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

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.

There are two ways of defining the ‘poor’: those whom their contemporaries regarded as having an exceptionally low standard of living, or those who were unable to survive by their own efforts. These, of course, are not really separate categories. People who, at the best of times, can hope for nothing better than a subsistence income, tend not to survive as long as those with more money and better food, housing and education. They can slip all too easily, either temporarily or permanently, from indigence to pauperism, if they have too many children, fall ill or get injured, grow old or suffer from bad harvests, economic depression or sheer bad luck. Despite this, one has to treat the two categories as distinct, if only because governments, at least until recent times, assumed that there was not much they could do about the one, while they accepted some degree of responsibility for the other.

In 18th-century France those who needed, or at least were lucky enough to get, regular public assistance, perhaps ran into scores of thousands. The poor in the more general sense were numbered in millions. The Comité de Mendicité, set up by the Constituent Assembly in 1790, estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of the population might require occasional assistance. This amounted to two or three million people. Those a little above them, who still had not the means to secure a decent existence, were even more numerous.

All countries in pre-industrial Europe were, of course, poor by modern standards, but Arthur Young, who knew France well, thought that, with the possible exception of a few favoured areas, it was much poorer than England: ‘it reminded me of the poverty of Ireland.’ Agricultural productivity in France was only about half that across the Channel and the country was supporting a higher population than it could properly sustain. No government on earth could have done much to remedy this in the short run – except to pray for a succession of good harvests. It was nevertheless true that the only long-term answer to a burden of poverty which it was beyond the power of the state to alleviate was the kind of economic policy which would stimulate the production of more food and of manufactured goods that could be exchanged for food. If one asks what the French Revolution did for the poor, what one is basically asking is how it affected the national economy.

There is probably no answer. The revolutionaries themselves held radically different views. The agronomists, looking to the example of England, shared Arthur Young’s conviction that what was needed was to create substantial holdings, efficiently cultivated by prosperous and businesslike farmers, spurred on by the incentive of a ‘good’ price. Even if one assumes – and it might well be wrong to do so – that this kind of solution was compatible with the peculiar nature of French landownership, to purchase productivity at the expense of greater social inequality was alien to the deepest convictions of those who were in charge of the Republic in 1792-94. They tended to see the peasantry through Rousseauist spectacles, to dream of a society of peasant proprietors and the kind of Spartan self-sufficiency that had haunted Rousseau. Which of the two was ‘right’ is a question that everyone is likely to answer in terms of his own political preferences and private principles.

We can at least agree that, whatever the theoretical merits of the two policies, in actual practice most people were worse off as a result of the Revolution. In its early years, landowners benefited from the abolition of tithes and seigneurial dues and from the sale of Church estates. This liberal phase was succeeded, however, by the requisitioning of grain at a low controlled price, in order to feed the armies and the towns. The towns certainly needed all the help they could get, since the collapse of the luxury market, British interference with overseas trade, and acute inflation played havoc with businessmen’s plans and made life very hard for the sansculottes.

It is usual to attribute the Revolution’s dismal economic performance to the war, which did indeed tear breadwinners from the land and grain from the villages, strewed its victims – the sick, the wounded and the bereaved – throughout the country, claimed the lion’s share of whatever resources were available and multiplied everyone’s problems by the inflation that was necessary to finance it. Since the war distorted almost everything else, it is tempting to write it off as a kind of diabolus ex machina, a shocking piece of bad luck that deprived France of all the benefits that might have accrued from the Revolution if only things had gone ‘normally’. History may indeed consist of ‘nothing’ more than a succession of accidents, but this is not usually the view of those most convinced of the virtues of social revolutions. Whether or not the revolutionaries were mainly responsible for the war – and it was, after all, they who usually declared it – those who stress the challenge that the movement represented to the old order in Europe can scarcely be surprised that it led to conflict.

Any attempt to answer the cardinal question of why the Revolution made life harder for the poor loses itself in an endless succession of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. What the historian can do, and Dr Forrest does it well, is to show what actually happened. The Constituent Assembly got off to a good start and it may be significant that the initiative came, not from the leaders of the Left, who tended to be preoccupied by political battles, but from some of the more conservative Deputies. It was Malouet who made a remarkable ‘Keynesian’ speech in August 1789 to the effect that deficit financing could make a positive contribution to the economy if it generated demand and stimulated employment; Larochefoucauld-Liancourt, who presided over the Comité de Mendicité, was a duke. Dr Forrest is inclined to blame all the revolutionaries for trying to deal with the problems of poverty by bureaucratic social surveys, followed by legislation from Paris, rather than by relying on local initiative, but it is difficult to see what else they could have done. They had no idea of the extent of their task until they had made their inquiries, but they did realise that the way the Church had formerly dealt with it depended on a chance pattern of private charity and on the random distribution of religious houses: it tended to favour the towns at the expense of the countryside and medieval centres of population at the expense of the modern.

The Comité de Mendicité had probably no alternative but to work through the existing hospitals and poor houses. Their connection with the Church and partial reliance on seigneurial sources of income meant that their revenues were badly affected by the abolition of tithes, the sale of Church property and the progressive erosion of seigneurial dues. The Assembly aimed to compensate for this by an annual grant, distributed throughout the Departments in accordance with their population, but even before the outbreak of the war they failed to vote enough money. A programme of public works was started and £750,000 voted for Paris alone in 1790, but attempts at job-creation had little success and there were soon complaints about the idle and disorderly habits of the beneficiaries. The foundling hospitals, like the other institutions, saw their income curtailed at a time when the abolition of the manorial system relieved the seigneurs of their former responsibility for the care of the unfortunate babies. One gets the impression from Dr Forrest’s account that things were already getting more difficult for the poor in the first three years of the Revolution.

When France went to war in 1792 all the problems became more acute. Inflation increased the cost of what the hospitals had to pay for labour, supplies and the upkeep of their often old and dilapidated buildings. There was less money than ever to spare for civil purposes. Soon the flow of the wounded, the war widows and their children increased the demand for services that the war itself was curtailing. Revolutionary governments gave priority to the wounded but tended to neglect the widows, whose distress in turn increased the number of abandoned children. The appeals of the hospital administrators became more and more desperate.

As revolutionary governments became more radical, their increased emphasis on ideology cut both ways. The Livre de Bienfaisance Nationale, instituted in 1794, which was intended to lift the stigma of charity from the provision of relief, was an ambitious attempt to provide nationwide welfare for the aged and widowed. It was humane and its allowances were not ungenerous, but it could only be made available to less than 0.5 per cent of the rural population and it excluded the towns altogether. Other revolutionary policies had unfortunate effects: hospitals were ordered to sell off such Church property as they had managed to retain and the Soeurs Grises, who did most of the nursing, were chased out in the de-Christianisation campaign, with disastrous consequences for the patients. Things admittedly got even worse after the end of the Terror in 1794, when inflation became uncontrollable, the war casualties were increasing all the time and the attitudes of those in power had hardened against the poor. The situation may have improved under the Directory, which transferred responsibility back to the local authorities and allowed them to raise municipal octrois to finance their hospitals, but the shortage of funds had been so acute that one wonders how any of them had managed to survive.

Dr Forrest recounts his grim story with much telling local detail. There are times when his trees are rather more conspicuous than his wood and it is difficult to get a general perspective. Lacking the information to offer us a quantitative assessment of the scale of the problem and the success of the measures taken to deal with it, he has no alternative but to adopt an impressionistic approach. He himself was probably rather dismayed by what he found: ‘The stark truth is that the revolutionaries never succeeded in stimulating the economy to produce the level of wealth required if their ambitious social dreams were to be realised.’ Not only did they fail to achieve this impossible goal: the result of their activities was both to increase poverty and to reduce the resources available for dealing with it. Dr Forrest knows this. He says as much himself, from time to time, but always with an apologetic air and the implied qualification that, somehow or other, it was an unfortunate accident that such high aspirations were so cruelly disappointed. ‘If we were to judge the Revolution’s achievement by the yardstick of its intentions and its decrees, then we should be entitled to take a vicarious pride in the new humanitarian concern and to proclaim the Revolution’s policies as a major contribution to human progress.’ But it is no reflection on the purity of the revolutionaries’ intentions to contrast them with the situation they actually created.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences