as the hegemonic world view, the concept of a society composed of free and equal individuals with natural rights.
The monarchy emerged as a political force as a consequence of dynamics that had been emerging since the tenth century. From the fifth to the tenth centuries, following the invasions by Germanic tribes and the collapse of the Roman Empire, political fragmentation and particularism reigned, since the conquering tribes did not have the capacity to impose a centralized order. Feudal monarchs were weak, exercising little control over the nobility; most state functions were carried out in the local manor. But from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, re-urbanization occurred, made possible by greater political stability and a growth in commerce. In three zones (that would become England, France and Spain), the monarchs in alliance with the rising merchant class took decisive political action that led to the formation of modern nation-states. They used taxes to raise a professional army that imposed monarchial political will on neighboring territories, forging centralized political structures that overcame the local power of the nobility. This process was tied to nationality formation, which had been continually evolving as a consequence of invasions and conquests. With the centralization of power attained by the three monarchs, and aided by wars with other states (between England and France and between Spain and the Islamic Empires), a degree of national identity emerged that coincided with the political territories controlled by the centralized state, giving rise to the modern nation-state. By the fifteenth century, England, France, and Spain had become modern nation-states (Cristóbal 2008).
In France during the second half of the eighteenth century, noble reaction to monarchical centralization reversed the earlier centralization of power, such that by the time of Luis XVI, little remained of absolute power. This made the King dependent on the bourgeoisie, which also had an interest in centralization, but it also had an interest in political power in the centralized state. The constitutional monarchy of 1791 was the practical consequence of this common interest and political alliance (Ianni 2011:11, 18, 20).
Although they comprised less than 2% of the French population, the nobility owned 20% of the land. It had regained power that had been lost in the prior centralization of power. Since the decisions of the Crown had to be registered by the nobles, they exercised a de facto veto. They had monopoly rights on the production of wheat, bread, wine, and oil. They controlled the criminal justice system in the rural towns. They exploited the peasantry through rents and taxes (Ianni 2011:10-12). They had an interest in the preservation of the old order in opposition to the tendencies of centralization, modernization, and secularization (see “The French Revolution in Global Context” 11/26/2013). They were allied with the Church, which also enjoyed feudal privileges, although there was a distinction between the higher and lower clergy, the former pertaining to the nobility (Ianni 2011:12-13).
The people included peasants, workers, craftsmen, and lower members of the professional class. Peasants comprised 80% of the French population. The majority of peasants were sharecroppers, obligated to surrender half of their crop in exchange for land, tools, and livestock. One-quarter to one-third of peasants were proprietors, but their situation was difficult as a result of high payments for taxes and services. The best-off peasants were tenants, who paid rent for land, but they were able to exploit the day-laborers, who were the worst-off among the peasantry. The class structure of the peasantry shows how much the countryside had been transformed by modernization; peasants were no longer serfs. Those peasants who participated in revolutionary action were driven by high taxes and the high cost of bread and other necessary items, which sometimes were hoarded by merchants for purposes of financial speculation (Ianni 2011:13-15).
Since the modernization of agriculture had occurred earlier, there were no longer significant numbers of serfs. But the modernization of industry, involving the transformation of craftsmen into salaried workers, was still in process, so there were significant numbers of guild craftsmen. The guild system was characterized by high-quality production of luxury items. With its unchanging rules of production, its prohibitions on innovation, and its long years of training to master the craft, the guild system was an obstacle to the advancement of the industrial factory. Threatened by the force of modernization, the craftsmen envisioned a return to the past rather than an alternative future. Craftsmen were active participants in the revolution, driven by hatred of the aristocracy, a sentiment shared by other popular sectors (Ianni 2011:15-16).
The most politically active of the popular sectors were the “sans-culottes,” so named because of their style of dress. They consisted of shopkeepers, small property owners, workers, and craftsmen. They had an interest in pushing the bourgeois proclamation of democratic rights to its fullest realization. They were the most radical element of the revolution, demanding universal male suffrage, the dethronement of the King, and wage and price controls. The popular movement was ultimately contained by the bourgeois revolution, which replaced a society jointly ruled by nobles and kings with a society ruled by the bourgeoisie, characterized by the formalities and the appearance of democracy, but not the substance.
The differing class interests created various possibilities for political alliances. The nobility and the craftsmen were in the weakest position, since the social order from which they emerged was being swept away by the forces of centralization, modernization, and secularization. In this dynamic situation, there was the possibility of a bourgeois-popular alliance in opposition to the nobility and the monarchy. But this was undermined by tendencies toward a bourgeois alliance with the monarch vis-à-vis centralization and with the nobility in relation to property rights. Ultimately what occurred was a bourgeois alliance with first the Napoleonic Empire and later with the restored and reconstituted monarchy. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, concessions would be made to popular movements and demands, but the people would not rule. The struggle for popular democratic nation-states would be renewed during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and it would the neocolonized peoples of the Third World who would take the lead in the struggle.
Cristóbal Pérez, Armando. 2008. El Estado-Nación: Su Origen y Construcción. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Ianni, Valera. 2011. La Revolución Francesa. México: Ocean Sur.
Soboul, Albert. 1975. The French Revolution 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, French Revolution