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Revolution and Reaction Among Elites: Aristocracy and Bourgeoisie

Around 1980 Theda Skocpol argued that the dangerous moment for a governmental system was when the state and the dominant class were separated from one another. The French and Russian Revolutions were both preceded by crises of the ruling class which went into opposition to the state, i.e. monarchy and autocracy. In France, the costly wars for global supremacy with Britain had been failures and the bills had to be paid. Only the wealthy had the resources to pay and they were only interested in preserving their ‘age-old’ immunity from taxation. Increasing pressure from the treasury and determined resistance from the elites led to the calling of the Estates-General and the whole revolutionary process was under way. In Russia, the tension came from a different angle. The creaking autocracy was losing the confidence of its potentially most powerful supporters, the landowners and gentry, for two reasons above all. First, the autocracy’s pursuit of policies of military-focused industrialization took resources from the landowners through tariffs etc. Second, the role of the autocracy as the bulwark of property appeared to be under threat, especially in 1905. Not only that, the anachronistic autocracy was actually seen to be generating unrest and opposition and the fear grew that, if a political conflagration were to occur, it would engender a social revolution which would redistribute the land. (Durnovo) In both France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, there were emerging, educated, urban professional and business classes conventionally known, from their status as urban dwellers, as the bourgeoisie. In neither case had the new class(es) been integrated into the old regime. In both cases they were demanding rights from the state and the aristocracy. In both cases, they toyed with ideas of democracy, liberalism and the Rights of Man but tended to back away from universalist applications of such principles into more restricted, property-based definitions of political rights. However, the three-way split of monarchy/ autocracy – landowners – bourgeoisie dangerously divided the elites and opened up a much more radical revolutionary opportunity than almost any of them wished for. Finally, and more recently, Mayer has argued that the violence of revolutions arises from the degree of resistance to them put up by the counter-revolutionary elites. This seminar will examine and compare the roles of landowners and the bourgeoisie in the two revolutions.

Seminar Questions

  1. To what extent were elites responsible for the outbreak of the French and Russian revolutions?
  2. Does the concept ‘bourgeois revolution’ retain any useful meaning?

Core Reading

  • Timothy Tackett, ‘Nobles and Third Estate in the Revolutionary Dynamic of the National Assembly, 1789-1790’, American Historical Review, 94: 2 (1989), 271-301.
  • Eugene Nelson White, 'The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770-1815', Journal of Economic History, 55:2 (1995), pp. 227-255.
  • Charles Walton, 'Between Trust and Terror: Patriotic Giving in the French Revolution' in D. Andress (ed.), Experiencing the French Revolution (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2013), pp. 47-67.
  • Service, R (ed) Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution chapters on landowners (Channon) and the Middle Class (Macmillan 1997)

Further Reading

  • Theda Skocpol States and Social Revolutions: a Comparative analysis of France, Russia and China Cambridge 1979 chs


  • Gail Bossenga, 'Financial Origins of the French Revolution', in T Kaiser and D Van Kley, From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 37-66.
  • William Doyle, Venality: The Sale of Offices in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
  • Colin Lucas, ‘Nobles, Bourgeois and the Origins of the French Revolution’, Past and Present, no. 60 (1973), 84-126.
  • Michael P. Fitzsimmons, The Night the Old Regime Ended: August 4, 1789 and the French Revolution (State College: Penn State University Press, 2003).
  • Sarah Maza, The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750-1850 (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: UC Press, 1984).
  • Lynn Hunt, 'The Financial Origins of the French Revolution' in S Desan, L Hunt and W Nelson, The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013)
  • Robert Forster, Merchants, Landlords, Magistrates: The Depont Family in Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).
  • George V. Taylor, ‘Noncapitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution’, American Historical Review 72: 2 (1967), 469-496.
  • William Doyle, Aristocracy and Its Enemies in the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • T. C. W. Blanning, The French Revolution: Class War or Culture Clash? (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 1998).
  • Patrice Higonnet, Class, Ideology, and the Rights of Nobles during the French Revolution (New York: Clarendon Press, 1981).
  • Stephen Miller, ‘Absolutism and Class at the End of the Old Regime: The Case of Language’, Journal of Social History 26: 4 (2003), 871-898. See also his State and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: A Study of Political Power and Social Revolution in Languedoc (Washington DC: Catholic University Press of America, 2008).
  • Jay M. Smith, ‘Social categories, the language of patriotism, and the origins of the French Revolution: the debate over noblesse commercante’, Journal of Modern History 72: 2 (2000), 339-374.
  • David Garrioch, The Formation of the Parisian Bourgeoisie, 1690-1830 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  • Gwynne Lewis, ‘Rising Tides: The Rise of the Bourgeoisie and the Failure to Reform the Bourbon State, 1763-1792’, Socialist History, no. 33 (2008), 1-21.
  • Eugene Nelson White, 'The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770-1815', Journal of Economic History, 55:2 (1995), pp. 227-255.


  • Rendle, Matthew Defenders of the Motherland: The Tsarist Elite in Revolutionary Russia Oxford 2010
  • Rendle, Matthew, 'Conservatism and Revolution: The All-Russian Union of Landowners, 1916-1918', Slavonic and East European Review 84(3) pp.481-507 2006
  • Pearson, Raymond Russian Moderates and the Crisis of Tsarism: 1914-17 (Macmillan, London 1977)
  • McKean, Robert St Petersburg between the Revolutions (Yale University Press, New Haven 1990)
  • Timberlake, Charles E. Essays on Russian Liberalism (Columbia, Mo, University of Missouri Press, 1972