Social Class and the Development of Capitalism in the French Revolution

The multivolume Histoire socialiste de la Révolution française by Jean Jaurès, published between 1901 and 1907, began the process of what François Furet called “the takeover of the history of the Revolution by social history.” The 1917 Revolution, viewed by socialists as a conformation of Marx’s concept of historical materialism, further reinforced notions of social class conflict in the French Revolution. The works of Jaurès, Albert Mathiez, Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, and George Rudé solidified the importance of social class in the development of the historiography of the Revolution. These historians argued that the 1789 Revolution was bourgeois because both its origins and its outcomes were bourgeois. For the Marxist historians, the Revolution was the moment when agitated class forces came together to produce dramatic changes in the social, political and economic framework of France resulting in the economic hegemony of the bourgeois-capitalist mode of production.

The critics of the Marxist school claim that its rigid ideas of social class and class struggle and its notion of a capitalist economy are not often supported by the data and as a result, mislead the historical narrative. In his book Penser la Révolution français, François Furet objects to the oversimplification which he argues led to “a kind of simple, linear schema of history,” where the bourgeois revolution, with the peasantry and the popular urban classes behind it, overthrew feudalism to establish the capitalist mode of production. Alfred Cobban, George V. Taylor, François Furet and others have all made compelling cases against Marxist notions of class conflict and the resulting hegemony of the bourgeois economy in the French Revolution. However, Lefebvre’s narration in Quatre-Vignt-Neuf includes a description of the variations and levels of social class. Lefebvre also shows that the Revolution itself was not the advent of capitalism, since it was already in its infancy at the end of the Old Regime. Rather, the Revolution was only the occasion for the revolutionaries to see its potential to correct poverty and want. Therefore the strength of Marxist theory is that it serves as a general conceptual foundation that can be built upon, and Lefebvre’s own development of class theory and understanding of economy is an excellent example.

In 1954, Alfred Cobban began the inditement of whole Marxist interpretation of the Revolution by arguing that the empirical data gathered by Marxist historians blew up the very theories they hoped to reinforce. Most damaging to the Marxist model was Cobban’s attack on the concept of a revolutionary bourgeoisie, which he argued was not a unified social class but rather a loose grouping of socially and economically disparate middle classes, and the feudalism they were purported to have been struggling against did not exist in eighteenth century France. Instead, it was the peasantry rather than the bourgeoisie who acted first against what can be more accurately described as the seigniorial rights of the landed aristocracy.

In support of Cobban, George V. Taylor’s article, “Noncapitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution,” attacks the whole idea of a social class “created and nurtured by capitalism.” For Taylor, the fundamental question boils down to whether the bourgeoisie of 1789, however defined, had any economic unity that made it distinct from other classes by being grounded in different forms of wealth. He concludes that it is impossible to equate the revolutionary bourgeoisie with a distinct social class “who owned the instruments of production in an emergent capitalist economy.” However, a careful reading of Quatre-Vignt-Neuf reveals that Lefebvre himself understood that the bourgeoisie was not a uniform class. For Lefebvre, the bourgeoisie is defined in part by both its exclusion from the nobility and its economic agency which separated them from the poorer members of the Third Estate, the peasants and the “working class.”

In his 1964 essay Social Interpretation, Cobban argues that no modernized, capitalist economy emerged from the Revolution because France did not industrialize until the late in the nineteenth century. He aptly points out that throughout the nineteenth century, French commerce and industrial production remained limited and provincial in terms of its markets, while French agriculture remained backwards, inefficient, and was slow to adopt innovations. Yet in Quatre-Vignt-Neuf , Lefebvre has little doubt that there was capitalistic enterprise centered around banking and a whole industry built around supplying the army and navy with provisions and transport. He shows that merchants became wealthy chiefly through sea borne commerce of which a considerable sum was derived from the colonies. However, Lefebvre does not exaggerate the importance of centralized or large scale production, finding that industry was “socially and economically subordinate.” For Lefebvre, the Revolution only brought about a new realization about economic potential: “They had before their eyes a society in which modern capitalism was barely beginning, and which the increase of productive capacity seemed the essential corrective to poverty and want.” This was the foundation of a new society, and in this way, Lefebvre’s interpretation is reasonable.

In Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution, Lynn Hunt takes the view that the social and economic changes brought about by the revolution were not revolutionary. The nobility kept their titles and much of their land and industrialization and capitalism grew very slowly. However, Hunt, like Tocqueville before her, points out that politics had been completely transformed by the revolution, empowering thousands. It is in this way that the bourgeoisie, a unified social class only in the most broad definition, gained power. She argues that democratic republicanism was only possible because of the contradictions in the Old Regime political culture and given a voice by a new political class who itself was molded by its responses to new ideas and new symbols. From this, it would seem that Hunt’s thesis of the advent of a revolutionary political culture is, in part, not incompatible with Lefebvre’s idea that the newly empowered bourgeoisie recognized the potential of the capitalist mode of production that lay before them, and it is because of the revolutionary political culture, which replaced the honor of blood for the utility of talent, that capitalism’s full potential could be realized.

The revisionists are right to point out the fallacies of social class and capitalist economy that the Marxist historians have built into the historiography of the French Revolution. Cobban and Taylor argue that a rigid concept of social structure does not fit tightly within the historical narrative of the revolution itself. However, Lefebvre’s conclusions, while consistent with the general socialist concept, shows that definitions of class in eighteenth century France were more complex than the basic Marxist model. On economy, revisionists like Furet argue that the mode of capitalist production did not result from a revolutionary transformation from feudalism as argued by Marxist historians, but instead was a continuation of an ongoing process under the guise of change. For Hunt, it was not the Revolution itself, but the continued process of modernity that fostered capitalism and strong central states because they grew just as well, perhaps even better, under monarchy and empire in the nineteenth century. Hunt, like Tocqueville, argues that most everything was a continuation of processes that were already underway, save for the advent of a revolutionary political culture. Lefebvre takes it one step further: the newly politically empowered bourgeoisie was in a large part responsible for recognizing capitalism’s tremendous potential. In the end, the growth of the bourgeois economy could never be reversed regardless of what regime followed, be it authoritarian, monarchial, or republican, because its efficient creation of surplus wealth only served to strengthen their power. The Revolution did what the monarchy could not; it rid French society of much of its parasitic nobility whose interest often was in conflict with the processes of modernity. Future regimes would not miss an aristocracy that did little to justify its existence, much less its claim to power. The new aristocracy of notables would understand that it would take more than just blood to justify their primacy; it would require blood and money. The striking French miners that Émile Zola would write about in 1885 would come to know all too well what the former serfs of the Old Regime could have never imagined in their worst nightmares.


Amariglio, Jack and Norton, Bruce “Marxist Historians and the Question of Class in the French Revolution” History and Theory, Vol. 30, №1, (February, 1991): 37–55.

Cavanaugh, Gerald J., “The Present State of French Revolutionary Historiography: Alfred Cobban and beyond,” French Historical Studies, Vol. 7, №4, (Autumn, 1972): 587–606.

Furet, François, Interpreting the French Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Hunt, Lynn, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Lefebvre, George, The Coming of the French Revolution, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Taylor, George V “Noncapitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution” American Historical Review, 72 (1965): 469–496.

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