Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Revolution Examined

The London Book Club reviews two books.
With bankruptcy the only alternative, the government of the French Bourbon king, Louis XVI, in 1788 called for a meeting of the estates-general, which had not met since 1614, with the aim of obtaining agreement to a plan to impose taxes on the nobility and clergy, who were tax-exempt.

When the estates-general met in May 1789, the situation rapidly ran out of the royal government’s control. The Third Estate asserted its own character – as the only elected estate – as representative of France as a whole, calling itself successively the ‘Commons’ (imitating Britain), the ‘National Assembly’, and finally the ‘Constituent Assembly’. The king’s decision to form a new government hostile to this assembly triggered more action: a Paris prison, the Bastille, was seized by mass action; in the countryside, peasant uprisings began to drive out the nobility and overthrow their feudal claims. The assembly formally abolished feudal rights and adopted a ‘Declaration of the rights of man and citizen’. A mass demonstration, reinforced by the ‘National Guard’ militia forced the king and his family to move to Paris, crippling attempts to mount a military resistance. Church property was nationalised.
In June 1791 the king attempted to flee to army supporters at Varennes, but was caught and brought back to Paris. In response, the king of Prussia and emperor of Austria asserted their willingness to take action to “to place the king of France in a position to establish, with the most absolute freedom, the foundations of a monarchical form of government”. The Prussians invaded France in July 1792. The war began with French defeats. In response, a Paris insurrection purged the assembly of its right wing, and Louis XVI was arrested. On September 20 the Prussians were defeated at the battle of Valmy. The next day a newly elected convention declared the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a republic. Louis was put on trial in December and executed in January 1793.

The execution of the king triggered further wars of intervention, interval revolts in the west (the Vendée) and south, and a further radicalisation of the regime. The ‘extreme’ Jacobin party made a coup against the ‘moderate’ Girondins and proceeded to very extensive mass mobilisation, terrorism against internal opponents and war-centralisation of the economy. By the end of 1793, it became clear that the French revolutionary armies were able to stand off both external enemies and internal revolts, and in the first half of 1794 they had further successes. In July 1794 the Girondins made a counter-coup against the Jacobins – ‘Thermidor’ – and turned the weapon of terror against them.

The French armies were able from 1794 to go on the offensive, conquering the Netherlands and invading Spain in 1795; forcing Spain and Prussia out of the war; successfully invading both the Rhineland and Italy in 1796; and forcing Austria out of the war in 1797. Meanwhile, the convention constitution was replaced by the openly oligarchic directory (1795). This in turn gave way in 1799 to a coup by the successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who set himself up as ‘first consul’ and from 1804 emperor.

War with Britain in effect continued until 1813, with a brief interlude in 1802-03. The British constructed a series of European coalitions against the French, all of which were defeated, with Napoleon’s empire spreading further and further across Europe. Finally, Napoleon overreached by invading Russia in 1812, leading to the disastrous retreat from Moscow. The ‘sixth coalition’ was then able to defeat the French armies, and restore the Bourbon monarchy – twice, since in the ‘hundred days’ in 1815, Napoleon was restored until he was defeated at Waterloo.

But as with the English restoration in 1660, the French restoration left the king as a partially limited monarch: there was a constitution and a representative assembly with limited powers, and the revolution’s changes in government, armed forces, taxation and the legal system were left intact. In the revolution of 1830, the Bourbon monarchy was replaced by a more clearly constitutional regime, the Orléanist or ‘July’ monarchy of Louis Philippe. This in turn fell in 1848 to a short-lived Second Republic – overthrown in 1851 by a coup by its own president, Louis Bonaparte, who created the Second Empire (1851-71). In spite of Marx’s characterisations in The class struggles in France and The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, there is no real retrospective doubt that the Second Empire, though politically dictatorial, was a fully capitalist regime. Indeed, there is little real doubt that the Orléanist monarchy was already a bourgeois regime.

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