Poli Sci and Modern Europe
Lecture 5: The French Revolution
Making a Good Voluntarism Argument
1. Identify the specific decision/event (e.g. bad harvest) that causes the
2. Decision should be highly contingent. It should be easy to imagine that it
could go the other way. It is not contingent if:
a. Decision overwhelmingly in the interest of the actor (e.g. a
government taxing, since governments have to tax to get money).
b. Hard to imagine someone making a different decision/action.
3. Show specifically how a decision/action affected an outcome.
• A N EXAMPLE ARGUMENT ROBESPIERRE AS AN INPIRATION BEHIND THE
Marxist Interpretation of the French Revolution
• Rise of the commercial class and elimination of barriers to capitalism
• Role of the commercial class in the revolution:
o Third estate – support voting by head.
o Revolution supported by “middle class” – Artisans, shopkeepers.
• Impact of Revolution:
o Strengthens private property.
o Barriers to national market eliminated.
• Critique of Marxist Approach:
1. Blurred lines of conflict (sizeable minority of aristocrats/clergy
support voting by head.
2. Conflicts within ruling class
3. Revolution strengthens state, not entrepreneurs.
Skocpol and the French Revolution
• Weakened French state due to international competition from stronger
powers (such as England). They lost the 7 years war and that resulted in
financial problems (debt counts for 60% of expenditures). The state was
also weak because many people had the choice to pay taxes.
• The elite resistance to state reform meant that French elitists depended
on the state, but did nothing to make it stronger. Parlements and nobles
gave up privileges. The officers of the state refused to suppress the
resistance. • There was also Autonomous Peasantry and peasants were extremely
oppressed. The revolution was needed to reform the social system.
• Problems with Skocpol:
1. Very little room for agency.
2. No real theory of human revolts, which were key to the revolution.
3. No ideology – can we understand the French Revolution without
Revolutions of 1848 – The Role of Diffusion
• Raises opposition and the expectations of what is possible. It solves the
collective action problem by focusing demands of population.
• Discourages incumbents and is less likely to take risks to save the
• Reinforcing logic snowballing the more success the more it seems
possible to happen.
• In 1848 France was a constitutional monarchy with a 60% literacy (Russia
had only 5%). Germany had eight separate kingdoms, and the Habsburg
Empire was in control of Italy and surrounding states.
• Also in the 1800s was the emergence of nationalism. There was also a
lot of political opinions that rose that was separate of the leader
(newspapers, discussions, etc.). There was increased hunger as part of
the industrial revolution (as seen in France).
• The revolutions begin in France