Here is part one of Alan Wood’s article on the history of the French
Revolution, first published in1989 to mark the 200th anniversary of the
storming of the Bastille on July 14th.
Part One: 1789, Fall of the Bastille
The 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille is the
occasion of national celebrations in France, a flood of books,
articles and TV programmes, presenting opinions for all tastes.
Yet beneath all the ballyhoo, the ghosts of 1789-93 are beginning
to stir uneasily. The modern descendants of that very bourgeoisie
which was the principal benefactor of the revolution are experiencing
a crisis of identity in their attitude to their own past. As one
journalist expressed it, "although all serious politicians in France
are republicans, only the left are entirely happy with the founding
The suggestion by the Communist mayor of Thionville that a bust of
Robespierre be erected in the town square lead to a vitriolic
argument in which one right wing councillor described the Jacobin
leader as "the Ayotallah Khomeini of his day."
While formally "celebrating" the Revolution with lavish parties
and speeches, the ruling class and its spokesmen make sure that the
real significance of this great event is carefully buried. The most
ignorant pundits proclaim that the French Revolution "proves" that
revolution always ends in tears. The most refined falsifiers of
history re-take the Bastille in the comfort of their studies,
demonstrating irrefutably that the Revolution never really occurred
and that, even if it did, everything was just the same after it as
The French Revolution was, however, one of the greatest events in
human history. It is an inexhaustible source of lessons for the
labour movement even today. Yet here the first note of caution must
be sounded. The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, and it
would be entirely mistaken to attempt to draw exact parallels between
the processes involved and the movement of the modern proletariat. To
attempt to do so would end up in all kinds of anachronistic and
In the period with which we are dealing, the proletariat, in the
modern sense of the word, hardly existed in France. True, there were
already a few large enterprises, like the Van Robais textile mills at
Abbeville which employed 12,000 workers or the Mines d’Anzin near the
Belgian border with 4,000. But the general picture of industry was
one of extreme underdevelopment when compared, for example, to
In 1789, for example, there were 900 "Spinning Jennies" in France
compared to 20,000 in Britain. In the whole of Paris there were only
50 factories employing between 100 and 800 workers. As a rule,
industry in France had not yet got beyond the stage of handicraft and
cottage-industry, often conducted on semi-feudal lines under the
distant supervision of merchant-manufacturers.
Large scale industry, insofar as it existed, was largely due to
the role of the state. But the normal development of capitalism was
hampered by state interference and feudal restrictions.
In 1789 only 15 per cent of the population lived in towns. Paris,
with a population of about half a million, was by far the biggest,
permitting it to play a decisive role in the events which were to
The bulk of the population consisted of peasants, and the agrarian
question was central, as always, to the bourgeois revolution.
Historians like Alfred Cobban in The Myth of the French
Revolution, have attempted to show that the French revolution was
not a bourgeois revolution, among other reasons, because feudalism
had been abolished before 1789.
It is true that serfdom had been abolished for most of the
peasants before 1789, although pockets of serfdom still existed in
parts of France – Comte and Nivernais. Cobban asserts that "not only
had the feudal aristocracy ceased to govern the country, it had even
ceased to own a large part of the land." But this presents a very
one-sided picture of the real state of the French countryside before
Despite the abolition of serfdom, only about one quarter of the
peasants owned the land. (See George Rude, Revolutionary
Europe, p. 23) More than half were poor share-croppers
("metayers") who owned no capital and shared their product
fifty-fifty with the landlord, while about a quarter were landless
labourers or rented tiny plots.
As in tsarist Russia, where serfdom was abolished in 1861, this
measure in no way alleviated the plight of the peasantry but on the
contrary increased the misery and wretchedness of the vast majority
while creating favoured conditions for the "Kulak" minority.
In France too the abolition of serfdom created a class of wealthy
peasants, the "Laboureux", which did not alter the miserable
conditions of the great majority of even the peasant proprietors, let
alone the landless peasants. The parcelling of land created a large
number of uneconomical units from which only a bare living could be
scratched. The resulting "rural over-population" meant that by 1777
over one million people were officially classed as beggars.
This rural semi-proletariat flocked to the towns, where industry,
still in its most primitive stage, could not absorb them. Those who
remained in the village existed by begging or doing seasonal work for
the landlords or "Laboureux". In bad seasons they provided plenty of
combustible material for riots and banditry.
The abolition of serfdom, moreover, did not mean the abolition of
other feudal "rights", which still existed: the corvee (statutory
labour obligation), toll charges for roads, bridges, etc, other
duties on fairs, markets and the like, "lods et ventres" (impost on
transfers of land within an estate), quit rents, ground rent and dues
in money or in kind, hunting rights, rights to keep rabbits, pigeons,
and a further bewildering array of direct and indirect taxes.
Apart from the landowners, the Churches and monasteries had the
right to levy similar impositions. In some areas, they even held
serfs. The fact, as Alex de Tocqueville explains, that some of these
rights had fallen into disuse and they were levied unevenly in
certain regions, merely helped to highlight the anachronistic nature
of feudal rights and render their existence still more intolerable.
To make matters worse, the state imposed heavy taxes, including a
poll tax (the "taille"), the "vingtieme" (from which the nobles,
clergy and officials were usually exempt) plus a whole battery of
indirect taxes. No less than 10 per cent of royal revenue was raised
through the salt tax (the "gabelle"). There were troth internal and
external customs duties ("traites") plus purchase tax ("aides") and
other indirect taxes which weighed heavily on the poor.
The need to raise taxes in turn reflected the crisis of the
absolutist state. A series of disastrous wars, culminating in the
French intervention in the American War of Independence (1778-83)
emptied the treasury. The royal debt increased from £93 million
in 1774 to £300 million in 1789. The Queen became known as
"Madame Deficit". The regime faced bankruptcy in the most literal
sense of the word.
The fall in real wages caused by inflation, plus the increased
pressure of taxation, gave rise to a spate of peasant uprisings or
"Jacqueries", which became almost a permanent phenomenon from 1782
right up to the revolution. One province after another was affected –
Poitiers, Vizille, the Cervennes, Vivorais, Gevaudan. In 1786, the
strike of the silk weavers at Lyons served notice on society that the
working class was already beginning to flex its muscles.
It is a dialectical contradiction that revolution always starts at
the top. The ruling class, no longer able to push society forward,
begins to sense that it has become an obstacle in the path of
progress. Fissures and splits begin to appear in the upper layers, as
they seek to find a way out of the impasse.
Already in the preceding decades, the wind of change had began to
blow in the ranks of the intelligentsia, that most sensitive
barometer of the mood of society. In the writings of Montesquieu,
Diderot, Voltaire, D’Alembert and Rousseau, the ideological basis of
the Ancien Regime was subjected to a thoroughgoing criticism.
Religion, absolute monarchy, inequality, were all required to give
account of themselves before the judgement seat of "Reason", long
before they stood condemned before the revolutionary tribunals.
The revolution in ideas anticipated the real political and social
revolution which was silently maturing in the womb of the old
society. It provided the rising bourgeoisie with the philosophical
premises for its attack on the old order.
By contrast, the impasse of the Ancien Regime was reflected in the
spectacle of moral and intellectual decay of the ruling clique. The
court of Louis XV resembled nothing so much as a high-class brothel,
dominated by the King’s favourite mistresses, the Pompadours and Du
Barrys. The all-pervading whiff of corruption hung around the court
of his successor, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, the hated
"Austrian woman", herself involved in a scandal, the "diamond
necklace affair", shortly before the outbreak of revolution.
Feeling the earth move under his feet, Louis desperately attempted
a reform of the financial system, now teetering on the brink of
collapse. Like Gorbachev today, his intention was to effect a partial
reform from the top to prevent a revolution from below. A whole
series of financial "reformers" were appointed: Maupeau under Louis
XV; Turgot, Necker and Calonne under his successor. But every one of
them stumbled over the principal obstacle: the flat refusal of the
aristocracy to accept that they should pay tax.
Here, too, Louis’ dilemma resembles that of Gorbachev and a whole
series of "reforming" tsars and Chinese emperors: how to get the
ruling aristocracy or bureaucracy to agree to part with some of their
privileges in order to save the system as a whole? In other words,
how to square the circle.
For a time Necker performed financial "miracles" which consisted
entirely of raising new loans, which made things worse. When he was
replaced by Calonne in 1786, the loans had finally run out. There was
nothing for it but for Louis to grit his teeth and confront the
aristocracy with the facts of life (as seen by the treasury).
However, the nobles replied by pointing out the facts of life (as
seen by them). Their resistance was organised through the
"parlements", not parliaments in the modern sense, but law courts,
remnants of the Middle Ages, dominated by the aristocracy which used
them to defend its vested interests against both King and Church.
With the conflict between the King and the parlements over
taxation, the split within the ruling class became open. It is
ironical that the reactionary parlement of Paris for a time became a
most unlikely focal point of popular resentment against the Monarchy.
The tax collecting system was beginning to break down, and the
loyalty of the army, even the officers, was in doubt. The arrest of
key "parlementaries" and the suspension of the parlement on 8 May
1788 merely raised the agitation to a new level.
The masses began to sit up and take notice, aroused by the open
warfare between the Monarchy and the parlements. There were riots in
Bordeaux, Dijon, Paris and Toulouse and more serious uprisings in
Brittany and Dauphine.
Faced with the prospect of a nation-wide revolt, the King backed
down. The parlement of Paris was first recalled, then dismissed, then
recalled. An "Assembly of Notables" was convened in an unsuccessful
bid to persuade the nobles to accept taxation, but it merely
encouraged the latter to demand further concessions, in the form of
the convening of the "States General", a body representing the
Nobility, Clergy end "Third Estate" (the "Commons"), which had not
met since 1614.
These vacillations and splits revealed the weakness of the
Monarchy, which finally agreed to call the "States General" for 1 May
1789. The breakdown of authority undermined the censorship. Paris was
inundated with a flood of pamphlets. Suddenly the whole of society
was caught up in a fever of political ferment.
This in turn reflected a growing mood of discontent in the deepest
recesses of society. The early months of 1789 are characterised by a
wave of peasant disturbances, directed against taxes and feudal dues.
Two bad harvests had caused the price of bread to soar, provoking
riots and attacks on grain convoys. The unrest spread to the towns.
In April a mob attacked the factory of a manufacturer accused of
starving the poor. It was not the only case of its kind. From March
on, there were food riots in Paris.
In this context, the "States General" was convened, and at once
revealed itself as a gigantic fraud. There was not a single peasant
among the delegates. Worse still, the non-aristocratic component, the
"educated classes" – bourgeois lawyers, manufacturers and teachers,
representing "the people" – were out-voted two-to-one by the nobility
The behaviour of these representatives was decisively affected by
the mood of the masses. It is impossible to understand the history of
the French revolution in parliamentary terms without reference to the
movement of the masses, particularly in Paris, which completely
determined the evolution of events at every decisive stage.
Anticipating "glasnost" by two hundred years, all sections of
society were encouraged to present their grievances in writing,
through the famous "cahiers de plaintes et doleances" (notebooks of
grievances). The "cahiers" of the "Third Estate", if taken together,
represented a complete programme for the transformation of society.
"When I had finished my labours," wrote de Tocqueville, "and made a
list of these various proposals I realised with something like
consternation that what was being asked for was nothing short of the
systematic, simultaneous abolition of all existing French laws
"There was no avoiding the fact that what the authors of these
cahiers jointly sponsored was one of the vastest, most
catastrophic revolutions the world had ever known. Yet the men who
were to be its victims had not the least presentiment of this: they
nursed the foolish hope that a sudden, radical transformation of a
very ancient, highly intricate social system could be effected almost
painlessly, under the auspices of reason and by its efficacy alone.
Theirs was a rude awakening!" (The Ancien Regime and the French
Revolution, p. l65)
The electoral assemblies which met to discuss the "cahiers" were
packed and agitated meetings. In Paris, in particular, the mood of
the masses was raised to fever pitch, with attacks on individual
"aristos" as well as strikes, riots and clashes with troops.
Kropotkin, in his book on the revolution, describes a typical scene
where the Keeper of the Seals and the Archbishop of Paris were
"hosted, abused and scoffed at. They were so overwhelmed with shame
and rage that apparently the King’s secretary Passeret, who was with
them, died of shock the next day." (The Great Revolution, p.
The scandalous situation where a tiny minority of wealthy nobles
and bishops had more votes than the rest of the French nation put
together caused tremendous indignation. Under pressure of the masses,
the bourgeois representatives of the Third Estate plucked up enough
courage to demand extra representation to cancel out the advantage of
the nobility and clergy, and also the right to vote separately.
While the "States General" debated, Louis, having realised too
late the dangers inherent in the situation, was preparing an armed
coup to disperse them. The dismissal of Necker, widely seen as a
reformist minister, served to bring the Paris masses onto the streets
on 12 July. The following day the working people of Paris seized guns
and powder and set about arming themselves. The workshops of Paris
produced 50,000 pikes in 36 hours. Thus, as Marx explained, the
counter-revolution acted as a whip to the revolution itself.
The army now found itself caught up in the general social ferment.
Troops disobeyed orders and refused to fire on the people. The
generals found their armies melting away. Determined to find arms,
the people raided the Hotel des Invalides which surrendered without a
fight, yielding 28,000 muskets.
This situation was absolutely characteristic of the French
revolution in all its decisive stages: the people’s parliamentary
"representatives" talk, debate, move resolutions, while the real
issues are decided by the revolutionary direct action of the masses.
Historians have evolved a whole mythology, vaunting the alleged
achievements of the parliamentary "leaders" of the Third Estate, who
on 17 June took the title of the National Assembly and three days
later, in the famous "tennis court oath", swore not to disband until
a constitution was granted. But the role of the masses was decisive
even in this. The galleries of the Assembly hall were constantly
packed by thousands of cheering and booing people urging the
politicians on. This was a decisive factor in stiffening the resolve
of the most radical elements and cowering the forces of reaction.
More decisive still was the spontaneous mass insurrection in Paris
which smashed Louis’ attempted coup. The workers, artisans and
journeymen of the Fauborg St. Antvine joined forces with the
bourgeois militia to storm the Bastille held by mercenary Swiss
guards on 14 July. This action dealt a death blow to Louis’ plans and
was the signal for a nation-wide insurrection. Nevertheless, the
"official version" which tries to reduce the French revolution to
this one event is very far from the truth.
14 July 1789 was not the end but only the beginning of the
revolution. This distortion is not at all accidental. The first phase
of the revolution placed power in the hands of the most conservative
wing of the big bourgeoisie in alliance with the so-called
"reformist" wing of the nobility, much the same as the February
revolution in 1917 in Russia initially placed power in the hands of
the Cadets and Milyukov.
From a Marxist viewpoint it is quite amusing to read the attempts
of "revisionist" historians like Cobban to "prove" that the French
revolution was not really a bourgeois revolution because the
Constituent Assembly which emerged from the July overturn was
extremely reluctant even to approve the abolition of the feudal
payments and services which weighed heavily on the peasantry.
The bourgeoisie was, as Cobban says, as terrified as the nobility
at the peasant uprising which spread like wildfire after July. In the
summer of 1789, the chateaux blazed from one end of France to the
other. Yet the Assembly dragged its feet with hair-splitting
arguments as to which payments were really "feudal" and which were
not, a distinction not really appreciated by peasants who cared
little about legal niceties when life and death questions were at
The bourgeois in the Assembly clung like grim death to the
landowners who had no difficulty in convincing them that the peasant
movement represented a challenge to property and order. Armand duc
d’Aiguillon, a big landowner, argued that "the rights in question are
a form of property and all property is sacred." (AW –
However, the sheer size of the rebellion made it impossible to put
it down by force, especially given the unreliable state of the
troops. In the words of Lefebvre: "They liberated themselves and
successive Assemblies only sanctioned what they had accomplished."
(The Coming of the French revolution, p. 213)
Feudal rights were thus abolished from below by mass action and in
spite of the "revolutionary bourgeoisie". In fact, as soon as it
could, the Assembly reintroduced them in a disguised form. A law of 3
May 1790 established that the peasant would have to pay for the
privilege of abolition, setting redemption rates at a very high
amount (20 times the annual fee for dues in money and 25 times for
dues in kind) which imposed a crushing burden on the majority of the
peasants. This sell-out to the aristocracy represented "a bitter
deception", in the words of Lefebvre, and led to the continuation of
the civil war in the countryside.
On 27 August, the Assembly adopted the "Declaration of the Rights
of Man" which today is trumpeted as a great achievement. But to the
mass of the people, deprived of bread and land, such declarations of
abstract "freedom" were worse than useless.
The new constitution established only a limited franchise based on
property and laid down a difference between the so-called "active"
and "passive" citizens. The latter, the poorest classes, were denied
In reality, the "freedom" of the bourgeois consisted basically in
the freedom to pursue their business unhindered by feudal
restrictions or the action of the workers. Thus, the guilds were
abolished, and at the same time, both strikes and trade unions were
banned. The confiscation of church property, which was allegedly "put
at the disposal of the nation", was also a measure in the interest of
the bourgeois who bought up the lion’s share of the church land. The
peasants gained nothing by this measure. There was not even an
attempt to set up a republic. The monarchy, now supposedly reconciled
to the changed order, was left well alone.
However, despite all the ingratiating flattery, the King remained
implacably hostile. The court circle became a hotbed of reaction and
conspiracy. A section of the nobility had already gone into foreign
exile to organise the counter-revolution from Coblentz. The remainder
bided their time and awaited an opportunity.
If matters had been left in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the
plans of the reactionaries might have succeeded. But once again the
masses intervened. The shortage of bread caused increasing
discontent, finding an echo in the numerous "Clubs" which sprang up
like mushrooms after a thunderstorm, and which were the 18th century
equivalent of modern political parties. There were strikes, petitions
and protests and a rain of pamphlets.
The centre of discontent was the royal veto and the justified fear
that the King and Queen might leave the country and join the
counter-revolutionaries massing on the borders of France.
On 5 October there was a second insurrection. The women of Paris
who bore the brunt of rising inflation and food shortages, and who
were awakened to political life, led a march on Versailles, shaming
their menfolk into following. This dealt a decisive blow to the
counter-revolution. The King and Queen were "invited" to Paris where
the people could keep an eye on them. For a second time the masses
had saved the revolution.
In reality, following the victory of 1789, there were two years of
reaction within the revolution itself. This, however, merely prepared
the next stage of revolutionary upswing which once again came as a
consequence of the threat of counter-revolution.
In June 1791, the King and Queen attempted to flee abroad but were
detained by the vigilance of the revolutionaries and sent back to
Paris. Even then, the cowardly and treacherous Assembly tried to
cover up the tracks, claiming incredibly that Louis had been
The increasing polarisation in society had found its reflection
inside the National Convention which split into "left" and "right",
these terms originally describing the seating arrangements of the
revolutionary and reactionary parties. On the right were the members
of the Feuillants Club, a collection of reactionary nobles, clergy
and monarchists. On the left were the members of the Jacobin Club and
particularly the radical Parisian Cordeliers Club, dominated by the
larger-than-life figure of Danton.
But the main party in the Assembly at this stage was the "centre"
party of Brissot and Vergriand, popularly known as the "Girondins",
because many of them came from the Gironde in Western France. The
Girondin deputies were drawn from the well-to-do classes and
professional people: teachers, doctors, but above all, lawyers.
Brilliant orators, they represented the backwardness of the provinces
which always tended to lag behind revolutionary Paris. They stood
first and foremost for the interests of the big mercantile
bourgeoisie of towns like Bordeaux.
They stood for the defence of the revolution but were terrified of
the independent movement of the masses. They were the party of order,
of property, the restoration of the currency and the rights of the
provinces against Paris. They were also the party of war.
For war, at this point, was rapidly becoming the central issue.
Austria and Prussia, egged on by royalist exiles and in cahorts with
Louis and Marie Antoinette, were clearly seeking a pretext to invade.
On 20 April 1792, the Assembly declared war on Austria. A series
of disastrous defeats ensued. The army which had been taken over
virtually unchanged from the old regime and hurled into combat
without preparation under the leadership of corrupt and treacherous
officers, many of whom were only looking for a suitable opportunity
to defect, was soon routed.
By Summer 1792, the fall of Paris looked inevitable. The darkest
hour for the revolution was the surrender of Verdun which General
Dumouriez treacherously handed over to the enemy. The Girondin
leaders, despairing of victory, entered into secret negotiations with
Had it depended on the Assembly and the Girondins all would have
been lost. But fortunately, once again the Paris masses took matters
into their own hands. On 10 August, about a week before the fall of
Verdun, the masses of Paris, together with the revolutionary
volunteers or "federes" from Marseilles and Brittany staged an
insurrection which effectively overthrew the monarchy.
This is the way in which the French bourgeois revolution unfolded:
at every stage the big bourgeoisie attempted to manoeuvre and
compromise with the monarchy, dragging their feet and attempting to
preserve as much as possible of the old regime. Only the
revolutionary intervention of the plebeian and semi-proletarian
masses, above all in Paris, succeeded in clearing aside all the
obstacles and pushing the revolution forward. To do so it was obliged
to struggle against the very bourgeoisie which would inevitably be
the heir to the revolutionary conquests paid for with the blood and
sacrifice of the masses. Such was the dialectic of the French
Click here to read part two: 1793, rise and fall of the Jacobins.