Great revolutions which succeed make the causes which produced them disappear, and thus become incomprehensible because of their own success (1), wrote Alexis de Tocqueville one hundred and fifty years ago. Yet, we will try all the same to understand what the origins of the French Revolution were: economically, politically, socially and also ideologically. Many historians explain the Revolution by the economic and financial crisis which the Old Regime faced during its last years. Let us remember that, in Louis XVI's time, French economy was based above all on agriculture; more than eighty-one percent of France's global population of twenty-eight million being peasants in 1789. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that an agricultural crisis would have repercussions on every other branch of the whole economy. That's what happens in 1788. A very cold winter, in addition to the archaism of the French agricultural system, provokes a quite bad harvest. So the price of grain reaches heights. Consequences? The peasant class gets poorer, buys less industrial goods and both agriculture and industry becomes the victim of this subsistence crisis, which causes a drop in wages, an increase in prices and general unemployment and leads therefore to popular discontent.
[...] A real public opinion is beginning to emerge and the cafés, salons and clubs contribute to the increasing politicization of society. In the cities, the walls are covered with posters; of course, many can't read, but some well-educated men read these pamphlets and make comments before the common people. The press, though a privilege of bourgeois and noblemen (newspapers are expensive enough and only thirty-eight percent of France's total population can read and write in 1789), is experiencing a great development: in 1788, thirty-seven newspapers are created, which has never been seen before. [...]
[...] On the eve of the Revolution, the economic, political, social and ideological situation is so critical that it provides an adequate ground for one of the most radical, innovative and irreversible changes in French history. We have just seen the main origins and major causes of the French Revolutions. Yet, let us not forget Tocqueville's words: hate these absolute systems which make all events of history depend on great first causes by a chain of fatality, and which, as it were, exclude man from the history of mankind. [ . ] I believe [ ] that many important historical facts can only be accounted for by [...]
[...] Inequalities of birth, of social condition, inequalities before tax and justice do not constitute a serious problem in themselves, but the situation has become intolerable for the Third Estate. Although it represents ninety-eight percent of the whole population (there are only members of the clergy and noblemen), the Third Estate enjoys no social regard, cannot decide how much taxes it will pay ; in addition, it has to bear almost alone the majority of the tax burden. The nobility, though paying a few direct taxes (like the gabelle, on salt), is indeed exempt from paying the heaviest tax: the taille, which takes away fifty-three percent of the income of a Third Estate member. [...]
[...] Politically, the crisis is due to a deep contradiction: the group which rules the society economically and culturally, which is becoming the elite of the society on every level, is kept apart from any political life. This contradiction is, above all, a nonsense and the whole destiny of the kingdom would have been different if the privileged orders, and the king, had understood that it was their interest to include the economic elite in the decision-making process. The ‘bourgeoisie', to give its name (we consider the word in its most global meaning, and note only in the sense of ‘rentiers'), though not united as a group, includes industrialists, bankers, traders, lawyers, doctors that share the fact of being well- educated (often better than members of the nobility) and rich enough. [...]
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