Silence Is A Lesson For Kings

I spent the past six days traveling by train around the middle of the country. On my journey, I re-read/finally finished Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. I highly recommend it for the entertaining way it unravels all of the tight-knit intrigue and intricacies of the plot. But I think the main question of the Revolution—did it create the bourgeoisie or destroy it—remains unconvincingly answered.

Some critics have written that for Marx have been right about the Revolution, it should have been fueled by shop owners, merchants, and the like—i.e. proto-capitalists—instead of by the lawyer elite who dominated the National Assembly and then later the Cult of the Supreme Being and even the Terror. But I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that since the revolutionaries publicly denounced the landed aristocracy (light treatment compared to the “national razor”) they therefore did not forge a different kind of elite against the anvil of a new kind of production. Even if the Revolution started out of sheer hunger, the end result was the destruction of the guilds and of out-and-out nepotism, especially via the church: that is, the creation of a political structure that would better bolster the economic changes that had started long before 1789.

Even if, as I think it’s well shown, the original demands of the first to take to the streets (er, fields) included more policing of markets by the State and less modernization in the workplace—i.e. the opposite of a free-trade revolution, but rather a pseudo-Luddite return to some idealized agriarianism—the fact is that the Ancien Régime got that bad in the first place because the political structure of the monarchy did not adequately allow for the legal reforms that an intensifying economic network required. The absolution of the guilds, not to mention the creation of a military-industrial machine, lend credence to Marx’s point, which is that the Revolution, while begun by farmers, would ultimately be furthered (in rivers of blood) by artisans.


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