2. The Idea
Modern States — Influence of English and American Revolutions on French Revolution — Condition and aims of middle classes — Centralisation of authority — Attitude towards peasants — Influence of eighteenth-century philosophy
To understand fully the idea which inspired the middle classes in 1789 we must consider it in the light of its results — the modern States.
The structure of the law-and-order States which we see in Europe at present was only outlined at the end of the eighteenth century. The system of centralised authority, now in full working order, had not then attained either the perfection or uniformity it possesses to-day. That formidable mechanism, by which an order sent from a certain capital puts in motion all the men of a nation, ready for war, and sends them out to carry devastation through countries, and mourning into families; those territories, overspread with a network of officials whose personality is completely effaced by their bureaucratic apprenticeship, and who obey mechanically the orders emanating from a central will that passive obedience of citizens to the law; that worship of law, of Parliament, of judges and their assistants, which we see about us to-day; that mass of hierarchically organised and disciplined functionaries; that system of schools, maintained or directed by the State, where worship of power and passive obedience are taught; that industrial system, which crushes under its wheels the worker whom the State delivers over to its tender mercies; that commerce, which accumulates incredible riches in the hands those who monopolise the land, the mines, the ways of communication and the riches of Nature, upon which the State is nourished; and finally, that science, which liberates thought and immensely increases the productive powers of men, but which at the same time aims at subjecting them to the authority of the strongest and to the State — all this was non-existent before the Revolution.
However, long before the Revolution had by its mutterings given warning of its approach, the French middle classes the Third Estate had already developed a conception of the political edifice which should be erected on the ruins of feudal royalty. It is highly probable that the English Revolution had helped the French middle class towards a comprehension of the part they would be called on to play in the government of society. And it is certain that the revolution in America stimulated the energies of the middle-class revolutionaries. Thanks to Hobbes, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Mably, d'Argenson and others, ever since the beginning of the eighteenth century the study of Politics and the constitution of organised societies based on elective representation had become popular, and to this Turgot and Adam Smith had just added the study of economic questions and the place of property in the political constitution of a State.
That is why, long before the Revolution broke out, the idea of a State, centralised and well-ordered, governed by the classes holding property in lands or in factories, or by members of the learned professions, was already forecast and described in a great number of books and pamphlets from which the men of action during the Revolution afterwards drew their inspiration and their logical force.
Thus it came to pass that the French middle classes in 1789, at the moment of entering upon the revolutionary period, knew quite well what they wanted. They were certainly not republicans are they republicans even to-day? But they no longer wanted the King to have arbitrary powers, they refused to be ruled by the princes or by the Court, and they did not recognise the right of the nobility to seize on all the best places in the Government, though they were only capable of plundering the State as they had plundered their vast properties without adding anything to their value. The middle classes were perhaps republican in sentiment, and desired republican simplicity of manners, as in the growing republic of America; but they desired, above all things, government by the propertied classes.
They included to free thought without being Atheists, but they by no means disliked the Catholic form of religion. What they detested most was the Church, with its hierarchy and its bishops, who made common cause with the princes, and its priests who had become the obedient tools of the nobility.
The middle classes of 1789 understood that the moment had arrived in France, as it had arrived one hundred and forty years before in England, when the Third Estate was to seize the power falling from the hands of royalty, and they knew what they meant to do with it.
Their ideal was to give France a constitution modelled upon the English constitution, and to reduce the King to the part of a mere enregistering scribe, with sometimes the power of a casting-vote, but chiefly to act as the symbol of national unity. As to the real authority, that was to be vested in a Parliament, in which an educated middle class, which would represent the active and thinking part of the nation, should predominate.
At the same time, their ideal was to abolish all the local powers which at that time constituted so many autonomous units the State. They meant to concentrate all governmental power in the hands of a central executive authority, strictly controlled by the Parliament, but also strictly obeyed in the State, and combining every department taxes, law courts, police, army, schools, civic control, general direction of commerce and industry — everything. By the side of this political concentration, they intended to proclaim complete freedom in commercial transactions, and at the same time to give free rein to industrial enterprise for the exploitation of all sort of natural wealth, as well as of the workers, who henceforth would be delivered up defenceless to any one who might employ them.
All this was to be kept under the strict control of the State, which would favour the enrichment of the individual and the accumulation of large fortunes — two conditions to which greatimportance was necessarily attached by the middle classes, seeing that the States General itself had been convoked to ward off the financial ruin of the State.
On economic matters, the men of action belonging to the Third Estate held ideas no less precise. The French middle classes had studied Turgot and Adam Smith, the creators of political economy. They knew that the theories of those writers had already been applied in England, and they envied their middle-class neighbours across the Channel their powerful economic organisation, just as they envied them their political power. They dreamed of an appropriation of the land by the middle classes, both upper and lower, and of the revenue they would draw from the soil, which had hitherto lain unproductive in the hands of the nobility and the clergy. In this they were supported by the lower middle class settled in the country, who had become a power in the villages, even before the Revolution increased their number. They foresaw the rapid development of trade and the production of merchandise on a large scale by the help of machinery; they looked forward to a foreign trade with distant lands, and the exportation of manufactured goods across the seas to markets that would be opened in the East, to huge enterprises and colossal fortunes.
But before all this could be realised they knew the ties that the peasant to his village must be broken. It was necessary that he should be free to leave his hut, and even that he should be forced to leave it, so that he might be impelled towards the towns in search of work. Then, in changing masters, he would bring gold to trade, instead of paying to the landlords all sorts of rents, tithes and taxes, which certainly pressed very heavily upon him, but which after all were not very profitable for the masters. And finally, the finances of the State had to had put in order; taxation would be simplified, and, at the same time, a bigger revenue obtained.
In short, what they wanted was what economists have called freedom of industry and commerce, but which really meant the relieving of industry from the harassing and repressive supervision of the State, and the giving to it full liberty to exploit the worker, who was still to be deprived of his freedom. There were to be no guilds, no trade societies; neither trade wardens nor master craftsmen; nothing which might in any way check the exploitation of the wage-earner. There was no longer to be any State supervision which might hamper the manufacturer. There were to be no duties on home industries, no prohibitive laws. For all the transactions of the employers, there was to be complete freedom, and for the workers a strict prohibition against combinations of any sort. Laisser faire for the one; complete denial of the right to combine for the others.
Such was the two-fold scheme devised by the middle classes. Therefore when the time came for its realisation, the middle classes, strengthened by their knowledge, the clearness of their views and their business habits, without hesitating over their scheme as a whole or at any detail of it, set to work to make it become law. And this they did with a consistent and intelligent energy quite impossible to the masses of the people, because by them no ideal had been planned and elaborated which could have been opposed to the scheme of the gentlemen of the Third Estate.
It would certainly be unjust to say that the middle classes were actuated only by purely selfish motives. If that had been the case they would never have succeeded in their task. In great changes a certain amount of idealism is always necessary to success.
The best representatives of the Third Estate had, indeed, drunk from that sublime fount, the eighteenth-century philosophy, which was the source of all the great ideas that have arisen since. The eminently scientific spirit of this philosophy; its profoundly moral character, moral even when it mocked at conventional morality; its trust in the intelligence, strength and greatness of the free man when he lives among his equals; its hatred of despotic institutions — were all accepted by the revolutionists of that time. Whence would they have drawn otherwise the powers of conviction and the devotion of which they gave such proofs in the struggle? It must also be owned that even among those who worked hardest to realise the programme enriching the middle classes, there were some who seriously believed that the enrichment of the individual would be the best means of enriching the nation as a whole. Had not the best economists, with Adam Smith at their head, persuasively preached this view?
But however lofty were the abstract ideas of liberty, equality and free progress that inspired the sincere men among the middle classes of 1789-1793 it is by their practical programme, by the application of their theories, that we must judge them. Into what deeds shall the abstract idea be translated in actual life? By that alone can we find its true measure.
If, then, it is only fair to admit that the middle classes of 1789 were inspired by ideas of liberty, equality (before the law), and political and religious freedom, we must also admit that these ideas, a' soon as they took shape, began to develop exactly on the two lines we have just sketched; liberty to utilise the riches of Nature for personal aggrandizement, as well as liberty to exploit human labour without any safeguard for the victims of such exploitation, and political power organised so as to assure freedom of exploitation to the middle classes. And we shall see presently what terrible struggles were evolved in 1793 when one of the revolutionary parties wished to go further than this programme.