The French Revolution is not over

Issue: 113

Neil Davidson

A review of Henry Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815 (Berghahn Books, 2006), £36.50

Marx and Engels were born into a world shaped by the French Revolution—literally so in the case of Marx, who grew up in the Rhineland where the French occupation between 1807 and 1813 greatly accelerated the dismantling of feudalism in that region. It is unsurprising then that this cataclysmic event should have influenced the formation of their theories. By the mid-1840s the revolution had acquired a three-fold significance in their thought.

First, in terms of the past, France 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 also required a successful struggle for political power by the capitalist class against the existing feudal-absolutist order.

Second, in terms of the present, it provided an inspiration for those national bourgeoisies—at this stage the vast majority—who were still excluded from political power. Marx was particularly concerned that the German bourgeoisie should learn the lessons of the French Revolution, although he rightly remained pessimistic about its capacity to do so. He was not so naive as to think, however, that bourgeois leadership involved industrialists and financiers personally mounting the barricades. He was quite aware that the actual fighting had been carried out by classes below the bourgeoisie in the class structure, and on some occasions suggested that without these plebeians the revolution would not have succeeded or even survived.

Third, in terms of the future, it also provided the emergent proletariat with lessons in the need for revolutionary intransigence on its own behalf, rather than on behalf of a new class of exploiters. But more generally, the mobilisations which characterised the crucial ‘days’ of the revolution involved far greater levels of mass involvement and higher levels of popular initiative than the preceding bourgeois revolutions in the United Netherlands, England, Scotland or America. Its mass character was therefore paradoxical, making possible the period of bourgeois ascendancy and prefiguring the form of the coming proletarian revolutions. As Georg Lukács later noted, ‘From the Great French Revolution on, all revolutions exhibit the same pattern with increasing intensity’.1 Indeed the actual pattern of events—the initial unity of the revolutionary forces, their increasing polarisation into left and right under pressure from the counter-revolution, the ultimate stabilisation on the basis of a conservative reaction within the revolution—seemed to offer a general pattern of development.

For Marx, therefore, the French Revolution involved three key elements: bourgeois leadership that gave the revolution its class character; mass mobilisations of peasants, urban masses and revolutionary armies that were necessary to take power and defend the new state; and the removal of obstacles to capitalist development that constituted the outcome. In France itself this interpretation gave rise to an extraordinarily rich socialist historiography, from Jaurès to Mathiez, and from Lefebvre to Soboul, much of which can still be read with profit today. But because Marx wrote specifically about the French Revolution and, to a lesser extent, its immediate predecessors, he did not leave behind a general theory of bourgeois revolution. The outline of one did emerge in Engels’s later writings and was further developed by Lenin, Trotsky, Lukács, Gramsci and many other thinkers, although by no means in a systematic way. The underlying theme was that bourgeois revolutions were not the sum total of a checklist of ‘tasks’ which had to be accomplished before they could be declared complete. The only necessary component of a bourgeois revolution was not the nature of the process or the identity of the class actors, but the outcome: the establishment of a state committed to ensuring the accumulation of capital.

Unfortunately, this approach, like so much else of value in Marxist theory, was suppressed for decades by Stalinism. In its place the orthodoxy became a model of bourgeois revolution based on the French Revolution—or, to be more exact, a particular reading of the first five years of the French Revolution—a model accepted even by people who were not Stalinists, people who were in most other respects opposed to Stalinism. The problem was that the ‘French model’ was a positive obstacle to understanding how the bourgeoisie had come to power on a global scale. By using France as an example against which all other bourgeois revolutions were judged, it was inevitable that even those countries, like England, in which the revolutions were structurally quite similar to the French, would be found wanting, while some countries, like Germany, would be found not to have undergone bourgeois revolutions at all, because they had failed to reproduce the French experience. But what would become of this conception of bourgeois revolution if even the French Revolution was found not to live up to its image? This was exactly what began to be argued, first in the 1950s, then with greater confidence and frequency, from the 1970s.

The French Revolution did not take place

‘Revisionism’ is the catch-all term for a range of arguments which deny that the French Revolution was a ‘bourgeois revolution’. Some versions go so far as to deny that it can be explained in social terms at all. The arguments have developed in three main phases.

The first, relatively isolated, expressions of the case were made over 50 years ago in Britain and Israel. In his inaugural lecture as chair in French History at the University of London, first published in 1955 as ‘The Myth of the French Revolution’, the British historian Alfred Cobban made four points. First, France was no longer a feudal society by 1789. Some dues and services still survived, but these were functionless survivals whose significance may have been deliberately over-emphasised by the Constituent Assembly so that their abolition, under pressure from the peasantry, would not set a precedent which could be extended to bourgeois property rights. Second, the main representatives of the Third Estate were not capitalists, but lawyers or, more precisely, venal office holders, functionaries and professional men who used the revolution to ascend the state structure at the expense of the nobility. Third, both the formal abolition of feudal dues and the ascendancy of the bourgeois office holders had been achieved by 1791—the subsequent events were violent, but essentially irrelevant, since by 1799 the situation had simply reverted to that at the beginning of the decade. Fourth, the impact of the revolution on capitalist development was limited and may even have retarded it until much later in the 19th century.2 What then had led to the Jacobin dictatorship, the September Massacres, the Terror and all those other supposedly pointless events which Cobban regarded with such fastidious British distaste? The answer had been independently provided, not by a historian, but by the political scientist J L Talmon, then based at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His focus was on the Enlightenment beliefs which he claimed had taken on a life of their own and led to the Dictatorship of Virtue, an abstract set of truths which empowered the Jacobins and their supporters to kill in the name of ideological purity.3 Both Cobban and Talmon were committed Cold Warriors. Cobban helped ensure that one of his own students, George Rudé, was blacklisted from lecturing in Britain. Talmon contributed towards the ‘end of ideology’ thesis during the 1950s and drew parallels between the ‘totalitarian democracy’ of the Jacobins and that of the supposedly equivalent modern totalitarianisms of Fascism and Communism.4

What was significant about the second phase moment of revisionism was where it arose and who was responsible. From the mid-1970s onwards these arguments began to be expressed in France itself by people on the left, or at least people who had been on the left. The most important of these was François Furet, a member of the Communist Party of France. In a history of the revolution written in 1965 with Denis Richet, Furet introduced the idea of ‘the skidding off course of the revolution’ after 1791.5 If his first contribution echoed Cobban’s claim that the real goals of the revolution had been achieved by 1791, his second, a decade later, recalled Talmon’s emphasis on ideology. In this essay, ‘The French Revolution is Over’, Furet specifically attacks the connections which the French left in particular drew between the French and Russian Revolutions. Furet was, however, concerned less with the historical accuracy of this claim than with highlighting what he thought the real connections were, namely the comparable totalitarian systems embodied in the Terror and the Gulag.6

How have Marxists responded to the revisionist critique of the concept of bourgeois revolution? On the one hand, some have attempted to construct a more defensible version of the Cl assical Marxist position, drawing the scattered insights of the Second and early Third Internationals into a new synthesis. (The first attempts to do so actually predate the emergence of revisionism and were undertaken, in the context of a discussion of the nature of the USSR, by Cliff, Deutscher and Shachtman—a trio of very different Trotskyists—in books and articles written in 1948-49.) This version of the theory shifts focus from the role of the bourgeoisie in the bourgeois revolutions—although they did of course play a major role, above all in the Dutch, English and French revolutions—to the consequences for the bourgeoisie of the bourgeois revolutions; it therefore accepts at least some of empirical criticisms of the revisionists, but regards them as irrelevant.7 On the other hand, the ‘political Marxism’ of Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood and their followers not only accepts the empirical criticisms of the revisionists, but agrees that they invalidate the entire concept. Here the focus is on the transition from feudal to capitalist social relations, rather than the revolutions which had hitherto been regarded as essential to the process, which this position sees as quite separate.8 In effect, this is not so much a response to revisionism as a third and, one hopes, final phase of the thing itself.

Here, as with the influence of Cobban on Furet, there are connections with the preceding phase. George Comninel, for example, makes the apparently curious claim that the ‘only’ bourgeois aspect of the revolution was the fact that the bourgeoisie led it against their aristocratic opponents. Bourgeois leadership and aristocratic opponents may sound like reasonably decisive criteria, but it is important to understand that Comninel does not regard the ‘bourgeoisie’ as having any necessary connection with capitalism or the ‘aristocracy’ as having any necessary connection with feudalism. In the absence of ‘a system entirely structured about commodity production as the self-expansion of capital through the reduction of labour to labour power’, capitalism did not exist in France prior to 1789. Rather the bourgeoisie essentially belonged to the same social class as the aristocracy because both ultimately drew their income through the same method of surplus extraction. The revolution should therefore be seen as ‘an intra-class conflict’ or ‘civil war’ over distribution of the surplus. Unsurprisingly, Comninel does not think that the revolution did anything to promote capitalism either: ‘The revolution was not fought by capitalists, and it did not produce capitalist society.’ If anything, it restricted it further by preserving small-scale peasant production.9 Virtually the only difference between Comninel and the earlier generations of revisionists is his belief that capitalism, rather than having already surpassed feudalism in France by 1789, did not exist at all.

A new synthesis

From the preceding discussion it should be obvious why a book called The Bourgeois Revolution in France should be of interest to readers of International Socialism, particularly when the author begins with this assessment:

It seems evident that a connection exists between the predominance of revisionism, the decline of revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the conservative or neoliberal ideological offensive of the last decades. Whether or not the modern world came into being by revolution is more than an academic question. It bears on the present and future as well as on the interpretation of the past.10

So writes Henry Heller, a Canadian Marxist scholar who, over the last 20 years, has increased our understanding of 16th century France with a series of books reassessing the French experience of Calvinism, the Wars of Religion and the relationship between economic development and technological change.11 It is only now, in his latest book, that Heller broaches the moment in French history during which classical Marxism has traditionally seen the breakthrough to capitalist economy and bourgeois society as finally taking place. And he has a specific purpose in doing so: ‘This work seeks to reclaim the idea that the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution’.12 Indeed, it is the first book in English explicitly to defend a Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution since revisionism became entrenched.

Heller seeks ‘confirmation of the Marxist view’ in what he modestly calls ‘a review of existing scholarly literature’.13 In a relatively short but densely packed book, Heller has synthesised recent work by other historians which is either difficult for non-specialists to obtain or as yet untranslated into English. In the first category are mainly Anglo-American historians who have challenged specific revisionist claims on empirical grounds, without seeking to reject the entire approach. In the second are mainly French Marxists like Michel Vovelle and Guy Lemarchand (but also the Russian, Anatoli Ado), who are concerned not only with grounding their work in primary research, but also with engaging the revisionists in theoretical terms.14 Heller assumes that his readers are aware of both the course of events and the main conflicting interpretations. Although the book proceeds through chronological periods, it does not really provide a narrative account, despite claims to this effect by Heller in the Preface. Consequently, readers seeking an introduction to the history of the French Revolution should turn instead to the short book written by Albert Soboul during the 1960s (which is also a fine example of the ‘classic’ position) or to the article by Paul McGarr published in this journal on the bicentenary of 1789.15 That said, Heller writes simply and accessibly, and conveys a vast amount of information about who was doing what to who and why. Not that Heller is dismissive of theory, but his own theoretical approach differs from that of most previous historians in three main ways.

First, he does not focus his attention on the popular movements of either the peasants or sans-culottes: ‘Rather, the focus will be on the step-by-step development of the bourgeoisie as a new ruling class’.16 He clearly regards much of the writing about the movements from below as a way of sidestepping discussion of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie. But Heller goes further. From Daniel Guérin onwards, many historians have stressed the anti-capitalist possibilities of working class power emerging from the activity of the sans-culottes.17 As far as France is concerned, most of the debate among socialists has not been about the accuracy of this assessment, but about how far an anti-capitalist programme could have succeeded. In a splendidly iconoclastic move Heller rejects the entire premise, writing that, ‘far from being an impediment to capitalism, the popular democratic phase of the revolution was an essential element to the further development of French capitalism’.18 Following the work of Richard Mowbery Andrews, Heller argues that many of the classic histories of the revolution ‘took the egalitarian ideology of the sans-culottes too much at face value’, losing sight of ‘the fact that those who dominated the movement were solid bourgeois, notably the master artisans’.19

Second, he deals with the revolutionary period as a whole: ‘This history will make a point of investigating not merely the 18th century background and the most tumultuous years of the revolution, but also the period of its consolidation under the Directory and Napoleon’.20 Just as any serious discussion of the English Revolution has to span the period from the Scottish Covenanting rebellion of 1637 through to the Restoration of 1660, so too must one of the French Revolution extend from the Assembly of the Notables in 1787 to the Restoration of 1815. This may seem obvious, but many of the greatest works on the subject—such as the major books by Lefevbre and Soboul—conclude in 1799 with Napoleon’s seizure of power, and many finish earlier with Thermidor in 1794.21 By dealing with the period as a whole Heller affirms that the unheroic later stages are just as central as the years of mass mobilisation to the issue of capitalist dominance.

Third, although he foregrounds economic developments in a way that will undoubtedly scandalise the revisionists, Heller does not advocate a crude economic determinism. Rather ‘the view advanced here will be one that insists that the economic, political and cultural factors cannot be seen as separate from one another…such factors will be treated dialectically as coexistent features of a great civilisational transformation’.22 And, although he does not use the term, Heller is here invoking the notion of totality:

From a Marxist point of view it is not the primacy of the economic that is the distinguishing feature. Rather it is an insistence on a knowledge of the historical process in its entirety or as a whole.23

Indeed, his main criticism of the revisionists is their blindness to the inner connections between changes to different aspects of French society. Heller accepts that they may have brought some gains in the study of areas like gender and political culture: ‘But in the final analysis, the maintenance of a perspective that rejects the idea of the French Revolution as a capitalist revolution, is only possible by refusing to comprehend these events as part of a unified process or by rejecting the idea that such comprehension is possible’.24

How then does Heller’s approach deal with some key themes thrown up by the revisionist debates?

Capitalism and crisis before 1789

If capitalism were already totally dominant in a society, there would be no need for a bourgeois revolution, because there would be no forces capable of opposing it. But if capitalism did not exist at all in a society, then there would be no possibility of a bourgeois revolution, because there would be no forces capable of supporting it. To what extent had capitalism developed in France by 1789? As Heller writes:

The initial success of the bourgeoisie did not mean that France was a fully developed capitalist economy led by a fully conscious and self-confident capitalist class. It meant only that the bourgeoisie had developed enough economic as well as political strength to get rid of the ancien régime. It would take an extended process over the next 25 years for it to mature as a class while further developing its economic underpinnings.25

Heller argues that capitalist production existed to varying degrees across the different sectors of the economy in 18th century France. The uneven spatial development of agriculture effectively divided the country into three regions, but only in the north did capitalist agriculture emerge, bringing with it social differentiation between proprietors and large farmers on the one hand, and day labourers and teamsters on the other. Although the point is not original, it is extremely important as a demonstration that the type of productive relations typical of English capitalist agriculture were also present on a geographically more restricted basis in France.26

In relation to trade, once the demand for commodities expanded beyond a certain point, it had implications for how production—not simply the division of labour, or the labour process more generally—was organised. Heller shows that there was certainly a massive increase in French trade across the 18th century.27 It is true that much of the production of commodities took place in small workshops and on a seasonal basis, but large factories also began to appear. The greatest of all, the Le Creusot iron and steel factory built during the 1780s, ‘had a workforce of over 1,300, used the advanced coke reduction process in the manufacture of steel, and operated with the help of at least five steam engines and between 12 and 15 miles of railway tracking’.28

And what of the labourers who worked in these enterprises? In many respects they were not fully-formed proletarians, completely separated from both the means of production and the means of subsistence. But as Heller points out, people may be driven to work for wages, not because they have no access to subsistence production, but because it is insufficient to support them. Equally, capitalists are quite content for workers to partially provide for themselves, since this allows the level of wages to be held down.29 To imagine otherwise is to abandon the possibility of a transitional economy at all: an economy must either be feudal or capitalist (or something else altogether), but nothing in between. This is highly unrealistic, to say the least:

The full emergence of abstract labour and value are not capitalist preconditions but the end product of a prolonged historical process in which struggle over the means of production and their further development are primary factors… At a certain stage in the evolution of the economy of the ancien régime, the creation of value began to occur within the structures of the guilds and corporations, institutions that likely facilitated the process.30

But capitalist developments were opposed, and from more than one source. Heller cites the example of Jacques Vaucanson, a mechanic who entered the Académie des Sciences at the insistence of Louis XV because of his inventions, including ‘a mechanical silk loom, a draw loom for brocade and figured silk, a silk throwing mill, and a mangle to achieve the effect of moiré or “clouded silk”.’ His entry to the Académie was opposed by the aristocratic members who opposed the practical application of scientific theory for the vulgar purposes of commerce. But he was also opposed by the corporate guilds of the artisans, themselves already under attack from the merchant capitalists, and who rioted to prevent the introduction of the mechanical loom.31 The kind of support the absolutist state could give to innovators like Vaucanson against noble opposition was limited, since the nobility was the ultimate basis of its support.32

The absolutist state concentrated power, drawing it away from the local lordships to the centralised state as guarantor of surplus extraction and defence against peasant revolt.33 Yet, centralisation did not necessarily mean that the state was all-powerful, despite its propaganda to that effect.34 As Heller writes, ‘The absolutist state had deprived the French nobility of much of its ability to control the rural population or to withstand revolt.’ But it could not always replace that ability with its own power, which mattered in a situation where peasant resistance to the payment of tithes and enforcement of seigneurial rights had been increasing since 1775.35

Heller agrees with most commentators that the fiscal crisis of the state was a major precipitant of the revolution, in particular the increased share of taxation falling on the commoners. Not only were the nobles largely exempt from these, but they increased their own income levels by squeezing greater rents from their tenants. As we have seen, however, Heller also insists that there was an economic as well as a financial crisis: ‘Economic crisis galvanised the mass of the population to throw its weight behind the political struggle of the bourgeoisie, allowing it to take power’.36 Heller follows the Marxist Guy Lemarchand in arguing that there was a shortage of investment capital in both industry and agriculture, ‘because too much of the economic surplus was drained off in the form of agricultural rents’. ‘In the final analysis the paralysis of the leading sectors of an emergent capitalism reflected the ongoing stranglehold of the seigneurial class over the economy.’ The crisis was also agricultural: ‘The growth in population rendered the holdings of many of the peasants progressively smaller and increasingly fragile.’ The two were connected by the limitations to French development:

The domestic market was clearly inhibited by growing rural poverty. But the market was also blocked by the persistence of tolls and tariffs, local systems of weights and measures, a lack of adequate means of transport, and the burden of indirect taxes. Such a situation encouraged the persistence of too large a degree of domestic or local subsistence inhibiting urbanisation and the commercialisation of agriculture.

In short, the revolution had three underlying economic causes. The crisis of industrial underinvestment in the capitalist manufacturing sector and ‘a classic Malthusian’ crisis of subsistence in feudal agriculture set the context for ‘the financial insolvency of the state’, which in turn ‘led to an ultimate political crisis’. The alignment of the joint crises of capitalism, feudalism and the absolutist state suggests the transitional, combined nature of French economy, but also that the transition had reached the point where it would be increasing difficult for the process to continue without radical political change.37

Both bourgeois and capitalist

Who then were the bourgeoisie who took the leadership of the revolution once the crisis had broken? Heller points out that, in terms of social weight, there were simply many more members of that class by the end of the 18th century than at the beginning: ‘It is estimated that the size of the bourgeoisie grew from 700,000 to 800,000 at the beginning of the 18th century to perhaps 2.3 million in 1789, vastly outnumbering the 120,000 or so nobles.’ Partly because of this, from 1720 onwards the nobility began to force through measures which excluded the bourgeoisie from joining them, including the ending of ennoblement through office in 1728. The bourgeoisie were opposed to the tax exemptions of the nobility, particularly as taxation increased, although membership of the nobility based on merit was still their goal. As this suggests, the development of their class consciousness was subject to contradictory pressures. On the one hand, their capacity for collective self-organisation was limited, for fairly obvious reasons: ‘Before the onset of the revolution, the sphere of autonomous political activity was quite circumscribed by the authorities of the ancien régime as a matter of policy.’ On the other hand, a bourgeois way of life involving distinct forms of dress, manners, speech and so on began to develop. So too did organisations where new ideas could be discussed and other activities besides. The Freemasons were one such organisation: ‘The meeting of the lodges became sites not only for philosophical discussions, but for the creating and financing of new business partnerships.’ It was clear to many young bourgeois that careers were not open to their talents: ‘As a result, late 18th century France produced a large stratum of alienated intelligentsia who played an important role in the Revolution’.38

But what was the relationship of these bourgeois intellectuals to capitalism? As we have seen from the work of George Comninel, some ‘political Marxists’ claim that capitalists and the bourgeoisie are quite distinct classes, a position which has implications for how we assess revolutions, notably the English and French, which otherwise appear decidedly similar. Benno Teschke, for example, claims that ‘while the English Revolution was not bourgeois, it was capitalist, and while the French Revolution was bourgeois, it was not capitalist’.39 This distinction is completely untenable and relies on a fixation on the etymological origin of the word ‘bourgeois’—as if the fact that it originally meant ‘town dweller’ in the middle ages continued to determine how it was used in the 18th century! Capitalists are part of the bourgeoisie. The latter is a far broader category, but one which could not exist as a class without the centripetal economic core of people committed to capital accumulation. Heller makes two points in this context.

First, there are perfectly good reasons why leadership should be exerted by individuals at the economic periphery. In one of his few direct references to the classical Marxist tradition, Heller notes Gramsci’s insistence on the formation of ‘organic intellectuals’ to a revolutionary class: ‘As a new class develops within the world of economic production, it tends to create from out of itself a stratum of intellectuals that helps to give it a sense of homogeneity and a sense of its economic as well as its social and political functions.’ In France these included ‘physicians, journalists, writers and, above all, lawyers’. ‘In this light’, Heller justly remarks, ‘to demand why business people and not lawyers were to be found sitting in the Estates General for the third estate in 1789 is to invoke an argument based on a crude reductionism—a position of which Marxists have often been accused’.40

Second, it is in any case untrue that capitalists in the narrow sense were uninvolved in the revolution. Their direct intervention in government tended to be exercised outside the capital, something which has often been ignored because of the decisive impact of events in Paris. But as Heller says, ‘the weight of the economic bourgeoisie made itself felt directly at the level of local rather than national government’.41 Their most obvious impact, however, can be seen in the laws passed by the Convention. Take three components of the legislative programme of 1791, which clearly embody capitalist interests. Under the Law of Allaire of 2 March feudal guilds were abolished and restrictions on businesses removed. The Le Chapelier Law of 14-17 June banned combinations and industrial action. Finally, the decree on agrarian property rights of 5 June, the most important of a series of enactments concerning agriculture, established freedom of ownership, including the right to enclose common land.42

Because of their date, these examples may not convince revisionists who believe that the bourgeois content of the revolution ended after 1791. But the majority of the Jacobins saw political dictatorship, economic centralisation, the Law of the Maximum and all the rest as temporary measures made necessary by civil war and invasion. Only at the outer edges of Jacobinism did members see them as being anti-capitalist in themselves, and this was the anti-capitalism of small producers, not workers: ‘The creation of the Jacobin state was not simply based on countering the threat of counter-revolution, but on the determination to oppose the threat from economic competition from its English rival by using political means’.43

The arms industry provides a good example of how military necessity contributed to capitalist expansion. In what can retrospectively be seen as early measures of state capitalism, the Committee of Public Safety effectively nationalised the existing armouries and organised the building of new ones in Paris and elsewhere. The majority of forges (about 1,000) were confiscated from their noble and ecclesiastical owners and transformed into state property, leased out to the maîtres de forges who had previously run them. Under the Directory and Napoleon they were ultimately sold off to the same individuals who, over the entire revolutionary period, began through a process of internal competition to centralise ownership and control: ‘The stage was set for a future transformation of this industry—key to the development of 19 century industrial capitalism—under the auspices of these maîtres de forges who now operated these means of production as their private property.’ Steel production nearly doubled between 1789 and 1801. And the new owners prospered too: by 1811 more than a dozen of the maîtres de forges had assets of between one and three million francs.44

In his discussion of the ideology of the revolutionary bourgeoisie Heller focuses on unjustly neglected figures like Pierre Louis Roederer and Etienne Clavière. The latter was a Genevan financial speculator and banker who ‘combined fervent idealism and shrewd business calculation’, ultimately becoming minister for finance briefly in 1792-93. Of this type of individual, Heller writes, ‘They identified this new regime with the free market’.45 Similar views were unambiguously expressed following the Thermidorian coup of 1794. One member of the new ruling group, Paul-Augustin Lozeau, rejected the Jacobin ideal of universal property ownership and abolition of poverty: ‘Even if it were possible how then, asked Lozeau, could the big farmers, the merchants, and the industrialists find the labour power that was indispensable to their enterprises?’46

The nature of post-revolutionary France

The orthodox view of post-revolutionary France, held by virtually everyone from Engels to the revisionists, is that a mass of peasant smallholders, left in secure possession of their holdings by the revolution, acted as a break on the development of capitalism. The assumption here is that only large capitalist farmers can be competitive, but this is not necessarily the case. The division of the land wou ld initially have retarded capitalist development: ‘But under free market conditions it would have speeded primitive accumulation over the medium term by unleashing the path of small-scale commodity production in both town and country.’ This position was actually theorised under the Directory from 1795 by the proponents of what James Livesey calls ‘commercial republicanism’, who saw it as a conscious alternative to the British path of ‘enclosure, tenant farming and agricultural innovation’. The post-Thermidorian reaction refused the demands of the peasants for land and upheld the ownership and dominance of ‘nobles, bourgeoisie and rich peasants’. We therefore may have to revise the traditional view of the agrarian settlement and consider whether it was not ‘the persistence of large property and the burden of rent, not small peasant property, which inhibited a more rapid development of French capitalism’. In turn, this might suggest that ‘the popular revolution based on the petty producers ought to be seen as an essential element of the capitalist dynamic characteristic of this upheaval’.47

Heller agrees with Livesey that ‘revisionist attempts to measure the economic consequences of the revolution in terms of short-term costs and benefits is historiographically misconceived’.48 This does not mean that there were no benefits. In particular, Heller questions the conventional view that British manufacturing was superior to the French in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. First, Britain was actually less mechanised during this period than was traditionally thought; it was only in the latter half of the 19th century that this became dominant. Second, mass production was not the only method of industrialisation: ‘With its higher quality production, France inserted itself differently into the international division of labour…[growing] at a rate comparable to that of its neighbours but based its secondary sector on small craft and manufacturing enterprises’.49

The missing international dimension

No book can encompass every aspect of a subject, but the one key area where Heller’s account is noticeably deficient is in its treatment of the international dimension. Clearly a major contributory factor to the territorial expansion of capitalism during the 19th century was the competitive pressure which the existing capitalist nation-states, including France, placed on the feudal and absolutist regimes, forcing those which were able to establish nation-state structures and capitalist economies. As the theory of uneven and combined development would lead us to expect, once the development of capitalism became a conscious process then obviously changes to the relations of production tended to accompany or even precede changes to the forces of production, precisely because the aspirant capitalists knew what they were trying to achieve, unlike their predecessors in the period when capitalism first emerged as a distinct mode of production.50

At one point Heller notes that the market is scarcely a spontaneous generation in any historical circumstances: ‘The provision of a more or less trained and disciplined labour force, a reliable currency, law and order, and an infrastructure of roads and bridges is not provided directly through the market but requires state intervention.’ But the main role of the revolutionary French state was in nurturing, not conceiving, French capitalism, a process ‘made necessary by the ongoing weakness of the capitalist economy in France as compared to, and in competition with, England’.51 As the last sentence suggests, Heller does not ignore the effect on France of competition with Britain. However, he neglects two other aspects of France’s situation in the formative world market, one in the period leading up to the revolution, the other in the period flowing out of it.

The first is the extent of capitalist production outside France. Any account of the formative process of French capitalism must include the colonial economy, particularly the slave plantations of the Caribbean. These classically ‘combined’ forms were perhaps the most advanced under French ownership and bore the closest relationship to those of their British rivals. As Robin Blackburn notes, ‘It would…be wrong to propose a sharp contrast between English ‘bourgeois’ colonisation and French ‘feudal’ colonisation, since the social forces involved in both—merchants and colonists—were comparable’.52 As C L R James notes of the slaves, ‘Working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar factories which covered the North Plain [of San Domingo], they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time’.53 Extending his focus to the colonial world would have strengthened the argument Heller wants to make about the pre-revolutionary existence of French capitalism.

The second is the international impact of the revolution. Apart from the inspiration which it provided to revolutionaries in other countries, the most obvious aspect is the direct intervention of the French state in the territories which it conquered. Indeed, one of the proofs of the bourgeois nature of the revolution is precisely the way in which it acted to attack feudalism outside its own borders, even after the internal reaction began with Thermidor. Heller’s main references are to the extent to which the manufactured commodities of the conquered territories grew or failed to grow under French rule. There are clearly more of the latter than the former (Heller mentions Belgium, the Rhineland, Bavaria, Saxony and Switzerland), but the issue is surely broader than this.54 Like the New Model Army in Scotland between 1651 and 1660, the ‘people’s armies’ attempted to crush the local nobility, abolish feudal tenures and jurisdictions and generally rationalise economy and society. Their failure to do so on a permanent basis—for which there are also parallels with the New Model Army in Scotland—was an important factor in determining why capitalist stabilisation had to take place on the conservative basis of a restored monarchy.

The extent to which the French were able to establish sister republics in conquered Europe depended on whether indigenous forces existed which were willing to be involved in the process of reform, but precisely because of their isolation, their minority status, they were not necessarily those with popular followings, as the Spanish rebellion against France and its local supporters after 1808 was to prove. Where there were social forces committed to republican politics, it tended to be in those areas, principally Holland, where bourgeois revolutions had already taken place and consequently where these forces were opposed to the imperial role of the French armies.55 In Britain, the most advanced of all, the ruling class were violently opposed to France and prepared to ally with absolutist reaction to defeat it, partly because the British bourgeoisie feared—as they had the Dutch in the 1650s—a successful rival, and partly because the very violence of the revolution had acted as an inspiration to nascent working class forces in England and Scotland, and to bourgeois revolutionaries in Ireland. In some territories, like Hanover and Westphalia in 1807, the French abolished serfdom only for it to be restored after Napoleon withdrew in 1813. In other parts of the German lands, notably in the Rhineland, it proved impossible to restore seignorial rights, but these examples were too few to be the basis for a Europe of independent states on the French model.

Perhaps the most important long-term international effect of the French Revolution, however, was the way in which it acted as a stimulus for revolution from above. Even in the short term, French victories led to internal reform. For Prussia, defeat at the hands of the Napoleonic armies at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806, and the subsequent humiliation of the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, seemed to demonstrate the superiority of free peasants over serfs as a source of manpower, while the indemnities imposed by the victorious French demanded an increase in revenues which was unlikely to be produced as long as serfdom endured.56 The triumph of bourgeois revolution in France now meant that capitalism took on an unstoppable economic force it had not possessed when Britain was the only capitalist power of any size. But the bourgeoisies of Europe were themselves increasing paralysed between the conflicting desire to bring about revolutions that would place them in power and fear of the mass mobilisations that seemed necessary to achieve it. Ironically, it was the very grandeur and ferocity of the popular interventions which characterised the French Revolution that ensured it would never be repeated. Other forces, often from sections of the old ruling class, would eventually act in their stead, particularly in Germany, Italy and Japan.

It is for this reason that I think we have to question some of the formulations which Heller uses here. His work enters a debate over two different if related questions. The first is the specific one of the French Revolution—what caused it, who was involved, what were their motivations, and so on. The other is the general one of whether it is possible to produce a theory of bourgeois revolution that can encompass the French example, but also the quite different experiences of countries as distinct as Scotland, Mexico or China. Heller has made a considerable contribution to the first, but tends to avoid the second. Indeed, Heller suggests that the French Revolution was bourgeois because it was led by the bourgeoisie.57 This is certainly true of France, but if direct leadership is the main criterion there have been precious few other bourgeois revolutions. Heller is surely correct to write: ‘In Marx’s eyes the revolution in France alongside the English Revolution was the classic form of a bourgeois revolution.’ ‘Classic’ does not, however, imply that it was typical or characteristic, still less that ‘it was a model against which the ascent of the bourgeoisie to power elsewhere could be judged’.58 At certain points in his book Heller appears to recognise this, writing of Marx, ‘His view of the French Revolution as archetypical of bourgeois revolutions may…be questioned’.59 Elsewhere, however, he echoes the conventional view of the failure to repeat the French road: ‘We must acknowledge that transitions to capitalism occurred in Japan and Germany without such a rupture, albeit at an ultimately tragic historical cost in the form of fascism’.60 The view that fascism arose because of the failure or unfulfilled character of the German bourgeois revolution has been subjected to searching Marxist criticism by David Blackbourn and, in particular, Geoff Eley, who have turned the entire argument on its head by arguing that the German Revolution was more authentically ‘bourgeois’ than either the English or French. The tragedy of fascism arose not because of the form taken by the German bourgeois revolution, but as the result of the crisis of the Weimar Republic in the years immediately preceding the Nazi seizure of power.61


In many ways Heller’s work resembles that of the late Brian Manning, a writer who defended the bourgeois nature of English Revolution in his work as vigorously as Heller does that of the French Revolution here. Manning was, however, suspicious of Marxist reappraisals of the bourgeois revolution which downplayed the conscious role of the bourgeoisie, seeing this as moving away from notions of class struggle.62 I think Manning was wrong about this, since the view that revolutions do not have to be carried out by the bourgeoisie does not commit one to the claim that they are never carried out by the bourgeoisie, as in their different ways both the English and French revolutions were. It seems quite possible to be able to defend a conception of bourgeois self-emancipation, as Heller so ably does here, while still holding that this was not the only or the most common route to capitalist domination.

It will be interesting to find out what further thoughts Heller has on the subject. For the moment, however, this work is indispensable for anyone interested in a serious Marxist view of the subject. It is a notable demonstration that, contrary to what is claimed by Furet and everyone else who wants to wave goodbye to what Heller calls ‘the capital event of the modern age’, the French Revolution is not yet over.63


1: G Lukács, ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’, in History and Class Consciousness (London, 1971), p308.
2: A Cobban (1955), ‘The Myth of the French Revolution’, in Aspects of the French Revolution (London, 1971), pp95-106. Cobban developed these arguments in The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1964).
3: J L Talmon (1952), The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London, 1961), p80.
4: E J Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back at the French Revolution (London and New York, 1990), p109; A MacIntyre, ‘The End of Ideology and the End of the End of Ideology’, in Against the Self-Images of the Age: Essays on Ideology and Philosophy (London, 1971), p4.
5: The phrase sounds rather more elegant in the original French, ie, ‘le dérapage de la révolution’. F Furet and D Richet (1965), La Révolution française (Revised Edition, Paris, 1970), p126.
6: F Furet, ‘The French Revolution is Over’, in Interpreting the French Revolution, translated by E Forster (Cambridge and Paris, 1981), pp5-6, 12.
7: N Davidson, ‘How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (continued)’, Historical Materialism, vol 13, no 4 (2005), pp8-21, 27-32.
8: B Teschke, ‘Bourgeois Revolution, State Formation and the Absence of the International’, Historical Materialism, vol 13, no 2 (2005), p5.
9: G C Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge (London and New York, 1990), pp182, 193, 200, 202.
10: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815 (Oxford and New York, 2006), pviii.
11: H Heller, The Conquest of Poverty: the Calvinist Revolt in Sixteenth Century France (Leiden, 1986); Iron and Blood: Civil Wars in Sixteenth Century France (Montreal, 1991); Labour, Science and Technology in France, 1500-1620 (Cambridge, 1996).
12: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p1.
13: As above, p149.
14: As above, pp26-28.
15: A Soboul (1965), A Short History of the French Revolution, 1789-1799, translated by G Symcox (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1977); P McGarr, ‘The Great French Revolution’, International Socialism, 43 (Summer 1989).
16: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p22.
17: To be fair to Guérin, his conclusions about the prospects of working class power in the French Revolution were ultimately more realistic than those of his followers: ‘The objective conditions of the time did not allow the [sans-culotte] vanguard to beat the bourgeoisie at their own game’—D Guerin (1946), La Lutte de Classes sous la Première République, Revised Edition, 2 volumes (Paris, 1968), vol 1, p405.
18: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p23.
19: As above, pp89, 93.
20: As above, p23.
21: G Lefebvre (1951), The French Revolution, (2 volumes, London and New York, 1962-1964), vol 1, From its Origins to 1793, translated by E M Evanson; vol 2, From 1793 to 1799, translated by J H Stewart and J Friguglietti; A Soboul (1962), The French Revolution, 1787-1799: from the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon, translated by A Forrest and C Jones (London, 1989).
22: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p23.
23: As above, p74.
24: As above, p150.
25: As above, p7.
26: As above, p31. And see, for example, I Wallerstein, The Modern World System (3 volumes, New York, 1974-1989), vol 2, Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750, pp87-90.
27: As above, p34.
28: As above, p36.
29: As above, pp5-6, 36, 45-48.
30: As above, p51.
31: As above, pp37-38.
32: As above, p67.
33: See, in general, P Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London, 1974), pp19-20, and specifically in relation to France, R Brenner, ‘The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism’, in T H Aston and C H E Philpin (eds), The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge, 1985), pp286-291.
34: See, in general, M Mann, The Sources of Social Power (2 volumes, Cambridge, 1986-1993), vol 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760, pp475-483 and, specifically in relation to France, T Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: a Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge, 1979), pp52-54.
35: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p66.
36: As above, p67.
37: As above, pp67-69, 70, 147.
38: As above, pp54-60.
39: B Teschke, ‘Bourgeois Revolution, State Formation and the Absence of the International’, as above, p12. See also E M Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: a Longer View (London and New York, 2002), p63.
40: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p72. For Gramsci’s original discussion of ‘organic intellectuals’, see A Gramsci, ‘The Intellectuals’, in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Q Hoare and G Nowell Smith (London, 1971), pp14-21.
41: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p86.
42: As above, pp88, 89.
43: As above, p91.
44: As above, pp96, 103, 119, 129.
45: As above, pp76, 77, 78.
46: As above, p110.
47: As above, pp94, 99-103.
48: As above, p113.
49: As above, p137.
50: See, for example, my discussion of the transition to capitalism in rural Scotland, ‘The Scottish Path to Capitalist Agriculture 2: the Capitalist Offensive (1747-1815)’, Journal of Agrarian Change, vol 4, no 4 (October 2004), pp415-416, 423-431.
51: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p126.
52: R Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: from the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (London and New York, 1997), pp300-301.
53: C L R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (London, 1980), pp85-86.
54: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p139.
55 : S Schama, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780-1813 (London, 1992), pp12-15.
56: J Blum, The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe (Princeton, 1978), pp362, 370; T J Byres, Capitalism from Above and Capitalism from Below (Houndmills, 1996), pp27-8.
57: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, p7.
58: As above, p11.
59: As above, p149.
60: As above, p65.
61: G Eley, ‘The British Model and the German Road: Rethinking the Course of German History Before 1914’, in D Blackbourn and G Eley, The Peculiarities of German History, as above, pp85, 154. These conclusions are supported by most serious contemporary histories of Nazi Germany. See, for example, I Kershaw, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (London, 1998), pp73-75 and R J Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (London, 2003), pp2-21.
62: B Manning, ‘The English Revolution: the Decline and Fall of Revisionism’, Socialist History, 14 (1999), p46 and pp44-46 more generally.
63: H Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France, as above, pix.