After reading this article you will learn about the causes of French revolution.
Like Industrial Revolution and American Revolution, the French Revolution was also the originator of few but important political ideas or concepts. But before embarking upon that aspect it is necessary to throw light on several causes of the French Revolution (hereafter only F. R.). In most of the states of Europe there were absolute monarchies and absolutism reached the final stage of toleration or patience.
The general nature of autocratic rulers was to declare war against other states and to meet the expenses of war their normal behaviour or method was to impose heavy dose of taxes upon the people including the aristocrats and the wealthiest sections of the community.
The victims of the heavy taxes raised their arms against the king and particularly the nobles flatly refused to pay extra load of taxes. This flat refusal embittered the relations between the king and nobles. The nobles further argued that the authority had no power to levy taxes without consulting the Estates General.
The French society was divided into three “estates”—the clergy, the nobles, and the rest. The king summoned the representatives of these three estates to find out the solution of the problem regarding rising of taxes.
The “third estate” was the largest one and the members of this estate proclaimed themselves as the National Assembly, The members of the National Assembly refused to cooperate with the king and demanded that he must first of all give them a constitution.
The king refused to accept this demand. This forced the people to revolt. People revolted against the monarchy and surrounded the palace and Bastille fortress. All the attempts of the king to save himself met with a complete failure.
“After threatening to blow up the fortress, the commander surrendered the Bastille to the masses. Revolution had taken hold of the Capital”.
The experts of the French Revolution are of opinion that there are certain deep- rooted reasons behind this and one of them is the division of French society into a number of opposing classes. The old society of France was known as ancient regime which was divided mainly into monarchy and nobility .There were various types or classes of nobility and most of the them were influential.
The nobles controlled the administration and the judiciary. Besides the nobles in French society there were large number of merchants who earned big profits through trade and commerce. Before the F. R. there was large number of capitalists who formed a separate class- popularly called bourgeoisie.
In respect of influence the bourgeoisie was inferior to nobles, but in respect of financial power the bourgeoisie was much above the nobility and this was a potent cause of conflict between nobility and bourgeoisie.
Again, there were several groups within the bourgeoisie and because of this there was clash in this class. This is not all. There were many people who were not satisfied with their present position and made attempts to raise their financial status and social position. They were generally called the “men on the make”. This can be treated as a reason of conflict.
Finally, there was the biggest class in France and it was the peasantry. The peasantry was exploited in various ways. But as the peasants were not organized they could not revolt against the autocratic rule in France.
The French peasants were exploited in a number of ways. For example, they had to pay heavy taxes to the feudal lords. They were forced to bear the effects of the fluctuations of markets. From 1780s the French monarchy was involved in war and to meet the expenditure the king imposed taxes upon all and the peasants were the worst sufferers. The French society was under great turmoil.
In the eighteenth century the French society was divided into a number of classes and even in one class there were several groups. Bourgeoisie, nobility and peasantry all were divided and there were conflicts among them.
In the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, for one reason or other, the conflicts were in latent condition, but towards the end of the eighteenth century the bitter relations between the classes or groups surfaced and in the eighties of the century the class conflicts were severe and that became the most powerful cause of the revolution.
This however, was the opinion of the majority people. But some thought that the complex and bitter relationship between the groups cannot be the primary reason of F. R. This, of course, is the “revisionist” approach to the F. R. and is not accepted by majority historians of F. R.
Maxey says that the professional and commercial classes were in privileged position in French society. Through their profession and business they amassed huge wealth and they were not active actors of a revolution.
The financial condition of the working class and peasants was not better at all. But it cannot be said that they were exploited. The crown abused his power and position and that made him highly unpopular. But this cannot be treated as the main cause of F. R. Even the revolution was not caused by the unbearable condition of the masses.
If so, why did the F. R. occur? According to Maxey the cause of the revolution was in the institutional structure of the French society. Let us quote him. “The French Revolution came because the institutional structures which for generations had held in equipoise the dynamic forces of society rotted and crumbled. When these retaining walls went down, the tumultuous stream of social forces leaped its banks and swept all before it”. In the opinion of Maxey the poverty, class conflict or the autocracy were not the chief causes of the F. R. The social structure of France had lost its adhesive power and because of this it could not hold all sections and parts together.
The critics criticized the function or behaviour of many but they had not the power to provide alternative arrangements to run the French administration. The reason given by Maxey holds good no doubt. But after reviewing all the aspects of F. R. we observe that injustice and tyranny had reached the zenith and large number of people revolted against the established authority.
At this juncture of time, views and writings supplied sufficient fuel to the aggrieved sections of the French society. The writings and opinions of scores of people inflamed the emotion.
Let us quote few lines from Maxey:
“There was no lack of writers whose appeal was principally to the emotions. Voltaire, with his bitter shafts of satire; Diderot, with his effervescent brilliance, Helvetius, with his contagious irreverence, Hobbach, with has solemn sincerity” passionately desired to set everything right.
The most important person who inflamed the emotion of the revolutionaries was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He has been termed by many as the Father of F. R. His Social Contract provided sufficient reason to the revolutionaries to revolt.
Rousseau said – Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. These few words, it is said, changed the mind and feeling of the French people. We are of opinion that the F. R. took place at a particular juncture of time, but it was not caused by any single factor.
A large number of renowned persons have recorded their opinion on French Revolution and in the following analysis we mention few of them. Edmund Burke was a famous orator and he supported some right issues. But in the case of F. R. he has been found to oppose it strongly. He admitted that in France the monarchy was autocratic and its autocracy crossed all limits of toleration.
The people were pressed by poverty caused by heavy dose of taxation and sky rocketing price level. Notwithstanding he could not support the revolution because it in a well-calculated way destroyed the well established tradition, culture and system of France.
In his judgment he was not opposed to any change but that change must protect the tradition, culture and system that was built up on the experience of several centuries.
Burke was out and out a conservative and his inordinate love for conservatism prevented him from supporting the Revolution in France. But the views of Burke are not acceptable. Simply for the sake of conservativeness the tyrannical way of king’s administration and the intolerable situation of France are not acceptable.
Narrating the cause of F. R. Alexis de’ Tocqueville states that irreligion produced an enormous public evil. The autocratic rule of the French government was the potent source of public resentment and people—particularly the peasants and workers—reached the last stage of patience and they felt that revolution was the only remedy.
He said, “The social order destroyed by a Revolution is almost always better than that which immediately preceded it and experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform.”
In his opinion the growing impoverishment of the general public cannot be blamed for the revolution because in the ancient regime people were not becoming more and poor.
The real cause of F. R. is, in the latter half of the eighteenth century the middle class people were getting wealthier and becoming powerful and this led them to aspire for share in general administration of the state, but they were not getting it. The existing set up could not accommodate them and this led them to revolution. Maxey also supports this reason.
Rude does not fully support the view of Tocqueville. But in his opinion the French monarchy dismally failed to meet some of the basic demands of the general public and finally they wanted a respite through revolution.
There were sporadic and half-hearted attempts on the part of the ruler to give relief to the public. But the tragedy is that the reforms introduced by one ruler were not followed by his successors. But the reforms failed in some cases to meet the exigencies of the common people. All these combinedly, in the opinion of Rude, invited F. R.
France’s participation in war and involvement in several arm conflicts drained away a considerable portion of her wealth and to replenish the state exchequer the king levied huge taxes which irritated people of all walks of life. The bourgeois thinkers may or may not agree.
But it is a fact that the overall condition of the French society was quite ripe for a change and that feeling was adequately inflamed by various factors and circumstances. Economic, social, political, cultural and numerous other factors contributed to the cause of the French Revolution. It is impossible to assess the contribution of each factor or cause, but every cause had a contribution. We shall now turn to the contribution of the F. R. in political theory.