Introduction support of their position with the scholarly



The French Revolution
is the one of many revolutionary events in the history that are often
discussed. The debate over this incident has continued for two hundred years.
It has an important impact on the modern world. In the twentieth century, it is
full of sectarian opinions on the controversy of origins of the revolution. The
most influential one is Marxism. However, until the mid
of 1950s that it was criticized by British and American historians. The essay will demonstrate
the French Revolution based on the content of the video and illustrate how they
complement each other in support of their position with the scholarly journal

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Background of the French


According to the video clip, during the
upheaval of the French Revolution, there are a couple of questions challenged
the entire nation such as what rights people have and where they come from, who
gets to make decisions for others and on what authority, and how we can
organize society to meet people’s needs. By the end of 18th century,
Europe had undergone a profound intellectual and cultural changes, known as the
Enlightenment. Philosophers and artists have traditionally and religiously
promoted reason and human freedom. At that time, France was one of the largest
and richest countries in Europe and still governed by an ancient regime of
three rigid social classes called Estates. Estates were divided into the First
(the Catholic clergies), Second (the nobles) and Third (middle class merchants
and craftsmen) Estates.


The monarch King Louis XVI granted special
privileges to the First and Second Estates with his divine right. However, over
20 million peasants, had less power and they were the only ones who paid taxes,
not just to the king, but to the other Estates as well. In poor harvest years,
taxation could leave peasants with almost nothing while the king and aristocrats
lived lavishly on their extracted wealth. Moreover, as France sank into debt
due to its support of the American Revolution and its long-term war with United
Kingdom, the king thought that change was needed. King Louis appointed finance
minister, who promoted tax reforms and won public support by openly publishing
the government’s finances, but the king’s advisors strongly oppose these
initiatives. Consequently, the first time in 175 years the king convened an assembly
of three representatives. Although the Third Estate represented 98% of the
French population, it is unfair that it votes was equal to each of the other
Estates. Unsurprisingly, the upper classes favored keeping their privileges. The
Third Estate realized that they couldn’t get fair representation, so that they
broke off and declared itself as the National Assembly. Moreover, they drafted
a new constitution with or without the other Estates. Then, King Louis dismissed
his popular minister. In response, thousands of outraged Parisians joined with
sympathetic soldiers to storm the Bastille prison that was a symbol of royal
power and a large storehouse of weapons. The French Revolution had begun and rebellion
spread throughout the country, the feudal system was ultimately abolished. All
in all, the Revolution saw three constitutions and five governments within ten
years, followed by decades alternating between monarchy and revolt before the
next Republic formed in 1871.


The orthodox theory of the French Revolution


According to Feudalism and the French Revolution, the French Revolution has long been regarded as
a bourgeois revolution against the feudal system. The French historian Georges
Lefebvre proposed a typical Marxist framework to explain the nature and origin
of the French Revolution. This interpretation is concise and convincing in the
literature of the French revolution. Besides, it had supreme and profound
influence on post-war British and American scholars on the history of the
French Revolution.


Lefebvre’s basic thesis
is that the French Revolution was essentially a bourgeois revolution which origins
were in fact the result of the rise of the bourgeoisie. French society is a
feudal society which the aristocracy monopolized its social and political
status by owning the wealth of the land, even formed a closed class. With the
growth of industry and commerce, a new type of wealth has emerged in European
society that was the bourgeoisie. The class was getting stronger and stronger
than the feudal class. Nevertheless, the political structure of the old society
has not been adjusted to reflect the new economic reality. Although the
aristocracy has gradually fallen through the ranks, the emerging bourgeoisie
has economic strength but no social and political status. The bourgeoisie cannot
endure such social repression and unfair policies for a long time. The
bourgeois-oriented society, especially of industrial development and personal
interests, has replaced the one that has not changed its basic anatomy since
the Middle Ages. The old regime was characterized by limited commercial and
industrial expansion, commercial inertia, exclusive aristocracy, exploited
peasants, and an increasingly active but socially excluded middle class. This
old society was considered “feudal” and allowed the continuation of traditional
genetic laws and social inequalities while preserving the integrity of the land
ownership system and preventing major changes in the pattern of farming and
land tenure. According
to the orthodox position, the French Revolution constituted an explosion
resulting from the sudden release of deep-seated middle-class resentment
against the restrictive feudal regime of economy and society. Additionally, they think that the propose of
the French Revolution is that breaking the old social distinction and striving
for its social status. In short, Lefebvre believed that the French Revolution
was a “class struggle” between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, and the
bourgeoisie won and rose to the midst of the new order. Lefebvre’s interpretation
of Marxism was widely accepted by scholars, it seemed to be the orthodoxy of
the French Revolution.



of the French Revolution


However, the orthodox thesis
of the origins of the French Revolution was challenged, According to The French Revolution and “Revisionism”, the attack on this venerable position is most closely associated with the name of Alfred Cobban. He after having taught modern French history for several
years in the University of London, he inaugurated his chair in modern French
history with a public lecture on the provocative title of “The Myth of the
French Revolution.” In this lecture, he presented the “Revolution of 1789” as a
fiction and put into question the “bourgeois” and “anti-feudal” character of
the event.1


Alfred Cobban questioned the argument of Lefebvre, the so-called
French Revolution was the validity of “the replacement of the feudal system by
the capitalist order.” He thinks that this view is not consistent with the
historical facts and is merely a “myth.” In his point, “feudal system” refers
to a set of aristocratic social and political systems based on land ownership. Cobban
convinces that this meaning of the feudal system has long disappeared before the
period of the revolutionary France. On the one hand, the French feudal
aristocrats had not monopolized the land because a long period of sale and
resale, about a third of the aristocratic land had already flowed into
civilians; on the other hand, they virtually no longer ruled France because
French aristocrats have been forced to leave politics since King Louis XIV
ruled France. Therefore, it is not true that the so-called French revolution
overthrew the “feudal system.” Cobban pointed out that during the French
Revolution, the abolition of the “feudal system” by the National Assembly actually
meant “seigniorial rights” such as sovereignty, hunting rights, mills, wineries
and ovens and so on. The abolition of these rights does not mean the abolition
of the feudal system. Alfred Cobban further reviewed the Lefebvre’s theory
of bourgeois revolution. Lefebvre argues that the French Revolution originated
in the rise of the bourgeoisie, while the so-called “rising bourgeoisie” refers
to the great merchants, industrialists, financiers and specialized
professionals and so on, who the characters of the development of business.
However, Cobban’s statistical analysis of the background of the representatives
of the French National Assembly has found that the French Revolution did not
actually dominate the wealthy bourgeoisie but a group of middle-lower
bourgeoisie mainly composed of bureaucrats, lawyers and professionals.

Therefore, Alfred Cobban
revised Lefebvre’s view that the middle and lower bourgeoisie what the main
force of the French Revolution. Here, although Cobban remanded
Lefebvre’s point of view, he failed to deny its basic explanation structure:
the French Revolution originated from the “class struggle” between the
aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.

He just simply replaced Lefebvre’s “rising bourgeoisie” with what he
called the “declining bourgeoisie.” However, after the mid of 1960s, a new
generation of British and American historians continued to examine Lefebvre’s
views from different angles with rigorous research. Their
efforts gradually shake the explanation structure of the “class struggle” of
the Marxism. For example, George Taylor points out that scholars are used to
separating the French society under the old order into two opposing classes,
the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, and hold that the former upholds the
inherent feudal order while the latter represents emerging capitalism. In his
opinion, this dichotomy is too simple and does not reflect the reality of
French social classes. He also found that French aristocrats were not
completely conservative and were in fact very entrepreneurial and actively
involved in investment activities. In other words, the phenomenon of capitalism
or bourgeoisification arose in the French aristocracy. By contrast, after
becoming wealthy, the bourgeoisie likes to invest its wealth in
“non-capitalist wealth” such as land, government bonds and public
debt, and imitates the aristocratic way of life. It hopes to one day rank among
the ranks of the aristocracy. In other words, the French bourgeoisie is also
aristocratic or feudalized. Therefore, the actual situation is that the French
capitalism and the feudal order are intertwined, it is not in keeping with the
historical facts that they should be absolutely painted and put on the opposite
side. Taylor mainly prove that the French bourgeoisie and the aristocrat class
in the eighteenth century tended to converge rather than move toward opposites.
This standpoint disrupts the Marxism of “class struggle” interpretation of the
structure because there is no class antagonism, naturally there is no class


Furthermore, George Taylor tried to come up with a new explanation that
the French Revolution was caused by political factors. He thinks that the
reasons that the revolution took place in France and the bourgeoisie opposed
the aristocrats during the revolution are the financial problems in the latter
part of the old regime and the political crisis caused by this problem.
Therefore, by its very nature, the French Revolution is “a political revolution
with some social consequences; it is not the political consequence of a social




the late nineteenth century, the study of the French Revolution was almost
monopolized by the orthodox theory. Until the late twentieth century, the term “revisionism” of speaking of the Revolution
appeared, but it failed to deny Marxism of basic explanation structure. It is probably that there will be more new interpretations
for the French Revolution in the future.

1 Langlois, C., & Tackett,
T. (1990). The French Revolution and “Revisionism”. The
History Teacher, 23(4), 396