In the latest of his series on the Marxist understanding of history, Neil Faulkner explores revolution and counter-revolution in 18th-Century France.

The Bastille was an ancient fortress and state prison in eastern Paris. A symbol of absolute monarchy, it loomed menacingly over streets inhabited by the city’s working population of artisans, small traders, and general labourers. Like the monarchy, it seemed an immovable presence.

On 14 July 1789, the people of Paris, who had been seizing arms wherever they could find them for two days, massed outside the Bastille and demanded its surrender. The defenders opened fire. During three hours of fighting, 83 people were killed. But the determination of the assault broke the defenders’ morale and the gates were opened.

The Bastille had been stormed to thwart a military coup. The successful insurrection broke the back of the absolute monarchy and transformed the newly self-declared ‘National Assembly’ into the effective government of France.

The National Assembly promptly abolished ‘feudalism’, passed a ‘declaration of the rights of man’, and created a new ‘National Guard’. Towns across France followed the example of the capital and created new revolutionary authorities.

When the news reached the countryside, it inspired an elemental rising of the peasantry – ‘the Great Fear’. Hundreds of thousands marched on the chateaux of the landlords and burnt the title deeds to feudal dues. In scores of local towns, the poor demonstrated against food shortages, price rises, and unemployment.

The world had been turned upside down. An absolute monarchy unchallenged for 140 years had been overthrown in three days of urban insurrection. The French Revolution had begun.

For the next 25 years, counter-revolutionary forces at home and abroad would attempt to destroy the achievement of 1789. Again and again, the Revolution would have to mobilise mass struggle in its own defence.

As early as October 1789, a new royalist plot was being hatched. The Palace of Versailles outside Paris had become the main centre of counter-revolution. So 20,000 market women marched to Versailles (their menfolk trailing behind them), broke into the palace, and forced the King to return to Paris – where he and his followers would be under popular surveillance.

The victory of the market women consolidated the constitutional monarchy and ended the first phase of the French Revolution. Let us take stock.

Between 1688 and 1783, Britain and France had fought five long wars, lasting for a total of 42 years. The conflict had ranged from the forests of North America to the plains of India, though it had usually been centred in Europe.

Because the British economy was growing faster than theirs, and because they usually had to fight the British themselves at sea and their European allies on land, the French had lost their empire and ruined their economy.

Even victory had been too expensive. The French state had been bankrupted by its role in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). In its aftermath, the absolute monarchy was forced to attempt a reform of the tax system.

The French Revolution of 1789 is usually accorded greater historical significance than the English Revolution of 1642. This is a mistake.

Capitalism is a dynamic economic system whose competitive edge poses a mortal threat to traditional societies and states. Britain grew much faster than France during the 18th century because of the forces unleashed by the English Revolution.

The French economy certainly grew – at an estimated 1.9% per year throughout the 18th century. Textile output increased 250%, iron output 350%, coal output 750%. By 1789, a fifth of the French population worked in industry or handicrafts.

But it was not enough to keep up with Britain. The absolute monarchy failed the supreme test of war, and by the 1780s, France’s imperial crisis had become a financial crisis. King Louis XVI was forced to attempt a modernisation of the French state under the impact of military competition with a more powerful economy.

War taxation was already a massive burden on the working population, but the nobility and the clergy paid no tax at all. The key to reform was making the nobility and the clergy pay their share.

But when the King appointed a ‘reforming’ ministry to rationalise the tax system, the parlements – aristocrat-controlled supreme courts in Paris and the provinces – rejected its proposals. Many leading aristocrats even called for mass demonstrations against the government. The central demand was that an Estates-General should be called to resolve the crisis.

The Estates-General of 1789 was the first since 1614. It was formed of three chambers representing three ‘estates’: nobility, clergy, and commons. The election campaign reached into every small town and village, drawing the masses into political action, unleashing a tempest of grievances and demands.

The Third Estate represented the overwhelming majority of the people, but it was dominated by the professional middle classes, especially lawyers, mainly because they had the requisite political skills.

The Estates-General met from April to June 1789 at Versailles. The result was a political stand-off. The King’s ministers demanded tax reform. The delegates demanded redress of grievances. The Third Estate refused to recognise the superiority of the nobility and the clergy.

When the Third Estate proclaimed itself a ‘National Assembly’ and invited the nobility and clergy to join it, the King locked them out of their hall. The delegates met in a nearby tennis-court and swore an oath not to disperse until a constitution was granted.

The King sacked his leading reformist minister and summoned 20,000 troops to Paris. The capital was already a ferment of political clubs and meetings, the streets awash with news-sheets, pamphlets, and street-corner orators. Some 400 of the middle class ‘electors’ who had taken part in the selection of delegates to the Estates-General met in the city hall and formed themselves into a council or ‘commune’.

But it was the intervention of the Paris crowd – predominantly young artisans, petty traders, and general labourers – that brought down the absolute monarchy. The crowd fraternised with the soldiers and won them over. The King did not dare send more soldiers into the city. The Bastille was successfully stormed.

The peasant revolution, following the example of Paris and other large towns, was then decisive. France was an agricultural country. Most soldiers were peasants. When the villages attacked the chateaux, there was no chance the soldiers would fight for the landlords.

The Third Estate had been joined by a minority of aristocrats and clergy to form the National Assembly. The conservative majority favoured a constitutional monarchy that would halt the revolution and safeguard property and privilege. It was led by the Marquis de Lafayette, an aristocratic general who had served in the American Revolutionary War.

At first, during the Revolution’s ‘honeymoon’, the more radical revolutionaries were marginalised. But their strength was growing amid the continuing ferment of propaganda and agitation. Some 250 newspapers were launched in the last six months of 1789 alone. Soon to emerge as the most popular was former doctor Marat’s L’Ami du Peuple (‘The Friend of the People’).

Numerous radical clubs provided opportunities for debate about the way forwards. The most famous were the Jacobins, dominated by the lawyer Robespierre, and the Cordeliers, dominated by another lawyer, Danton.

In June 1791, the King attempted to flee France to join the counter-revolutionary armies gathering across the border. He was caught and brought back to Paris.

But when, the following month, ordinary Parisians queued up to sign a republican petition in the Field of Mars, Lafayette’s National Guard opened fire and killed 50.

In the same place, exactly a year before, people had come together on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in a carnival-like ‘Festival of Federation’. Now, a river of blood ran between conservative constitutional-monarchists like Lafayette and radical republicans like Marat, Robespierre, and Danton. The Revolution was entering a new phase.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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