As human migrations reached the geographic limits of the earth, migration as a solution to population growth was no longer possible. Thus in seven different regions of the world, human societies independently utilized the accumulated knowledge to develop food production (the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals). This agricultural revolution established both conquest and political centralization as tendencies integrally tied to economic and cultural development. Societies that turned to food production had the capacity to sustain specialists, including soldiers and state administrators, who were not directly involved in food production. This capacity enabled them to conquer neighboring societies and incorporate the conquered peoples and lands into a single political territory, providing a foundation for empire and advanced civilization, characterized by specialists who forged significant achievements in technology, science, the arts and literature. The empires were ruled by a political-religious elite, and they were systems of social stratification that legitimated inequality with religious concepts.
In North Africa, the human tendency toward development through domination led to the formation of Islamic Empires and to the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Spanish and Portuguese resistance to the conquest accelerated their tendencies toward centralization. As a result, Spain and Portugal emerged from the reconquest as centralized states with advanced military capacities, establishing the basis for the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of America.
The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of vast regions of America in the sixteenth century established the foundation for the modern world-system. The precious metals obtained (through forced labor imposed on the indigenous populations) stimulated the further economic and commercial development of Western Europe, most notably England and France, which also had formed modern nation-states. The force of the expansion was so great that the traditional forms of production constituted a fetter, leading to the modernization of production. Modernization first occurred in agriculture, with the enclosure of common lands, the transformation of feudal obligations into rent, and the centralization of land ownership. Thus serfs were converted into tenants, sharecroppers, and day laborers. Subsequently, modernization occurred in manufacturing, with the transformation of the craft workshop into the industrial factory, creating the highly specialized form of labor that destroyed work as a craft and that Marx would famously describe as alienation.
The bourgeois class in France in the second half of the eighteenth century was formed by these dynamics. The bourgeoisie consisted of the owners of the emerging industrial factories, the big merchants who profited from the expanding commerce in goods, the financiers who profited from loans to factories owners and merchants, and the professionals who were tied to the expanding state bureaucracy that was necessary for the efficient regulation and administration of the expanding commerce and manufacturing. The bourgeoisie emerged in the context of a feudal society ruled jointly: by nobles, who had an interest in preserving decentralization and traditional forms of production; and by the monarch, who had an interest in centralization and in breaking the power of the nobility, even though the monarchy itself evolved from feudal structures and dynamics. The bourgeoisie had an interest in taking power away from the nobility and in establishing an alliance with a state that would adopt measures designed to accelerate the modernization of production. Thus the bourgeoisie formed a revolution that abolished feudalism and that established a constitutional monarchy, a monarchy recast in accordance with modern institutions.
Because of the integral relation of the Church with feudal institutions and its intimate ties with the nobility, the further modernization of the society required a reduction of the Church’s power. Thus the French Revolution was characterized by an attack on the Church, not only with respect to its property and its feudal privileges, but also by the formulation of an alternative to its hierarchical theocentric vision of society. The bourgeois revolution formulated an alternative vision of society based on free and equal individuals who have natural rights, including the rights of suffrage and property, important components of the struggle with the nobility. Under bourgeois class rule, legitimation of inequality would be attained not through religious concepts but through democratic values, interpreted in a limited way in accordance with bourgeois interests. With the power of the Church reduced, the separation of Church and state and religious tolerance emerged as integral components of the new bourgeois-ruled democratic society.
But the bourgeoisie would not have been victorious had it not been for the direct action of the popular sectors, which themselves for the most part were formed by the process of modernization. The popular sectors included peasants, who were no longer a class as such, divided as they were among tenants, sharecroppers, and day laborers. And they included craftsmen, shopkeepers, small property owners, and workers, who had their own organizations and leaders. These popular sectors embraced the modern concept of democracy, interpreting it in a more radical form than the bourgeoisie, seeing in it the possibilities for not only political participation but also for social liberation. Thus they pushed the revolution to take more drastic and deeply democratic measures. Many of the leaders of the radical and populist wing of the revolution were members of the emerging professional class, which was both a lower part of the bourgeoisie as well as a relatively privileged part of the popular sectors. Radical leaders from the professional ranks interpreted the destiny of their class as tied to the fate of the popular sectors.
Thus the French Revolution, seen in a panoramic context, was established by historic human tendencies toward conquest and centralization and by the more recent tendency toward modernization. In its drive to complete the process of modernization, the revolution stimulated another tendency, namely, secularization. At the same time, the French Revolution provided a foundation for popular movements throughout the world that would embrace its democratic world view and the implications of secularization in order to proclaim the universal human values that ought to guide humanity, such as protection of the social and economic rights of all persons and respect for the self-determination and sovereignty of nations. The world-wide popular movements also would come to recognize that the historic human pattern of development through conquest and domination is no longer sustainable, inasmuch as the world-system has reached the geographical and ecological limits of the earth. Just as humans invented food production when foraging societies reached their geographical limits, humans today must embrace a fundamental change from development through domination to development through cooperation and international solidarity. The French Revolution did not challenge the historic human pattern of domination, seeking only to exchange domination by the nobility with an alternative form of domination by the bourgeoisie. The global popular movements today seek to complete the French Revolution, carrying out the democratic revolution in a manner that ends domination in all of its forms. The movement today proclaims that a just, democratic and sustainable world is necessary and possible.
The French Revolution stimulates questions that must be addressed by the popular movements today. These issues for our reflection include: class structures and dynamics in revolutionary processes; the role of popular assemblies and popular militias; and the issues of violence and of religion and spirituality. We will be discussing these themes in subsequent posts.
The reader is invited to take a look at previous posts that have explored themes relevant to today’s post: “The origin of the modern world-economy,” 8/6/2013; “Conquest, gold, and Western development,” 8/8/2013; “What enables conquest?” 8/9/2013; “Food production and conquest,” 8/12/2013; “European feudalism,” 8/13/2013; “The modern nation-state,” 8/14/2013; “Dialectic of domination and development,” 10/30/2013; “Bourgeois revolution in France, 1787-1799,” 11/25/2013.
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