George Walford: Trousers Versus Breeches

It was the first of the big ones, the first to shake the world and the first to be taken as a model; the Bolsheviks acted with one eye cocked back at Marat, Robespierre, the Bastille, the Vendee and the events of Thermidor. It cannot sensibly be seen as an uprising of either the working class or the peasants against another class oppressing them, and the idea that it represented the arrival of the bourgeoisie on the political scene Simon Schama condemns as “wholly illusory”; “the one thing the Constituent Assembly was manifestly not was bourgeois.” This correction of the formerly prevailing view provides a continuing theme throughout his book Citizens; a chronicle of the French Revolution:

it is at the top, rather than in any imaginary middle of French society, that the cultural roots of the Revolution should be sought. While any search for a conspicuously disaffected bourgeoisie is going to be fruitless, the presence of a disaffected, or at the very least disappointed, young ‘patriot’ aristocracy is dramatically apparent… it was among the Noailles and Segurs – even in the heart of the court itself – that passions became most inflamed in the 1770s.

The succession of wars under Louis XIV had strained the French finances, and one attempt after another failed to induce the greater part of the nobility, either of the sword or of the robe (the military and the lawyers) to surrender any part of their privileges. Here as elsewhere they did not act in unison as a class; some showed willingness to co-operate but most did not, and indeed a good many could not afford to do so. Nobility carried no assurance of an income, and many a noble family found itself struggling not to keep up appearances but to survive at all. When, in 1788 and 1789, the question whether to retain or discard the traditional legal distinctions usually summarised as privilege came to the fore the nobles divided “along lines of generation and conviction rather than of social status or economic position… ”

France supported America in the War of Independence, and Schama ascribes to the “flirtation with armed freedom” that this allowed the French aristocrats who took part (Lafayette was a marquis) an influence upon French events both subversive and irreversible. Turgot bitterly opposed intervention, sure that the expense would prove ruinous and (apparently alone in his foresight) even hinting that it might bring down the monarchy. Vergennes, the Foreign Minister, overruled him. No warmonger but convinced of the need to check the spread of overweening British power, Vergennes stood far removed from the promotion of any vague “liberty.” In the short term his policy seemed successful; with French help the Americans gained their independence, restricting British power to that extent. But in the slightly longer term Turgot’s fears proved justified; in order to derive full benefit from the success the equipment and readiness of army and navy needed maintaining, and the costs incurred in this effort finally pushed the French economy over the edge. Attempts to win acceptance for taxation sufficient for recovery failed, compelling recourse to an Assembly of the Notables of which Schama remarks that its aristocratic constitution “did not at all exclude political radicalism,” and “with respect to political self-consciousness the Notables were the first revolutionaries.” That failed, less because of any reluctance on the part of the Notables to accept the proposed reforms than because they wanted to go farther, and in August 1788, with credit exhausted, the Treasury held just about enough to keep the government going for one afternoon. At this crucial point, with the Estates-General called and the famous Third Estate making its entry, Schama stresses the falsity of any picture of a bourgeois revolution: “The creation of a political alternative to aristocratic conservatism occurred not outside but inside the elite,” an aggressively dissenting group of aristocrats and upper clerics choosing to abandon their own status to become citizen-leaders. They included Lafayette himself, de Noailles, the Duc de la Rouchefoucald-Liancourt, the Duc de Luynes and the Due de Lauzun. A large majority of the nobility favoured “that basic ‘bourgeois’ axiom, equality before the law.”

As the Estates took hold they showed to begin with (one must resist the temptation to add “of course”) little intention of causing any serious unpleasantness; the changes sought did not at first seem incompatible with the monarchy, and only in January 1793, three-and-a-half years after the fall of the Bastille, did the revolutionaries bring the King – or rather Citizen Capet – to trial and execution.

The liberal nobility tended to seek modernization while the Third Estate at first favoured a return to a mythical Golden Age when the people had lived purified lives under a benevolent ruler. The popular voice demanded not freedom from authoritarian control but more police, the people feeling that the collapse of royal power left a threatening gap. They had reason for their belief; already there began to appear the brutal distinctions between Citizens and Aristocrats, Patriots and Enemies, that eventually led to the revolutionary police state and the guillotine. As commonly happens when a large part of the people begin to move in one direction, the army proved an unreliable source of oppression. During rioting on the night of the 12th of July 1789 even the Swiss and Germans proved unreliable and Paris was lost to the monarchy; on the resonant date of July 14th over fifty regular soldiers joined in the attack on the Bastille. (By comparison with the way modern tyrants have treated their prisoners that byword for oppression provided luxurious conditions for its inhabitants.) Of those refusing to go along with the Revolution Schama notes:

Increasingly such outsiders were identified by the treasonable epithet ‘aristocrats,’ even when their actual origin was from the commons or when their accuser was himself of noble birth. Conceivably, then, a ci-devant noble patriot could actually accuse a lowborn broker of being an ‘aristocrat’ …

As many of the “aristos” were far from being aristocrats, so the “sans-culottes,” militants of 1792 and 1793, were no bare-assed rabble but wearers of newfangled revolutionary trousers instead of reactionary knee-breeches. They often belonged to the better-off artisanal and professional strata and some of their leaders, for example the brewer Santerre, belonged firmly among the rich. “Nonetheless they actively encouraged their constituents to demand things squarely at odds with economic individualism: the government regulation of grain and other food prices… ”

Many former officials of the monarchy found it easy to transform themselves into citizen-servants of la patrie, appearing among the most eager prosecutors of the “aristocrats”; the former Marquise de Montferrat, become Citizeness Barrel, demanded immediate imprisonment for Marie Antoinette. “As for the elite – both noble and ecclesiastical – it divided along lines of political conviction and regional solidarity, rather than social tiers.”

Readers will have been waiting for the magic word “ideology,” and enough tension has now been created. Like all such events, the French Revolution showed deep ideological complexities, but the main struggle, and the one producing the enduring effects, lay between the ideology of principle / domination – embodied as usual in the established government – and that of precision. Precision did not overcome domination – it never does for any long period – but it won its place, bringing among its more lasting results the introduction of democracy and an extensive replacement of tradition by calculation. Uniform government displaced the old crazy quilt of overlapping jurisdictions, uniform weights and measures quickly following, and the supersession of the historic provinces by new and more equal “departments.” Another facet of the same transition appeared as a development of science-based industry (the Revolution had one of its intellectual precursors in the great Encyclopedie) and Weber has pointed out how the consequent – increase in manufactures and in trade offered the wealthy of Europe a new field for the use of their assets. This development produced some of the main effects which Marxists ascribe to an imaginary accession to political dominance by the bourgeoisie.

Schama does not mention either Baboeuf, whom one can hardly call anything other than an almost full-blown communist, or Etienne Cabet, who provided the slogan later taken up by Lenin: “To each according to his needs”; and in fact the revolutionary ideology did not undergo any clear formulation for another half a century. Most of those carrying through the French Revolution had had little prior intention of creating any such upheaval; they rather found themselves swept into it by the logic of events. Nonetheless, the eidodynamic had already begun to separate out from the eidostatic:

The second half of 1789 and 1790 in fact saw an increasingly sharp division between men of identical backgrounds and old friendships, now committed to opposing political positions.

The distinction took the form of a dispute over the priorities of the Revolution. On the eidodynamic side the Jacobins (so called from meeting in the old monastery of that name and described by Ferrieres as “of the left,” the first use of that term in the modern political sense), demanded the subordination of state to citizen; they worried about the risk of royalist conspiracies and the abridgment of democracy. On the eidostatic side stood Mirabeau, Sieyes, Talleyrand, Du Pont de Nemours and others, organised as the Club of 1789, for whom the great dangers were anarchy and bankruptcy, and the purpose of the Revolution the creation of a more powerful and dynamic France. Their objection to the ancien regime had been less to its ineffectiveness. Talleyrand, for example,

fully realized the need to empower a viable executive state… all his trained instincts were bureaucratic, rational and Voltaireian. More than a nation of virtuous citizens linked together in fraternal embrace, he wanted a rejuvenated nation-state: an empire of reason where sense, rather than sensibility, was sovereign.

Already the characteristic attitudes towards each other of these two great ideological classes began to appear:

The [eidodynamic] Jacobin leadership suspected the [eidostatic] 1789-ers of being elitist intriguers; their adversaries returned the compliment by portraying (them) as irresponsible, self=righteous windbags.

The left wing and the opposition to it both found their precursors the French Revolution; here; as in later upheavals, the division between them followed ideological fault-lines which cut across classes.

SCHAMA S. 1989 Citizens; a chronicle of the French Revolution London: Viking.

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CONFUSION over the alleged connection between class and political affiliation sometimes goes beyond all reasonable limits. Poverty and deprivation incline people to the left. Of course they do – except that sometimes they do the opposite. Political observers in South Africa fear that increasing white poverty as apartheid weakens “is creating a natural constituency for the country’s hard right.” (Sunday Times 24 March). On the same day the author Ken Follett and the publisher Paul Hamlyn were reported as socialist millionaires. (Observer 24 March). It’s beginning to look as though the right may be the movement of the poor, the left that of the rich.

from Ideological Commentary 52, Summer 1991.