Book Review: The French Revolution: Aristocrats Versus Bourgeois?

The French Revolution:  Aristocrats Versus Bourgeois?, by T.C.W. Blanning

The most unfortunate aspect of this generally intriguing and worthwhile book is the fact that the author’s desire to debunk various Marxist historical claims about the French Revolution seems to require the author to use that Marxist language of class.  It goes without saying, or at least it should, that to refute a claim requires knowledge of the claim and an ability to capture what the claim is saying.  After all, if one genuinely wants to refute falsehood one cannot content oneself with straw man arguments that do not capture the strength that an argument, however fallacious, contains.  And the author here does a good job in avoiding straw man arguments, even if there is a lot of reference made here to the content of various classes and to the nature of the French Revolution and the various complex aspects of it that tend to be ignored by many people.  This is a short book and it is easy for others to underestimate a small and narrowly focused work like this one, but at the same time it is quite worthwhile and well worth checking out if Atlantic history or the French Revolution or the refutation of Marxist historians happens to be an interest.

This book is a very short one that is just over 50 pages and reads more like a very targeted pamphlet or longish essay than a full-sized book.  All the same, it is a generally enjoyable and worthwhile read.  The author begins with a note on references and an editor’s preface before an introduction to the subject of the class identity of the elites at the top of the French Revolution.  After that the author discusses the origins of the the French Revolution in the ancien regime (1), with a discussion of economic growth related to trade and economic problems of stagnation in agriculture (i), social conflict and the fusion between the elites of both bourgeois and aristocratic origin (ii), and the anti-religious ideals of the Enlightenment (iii).  After that the author discusses the impact of the French Revolution itself (2), with a discussion of the crisis that led up to the outbreak of the French Revolution and the new order that was brought about by the Revolution (ii), along with a discussion of the aftermath of the French Revolution in Napoleon and the return of the Bourbons (3), as well as a bibliography and index.

A book like this is short enough that it is likely to be allusive far more than it is likely to contain exactly what one wants to read about a given subject.  In this case, it is not such a bad thing, as what the author alludes to is worth investigating.  Why is it, for example, that the benefits of the Atlantic trade of France and their colonial interests around the world were so narrowly focused on the coastlines and failed to benefit the lives of ordinary French peasants?  What is the importance of the counter revolution in understanding the complex set of loyalties that bound people together and that led to strong opposition to the Enlightenment program and its excesses in the French Revolution?  Why was the immediately pre-revolutionary elite of France, whether aristocratic or bourgeois or some mixture of the two, so hostile to Christianity and so willing to engage in mistaken efforts at appeasing the urban mob?  What lessons can we learn today from the mistakes made during the French revolution and the failure of France’s rulers to appear just and therefore be viewed as just by the people of the country?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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