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Four Cultural Upheaval and Class Formation During the French Revolution
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The question inevitably arises of the social and economic origins of this new and soon to be politicized cultural world view. Was 1789 the more or less efficient machine de guerre of the nascent and irresistible French bourgeoisie, a frustrated, increasingly prosperous and antinoble group with a narrow if distinct cultural and economic configuration? Or was it instead a broader cultural upheaval, staged by a wide and educated public with divergent interests and materially unreformed origins?

To go one step further, can the Revolution be conceived as the well-nigh doomed effort of a socially heterogenous elite to institutionalize (in the face of historical legacy and popular resistance) a radically new and complementary, highly volatile and even self-destructive view of the private self and the social self? Generations of Marxist historians assumed that revolutionary politics were the necessary effect of antecedent social and economic change. Many historians would now wish to turn that assumption on its head: revolutionary politics failed precisely because the culture of the elites did not supply a solid material foundation.

The supposed material origins of Enlightenment thought are well known. Who would choose to ignore the strains caused by population growth or minimize increases in the volume of trade with the development of a comprador economy, on the Atlantic coast especially? Of relevance also are the rise of the national debt and the increased circulation of money. Many other factors of this type have been closely investigated: that is, the stabilization of the currency after 1724; improved communications under the aegis of the state and its trained employees; the gradual displacement of sharecropping by leaseholding (in Babeuf's Picardy, at least); incipient regional specialization and industrialization; the standardization of prices within an incipiently national market; introduction of new crops; and so forth. A century of excellent and relentless research allows an impressive extension of this point of view. Much is to be learned also from the material evolution of the French nation's constituent groups: pressed for funds, many nobles, parlementaires especially, did their best to revive lapsed and antique feudal dues. French peasants suffered especially: more numerous, unwilling or unable to go abroad or to leave the land for cities where the demand for labor was low, many of them were caught in a cruel bind between rising prices and an essentially unchanging productivity. Beggary was widespread, and much feared, in prerevolutionary urban and rural France.


But few historians of the Revolution would choose today to make of these transformations the determining base of some epiphenomenal cultural or political superstructure. The older arguments will not hold. The rhythm of cultural change far outstripped that of its material analog: in the main, France in 1789 was still as it had always been, a collection of "immobile villages." Unlike London, Paris was primarily an administrative center that grew relatively little in the eighteenth century, and which remained more focused on the production of luxury goods than on modern industry or international commerce. The creation of the Bank of England in 1694 antedates that of the Bank of France by more than a century. The relative immaturity in the eighteenth century of French private and state finance (and the attendant importance of foreign Protestant and Swiss bankers like those honest brokers, Necker and Clavière) needs no emphasis. Their presence speaks loudly to the relative financial backwardness of the French economy.

It is of great consequence that the French bourgeoisie, much of it marked by Jansenism, was, like the great majority also of French working people, visibly uninterested in the capitalist applications of the laws of supply and demand. Unlike the American and English political elites of the times, the French revolutionary political class had its roots in the professions, in law above all else, and not in business. The mercantile interest was socially marginal in France before 1789, and politically marginal after that as well in the nation's Assemblies, after 1791 especially.

Economic travails were often the catalyst of political radicalization after 1789, and especially for the urban poor; but they were never its first cause. The execution of the king was, for example, more relevant to the surge of the enragés in the spring of 1793 than was the competition of the army and the urban poor for scarce and more expensive food.

It is for reasons of this kind ultimately futile and even misleading to find the origins of cultural change in the material transformations of French society. Material change coincided with the cracking of the cake of custom, but it was more a sign than a cause of that event. The cardinal principles of the French Enlightenment have to be understood as a terminus ad quem, as the "vectors of new perceptions of reality,"[13] rather than as the mere consequence of some deeper cause. In the postrevolutionary words of Roederer, the institutions of the Ancien Régime were more injurious than they were onerous. A century of materialist explanation needs to be reinterpreted and transcended.

Unfortunately, historians who agree that the origins of the Revolution were more cultural than material have also found it extremely difficult to discuss these origins in a convincing way. The counting of books is a disappointing lode. Ideologically undiscriminating tabulations—which are of necessity sterile intellectually—ordinarily reveal the surprising (and of course deceptive) conservatism of the reading public.


An emphasis on the seamier side of the Enlighterment (that is to say, the reification rather than the interpretation of pornography) is likewise problematic, especially when a historiographical choice of this kind is, as it were, "institutionalized": it is highly conjectural to hypostasize the existence of a French Grub Street, of a supposed self-conscious milieu of scribblers and pamphleteers, many of whom in actual fact were either courtiers or the isolated hired pens of high-flying polemicists. Developed networks of information certainly existed even before the Revolution: on September 19, 1783, over a hundred thousand Parisians, forming perhaps the largest crowd that had ever been seen in France, knew that they should go to Versailles in order to witness the ascent of Montgolfier's hot-air balloon. To ignore the journalistic mediatization of information during the French Revolution would be very unwise: Hébert, Roux, Marat, Brissot, Desmoulins, Robespierre, and Mirabeau were all journalists of a kind. The creation of a typographical school run by women and for women is surely one of the most indicative faits-divers of the Revolution. But the torrent of the French Revolution cannot be plausibly presented as the subcategory of frustrated prerevolutionary journalistic ambition. Marat's Plan de Législation Criminelle of 1779 was certainly incendiary, but as his doctrinaire and Marxist biographer, Massin, interestingly points out, Marat was then at the height of his social success, and the radicalization of his polemical ideas owed more to the recent successes of America's revolutionaries than to his private concerns.

Far more critical in the background of cultural change than these pamphleteers was the emergence in enlightened France of "public opinion" as an accepted point of reference. The Republic of letters, it has often been suggested, was an antecedent of republicanism sans phrases. But public opinion was understood by all (including the hired hacks who tried to influence it through scurrilous text and image) to be the expression of the nation's renewed elite, and not of its marginal members at all. Symbolically, the first apologist of this "reine du monde" was Necker, minister to the king, a religious man who remained, in the end, more a partisan of enlightened despotism than of parliamentary monarchy sans phrases.

Institutional and political antecedents also appear promising as a possible cause of deep-seated cultural transformations. High on that list are the modernizing effects of the Ancien Régime itself, its leveling effect on "feudalism," a development whose consequences are well known to the readers of Tocqueville. The names of Lebrun, a client of Maupeou in the early 1770s who became second consul in 1799, and that of the future Baron Louis (in the 1780s a friend of Calonne and, many years later, himself a minister of finance) are eloquent symbols of the modernizing and official continuity that links the so-called Old Regime to the admittedly streamlined Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic state. The Bourbon monarchy did not succeed in modernizing French social institutions, but it did a great deal to make older arrangements obsolete.


More critical yet as possible causes for the rise of a new private and public vision of the common good are explanations that center less on the external forces (be they material, cultural, or political) that attacked traditional corporatism in France, than on the internal decay of that ancient system.

For a variety of reasons, many of them related to the French state's incessant need for money, the prestige of judicial and administrative traditionalism vanished as its scope increased. In some sense, traditionalist institutions in monarchic France simply collapsed under their own weight. (In Spain, a "backward" country, professional corporatism was by 1789 much more lightly felt than in France: women there had been given the right to enter any profession of their choice already in 1784; the venality of offices was unkown south of the Pyrénées; and outside of Catalonia, the institutions of provincial particularism were as a rule politically inconsequential.)

Behind the decay in France of corporatism and monarchic traditionalism was also to be found the self-destructing bent of its constituent institutions. Feudalism, as Tocqueville emphasized, no longer fullfilled any useful purpose. Its judicial and financial vestiges were bitterly criticized by many noble and official publicists. Guilds likewise neared collapse under the strains of internal rivalries. The momentary unpopularity of a church that rejected both tolerance and millenarian zeal has often been described but needs to be emphasized: the French in the 1780s were a religious people whose religiosity was dangerously incapable of finding expression in a church that had simultaneously rejected popular millenarianism and the enlightened individuation of religious forms. The humiliation of Jansenism, for example, was still deeply felt in 1789, as was to be attested by the careers of Grégoire and Lanjuinais. The Catholic church on the eve of the Revolution was a troubled institution, more torn by doubts than at any time since the Reformation: perhaps as many as twenty thousand clerics abjured their priesthood in 1793–1794, and three thousand of them chose to marry.

The weakness of the monarchy and the decline of its patriarchal myth in an age of incipient nationalism were also critically relevant to the rise of a countervailing political ethic. Though France in 1685 brought the idea of absolute monarchy to its European zenith, the prestige of enlightened despotism as a method of government was weaker in late eighteenth-century France than in any other continental country. By the 1780s, and perhaps long before, literate Frenchmen had given up on the idea of "reform from above." The servants of the French king were no more efficacious than their master: unlike its Prussian analog, the French bureaucracy was incapable of sustained and independent political action. Important also were diplomatic difficulties and the inability of the French state to maintain armed forces commensurate with its international goals.

Nationalist passions can likewise be seen as both a cause and effect of change. The growing prestige (and masculinization) of public life heightened the sense of nationhood. Nationalism in turn reinforced the new categories of


the private and the public. The elite of the French nation, with its eye on Britain's domestic economic achievement and her mortifying, worldwide military successes, resented the inability of the Bourbon state to marshal the energies of the French people. As has been remarked, the subjects of Louis XV and of his grandson had a lively—and grating—sense of French economic backwardness and of Britain's military, industrial, commercial, financial, and imperialist superiority. Bonaparte spoke knowingly when he said that the victory of Fontenoy had given the French monarchy an extra forty-five years of life, but it did no more than that.

The fit between domestic and international concerns was tight: the failure of the crown's bureaucracy to enact institutional modernization at home dovetailed in the public mind with its failure to impose its will on foreigners, as was seen in Holland especially in 1787. The waning prestige of this "visible hand," the decay of the mercantilist/absolutist state, crystallized the rising appeal in the minds of French men and women of new sensibilities, soon to become demanding systems of ideology. Some of these, like physiocracy, emphasized individualistic economic effort. Others, in the works of Mably for example, emphasized communitarian values. But all of them were ecumenical visions that assumed the possible creation of a transparent state, of an "invisible hand," that might effortlessly express the will of a united people.

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Four Cultural Upheaval and Class Formation During the French Revolution
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