Few historians have had their judgments as little challenged as Alexis de Tocqueville. When he pronounced that the French Revolution had its origins in the very society which it was destined to destroy, he articulated a view which, for different reasons, would be acceptable to historians of every persuasion for the next century and a half. Writers of both Right and Left found common ground in asserting that the Revolution of 1789 had specific social origins which produced the political upheaval that left France socially, economically, institutionally and politically altered, never to be the same again. For the Right, this tragedy, for it was no less, was attributable to the failure of the monarchy to share power - at least with the propertied - and to introduce needful social reform. For the Left, the French Revolution was a stage in the epic march of the people towards their political destiny. It represented the point at which emergent capitalism, using a nascent proletariat, destroyed feudalism, and the bourgeoisie seized political power, sharing it grudgingly - and fleetingly - with the people in 1793-5. 1789 was for them the bourgeois revolution in France and the promised triumph of the people was deferred to a speculative future.
LRB 20 August 1981 | PDF Download