‘One red sea of Fire, wild-billowing, enwraps the World; with its fire-tongue licks at the very Stars.’ When Thomas Carlyle wrote these words in the 1830s, few people in the West doubted that the event he was describing, the French Revolution, counted as among the most important in human history. Some saw it as a deliverance, others as a catastrophe, but they agreed that it had changed everything. For the next 150 years, this verdict stood more or less unchallenged.
No longer. The collapse of Communist states and parties at the end of the 20th century thinned the ranks of those who saw 1789 as the first successful social revolution, the great precursor to 1917. Postmodern critics deconstructed the grand historical ‘metanarratives’ in which the French Revolution could have a central place. More recently, the dispiriting outcomes of the Arab Spring and the ‘colour revolutions’ have cast doubt on the ability of revolutions really to change things. And the rise of a global sensibility has called into question the French Revolution’s seemingly most significant achievements. Yes, the French solemnly proclaimed the ‘rights of man and citizen’, but they did so while keeping hundreds of thousands of men, women and children enslaved in their overseas colonies. Today, if any revolution of the period excites my undergraduate students, it is not the French, but the Haitian, in which enslaved people not only freed themselves but forced France to abolish slavery everywhere in its empire (until Napoleon brutally reimposed it in 1802).
As the French Revolution’s lustre has faded, the task of explaining why it occurred has come to seem less urgent. A few decades ago, fierce battles raged between historians who adhered to the marxisant ‘social explanation’ and the so-called ‘revisionists’. The first camp proposed that a rising capitalist bourgeoisie had found its progress blocked by the desperate resistance of a reactionary feudal aristocracy, triggering violent conflict. The second pointed out that the lines between the classes were hopelessly blurred, and that in any case titled nobles had played a far more important role in the early part of the revolution than bourgeois capitalists. By the time of the bicentennial in 1989, the revisionists had the upper hand, but they failed to agree on an alternative overarching explanation, and the energy behind their arguments leached away before a consensus could emerge.
Historical debates have a way of coming back full circle, however. The French Revolution may no longer look like the hinge of world history, but many historians would put the rise of capitalism in that position. Indeed, the ‘history of capitalism’ has become a popular subfield, with its own conferences, journals and faculty positions. The ferociously disruptive power of capitalism in our own day makes inquiries into its origins appear all the more necessary. For a historian of capitalism, whose work will inevitably consider 18th-century Western Europe, one key question is how capitalism has shaped political life. Is there a connection with the French Revolution?
In responding to this question, William Sewell is attempting something quite different from a replay of past disputes. Although old enough to have participated in those disputes, he largely sidestepped them at the time. He made his reputation in 1980 with a brilliantly inventive book called Work and Revolution in France, which used insights from cultural anthropology to understand the politics of labour between the last days of the Ancien Régime and the Revolution of 1848. Its central claim, that a cultural idiom forged in guild brotherhoods did more to shape working men’s politics than brute economic relations, placed him on the side of the revisionists. At the same time, however, he expressed his debt to ‘certain new strains of Marxism’. Since then, he has engaged with the Marxist tradition in a series of influential theoretical reflections on history and social science – the most important of which are collected in Logics of History (2005) – and sought to demonstrate that social experience shapes culture and politics even if it does not rigidly determine them.
Sewell’s first plunge into French Revolutionary history was a short study provocatively titled A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution (1994). In it, he argued that the greatest piece of French Revolutionary writing – Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès’s incendiary What Is the Third Estate? (1789) – reflected broad changes in 18th-century French society, which increasingly used the tools of political economy to understand itself and had begun to link political rights to economic productivity. Sieyès denounced unearned aristocratic privilege and argued that the ‘Third Estate’ (i.e. the 98 per cent of the French population that belonged neither to the clergy nor the nobility) deserved rights commensurate with its preponderant economic role. At the same time, Sewell observed, Sieyès combined these assertions with a defence of specifically bourgeois privileges, such as property qualifications for voting. This made his work theoretically incoherent, yet ideally crafted to appeal to the wealthy non-nobles who would eventually emerge as leaders of the revolutionary movement.
Capitalism and the Emergence of Civic Equality is a more ambitious work. The result of years of reflection (although relatively little original research), it presents a compelling vision of the way a specifically French variety of capitalism developed in the 18th century, and how resulting forms of social experience in turn laid the groundwork for a new, revolutionary politics. The book doesn’t offer a comprehensive explanation for the French Revolution. Sewell, still very much a cultural anthropologist, ultimately cares more about the ways in which people thought than about why they acted as they did. His principal conclusion, that by 1789 capitalism had led the French to see civic equality as a natural and desirable state of affairs, does not by itself explain why violent revolution took place that year, still less what followed: radical attempts to reshape social relations; war; terror; charismatic dictatorship. But he does provide a crucial piece of the puzzle. And in the process, Sewell offers a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of what he calls, without irony, ‘capitalism’s rosy dawn’, a moment when its ferocities seemed minor compared with those of expiring feudalism and its liberatory potential was still undimmed.
Sewell’s argument starts from the simple fact that in the 18th century, thanks to improved agricultural productivity, burgeoning international trade and relative political stability, the French economy was expanding at an unprecedented rate. An average increase of 0.6 per cent in real physical product may seem small by modern standards but it amounted to a boom by those of early modern Europe, where agricultural productivity in some regions had barely improved since the Romans. By 1789 it took only 40 per cent of the adult male population to feed France, freeing the remainder for other work. An industrial revolution and proletarianised workforce were still in France’s future. But rapid commercial change was already taking place, generating investment capital and spurring the sort of increases in productivity that Marx would later judge necessary for sustained growth.
Sewell pays particular attention to the most dynamic sector of the domestic French economy: luxury textiles. As increasing numbers of people acquired disposable income, they purchased more clothing and paid more attention to fashion. Canny silk producers drove this development by means of advertising and what amounted to market research: monitoring consumer taste and putting out brightly coloured new patterns each year. Demand drove up prices – and profits – allowing producers to take even more risks. Sewell, in Marxian language, terms this process the securing of ‘added fashion value … silk producers gained enhanced profits by what can properly be termed the subsumption of consumer desire under capital.’ A genuine capitalist dynamic had developed.
This turn of events was all the more remarkable for taking place in a country where markets remained constrained by punishing internal tolls, heavy-handed price controls, stifling guild regulations and poorly developed credit mechanisms. Sewell, synthesising a mass of research by economic historians, notes that capitalist practices were pushing through France’s archaic economic structures like floodwater through a leaky dyke. Everywhere, merchants and tradesmen eager for profit were moving their business to areas exempt from guild rules, turning notaries’ offices into primitive banks and setting up grey markets with the tacit approval of royal officials. And, as Michael Kwass showed in his brilliant Contraband (which I discussed in the LRB of 8 January 2015), where legal workarounds failed, criminal gangs stepped in with huge smuggling operations.
Fashionable clothing was just one of the products flooding into urban settings and fundamentally altering them. Consumers were also spending money on the products of colonialism, including coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, tobacco, cotton and textile dyes. They were buying books and periodicals in unprecedented quantities. The world of entertainment was expanding beyond the theatre, encompassing concerts, art exhibitions, fairs and scientific demonstrations. In a classic example of how to evade guild rules and create a new economic sector, chefs challenged the monopoly on selling cooked food held by royally chartered caterers, setting up establishments offering ‘restorative’ meat broths and a few side dishes as medicinal products (Sewell draws here on an important study by Rebecca Spang). The French word for ‘restorative’ is, of course, ‘restaurant’. Cafés proliferated, with thousands operating in Paris by 1789, providing drinks as well as the chance to peruse newspapers and magazines.
In all these venues, men and women of different classes rubbed shoulders, the countess next to the lawyer next to the master bricklayer’s wife. They received the same services in exchange for the same fee. Increasingly, they all dressed in the same rapidly changing fashions. Sewell quotes a satirist mocking a brief fad for parading through town in dressing gowns: ‘[It] has masked all conditions; it is no longer possible to recognise anyone. The highest personage of the state travels the streets dressed like the lowest of citizens. One imagines oneself dealing with an attorney’s clerk and it’s a prince of the empire.’ Sewell adds that this anonymity not only flattered men and women of low standing but could also provide relief to aristocrats, who spent their time at court in a constant, stressful competition for status.
These changes were revolutionary. Before the 18th century, legal status and profession had to a large extent determined the way people led their lives: where they lived, how they dressed, what they consumed. The new capitalist economy, by contrast, produced a form of civic equality. In ever more areas of daily life, men and women operated under the same formal abstract rules – the rules of the consumer marketplace – and did so as equivalent entities, distinguished by the size of their purses rather than by their birth or occupation. Again, in Sewell’s Marxian idiom: ‘The generalisation of the commodity form … gives rise to a uniquely abstract form of social relations, governed by a logic of exchange of equivalents in markets.’
The French themselves were by no means unaware of these changes. Writers could hardly fail to notice them, since the vertiginous expansion of the book market meant that, for the first time, they could hope to make a living and maybe even get rich from the sale of their writings, rather than relying on wealthy patrons (Sewell illustrates the point with engaging, if overly long, biographical sketches of several prominent philosophes). Not surprisingly, many turned to the study of political economy and found eager audiences. As Sewell notes, in the four decades before 1789 French publishers produced more books on political economy than novels (although the novels had better sales).
The French state was also reacting to these changes. Throughout the 18th century, the spiralling costs of international military competition – especially with Great Britain – put France’s antiquated, hugely inefficient and amazingly corrupt fiscal structures under intolerable strain. The royal government desperately needed to increase revenues. Traditionally, it had done this in two ways: raising tax rates or selling government offices that conferred various forms of privilege, including, most importantly, membership of the nobility. These strategies worked at cross purposes since legal privilege generally included exemption from many taxes; but since the system of ‘venal offices’ may have generated as much as 40 per cent of state revenue, the crown could not eliminate it, and so found itself in a double bind. Over the course of the century, however, more and more royal officials became avid readers of political economy, and some of them, notably the reforming minister Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, also made important contributions to it. They increasingly came to see formal legal privilege as unjustifiable. They also sought to escape from the fiscal double bind through reforms that would generate reliable, taxable economic growth.
At this final stage of his argument, Sewell manages to conduct an unlikely but convincing marriage between Marx and Alexis de Tocqueville. He takes seriously Tocqueville’s contention that the French monarchy, through its relentless drive for centralisation, effectively promoted civic equality – in this case by putting all French subjects in the same relation to an all-powerful state. Unlike Tocqueville, he does not attribute this drive to an age-old thirst for power on the part of French kings. As he points out, if older generations of historians imagined a tyrannical Louis XIV humbling proud nobles and locking them up in the ‘gilded cage’ of Versailles, modern scholarship has emphasised that before the 18th century, French kings more often collaborated with the nobility in the pastime of squeezing every last sou out of a prostrate and resentful peasantry. The new generation of ministers pursued increasingly ambitious reform proposals, not only to garner a greater share of the country’s existing wealth, but to grow the economy itself. Turgot, in a brief and disastrous stint as finance minister, attempted to abolish much of the guild system, as well as price controls on staple products, in the hope of promoting free trade, while creating a system of representative assemblies mostly intended to funnel information to central government. One of his successors tried to replace France’s baroque system of direct taxes with a single tax on all landed property – including property belonging to the fiscally exempt.
These reforms all foundered on encountering resistance from the privileged orders, but nonetheless had an effect. As Sewell concludes, ‘in adopting the viewpoint of political economy, the administrators … were adopting a method of valuation of persons and activities that fundamentally contradicted the traditional foundation of the state.’ People were to be judged not by their status, but by their ‘ability or willingness to produce useful goods or services, to consume and to invest’. The public controversies advanced by the reform efforts spilled into the new periodicals and were debated in cafés, salons and other public venues, where this viewpoint was almost ubiquitous. In short, the state’s actions both reflected and powerfully reinforced the social changes driven by the emergence of capitalism. By 1789, for the vast majority of literate and politically aware French people, civic equality had come to seem both a natural and desirable state of affairs, and they would judge political ideas and proposed political changes according to this criterion.
None of this made the French Revolution inevitable. Political systems whose governing principles contradict the beliefs and desires of their subject populations have survived very well throughout history. But in the years 1787-89 the last, desperate royal reform proposals failed, France teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, and Louis XVI finally convened a national representative body, the Estates General, that had last met in 1615. The debates that accompanied elections to the Estates borrowed heavily from the new language of political economy, with the principle of civic equality taken as gospel, notably by Sieyès in What is the Third Estate? When reform-minded deputies overcame royal resistance with the help of popular violence in the summer and autumn of 1789, gaining the right to design a new constitution, the wild divergence between their principles and the structures of French government and society more or less guaranteed radical conflict.
It is, all in all, an elegant and important argument. It would have benefited from more rigorous editorial pruning, as some long sections summarise information that specialists already know, and that non-specialists do not need. Sewell might also have done more to provide a comparative perspective – does his argument about textiles, for instance, apply to other, less fashion-dependent European economies? Most important, he might have tempered his conclusions about ‘capitalism’s rosy dawn’. Sewell is right that the notions of civic equality generated by emergent French capitalism could appear enormously appealing in comparison with the oppressions of the ‘feudal’ Ancien Régime. Before 1789, French elites often treated the lower orders as little more than speaking animals. They imposed restrictions on their freedom (some French peasants still lived in virtual serfdom), exploited them financially and left them to starve whenever the harvest failed or the economy faltered. Only later, with the maturation of industrial capitalism, would proletarianisation and the factory system introduce new forms of oppression comparable with those destroyed by the French Revolution. In this rosy dawn, the benefits of civic equality arguably outweighed the ills of economic inequality.
This is true of France itself, perhaps, although Sewell skips too quickly over the horrors of the Lyon silk district, where young women from the countryside worked their fingers to the bone and gave up their children to likely death at the hands of overburdened wet nurses. But in addition, as Sewell himself notes, France owed much of its economic growth not to these silk works but to the colonies of the Caribbean, where enslaved Africans lived an average of just five to ten years after arrival.
The sugar plantations were one of the most striking – and most terrible – examples of early industrial capitalism. They required heavy capital investment in equipment, as well as a large, brutally disciplined labour force. And just as in the case of colourful silk clothing, the expansion of markets for sugar in Europe depended on the manipulation of consumer desire. The taste for sugar might seem natural, but its growth necessitated the sale of a host of other products and services – chocolate, coffee, equipment for brewing coffee, shops selling pastries and cakes, cafés, and so forth. The generation of capitalist ‘relative surplus value’ involved consumers’ mouths as much as their wardrobes (not coincidentally, as Colin Jones has observed, the encounter between colonial sugar and European teeth also helped spur a revolution in European dentistry).
When the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen arrived in the Caribbean colonies, some white plantation owners greeted it with enthusiasm – but not for the statement that ‘men are born and remain free and equal in rights.’ It was Article 17, which called property a ‘sacred and inviolable right’, that appealed to them, and which they glossed to include their own property in human beings. In the largest of these colonies, Saint-Domingue, the enslaved humans would violently free themselves and establish the independent state of Haiti. Elsewhere in the Americas, as Sven Beckert demonstrated in Empire of Cotton (2014), the plantation system would not only survive, but go on to supply the 19th century’s single most dynamic engine of capitalism, the British textile industry. In illustrating with remarkable clarity a key path of capitalist development in France, Sewell has produced a work of scholarship that might even help restore the French Revolution to something like the place it once occupied in accounts of world history. But we now know that the ways in which the revolution ‘enwrapped the world’ were more complex, and perhaps also more sinister, than they first appeared to historians whose gaze stopped at the eastern shores of the Atlantic.