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The Coming of the French Revolution (Princeton Classics) Paperback – 7 Aug 2005

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Product details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; With a New introduction by Timothy Tackett edition (7 Aug. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691121885
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691121888
  • Product Dimensions: 21.7 x 14.1 x 1.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 846,903 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"Simply the best introduction to the study of the French Revolution available anywhere."--Nation

"A pleasure to read. . . . Lefebvre sets forth clearly the many causes of that insurrection and explains the influences exerted by the various classes and factions--the nobles and the clergy, on the one side, and the bourgeoisie and the peasantry on the other."--New Yorker

"Much more than a history of 1789. . . . [A] synthesis, conveying a philosophy of the Revolution as a whole, such as could be written only by a seasoned scholar."--American Historical Review

About the Author

Georges Lefebvre (1874-1959) was one of the major twentieth-century historians of the French Revolution. Timothy Tackett is Professor of History at University of California, Irvine. His previous books include "Becoming a Revolutionary" (Princeton).

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 30 Jan. 1998
Format: Paperback
Published in 1939 on the eve of WWII and the Vichy Regime (which burned 8,000 copies), Lefebvre's account of the event which initiated the modern era in the West remains the most accesible and readable of any work on the subject before or since. Lefebvre's Marxist analysis of the event (the dominant interpretation until recently) may appear archaic to contemporary readers. Nevertheless the work is a highly enjoyable analysis of the various sectors of French society and how they contributed to the Revolution. The flowery or arcane scholarly knowledge of later accounts pales before Lefebvre's engaging prose. All in all, a highly recommended work.
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Format: Paperback
This is an excellent little book for someone wanting to know something about the background to the French Revolution, not overly academic, but a pleasure to read.
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57 of 59 people found the following review helpful
Most accesible account of the French Revolution 30 Jan. 1998
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
Published in 1939 on the eve of WWII and the Vichy Regime (which burned 8,000 copies), Lefebvre's account of the event which initiated the modern era in the West remains the most accesible and readable of any work on the subject before or since. Lefebvre's Marxist analysis of the event (the dominant interpretation until recently) may appear archaic to contemporary readers. Nevertheless the work is a highly enjoyable analysis of the various sectors of French society and how they contributed to the Revolution. The flowery or arcane scholarly knowledge of later accounts pales before Lefebvre's engaging prose. All in all, a highly recommended work.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Very thorough, but a little hard to follow 20 Aug. 2009
By Jesse Rouse - Published on
Format: Paperback
Lefebvre's account of the coming of the French Revolution has stood the test of time, and is just as important now as when it came out in the 1950s. Lefebvre perceptively identifies not one, but four separate revolutions which built upon each other and created what we now call the French Revolution. He clearly shows that the nobles began the revolt in an attempt to gain more power over the king. The revolution quickly took a different turn when the bourgeois jumped in and attempted to gain some power for themselves, which caused the whole endeavor to plummet into chaos as the general populace and peasants appropriated the revolution for themselves. As far as describing the different streams flowing together to form the Revolution, Lefebvre succeeds brilliantly.

Unfortunately, there are several problems which prevent this from being a great introduction to the French Revolution. First, Lefebvre is not always a clear writer, and is very hard to follow from time to time, though part of this problem may be because the english edition I am reviewing is translated from the original french. Second, he assumes a detailed knowledge of the philosophical and political situation at the time of the Revolution. If you don't already have an adequate knowledge of this, it will be a very hard to keep up with what he is talking about. The most annoying problem, however, is the vast number of names Lefebvre throws around. He constantly says so-and-so joined such-and-such a group or did such-and-such a thing, and he seems to think that we will realize that this is somehow important. Unfortunately, the average reader will have no idea who the majority of the people he named were or what their importance was. I, for example, know the major figures (Robespierre, La Fayette, Danton, etc.), but he names vast quantities of minor figures I have never even heard of and assumes that I will know who they are and what their significance is. The same is true of places. Most people will know the major locations, but in many of his descriptions of where things were happening he refers to small towns that the average reader can hardly be expected to know about. The former problem could be rectified by including a glossary in the back with a listing of important persons and their major contributions, and the latter problem could be easily fixed by including a decent map with the locations he discusses marked on it.

The Coming of the French Revolution is certainly a good book, and is well worth reading. However, because of the issues listed above, I would definitely recommend starting somewhere else if you want an good introduction to the topic.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Lefebvre is the doyen of French Revolution historians 5 Dec. 2008
By Michael A Neulander - Published on
This was required reading for a graduate course in the history of the French Revolution. Georges Lefebvre's life was spent studying peasant life before and during the French Revolution and writing about "history from below." In his seminal book The Coming of the French Revolution, he essentially divided the Revolution into "four acts" which were played out by the revolts of the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, the urban masses, and finally the peasants; ultimately culminating in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Lefebvre's analysis of the composition and concerns of France's social classes, nobility, bourgeoisie, and peasants, and their role in the prelude to the Revolution was most illuminating. He masterfully used his extensive years of research to lucidly explain how the Revolution essentially occurred in four phases. Although other countries in Europe had a similar social strata, Lefebvre agreed with Alexis De Tocqueville that reform came more peaceably to those countries than it did in France. Both Lefebvre and Tocqueville noted that one of the leading factors that led to the French Revolution was its oppressive tax burden on the peasants and the unfair socio-economic structure wherein the Church and nobility were exempt from taxation. Since the French monarchs desired to rule "absolutely," they successfully kept the aristocracy and Church members from utilizing their traditional desires to exercise any political control that would rightfully be theirs, as in other European countries, by making them tax exempt. This focused all political power in the hands of the monarch, which he controlled through his royal counsel. "The result was that most direct taxes were paid by persons lacking the status or influence to bargain with the king's officials, and that the king's government could never raise by direct taxes a revenue at all proportionate to the real wealth of the country, or to its legitimate needs" (10 note1). Recognizing this tax imbalance during France's financial crisis because of its vast expenditures in support of the American Revolution as well as the usual tremendous fiscal waste at court exploded the national debt, Louis XVI's finance minister, Calonne, in August 1786, recommended a drastic action that became a major factor in bringing about the Revolution. Calonne's plan was to lessen the tax burden on the peasants, raise taxes on the aristocracy, and retire the nation's debt, by selling off manorial properties possessed by the Church. When presented with this plan, the Aristocracy made demands of their own which precipitated what Lefebvre described as the "Aristocratic Revolution." "The aristocracy was willing to promise a subvention in return for political concessions, namely, the examination of accounts, i.e., a right to control the central power, and the transfer of local administration to provincial assemblies in which the aristocracy would master" (27). Not willing to acquiesce to the aristocrats' demands, Louis XVI fired Calonne and ordered his new minister, Brienne, to broach the tax subject with the Parlement of Paris. The Parelement was willing to relax taxes on the peasants but argued that only a convocation of the Estates-General had the power to introduce new taxes on France's First and Second Estates. After much rancor between the aristocratic members of Parlement and Brienne, he submitted to convening the Estates-General on May 1, 1789. This act put the second phase of what Lefebvre recognized as the Bourgeoisie Revolution into motion--not since 1614 was their voice heard by the king.

Lefebvre astutely noted the class stratification within the Third Estate, where at its top resided the bourgeoisie; the best of whom were bankers, merchants and especially jurists who "...furnished a great majority of the revolutionary personnel" (43). Lefebvre never used the term Enlightenment in his book. However, he did recognize, "The works of these writers strengthened oral propaganda in the salons and cafés which multiplied in the eighteenth century, and in the societies of all kinds which were founded in great numbers" (47). Lefebvre's research led him not to overstate the case, but to place emphasis on "By such different avenues the thought of eighteenth-century writers penetrated the bourgeoisie, giving it a full consciousness of historic mission" (Lefebvre, 47). The bourgeoisie leaders of the Third Estate proved their political acumen when they demanded that its ranks be doubled so that they would be on equal footing numerically with the first two Estates. This created a firestorm among the aristocracy. However, the Third Estate members were disciplined enough to stand their ground, which eventually caused Louis XVI to personally promise to rule as a constitutional monarch, as long as the Estates-General passed his tax reforms or else suffer being disbanded. The leaders of the Third Estate had no intention of losing political or social prestige to the aristocracy so they voted to form "...the `National Constituent Assembly'. On July 11 La Fayette submitted his proposal for a `Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen" (86). France's "revolutionary genie" was now out of the bottle.

Lefebvre's book has convinced this reader that he had an excellent grasp of how the drama of the 1789 Revolution's four acts played out by the revolts of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, the urban masses, and finally the peasants; ultimately culminating in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man." Later, Lefebvre's research is emphasized by Roger Chartier as to how the work of the National Assembly became communicated to the urban masses around Paris and through the rest of France. During the first half of 1789, Paris newspapers wrote little about the proceedings of the National Assembly. Lefebvre's research showed that witnesses to the National Assembly's proceedings brought news each day to the cafés for discussion. In addition, many delegates of the Third Estate wrote letters back to friends in their provinces to disseminate news of the National Assembly's proceedings. These news outlets were the vital "public spheres" that Chartier highlighted. Lefebvre's research led him to believe that it was the shopkeepers and supervisors who comprised the ranks of the urban masses that communicated the news in the "public spheres" and gave strength to the Revolution. "They were the permanent personnel around which insurrections formed" (96). At first, these petty bourgeoisie of the urban masses became enamored with the idea that the National Assembly would eradicate the indirect taxes that burdened them. However, as Alexis de Tocqueville also observed, the Revolution took on the trappings of a religious movement. Lefebvre understood that the passions of the urban masses became inflamed and that they saw in the Revolution an almost "messianic" promise. "It is in this aspect that the Revolution, at its beginnings, can be compared to many religious movements in their early stages, in which poor men joyously see a return to earthly paradise" (98).

Lefebvre noticed two events in history that precipitated the peasant revolt as well as the fourth and perhaps most important act of the Revolution. These events were a belief by the whole of the Third Estate in an "aristocratic conspiracy" and the economic crisis that gripped France at the time. First, a feeling of extreme distrust of the First Estate started to take hold in the minds of the urban masses and later spread to the peasants as well. The First Estate's opposition of the Third Estate's demand to have its ranks doubled in the National Assembly and then to be allowed to vote individually instead of as a block, struck fear in the minds of the Third Estate of an "aristocratic conspiracy" which they thought would do anything to grab power, including inviting a foreign military invasion. Second, Lefebvre's research caused him to write, "It is therefore beyond dispute that the economic distress should be included among immediate causes of the Revolution" (100). Bad weather conditions throughout Europe caused a grain shortage that the French physiocrats at Court could not alleviate. An economic downturn in industrial production, higher unemployment, and inflation ensued, which all culminated in a nation wide bread shortage and a mass migration of poor dissatisfied citizens to the cities and towns of France. Thus Lefebvre asserted, "How can one fail to suspect a connection between this ordeal and the fever of insurrection that gripped the population at the time" ? (103). Lefebvre astutely recognized that these events created a Revolutionary mentality to grip the Third Estate. In addition, Louis XVI's action to surround Paris with troops and the fear of foreign invasion caused a "National Guard" of citizens to be created, which stormed the Bastille in search of weaponry and in turn, gave new resolve to the Third Estate's delegates to the National Assembly. Thus, Lefebvre found, "The peasant rising would be inconceivable without the excitement produced by the calling of the Estates-General. But it is undeniable also that the economic crisis contributed powerfully to it, and reinforced also the idea of an aristocratic plot" (144).

In October 1789, Paris agitations culminated in the triumph of the National Assembly over the king and the adoption of the Declaration occurred. Lefebvre found that the Declaration had significant omissions; such as, no rights of assembly or petition, no guarantee of economic freedom or education, no universal suffrage in equality of rights and its vagueness had led to multiple interpretations by historians as to its importance. In addition, he saw the Declaration of the Rights of Man emerging from the writings of Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century. "The whole philosophic movement in France in the eighteenth century pointed to such an act; Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau had collaborated in its making" (Lefebvre, 212).

Recommended reading for anyone interested in political philosophy, enlightenment history, and the French Revolution.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By Alfred Johnson - Published on
Format: Paperback
In my study of revolutions I have always been interested in two basic questions- what were the ideas swirling around prior to the revolution that influenced people to see the need for revolution and the related question of how those ideas played out in the struggle for power. The study of the French Revolution most clearly presents those two phenomena in all their manifestations. Professor Lefebvre was a well-known and in his time a pre-eminent, if not the pre-eminent bourgeois historian of the French Revolution. I have reviewed his major general work on the French revolution elsewhere. Here, in this shorter work, he presents the events of 1789 as they unfolded and an analysis of what they meant in the period immediately before the revolution when all hell was breaking loose in French society.

If one can talk legitimately about a sociology of revolutions then Professor LeFebvre has dramatically vindicated such sociology by presenting all of the factors that goes toward such a study in the early period of the French revolutionary experience. Clearly the Old Regime, represented in the person of King Louis XI, was no longer capable of ruling in the old way and the `people' were no longer satisfied, for a myriad of reasons, with being governed under the premise of the divine right of kings. The struggle to turn from subjects of a monarch to citizens of a republic, a question of capital historic importance in human experience, finds its most dramatic expression in this revolution. Furthermore, vast segments of society from the liberal nobility and clergy to the nascent bourgeoisie to the working classes (the so-called sans culottes and other plebian urban elements) to the various layers of the peasantry each in their turn were willing to unite around that premise. As clearly, once each class (or part of a class) gained its ends it turned against further extension of the revolution and in the case of the nobility and clergy very shortly turned toward counterrevolution. Professor LeFebvre documents this trend very well, especially in the case of the peasantry which he had special knowledge of and charted throughout his academic career.

This writer has set himself the task of trying to analyze and review each book of revolutionary experiences he considers on the basis of what lessons militant leftists can learn from the study of the old historical experiences. With that task in mind I was once again reminded by reading this book that the notion of the Popular Front as a political strategy has a lot longer history than in the France of the 1920's and 1930's when it was first formally introduced through by the French Socialist Party in an electoral alliance with the Left Radical bourgeois party.

What do I mean by Popular Front? The theory of the popular front has been presented by forces such as the Socialist parties and later the Communist parties as a step in the direction of revolution. The premise of the popular front revolves around a belief that various classes, capitalist, urban and rural middle class and working class can come together around a minimum social program that will somehow make the plight of the oppressed classes involved less oppressive. Generally, in such political blocs the oppressed classes do the donkey work and the other classes reap whatever benefits accrue from the taking of power. This, moreover, is basically a concept of a parliamentary path to socialism.

The long sordid history of this political device as an attempted sop by political leaderships to the working masses on one hand and a betrayal of their class interests on the other are still with us today. Even in the United States this strategy is used by what passes for the left, on its own hook mind you, when it blocs with the left-wing of the capitalist Democratic Party. Under the best of circumstances a popular front weakens and undermines the independence of the working classes. However, also remember that the Popular Front, as France and Spain in the 1930's, Chile in the 1970's and many other example show, can lead to bloody repression and destruction of the working masses for a long time. In modern times militant leftists say no to popular front ideology.

Well, that said, what does all this have to do with the French Revolution. The French Revolution of 1789 represents in almost pure form the concept of the popular front. As mentioned above several different classes were ready to take down the absolute monarchy and furthermore were generally ready to subordinate, at least for a time, their own interests to do this. This begs the question of what the attitude of militants should be toward that phenomenon in 1789. Today we say no to the popular front concept but then we would have supported such a concept with both hands. Why? At that time the nature of French society, the tasks that needed to be accomplished around the creation of a nation-state and given the immaturity of the working classes both socially and politically a socialist solution to the problems of the day was precluded. While our sympathies historically go to the sans culottes who then and later were the vanguard that pushed the revolution to the left and we honor Robespierre and after him Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals in 1789 militants then could have politically supported the popular front against the absolute monarchy. Later, of course, as the revolution pushed leftward under Robespierre we would have united with him and the left elements of the bourgeoisie but we would nevertheless still have fought under the sign of the popular front then as well. Popular Front, 1789- Yes. Today- No. Read on.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Recommended reading for anyone interested in the French Revolution 1 Jan. 2015
By JPV - Published on
Format: Paperback
This may, for all I know, be one of the most important books written about the French Revolution. One of its boons is that it is able to divide the events leading up to 1789 into four categories: aristocratic, bourgeois, popular and peasant revolutions. My sixth sense is telling me that that may have been an accurate representation of what actually happened. However, the book was admittedly dense; perhaps such a lodged complaint is more of a representation of my limitations than the author's. Upon reading it, the book nevertheless had a loose analytical focus; it constantly switched from institution to institution. Perhaps this is a reflection of the author's claim that class was an important determinant of the revolution. The book was undoubtedly erudite, however. I did prefer George Rude's French Revolution: Its Causes, Its History and Its Legacy After 200 Years to this book. Rude's account seemed a tad more rational. Lefebvre's last chapter, for instance, praises youth and national sovereignty. The book starts academically and crescendos into its avowed ideological purpose. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the French Revolution.
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