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Popular Revolt: Peasants, Artisans, and Workers

The role of the masses in the French revolution was a major issue from early on. The term the ‘mob’ encapsulated a wide range of interpretations from the right which ‘blamed’ an ignorant, short-sighted and unruly mass of lower class urban women and men for conducting a vicious, vengeful and immoral war against their superiors and betters (Hippolyte Taine, Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens). In the mid-nineteenth century Marx, Engels and other socialists like Prudhon and Blanqui put the revolutionary role of workers into the forefront. Russian populists saw peasants as the revolutionary class in Russian. In the Cold War a similar binary was present. Alongside views of the masses as a ‘mob’, left-wing writers, with E.P.Thompson in the forefront, began to discern a ‘moral economy’ among the revolutionary activists and began to develop a new vocabulary, eschewing the word ‘mob’ and replacing it with the ‘masses’ or the ‘people’ or the ‘working class.’ George Rudé talked about the ‘crowd’ in the French Revolution. Since the publication of Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, a great deal of attention has been focused on analysing and rationalising the involvement, initially of the urban lower classes, in the revolution. Ironically, neither Paris nor Petrograd had a Marxist-type working class at the time of their revolutions. Among historians of the French Revolution the role of artisans, the ‘sans-culottes’ and peasants emerged. For historians of the Russian Revolution a ‘revisionist’ history of workers began to emerge which followed the Leninist division of ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ workers. (Smith, Rosenberg, Koenker et al.) Others began to point to the role of the vast peasant masses in Russia and emphasise that most urban workers, even in Petrograd, had been born in the countryside retained links with the village. In other words, they were mostly a recent, migrant worker-peasant hybrid. (Johnson, Bradley, Read). This opened the way for greater consideration of the role of peasants (largely deemed counter-revolutionary and a drag on the revolution in the Marxist and quasi-Marxist traditions) who were seen to have a revolutionary agenda of their own. (Retish, Badcock, Moon). The result is a very rich historiography of the mass, popular movement in both revolutions.

Seminar Questions

  1. Assess the role of the urban poor in the French and Russian revolutions.
  2. To what extent, if any, were the French and Russian revolutions primarily peasant revolutions?
  3. How ‘advanced’ were Russian workers in the early twentieth century? To what extent did they constitute a ‘class’?
  4. Assess the role of ordinary soldiers in the Russian Revolution.

Core Readings

  • ‘What is a sans-culotte?’ in Baker (ed.), The Old Regime and the French Revolution, pp. ??
  • John Markoff, ‘Violence, Emancipation, and Democracy: The Countryside and the French Revolution’, American Historical Review, 100: 2 (1995), 360-386.
  • Allan Potofsky, ‘The Building Trades of Paris during the Terror and Thermidor’ in Constructing Paris in the Age of Revolution (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 146-182. [e-book]
  • Bonnell, V. ed. The Russian Worker: Life and Labor under The Tsarist Regime (Berkeley: Berkeley University Press, 1983) (extracts from worker memoirs)
  • Bonnell, Victoria Roots of Rebellion: Workers’ Organizations and Politics in St Petersburg and Moscow 1900-14 (California University Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 1983)
  • Moon, D. The Russian Peasantry, 1600-1930. The World the Peasants Made (London: Longman,1999).

Further Reading

  • Wolf, Eric, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (Harper and Row, New York, 1969)


  • John Markoff, The Abolition of Feudalism: Peasants, Lords, and Legislators in the French Revolution (State College, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 1996).
  • P. M. Jones, The Peasantry in the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) and his ‘The "Agrarian Law": Schemes for Land Redistribution during the French Revolution’, Past and Present, no. 133 (1991), 96-133.
  • Charles Tilly, The Vendee: A Sociological Analysis of the Counter-Revolution of 1793 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1964).
  • Liana Vardi, The Land and the Loom: Peasants and Profit in Northern France, 1680-1800 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 1993. See also her ‘The Abolition of the Guilds during the French Revolution’, French Historical Studies, 15: 4 (1988), 704- .
  • Steven L. Kaplan, La fin des corporations (Paris: Fayard, 2001). One of the best works on the demise of the guilds.
  • George Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959).
  • Albert Soboul, The Parisian Sans-culottes and the French Revolution, 1793-94 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).
  • Jean Nicolas, La Rebellion francaise: mouvements populaires et conscience sociale (1661-1789) (Paris: Le Seuil, 2002). Not translated but a very important empirical study of popular revolts leading up to the revolution. Read in conjunction with Markoff’s monograph above.
  • Richard Cobb, The People's Army: The armées révolutionnaires: instrument of the Terror in the departments. April 1793 to Floréal Year II, Marianne Elliott (trans.) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987). See also, The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789-1820 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).
  • Jill Maciak, ‘Learning to Love the Republic: Jacobin Propaganda and the Peasantry of the Haute-Garonne’, European Review of History 6: 2 (1999).
  • Peter McPhee, ‘The French Revolution, Peasants, and Capitalism’, American Historical Review 94: 5 (1989), 1265-1280.
  • Melvin Edestein, La Feuille villageoise: Communication et modernisation dans les régions rurales pendant la Révolution (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1977). Untranslated but great study of the impact of print culture on peasant life.


  • Steinbers M.D. Moral Communities. The Culture of Class Relations in the Russian Printing Industry, 1867-1907 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
  • Bradley, J. Muzhik and Muscovite: urbanization in late imperial Russia Berkeley 1985
  • Johnson, R. Peasant and proletarian: the working class of Moscow in the late nineteenth century, Leicester 1979
  • Read, Christopher ‘Labour and Socialism in Tsarist Russia’ in Geary, D (ed) Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe before 1914 Oxford, New York, Munich 1984
  • Badcock, Sarah Politics and the people in revolutionary Russia : a provincial history Cambridge 2007
  • McDonald, Tracy Face to the Village: the Riazan Countryside under Soviet Rule: 1921-1930 (University of Toronto Press, 2011
  • Koenker D. and Rosenberg, W. Strikes and revolution in Russia 1917, Princeton 1989
  • Koenker, D. Moscow workers and the 1917 revolution, Princeton 1981
  • Bushnell, John Mutiny amid Repression. Russian Soldiers in the Revolution of 1905—1906 Bloomington 1985
  • Mawdsley, E The Russian revolution and the Baltic Fleet (1978)
  • Sanborn, J.A. Drafting the Russian Nation. Military Conscription, Total War, and Mass Politics, 1905-1925 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2003)