Cobban’s Vindication

Olwen Hufton

  • Origins of the French Revolution by William Doyle
    Oxford, 247 pp, £12.50, January 1981, ISBN 0 19 873020 9

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.

The Left brought to the French Revolution some of the truly seminal minds of the first half of the 20th century. Aulard and Jaurès, Mathiez and Lefebvre, were intellectual giants by any reckoning, who pushed back the frontiers of knowledge about the Revolution with an industry, a passion and a conviction which transformed it into one of the most heavily-researched areas of our discipline. There were even those, like Pierre Caron, the national archivist, who thought that by 1945 all had been said. Confronted with the young Richard Cobb, about to begin his Herculean labours, he advised some alternative field of study. ‘Monsieur,’ he said kindly, ‘vous êtes venus trop tard pour l’histoire de la Révolution Française.’

He was, of course, wrong. The post-war generation, Cobb, Rudé, Soboul, Tönnesson, focusing upon popular movements, the Parisian working populace and the thugs who made a reality of the Terror in the provinces, found plenty to absorb their attention. In addition, a long tradition of studies of religion in the context of Revolution persisted, dominated by Marcel Reinhard. Understanding of some aspects of the Revolution was immensely enriched by the mid-century. In other respects the subject slumbered. Since the Left dominated the field of research, the idea of a revolution fostered by capitalism for its own ends had secured either tacit recognition or ritualised obeisance, summarised in the refrain scattered throughout Soboul’s magisterial doctoral thesis on the sansculottes: ‘Ainsi, on peut voir l’opposition inéluctable entre la bourgeoisie el la féodalité.’

The debate on the French Revolution was by no means over, but the arena of contest was shifting from Paris to London. In the mid-1950s Alfred Cobban gave his inaugural lecture upon elevation to the new Chair of French History in the University of London. He entitled it ‘The Myth of the French Revolution’ and in it he questioned the vocabulary of the historiography of the Revolution. What did feudalism mean in 18th-century France? Who were the revolutionary bourgeoisie? What evidence was there of a real shift in social power in the course of the Revolution? What did capitalism mean as applied to 18th-century France? These, he insisted, and rightly, were important questions which could be answered from material collected by Lefebvre and others, but whose importance they had consciously or unconsciously ignored. Feudalism was obviously no longer the means by which a monarch raised a fighting force and ensured that he governed the localities through his men: by 1789, it represented nothing more than vestigial dues payable to a lord whose protective martial services were no longer required by the peasantry. Moreover, entitlement to these dues could be sold independently of the land to anyone, noble or bourgeois, who wished to invest in this way. Drawing on the earlier work of Philippe Sagnac, who had insisted that the 18th century had seen a ‘seigneurial reaction’, a systematic upping of the dues and a rescinding of ancient communal rights, Cobban concluded that the French peasantry were reacting against exploitation by a new, aggressive, commercialised seigneurialism, as much the work of a bourgeoisie seeking returns on its investments as of the aristocracy. As for the reactionary bourgeoisie, the election results of 1789 ensured that those who went to Versailles were upwards of 80 per cent lawyers and officeholders. Manufacturing or mercantile interests accounted for a feeble 2 per cent of Deputies. Where was the aggressive capitalist bourgeoisie in hot pursuit of political power?

When he examined the meaning of capitalism as applied by Marxist historians to the 18th century, he found total confusion. The Marxist interpretation of the Revolution could not be sustained by showing the existence of a class who made their profits out of exploiting the wage-labour of a proletariat. It had to depend on the existence of mercantile wealth (and hence cut across Marx’s own revision of what capitalist wealth was), or else point to a group baptised by Lefebvre as la bourgeoisie rurale – wealthy producers who could play the grain market. Surely, Cobban persisted, both vocabulary and concepts were obscuring rather than elucidating what had happened?

Cobban’s attack was ignored by the French Establishment. Lefebvre died in 1959 and the apostolic succession of Marxist historians to the Chair of Revolutionary Studies at the Sorbonne was temporarily broken. The Chair subsequently passed to Reinhard, a muted Catholic historian of flawless scholarship but with little taste for polemics. His comment on Cobban’s criticisms was that they opened up issues for ‘further research’. Cobban, however, was not stifled. In the Wiles Lectures in 1962, subsequently published as The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution, he reinforced his attack and went on to insist that, apart from putting more land into the hands of the already wealthy, and the abolition of vestigial dues, the Revolution was without social and economic consequences.

By 1968 Cobban was dead. He had hoped to take the bastion by storm, but it seemed impregnable. The French doyens of Marxist Revolutionary studies, Labrousse and Godechot, were aspersive; Anglo-Saxon historians like Hampson said he had substituted one economic explanation for the Revolution by another; Richard Cobb rebelled furiously against the notion that the effects of the Revolution on society were negligible. But he and Cobban were not arguing about the same thing. Cobban’s attack was on a philosophy of history which did not square with the facts. Cobb’s concern was with how humble people experienced dearth, were asked to fight for the Republic and make terrible sacrifices. Their personal experiences were as vivid, as Cobb’s own war memories. How could one then talk about the Revolution making no difference? Cobban must have felt his efforts had fallen on stony ground.

Yet the next decade was to show that his ideas had taken the citadel by sap. William Doyle’s meticulous and thought-provoking account of how recent research has changed or modified the simple and satisfying beliefs of an earlier generation of historians takes Cobban as its point of departure. He then examines a number of themes, the financial crisis, the constitutional crisis, the elections, the nobility, the bourgeoisie and the peasantry, to show where the burden of change lies and where we now stand vis-à-vis the origins of the Revolution. Doyle deals in a logic as remorseless as that of Cobban. He lacks perhaps the rapier thrust, the daring and the style. He does not excite in the way Cobban did, and no one would call this a courageous book: but it is an important one.

Far from discerning conflict before 1789 between a feudal, drone aristocracy losing economic supremacy and a burgeoning bourgeoisie, resentful of privilege based on birth and edged out of the best posts by those of noble origins, research has revealed the harmony of interests between nobles and wealthy non-nobles, who were able to buy their way into a nobility which conferred privilege. Robert Forster showed us how astute and businesslike the nobility of Toulouse and Burgundy were in the running of their estates. Chaussinand-Nogaret revealed the closeness of the ties between the world of high financiers, who easily married their daughters into the most ancient distinguished houses, and the wealthy nobility, and how the most considerable industrial enterprises of 18th-century France, mining and metallurgy, were owned and directed by nobles. Gruder and Ravitch exposed the myth of an increasing noble stranglehold on offices in church and state. Colin Lucas pertinently observed that this was a society of aristocratic aspirations defining itself by the status symbols of the past – land, seigneurial rights and office – rather than the economic resources of the future. There certainly was a large group of lawyers and minor office-holders, the same who won the elections, whose jobs had been jeopardised by confusing institutional reforms – some of which were short-lived – and who were critical of the way government went about its business: but theirs were practical – shall we say, political – grievances rather than economic ones.

Rural relationships were rendered tense by demographic pressure and Doyle could have said a lot more about the problems of city provisioning and government experiments in laissez-faire which made those living in the Paris provisioning zone particularly suspect that they were the victims of machinations by large landowners and grain speculators. He could also have lent more texturing to his remarks about the seigneurial relationship. There was no such thing as the standard seigneur. Here and there, as Jean Bastier and Peter Jones have shown, the relationship was open to newly harsh economic exploitation, but this was not the norm. Other seigneurs sought to ‘rationalise’ the seigneurial relationship by rescinding community privileges and this was common in the east and south. In some areas, seigneurial justice, acutely important to the community because it had no other on-the-spot method of gaining redress for grievances, was neglected by commercially minded seigneurs who resented the cost of running a court. The château was now a stately home apart from the community, not a fortress defending it. In 1648, lord and peasant had together resisted royal attempts at arbitrary taxation. Now there was, by and large, nothing to bind the two together. It is worth remembering that the dues were heaviest in Brittany, which had no anti-seigneurial movement in 1789. Perhaps this was because, as Meyer and Le Roy Ladurie have suggested, the Breton seigneur continued to proffer services to the community. ‘Plus la seigneurie est archaïque, plus elle est respectée’ (Le Roy Ladurie) – the nearer it was to the original model, the greater its acceptability: an observation which tells against viewing the peasant revolt in purely economic terms.

We are left with a financial crisis, and the linked constitutional crisis, which forced the monarchy to call the Estates General. The first, John Bosher has told us, was the result not only of defaultings in tax payments after bad harvests but of the system itself, which was dependent upon the personal credit of innumerable local tax officials and provincial trésoriers who anticipated revenues by letters of credit and whose bankruptcies could reverberate throughout the system. It was also part of a crisis of the international money market in the aftermath of the American war: the market ceased to lend to Paris and hence to continue the flow of loans which the monarchy needed. Confronted with successive and conflicting projects for tax reforms to bring the privileged orders into the tax net, parlementaires and notables stalled. Treated arbitrarily and offhandedly – even abolished in the 1770s – seeing themselves as France’s one bastion against capricious government, they insisted that they had not the constitutional authority to grant the King’s request for new taxation. The prerogative belonged to the Estates General and the Estates General opened the floodgates to the issue of power-sharing on a broader social base than that represented by the parlements.

The victorious Third Estate in 1789 did not stand for fundamental social change. It destroyed privilege based on birth, but it stood back from the peasant risings which abolished the dues, a form of property and hence sacrosanct, and when presented with the fait accompli of their destruction enacted compensation.

British and American historians have done sterling work in redefining the origins of the Revolution of 1789. In Britain, the pupils of Cobban, Cobb and John Roberts; in the States, Forster and his students and Robert Darnton. The Annales school, in its dissection of peasant society and its concern with longues durées, with the unchanging peasant world of limited technology which persisted in France until the mid 19th-century, has been active in its criticism of what François Furet called the ‘catechism’ of French Revolutionary studies. Standing apart from this development has been Soboul, now in control of the Chair of Revolutionary Studies, and Soboul’s acolytes, who continue to tread and retread the old ground. We are approaching the bicentenary of 1789 and much will doubtless be written. Doyle’s work will be a starting-point and somewhere in the background, perhaps, the shade of Alfred Cobban is gently smiling.