Revolutionary Economics

Norman Hampson

  • The French Revolution and the Poor by Alan Forrest
    Blackwell, 198 pp, £12.50, May 1981, ISBN 0 631 10371 6

It is generally assumed that social revolutions must be good for the poor. To suggest the contrary is to appear wilfully paradoxical. After all, revolutionaries assert, and most of them probably believe, that their new order will be especially favourable to those who are least able to look after themselves. Their intentions may be benevolent enough, but the effects of their policies on the lives of ordinary people are another matter. Even if the change is for the better in the long run, a transition period of confusion, loss of business confidence or unskilful planning, can be catastrophic for those who have the fewest reserves. When Burke wrote of the impossibility of supplying the poor with ‘those necessaries which it has pleased the Divine Providence for a while to withhold from them’, he must have known that those from whom ‘necessaries’ are withheld may not be there when they become available again. Revolutionary leaders, even if they do not share Burke’s views on Providence, are sometimes to be found on the same tack, urging their followers to forget about what Robespierre called chétives marchandises and to sacrifice the present for a glorious future, at least for the survivors. Alan Forrest’s study of how the French Revolution actually affected the poor allows us to study one case in some detail.

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