Book Review: The Coming of the French Revolution by Georges Lefebvre

Although I do not by any means hold Marxist convictions (quite the contrary!), I do believe it is important to understand Marxist perspectives, including Marxist perspectives on history. My hope is that this review along with Lefebvre’s book can give us an honest perspective on a 1930s Marxist intellectual’s mind.

In 1970, The Coming of the French Revolution by Georges Lefebvre reentered the printing press in France. Originally published in 1939 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1789 Revolution in France, the book had for years remained suppressed and almost lost, thanks to the German occupation of France in World War II. During this interim, about 8,000 copies of the book were burned. In 1947, shortly after World War II ended, it was translated into English. Partly because it was so well-received by its English audience and partly because it was not reprinted in France until 1970, The Coming of the French Revolution has achieved more recognition in English than in its original language. Since the end of World War II, it has become a classic among histories of the French Revolution. Written with straightforward language and an abundance of anecdotes, this masterfully crafted and organized book provides a solid introduction to the underlying causes of the French Revolution of 1789 as well as a peek into the perspective of Marxist historians of pre-World War II France. It is widely considered the authoritative account of the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution.

As such, its organization is concerned less with chronological storytelling than with a systematic approach to the various and changing socioeconomic classes of France in the late Eighteenth Century. Even so, the organization of his book follows a loose timeline. Lefebvre explain the organization of the book: “[A]fter… preeminence, the aristocracy opened the way to the bourgeois revolution, then to the popular revolution in the cities and finally to the revolution of the peasants—and found itself buried under the ruins of the Old Regime.” He thus organizes the first four parts of his book based on what he calls the “four acts” of the Revolution (3). Following these four class revolutions are two parts concerning the creation and implementation of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.” His last part of the book brings the events of the Revolution of 1789 into modern context.

The first act of the Revolution took place in 1788 and “consisted in a triumph of the aristocracy” which took advantage of the national crisis to regain political eminence (3). Amidst the victory of the aristocracy, however, seeds were sown for a new problem: the calling of the Estates General gave the rising bourgeoisie an entitlement to representative rights.

Thus, the second act of the Revolution was the bourgeois revolution. Consistent with his approach to the various class revolutions, Lefebvre begins by explaining the characteristics that defined the class—the bourgeoisie, he tells us, were a diverse class with their own internal jealousies: “Nothing was more pronounced than the ordering of ranks within this bourgeois society” (47). Lefebvre then gives an account of the political shrewdness and energy that the bourgeoisie brought to the Estates General. He ends with a cliffhanger: the bourgeoisie stood their ground against the king’s use of force at the Estates General.

It is here that Lefebvre alludes to the popular revolution. “At this point,” writes Lefebvre, “the force of the people intervened, beneath whose blows the Old Regime went down beyond recall” (92). The popular revolution was caused, Lefebvre argues, largely due to the leadership and incitement of the people by the bourgeoisie. Many of the bourgeoisie lived in the smaller towns and grew acquainted with the populace. Lawyers and journalists incited fear and veered the opinions of the people against the nobility. However, Lefebvre also attributes the anger of the people to the hunger that was caused by poor harvests and an effort by the noblemen to hoard grain until prices rose. In any case, Lefebvre attempts to give an account of the causes behind the popular revolution, followed by a narration of the July 14 revolution in Paris—the sacking of the Bastille and the killing of the mayor of Paris at the Hôtel de Ville—and the aftershocks that occurred in the municipalities. All this resulted in the humbling of the king, who acceded to the bourgeois Assembly.

Even while the Assembly discussed issues of manorial rights, the fourth act, the peasant revolution, took the stage. It concerned itself with the continued grain shortage in the country. Indeed, the “aristocratic conspiracy” was a cause of great fear among the people and many of the bourgeoisie as well.

The fifth part concerns the underlying philosophical views and recent historical events that promulgated the ideas behind the way the bourgeoisie thought and felt about the rights of men and citizens (which have, as Lefebvre notes in his “Conclusion,” become known today as human rights and civil rights). This portion also discusses the various political activity and debate that went behind the creation of the preamble and the seventeen articles that make up the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.”

The sixth and penultimate part is a narrative account of the king’s resistance to affirm the declaration and the force that was used to gain the king’s “pure and simple” (202) acceptance of the Declaration. Lefebvre’s conclusion ties the effects of the Revolution of 1789—especially the ideas behind the Declaration—into the context of modern day ideology, ending with a pep talk on the triumph of the human spirit and the responsibility that is inherent to liberty.

In all this, Lefebvre uses different styles when describing various movements and events in 1789 France. He often begins each part of his book with a description of the underlying movements and feelings that led to various events to occur. In such a description, Lefebvre narrates the state of affairs for a class of society with a seemingly bottomless knowledge of anecdotal occurrences, primary documents, quotes, and geographic relations. What’s more, he writes it all as if he is discussing the matters in person and simply draws the numbers and quotes off the top of his head. However, in spite of the concrete evidence Lefebvre uses to make his point, all the evidence only causes the reader to realize how much we do not know about that time—and how much information was not mentioned in Lefebvre’s book. This does not necessarily weaken Lefebvre’s arguments as much as it humbles the reader and inspires him to explore and search more on the matter. Lefebvre tactfully zooms in and out of conversation: he zooms in to give a long list of anecdotes and then zooms out to discuss it in the wider scope of events. Yet, when zoomed out and talking generalities, Lefebvre keeps an engaging tone, perhaps because of the enhancement by his myriad anecdotal examples. He sustains a clear focus on the underlying causes of the events of the Revolution, so much so that his actual narrations of the events themselves almost appear dismissive. Nonetheless, as the culmination of great social unrest, the events are exciting to read about. Lefebvre has a clear change of style in his “Conclusion,” as he is no longer writing about the past as much as the effects of the past on present philosophy. He gives the Revolution his own interpretation: to him, “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen stands as the incarnation of the Revolution as a whole” (214). It is here, where Lefebvre’s personal opinion is most manifest, that his Marxist sentiments and sympathies are most visible. He writes of the Revolution as a result of the peoples’ “audacity, courage and readiness for sacrifice… Revolutionary action,” Lefebvre argues, “takes place in the realm of the spirit” (211).

Despite being the epitome of a Marxist view of the Revolution of 1789, The Coming of the French Revolution reads very differently than “The Communist Manifesto.” While Lefebvre’s book certainly places the bourgeoisie as the ringleaders of the Revolution, he does not blame the bourgeoisie for everything, nor does he portray them as possessing completely selfish intentions. Lefebvre spends plenty of time speaking of the liberal nobility and lower clergy who sided with the national party. He often made mention of La Fayette, the abbé Sieyès, and the comte de Mirabeau as just as important figures of the Revolution as many of the leading bourgeoisie. Thus, Lefebvre makes it clear that the leaders of the revolting people in the Revolution of 1789 were not simply the bourgeoisie, but also included the lower clergy and liberal nobles. Lefebvre also recognizes that the bourgeoisie saw themselves as representatives of the interests of the common people. Their fight for rights and equality was evidence of this (although, as Lefebvre stresses later on, the line between “rights” and “means” was quite blurred at the time). Moreover, Lefebvre argues that, without the interventions of the populace, the bourgeois attempts at reform would have simply been a laughing stock. Lastly, a widespread craving for bread inspired many revolts in the municipalities as well as the greater revolts. Until Lefebvre’s “Conclusion,” any reader would have thought that Lefebvre believes that revolutionary action takes place not in the realm of the spirit but in the realm of the stomach. Lefebvre, in explaining the circumstances that spurred the events of the October Days, writes:

While political circumstances thus appear as the essential cause of the October Days, the same thought arises as in connection with the Days of July, that without the economic crisis the upheaval would have been less profound. The women who were the first to march on Versailles, on October 5, complained above all of scarcity and excessive prices. (195-196)

Lefebvre’s Marxist view of the Revolution is seen more in his strong focus on the class divisions of the time; he certainly does not blame the bourgeoisie alone for everything that happened during the Revolution of 1789.

Lefebvre’s use of plain language gives the reader an endearing attitude toward the erudite author whose knowledge of the events seems limitless. His liberal use of short anecdotes, however, can confuse a reader—especially one unfamiliar with the landscape and geographical landmarks of eighteenth-century France. More confusing is Lefebvre’s love of jumping back and forth on the timeline of events. In fact, by the third or fourth part, the reader realizes that Lefebvre has some repetitiveness with concern to various themes (such as the “aristocratic revolution”) that stay consistent throughout the revolution. This repetition is a result of Lefebvre’s method of looking at the same historical strain from different class-based lenses. It is in this way that Lefebvre achieves the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution: less because of radical denouncement of the bourgeoisie as much as his focus on the dynamics and relationships of the classes—a focus that, in Lefebvre’s book, overshadows the traditional approach to history as a series of events that culminates in one grand scheme.

The Coming of the French Revolution is a pleasurable and enlightening read on the Revolution of 1789. Lefebvre’s book stands as a classic among history books on the French Revolution. It is a strand of well-researched essays—the type of book that transforms a layman into an expert among laymen. It is the material that self-educated readers love and seek in their search for books with meaningful, enlightening content. Perhaps what makes The Coming of the French Revolution most intriguing is the insight a reader may draw concerning the mind of a 1930s Marxist historian—through the elaborate discussion of events that happened over two hundred years ago. The book itself has endured a history of resilience through Nazi censorship; any reader would agree that it is worthy of its heroic survival.


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