Tess Lee Ack
23 March 2010
The first premier of the People’s Republic of China, Chou En-lai, was once asked for his assessment of the Great French Revolution. He replied: “It’s too early to say.” The Western media thought this was really profound and the anecdote was often cited as evidence of Chou’s intellectual depth.
Chou was a Stalinist, of course, but for anyone claiming to be a Marxist, this was a mind bogglingly stupid thing to say. One of the great things about Marxism after all is that it provides the analytical tool we need to make such assessments: historical materialism.
Marx and Engels grew up in a world shaped by the French Revolution. Marx was born in the Rhineland, in the west of what later became Germany. This area was occupied by Napoleon’s armies until 1814, which accelerated the dismantling of feudalism in the region, and also meant that its intellectual life was deeply affected by the ideas of the Revolution.
Marx and Engels were not born as fully-fledged socialist revolutionaries. The body of theory and analysis that we now call Marxism developed over a period of time in response to actual historical events and was refined and clarified in the course of debates and arguments over other, competing, ideas. Understanding the causes and outcomes of the French Revolution was an essential part of this process.
Marx and Engels began their political lives as ardent democrats, in a sense taking up the banner of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, the slogans of the French Revolution.
But by the early 1840s, Marx was beginning to realise that these ideals could never be achieved in a society based on material inequality, and that real freedom and democracy were impossible in a society that was divided into exploiters and exploited – that is, a class society.
This insight was crucial to the development of Marx’s ideas. In 1844 he teamed up with Engels to work on a critique of the idealism of the Young Hegelians, and out of this came their first attempt to outline the methods of historical materialism, in a work called The German Ideology.
Although never published in their lifetimes, it underpinned much of their later work, and it remains today the classic introduction to the materialist understanding of history. They wrote:
“Instead of starting with ideas, society can only be understood and ultimately changed, by examining the material realities on which it is based.
“The premises from which we begin are…the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity.…
“The fundamental fact about real individuals is that they must engage in production in order to survive, and this shapes every other aspect of their lives.”
To produce what we need to survive – that is, to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves – requires raw materials, labour, appropriate tools etc. Marx and Engels called this material aspect the forces of production.
But production is also a social process, in which people have to organise and co-operate to produce the things they need. So it always involves social relations. The division of labour within production gives rise to distinct social classes, which are defined by their relationship to the means of production.
The ruling class of any society is the class that controls the production process and the distribution of products. Their interests are directly counterposed to those of the class they exploit in order to produce a surplus. Marx and Engels called this aspect the social relations of production.
So the material conditions of production include both the forces of production – the methods and technology used – and the social relations of production – how society is organised to do this.
It’s on the basis of the concrete material conditions of production that the rest of a society develops: its culture, social structures and the institutions of the state – which include armed forces to protect the minority ruling class’s control over the means of production.
The forces of production and the social relations of production together make up the mode of production. Marx and Engels divided human history into periods based on the prevailing mode of production: ancient, Asiatic, feudal, capitalist – each defined by how the ruling class extracts a surplus from the exploited class.
In agriculturally-based feudal society for example, ownership of the land was central to the economy. The feudal social structure reflected that fact: lords who ruled by virtue of armed force, and peasants tied to the land.
This is the starting point of Marx and Engels’ materialist conception of history – as they put it, “the ‘history of humanity’ must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange.”
So how does all this help us to understand the French Revolution?
Contemporary artists and intellectuals like Goethe, Beethoven and Wordsworth welcomed the revolution. As Goethe rightly put it in 1792, the high point of the revolution: “Here and today begins a new age in the history of the world.”
The French Revolution cleared the path for the development of capitalism by destroying feudalism and feudal social relations. It forced the pace of change, accelerating the development of wealth and productive enterprise to previously undreamt of levels.
It hastened the ascendency of reason and science, rather than mysticism and religion, as the dominant ideas of society, and it dealt a death blow to the idea that monarchs were born with a god-given right to rule.
All of this constituted a huge leap forward for humanity. But while it raised the banner of freedom and insisted that all people are born equal, the French Revolution did not liberate humanity.
Instead, it brought a new ruling class to power at the head of a new and even more brutal system of exploitation. It was a bourgeois revolution, named for the class that benefited from it, the bourgeoisie; it was the capitalists who formed the core of that class.
Before the bourgeois revolutions the world was very different. Most people lived in small rural communities and worked the land. Rather than selling their labour to an employer, they were forced to hand over some of their crops to landlords or taxmen. Nation states, with their defined borders, common language, standing armies and unified markets did not exist.
The bourgeois revolutions in England in the 17th century, and then in France in the 18th century, forcibly transformed society to create the conditions for capitalism: the modern system of competition, wage labour and nation states.
There is no single template for bourgeois revolutions; they did not follow an identical, mechanical path, nor were the outcomes pre-determined. In the 19th century for example, bourgeois revolutions were largely carried out from above by existing regimes. The only necessary component of a bourgeois revolution, and what defines it as such, is the outcome: the establishment of a state committed to ensuring the accumulation of capital.
That said, the French Revolution involved three key elements: firstly, the bourgeois leadership that gave the revolution its class character; secondly, the mass mobilisations of peasants, urban masses and revolutionary armies that were necessary to take power and defend the new state; and thirdly the thorough dismantling of feudalism and removal of obstacles to capitalist development.
For Marx and Engels the French Revolution provided the clearest example of how capitalism had first emerged within feudalism as a subordinate mode of production and then become dominant across a particular national territory.
But this outcome was not simply the inevitable evolutionary triumph of a more dynamic economic system; it required a struggle for political power by the capitalist class against the existing feudal order – i.e. revolution.
Because it was a property-owning class, the bourgeoisie was able to develop its economic and social power within the structures of feudalism. In the 60 years before the revolution, French trade grew by 400 per cent, iron production by 300 per cent and coal production by 700 per cent. These are indicators of a real and significant growth in wealth based on commerce, manufacture and trade. Factories began to appear, such as the Le Creusot iron and steel factory which employed over 1,300 workers using the most modern machinery available at the time. The size of the bourgeoisie was also growing: by 1789 it’s estimated they numbered some 2.3 million, compared to only 120,000 nobles.
In the north of France, capitalist agriculture emerged, stimulating the development of transport links and infrastructure such as ports, rail and canals. These economic changes also brought increasing class differentiation between landowners and day labourers, for example.
There was a certain level of integration at the top of society. All landowners, whether noble or bourgeois, were increasingly producing for the market, and nobles were increasingly involved in trade and commerce. On the other hand, whenever the king needed money, some of the wealthier bourgeois were able to buy themselves positions which conferred noble status and therefore social privileges and tax exemptions.
But there were limits to this process because the whole superstructure of the state, monarchy and church were based on feudal production. The nobles were determined to maintain their power and privileges, as well as their virtual monopoly of the state, especially the judiciary and the army.
So a whole series of barriers remained – feudal dues and privileges, internal tolls, taxes, monopolies and so on. These barriers hindered economic development, and put France at a disadvantage compared to its more advanced rivals in Holland and England. They also excluded the vast bulk of the bourgeoisie from political power and influence.
Marx described this situation as follows:
“At a certain stage in their development the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production…
“From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.
“With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.’
In 1789 the French state was virtually bankrupt, and this fiscal crisis meant the imposition of harsh taxes on the commoners. Not content with being exempt from this tax burden, the nobles also raised rents, further increasing popular hardship and discontent. At the same time there was a crisis of under-investment in the capitalist manufacturing sector as well as a crisis of subsistence in feudal agriculture, which led to skyrocketing bread prices and widespread hunger. The conjuncture of all these events plunged France into a profound social crisis.
The calling by the king of the Estates General – a sort of parliament representing the various social classes – was an attempt to deal with the crisis by pushing through reform. But it rapidly became the focus around which all the accumulated tensions in French society erupted.
Revisionist historians argue that it was all just a bit of a squabble between the nobility and the bourgeoisie which could and should have been resolved peacefully. They argue this, not on the basis of the historical evidence, but because it serves their mission in life, which is to deny the necessity of revolution to achieve fundamental change.
They ignore the historical fact that all attempts at reform and compromise utterly failed, mainly because of the resistance put up by the old order.
So although many of the wealthier bourgeois would have preferred to avoid revolution, they ultimately had no choice but to go along with it.
The key political leadership, however, was not provided by the big bourgeoisie, the industrialists and financiers, but rather by radical, often petit bourgeois Jacobins (such as Robespierre who was a lawyer), and a layer of alienated intelligentsia who had no ties to the old regime and no future under it.
The Jacobins realised that the bourgeoisie could not defeat the old order on their own. They understood that if the revolution didn’t go forward to a successful conclusion, the gains made so far would not survive – and nor would they.
In order to destroy feudalism, it was necessary to mobilise the urban and rural masses, and to do that they needed an ideology to inspire the masses and convince them that they had something to gain from the revolution.
The ideology of the French Revolution was provided by the ideas of the Enlightenment, distilled into the slogans of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. The Jacobins emphasised the egalitarian aspects of these slogans, while also pointing to the dangers of the counter-revolution with their slogan of “Liberty or death”.
There was as yet no working class in the modern sense, and while the masses were not yet capable of playing an independent role, their participation was crucial. The urban poor of Paris, the sans culottes and bras nus, were particularly important, intervening at key points to either save the revolution from defeat or push it forward.
With the support of the masses, the Jacobins were able to defeat the counter-revolution, win the war with Austria and complete the abolition of feudalism using the extreme measures of the Terror.
The Terror wasn’t only waged against openly counter-revolutionary elements. It was also a means to discipline sections of the bourgeoisie itself. They had to be forced to agree to measures such as price controls, anathema to any capitalist, in order to keep the masses on side.
Once the main objectives of the revolution were secured, however, the Jacobins’ balancing act became untenable. Robespierre’s fall in July 1794 ushered in a period of reaction and repression known as Thermidor, which culminated in the dictatorship of Napoleon in 1799.
It’s important to understand, though, that this period was also part of the bourgeois revolution. Far from being an attempt to overthrow the gains of the revolution, the aim was to consolidate them and establish a stable state.
The masses who had brought the bourgeoisie to power had been profoundly radicalised by the realisation that they could influence historical events, and their expectations had been raised by promises of freedom and democracy.
The most radical elements were known as the enragés (“the angry ones”) and one of their leaders, Jacques Roux, spelled out the class content of the revolutionary slogans, which clearly had quite different meanings depending on your class position.
“Liberty is a mere illusion when one class of men can allow the other to starve with impunity. Equality is a mere illusion when through their economic monopolies the rich hold the power of life and death over their fellow men.”
With the revolution secure, it was the radicalised masses who now posed the main danger to the new ruling class. In order to develop capitalist exploitation, law and order, not mass participation, had to become the order of the day. Jacques Roux saw the writing on the wall:
“They have always used men of true spirit to make revolutions, and when they don’t need them any longer, they smash them, as they would a glass.”
The victory of the revolution elevated the bourgeoisie from an oppressed junior partner in the exploiting classes to the dominant class in society. And with this went a state and legal structure that reflected their interests.
For all their rhetoric, what motivated the bourgeoisie was not the creation of a better society for all, but their own advancement. One of the driving forces behind their revolutionary aspirations was to build a modern, efficient and militarily strong state that could compete with England.
The French Revolution could not have produced socialism, or any kind of egalitarian society. The productive forces were not sufficiently developed to eliminate scarcity, and nor were the social forces that could be the agency of such a transformation.
Nonetheless revolutionaries like Marat and Roux, the sans culottes and the enragés pointed to the future, when the emerging working class would have to confront the new ruling class.
By the start of the 20th century, however, socialism was definitely on the historical agenda. In the intervening period, capitalism had conquered the world to become the dominant mode of production.
The productive forces had developed to the point where enough wealth could be produced to provide a decent life for all, and the working class had grown in numbers and social weight. And in the process of resisting exploitation and the attacks of the capitalists, it developed an independent class consciousness and the ability to organise.
In the course of struggles like the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian revolutions of 1905 and above all 1917, workers discovered how to rule collectively and democratically.
Today it’s the social relations of capitalism that have turned into fetters holding back human progress and condemning most of humanity to grinding poverty and misery. Capitalism has killed millions as rival ruling classes battle for supremacy, and it threatens to destroy our planet.
The evidence of the past century is that capitalism cannot be reformed. The capitalists are every bit as determined as the French nobility to protect their power and privilege.
Capitalism is a system of crisis that continually forces workers to fight to protect their interests. At certain points in the course of such struggles, and particularly at times of crisis, workers can begin to see the need for a revolutionary transformation to replace the whole system.
The process of revolution itself is crucial to developing working class consciousness and confidence in its ability to make a better world.
As Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology:
“This revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
But how can we be confident that a workers’ revolution won’t just end up as another form of exploitative class society?
Marx and Engels argued that the working class under capitalism occupies a unique position. Unlike the bourgeoisie under feudalism, workers don’t have their own form of private property to protect. In this sense, it is, in the words of The German Ideology, a “class which no longer counts as a class in society”. They sometimes called it the “universal class”.
Also unlike the bourgeoisie, the working class has no objective or material interest in the exploitation of other social forces. On the contrary, it’s in their class interest to end exploitation forever.
This – plus the fact that the working class today forms the majority of the world’s population – is why it’s possible for the working class to fight not just for its own interests, but for the interests and the liberation of humanity as a whole.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels state that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” and point out that in any class society there is a constant fight going on between oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited.
Such battles end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. It is not a given that society goes forward.
The French Revolution did take humanity forward. For all its horrors, capitalism has laid the basis for socialism by developing the productive forces to the point where humanity no longer needs exploitation and class divisions. But we are long past the point where capitalism can play any progressive, much less revolutionary role in human history.
Humanity can only be liberated by another revolution, led by the working class. And this is why it’s important to defend the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution – it’s part of our argument for revolution today.