The French Revolution: Marxism versus revisionism
‘One’s stance on the French Revolution inevitably reveals much about one’s deepest ideological and political convictions’. 1 Gary Kates’ comment, in his introduction to this collection of essays on the 1789 French Revolution, is certainly correct-though his claim is true of other great revolutions too. Even as the French Revolution was being fought out 200 years ago it was the subject of fierce arguments, which were centrally about the protagonists’ own views on contemporary politics. For much of this century the idea that the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, driven by class conflict, which swept away the political structures of feudalism and cleared the way for the development of capitalism, was generally accepted. The revisionists insist that class struggle played little role in the revolution and that the revolution had nothing much to do with the development of capitalism. The French Revolution, and indeed all historical events, are merely a clash between different languages, discourses and symbols. At least Marie Antoinette, the French queen at the time of the revolution, is reputed to have said to people hungry for bread, ‘Let them eat cake. I too have been influenced by the turn from social to intellectual interpretations of the French Revolution. French trade grew by 400 percent in the 60 years before the revolution, iron production by 300 percent and coal by 700 percent. The state which emerged from the revolution was one which was refashioned in such a way as to further the development of capitalism-and the class which led the revolution, fashioned that new state and benefited from the new structures was the bourgeoisie. T C W Blanning’s book The French Revolution, Aristocrats versus Bourgeois? is hailed by one author in this volume as ‘a major contribution to revisionism’. Revisionists like Furet, following earlier writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, make much of the fact that the revolution ‘completed’ a process of centralisation and ‘modernisation’ of the French state that was already under way before the revolution. For modern day academics who deny the role of the bourgeoisie in the French Revolution it is worth recalling that even Edmund Burke himself, who certainly knew a bourgeois when he saw one, viewed the French Revolution as the work of ‘moneyed men, merchants, principal tradesmen and men of letters’. Let me conclude by quoting the view of Michael Kennedy, a historian who has made a massive study of the Jacobin clubs that were at the heart of the French Revolution. Despite his approval of Fran‡ois Furet’s revisionism, Kennedy concludes, ‘Nevertheless my own studies of the clubs have led me to the conclusion that there is much truth in the radical-Marxist view of the revolution, that class conflict was a major determinant’.
Enlightenment Then, Enlightenment Now
What can today’s economists learn from the 18th century Scottish thinkers who grappled with societal and economic change? The reference, of course, is to the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century which gave birth to modern economics. Beyond a mere nod to the past, the title of the conference prompts an important question for modern economists: Is there something to learn from the Scottish Enlightenment that can help illuminate the predicaments of today – and if so, what is it? The Scottish Enlightenment is most associated with two names: David Hume and Adam Smith. The philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment gravitated around several major themes: the origins of morals, the progress of civilization, economic development and the impact of trade. Would Scotland become rich, like England, or descend into pauperism, like Ireland? Would its society become riven by deep divisions and class conflict such as that found in England? Would Scottish lairds forget their traditional paternalistic obligations towards peasants, and become as aloof, cruel and grasping as English landlords? And what would happen to traditional religion and morals? By the time of the Scottish Enlightenment, the Presbyterian Kirk had long been the democratic guarantor in Scotland. Its inquisitorial grip on Scottish society may have been tyrannical and sometimes excessive, but it had kept the ruling classes in check. With the typical impertinence of nouveau riche anywhere, the rising Glaswegian merchant class imported very un-Calvinistic fashions from England – fancy clothes, balls, theater and ostentatious palaces – and were soon imitated by the rest of the Scottish upper classes. Many stopped identifying themselves as “Scottish” altogether and took up a new moniker – “North Britons”. There were long-standing social contracts – between rich and poor, lairds and peasants, Kirk and people – that had maintained some sort of harmony in Scottish society. The Scottish thinkers had a dynamic rather than static vision of economy and society. While modern economics seems enamored with mechanical systems, and assumes they will settle into some natural equilibrium, the Scottish philosophers had a more evolutionary outlook, in which economic and social forces do not settle, but rather continue changing. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers tried to explain how economic and social relations actually emerged and changed – through the slow march of history, and in their institutional context – rather than imagine they sprang fully-formed out of some mythical state of nature. As “Whigs,” most of the Scottish philosophers largely welcomed the union and the new commercial age, but they were simultaneously wary of its consequences and downright pessimistic that it could be smoothly handled by governing elites.