Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thinking about the causes of the French Revolution

My book club met last night to discuss The Days of the French Revolution by Christopher Hibbert. I liked the book because it simply describes the day be day progress of the revolution into chaos, without trying to fathom the reasons for the revolution. As such it makes a real impression of how fast and seriously things can get out of hand. Those who were living through the days of the French Revolution clearly did not foresee the actual course of the revolution, of if they were of the tiny minority of Cassandras did not see how to stop the process.

In our discussion, however, I was especially interested in some of the hypotheses that came forth as to the causes of the revolution and the reasons it went so wrong.

  • The monarchy was broken. It was spending more than it could raise and was unable to raise the funds to pay its debts. Moreover, there were other countries with governments that were not broken showing that better government was possible.
  • The narrative that the monarchy was divinely ordained as attested by the Catholic church headed by God's representative on earth had been strongly challenged by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, thus undermining the conceptual basis of the monarchy, the church, and indeed the aristocracy in the minds of many of the key actors.
  • The income distribution had become too uneven, with the majority living in the most abject poverty, the monarch living in splendor, and the aristocracy and high church officials visibly living in great luxury. Anger was rife.
  • Bad weather led to crop failures, and the food distribution system was unable to prevent famine, while food prices were escalating for those living on the edge of poverty, exacerbating all the longer term  problems of the society and catalyzing revolution.
  • A widely recognized malaise that was present but not understood at the time.
  • The lack of cultural precedents in France for democratic government, such as existed in England, and institutions such as the rule of law that could have lent support to the various governing bodies and their decrees. The lack of a strong independent judiciary.
France was the most powerful country in Europe at the time of the revolution, able to conquer most of Europe even when dealing with domestic upheaval. Moreover, it was the cultural center of the West; French was the lingua franca of Europe. The revolution in France therefore was taken very seriously in other European nations.

There seemed to be general agreement that the book was interesting and engrossing.

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