Origins of the French working class

Issue: 123

Henry Heller

Samuel Guicheteau, La Révolution des Ouvriers Nantais: Mutation Economique, Identité Sociale et Dynamique Révolutionnaire (1740_1815) (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008), €19

A revisionist school, premised on the notion that the French Revolution was not bourgeois and capitalist, has dominated the historiography of the revolution in the English-speaking world since the 1970s. Its dominance over academic history was made possible by the cultural turn, neoliberalism and lacunae in the scholarship of the previous generation of Marxist historians like Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul and George Rudé. Yet today revisionism is increasingly challenged as a result of a rising tide of new research coming from American scholars such as Steven Kaplan and Jeff Horn, but especially from French researchers. Samuel Guicheteau’s study of the development of the working class in Nantes provides a powerful new set of weapons against the entrenched conservative school of historiography.

Using a sophisticated quantitative methodology Guicheteau has been able systematically to sift the departmental archives of the Loire-Atlantique so as to delineate the outlines of the emerging working class of Nantes before and during the French Revolution.

The development of the working class was itself based on the progress of capitalism. Agricultural capitalism made rapid progress in France in the second half of the 18th century. Accompanying this was a spectacular development of concentrated and mechanised cotton factories designed to serve both the internal and overseas markets. The port of Nantes, which was heavily involved in the slave trade with Africa and the plantation-slave economy of the Caribbean, saw the proliferation of such cotton mills serving the expanding overseas trade.

As a prelude to his account of the working class, Guicheteau provides the reader with an overview of the growing economy of Nantes, paying special attention to the proliferation of these concentrated cotton manufactures and their manner of operation. The complex hierarchy of workers within such large new workplaces ranged from highly skilled and well educated fabric designers recruited from Switzerland to locally recruited illiterate and unskilled male and female peasants. Meanwhile traditional industries like metal working, shipbuilding, tanning, glass manufacture and stocking manufacture underwent a certain degree of centralisation of production.

As Guicheteau points out, even dispersed industries experienced a process of modernisation, adapting themselves to the industrial takeoff and overall capitalist economic expansion. The first decade of the revolution brought a decline of the Atlantic orientated economy and a re-focusing of economic activity towards Paris and the north and east of France. Yet Nantes was able to restructure its industries and to thrive throughout much of the Napoleonic period.

The development of capitalist industry saw increasing efforts by the authorities to control the expanding working class population. Political coercion grew as the older corporate order which had restricted both capital and labour decayed during the 18th century. Master artisans lost much of their autonomy while the ranks of unskilled labour expanded. Industrialisation, with its attempts to control the time of workers and intensify their work, threatened their traditional identity, which was based on their skills and a certain sense of independence. In response to repression, workers resorted to frequent strikes and other forms of resistance while strengthening their clandestine and illegal organisations.

On the eve of the revolution workers were united by their common poverty and dependence on wage work. They tended to live in the same areas of the city and increasingly to intermarry. On the other hand, they remained divided by their occupations and the traditional split between skilled and unskilled labour. A sense of working class consciousness was also diluted by workers being profoundly immersed in the overall culture and life of the “people”. Nonetheless, sparked by growing poverty, class conflict and working class violence grew as the revolution approached.

With the onset of the revolution the fundamental characteristics of the French path to industrial capitalism became evident: the ongoing importance of skilled work and of small-scale enterprises and the continuing shock of popular insurgency. In the tumultuous initial phase of the revolution militancy among workers was at its height. Yet despite some lessening of repression the new revolutionary regime of the bourgeoisie refused to recognise the legality of workers’ organisations.

Nonetheless, workers used their participation in the revolution to strengthen their autonomous organisations. In doing so they helped to democratise the revolutionary process. As part of the “people” they likewise fully participated in the sansculottes movement1 and the military mobilisation against counter-revolution.

Guicheteau demonstrates the development of a working class political culture based on enthusiastic adherence to the revolution as witnessed by the proliferation of given names such as Victoire, Montagne, Jean-Jacques and Verité at the height of the popular movement. The habitual brandishing of tools by workers in popular mobilisations represented a distinctive form of working class self-expression. Furthermore, within the revolution workers voiced autonomous claims to the right to work and the right to their own organisations. In other words, they used the political discourse of the revolution to articulate and justify their own autonomous demands. Although a working class consciousness would not fully emerge until the later revolution of 1848, involvement in the 1789 Revolution helped to politically legitimate the economic and social claims of workers, at least in their own eyes.

As we have noted, the first two years of the revolution brought an upsurge of working class strikes and agitation in Nantes as elsewhere in France. Steve Kaplan and other historians go so far as to argue that the emergence of the sansculotte movement controlled by radical elements of the revolutionary elite became a way of channelling and controlling this emergent working class.

Based on the case of Nantes, Guicheteau is unwilling to endorse this view. However, his research does point to a definite split between members of the working class and the bourgeoisie over the National Guard. While acknowledging along with others that the ranks of the National Guard remained open to some workers, he insists that bourgeois control over the guard and its use in repressing workers caused it to be regarded by many workers as an instrument of repression. Likewise some workers expressed their alienation from the bourgeoise revolutionary elite by remaining loyal to the counter_revolutionary Catholic clergy.


1: Literally “without breeches”, the sans-culottes were a movement of urban poor in the French Revolution.