The French Revolution and 1848
Midterm: Will give us a Voluntarist argument and we are asked to refute it with a Structuralist
● Have deep understanding between the two
● Know the two cases well enough so that you’ll know which factors that will account for
What is a good voluntarist argument (VA)?
● Specific action or decision or event that causes the outcome (e.g. bad harvest)
○ By saying they are human beings, does not mean it’s a good argument
■ To what extent is it free choice (imagine it going one way or another etc.)
● Highly contingent -- easily go the other way (e.g. weather etc.)
○ And show that this contingency is caused the outcome
○ NOT VA when decision overwhelmingly in the interests of the actor
■ e.g. Whether Louis XVI taxes or not. Because the king needs money, he
really had no choice but to tax the citizens.
■ e.g. Marrying Marie Antoinette would be a better argument.
○ NOT VA when it’s hard to imagine someone making another choice
■ e.g. Arab Spring--When he went to resign is not a VA. What made him
choose to resign?
Voluntarist Argument for French Revolution
● Mistakes by Louis XVI?
○ Louis XVI radicalizes the Parlements in 1788 by arresting the members of the
Paris Parlement, which lead to the calling of Estates General
● Robespierre as the inspiration behind the Terror
○ No structural reason for Robespierre’s role and inspiration to exist
Marxist Interpretation of the French Revolution
● Helped shape his own thinking
● Rise of the bourgeoisie or commercial class (Bourgeoisie Revolution)
○ What told him it was a class based conflict?
■ e.g. October 17--The fact that the working class women broke into the
palace at Versailles for the first time, and want equality. Demanded the
King to accompany them back to Paris.
■ Some of the major actors of the revolution was the poor (in rioting and
forcing the system to collapse)
● Eliminate the barriers to Capitalism
○ Role of commercial class in revolution
■ Rise of the third estate by the Estates General
■ 98% of population on had 33% of the vote. They said no to voting by
order (class and birthright) and yes to voting by head
● Revolution supported by middle class (artisans and shopkeepers)
○ All based on class-based analysis ○ Impact of the Revolution:
■ Strengthened private property
■ Barriers to national market is eliminated
● Limitations to the Marxist Approach
○ Blurred lines of conflict
■ It wasn’t the case where only the Third Estate supported voting by head.
A minority of aristocrats and clergy supported it. One of the initial
moments was in fact 30 aristocrats.
○ Conflicts within the ruling class just as intense as the conflict between classes
■ Why was the Estate General called in the first place? Because there was
conflicts between the aristocrats and the king due to taxation.
■ Conflict within the elite allows the lower classes to emerge.
○ Revolution strengthened the state (created a bureaucracy) not the entrepreneurs
Skocpol and the French Revolution
● Weakened French State
○ Why was the state weak enough to all the masses to win?
○ International competition from stronger foreign powers. France has to raise
money (taxes) to compete with England.
● Efforts at reform
● Strong resistance or rebellion by aristocracy or other elites
● Opening for peasant rebellion → Allie with the urban radicals → Change in social
● International pressures
○ Lost wars (Seven Years War, War of Austrian Succession)
○ American Revolution
■ The state is overwhelmed due to loans
Weak French State
● Weak revenue in raising capacities
○ Louis the XVI’s power is actually decentralised. So many people had the right to
not pay taxes.
○ Venal offices where he sold bureaucratic positions (short term cash, long term =
you’re stuck with them till you buy them out)
■ Ineffective administration, are they even good at their job?!
■ A key to a good government is able to fire people
● He’s saving money to support the aristocrat’s interests. Need money to keep the system.
BUT Aristocracy is resistant to taxes and tax reform “screw you I want to keep my
■ Nobles refuse to give up privileges
○ The officers of state often refuse to suppress resistance
● Estates General ○ Skocpol: Why was the general called in the first place? It is a function of the
weak state, whose not even able to tax their nobility.
○ ON THE MIDTERM. Skocpol vs. Marx on Estates General.
● Autonomous Peasantry
○ French peasantry had ownership had large portions of land passed on within
○ Carry out their own affairs (had heavy rents or controls)
○ They are in the position to carry out massive rebellions → Downfall of French
Problem with Skocpol
● Very little room for agency (Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Robespierre)
● No theory of urban revolts, key to the revolution
● No ideology, that we can understand the French revolution without enlightenment ideas
Summary of French Revolution
● First stage: Constitutional Monarchy
● Second Stage: Terror
● Marx, Skocpol, Voluntarist
Revolutions of 1848
● Classic example of the role of diffusion (Voluntaristic because it’s purely by example and
perception. Not economic interest, etc.)
○ Inspires opposition
■ What seemed impossible is now possible!
■ Solves the collective action problem by focusing demands of the
■ Creates sense that there are fewer costs to rebellion
○ Discourages incumbents
■ Preemptive reform
■ Less likely to take risks to save regime. Why stick out neck to save
yourself when it’s going to happen?
■ Deer in headlights!
○ Reinforcing logic snowballing
■ The more success the more it seems inevitable
● Main powers were: France, Habsburg Empire (multi-ethnicity), Austrian Empire, 8
German states (biggest was Prussia), Italian states, UK
Trends in early 1800s
● Your culture = country
○ If you’re German then you’re part of the German state
○ Emergence of nationalism, a “young Europe”
● Civil Society
○ Increasing amount of newspapers, arenas for people to discuss and form opinions separate from the king