The Economic and Social Origins of the French Revolution of 1789
by Mithun Bhattacharya This essay by Mithum Bhattacharya discusses the origins of the French Revolution. It is published on this site with his kind permission.
The French Revolution was one of the greatest socio-political upheavals of European and World history...
In order to understand the question of the social origins of the French Revolution closely, we need to study French society of 18th century. The whole social structure of l’ancien regime was divided into orders or ‘estates’. The First Estate comprised of the clergy... they owned about 1/10th of the land in France. The clergy enjoyed many privileges. In addition to the income derived as landowners from rents and feudal dues, they drew the ‘tithe’, which amounted to 1/12th of the yield from land. In return, however, they paid a very small percentage of their income to the king as ‘don gratuit’ or voluntary gifts. For our purpose of analysis, the clergy should be divided into different groups.
The Upper Clergy was drawn entirely from the ‘noblesse’ (nobility) and the relatively poor Lower Clergy were drawn from the ‘ronturier’ or the non-noble classes. There was no representation from the lower nobility to the upper clergy. This was deeply resented by the former, and in the course of the revolution, those dissatisfied with their lot joined the revolutionaries.
The Second Estate comprised the nobility, who like the clergy constituted a small fraction of the population... Traditional prejudice kept this class from indulging in productive activity. They served as councillors to the royalty, diplomats and governors. They enjoyed rights of local justice, village surveillance, monopoly over hunting and the maintenance of wells and wine presses. The most important differentiation between the nobles and the non-nobles was that the former enjoyed immunity from direct taxation in the form of ‘taille’ and various other taxes...
The Third Estate comprised the rest of France. At the head of this social group lay the bourgeoisie. At the head of the bourgeoisie were the ‘haute bourgeoisie’ or ‘grande bourgeoisie’, who were the great bourgeoisie of finance. They were a group of non-nobles, but not necessarily non-privileged people. They had risen into affluence by means of their hard work, frugality and commercial speculation. They began to ape (mimic) French nobility and were similar to them in many respects, except that they were not confirmed noble status...
Another important class in 18th century France, was the middle bourgeoisie or the professional classes, which included people like lawyers, doctors, teachers etc. There also existed the petty bourgeoisie, comprising of shopkeepers, artisans, small retail traders etc. Due to their standard of living, they were often clubbed together with the lower working groups. These groups constantly dreamed of attaining the noble status...
Below the bourgeoisie were the lower working classes, which included urban factory workers and peasants, even they cannot be labelled as of being a consolidated working class... The peasant class was also affected with internal contradictions that brought them together, and at the same time tore them apart. All kinds of dues were taken from them. The ‘taille’, the ‘capitaille’ and the ‘vingtieme’ absorbed 53% of their income, ecclestiacal titles 14% and other dues amounted to another 14%. Out of the remaining 19%, indirect taxes like the ‘gabelle’ or salt tax were also exacted...
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