Saturday, March 16, 2013

Social Movement Theory and the French Revolution: Some Thoughts

I wrote this paper in 1988 just after finishing Francois Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) and Lynn Hunt’s Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). I wanted to do two things in this paper, first to think Furet’s and Hunt’s books into the broader context of social movement theory, the French Revolution was a social movement after all, and second, to polemicise for a culturally sensitive approach to social movements.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the arguments that large scale economic, political, demographic, and geographic factors impact new social movements like Mormonism which arose in the Burned Over District of upstate New York and northeastern Ohio in the early nineteenth century. The building of the Erie Canal, the coming of Jacksonian democracy, the New England background of most Mormon converts certainly did play a role in the rise of the social movement we know as Mormonism. Without an exploration of culture, without a discussion of how Mormons differed from other groups that arose in the Burned Over District of upstate New York at the same time as Mormonism arose, however, we can’t understand the processes which made Mormons, Mormon, Oneidans, Oneidians, Shakers, Shakers, or Evangelicals, Evangelicals.

The interpretive study of social groups is not new. Nor is the study of social groups and social movements. Past and contemporary social science has exhibited a long-standing interest in the nature, characteristics, and dynamics of social groups and their origins. Sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and political scientists of every theoretical stripe have offered a variety of explanations for the rise of new social groups from deprivation to relative deprivation, status anxiety, resource mobilisation, economic change, political change, and cultural change.

All of these approaches can be found in both academic and popular approaches to social movements large and small. To take one example, Marxist approaches dominated the study of the French Revolution until the 1970s. These approaches, an example of which is that of Georges Soboul, posited, that the French Revolution was a product of the economic deprivation of the urban poor and the peasantry, the relative deprivation of the bourgeoisie, the status anxiety that resulted from the relative deprivation of that "class", the aristocratic fear of monarchical power, and the bourgeoisie's growing power and wealth (the kitchen sink or black hole school of social movement theory). To this kitchen sink mix of socially produced psychological anxieties Soboul adds a dialectical view of history.

For Marxists like Soboul, LeFebvre, and Hobsbawm, the French Revolution was fundamentally a bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie overturned the old feudal system in which lord and serf were in constant conflict as a result of their differing interests. This gave rise to a new dialectic, the conflict between capitalist and worker. For Marxists this dialectic of conflict was seen as both necessary and progressive. Only with the next evolutionary stage, when the proletariat would gain control of the mode of economic livelihood and reorganise it so to satisfy economic “necessities” without exploitation (each according to his need), would the dialectic of history reach its preordained endpoint and history would, for all intents and purposes, end.

Like many of the other theoretical perspectives discussed here, this type of Marxism, for some it is vulgar Marxism, does not escape the charge of economic reductionism. Moreover, it continues to hold to a rather suspect (if long held) teleological view of history which sees a purpose and direction to human history and human life that will culminate in the best of all possible anti-Candidean economic worlds, communist egalitarianism (a utopian vision in which the French Revolution was, for these theorists, a step on the path toward the communist Eden). But perhaps the major problem with this perspective is that there is no evidence to support the contention that the industrial bourgeoisie were the guiding hands of the French Revolution.

In the last twenty years or so there has been a sea change in the study of social movements and in social theory. As relative deprivation, social mobilisation, status anxiety, and Marxist explanations of social movements have become less compelling, competing visions of why new social groups arise have begun to gain a foothold in the margins of the academy. This has also been the case in French Revolution Studies.

No one has been more critical of traditional historiograpic and social scientific approaches to the French Revolution than François Furet and Lynn Hunt. Taking on the dominant paradigm in the study of the Revolution, Furet, rends Marxism asunder for it’s economic reductionism (the dominating influence of the mode of production in all social life), its anachronistic teleologism (the progressive movement from “lower” economic forms to “higher” ones), and its reifying replication of French Revolutionaries self-perception of their role in history (the teleological notion that the French Revolution was the first important step toward heaven on earth and the end of history). He accuses Marxism of generalising this false ideology (as well as the above economic reductionism and evolutionism) to the character of social movements in general becoming polemicists and apologists in the process.

For Furet, social movements are far more complex than pre-determined conflicts between classes of oppressor and oppressed. Drawing on de Tocqueville, Furet looks for an explanation of the French Revolution, in particular, and for social movements in general, in long-term economic and political factors. He points out, as did de Tocqueville, that there were similarities between “old France, the France before the French Revolution, and “new France”, the France after the French Revolution, the most important being that government administrative centralisation began under the old regime was completed under the new revolutionary one. He also points out how important short-term cultural factors were and emphasises the role the Revolution played in transforming France from a monarchical political sensibility and culture to a new democratic” and despotic one (a dystopian vision of revolutionary "terror" as a social pathology).

Furet's emphasis on ideology and symbol is particularly important and laudable. Instead of relying on suspect and simplistic teleological notions of class conflict or on economic explanations which cannot explain why some who are economically deprived revolt, while others similarly deprived do not, Furet draws attention to the ideological basis of social movement mobilisation. Drawing on cultural scripts (derived from the works of Rousseau and the philosophes) such as “the will of the people” and the “social contract”, Furet delineates how this ideology became the symbol of a particular group of individuals who filled the power vacuum left by the fall of the monarchy. These new democratic monarchs used this ideology to legitimate their power and to mobilise public opinion, a public opinion it created, behind themselves by creating a discourse in which they alone embodied the “will of the people”.

With Furet we are in a realm far removed form Marxist deterministic economism. While he argues that the origins of the French Revolution are to be found in a crisis of social mobility and status anxiety within an amalgamated elite of nobles and bourgeoisie, his emphasis on political and economic institutional factors, on ideology, symbol, power, discourse, and legitimisation, and the complex relationships between these points in new directions and is absolutely essential for an understanding of the French Revolution and other social movements. Not only does it point up the general aspects we must be sensitive to--political-institutional factors, economic-institutional factors, cultural factors, ideology, for instance—but it also gives us the ability to see the particularities of social movements through attentiveness to their cultural forms.

Furet is, in my opinion, correct in suggesting that symbols and ideology play an important if not a predominant role in social movement mobilisation and action. Clearly the French Revolutionaries used the idea that they embodied the “will of the people” not only to gain power in a country where a power vacuum existed. They also used it to unify and mobilise an inner coterie of true believers in their struggle to maintain power and control. New symbols, new rituals, and "terror" became their instruments for reshaping French society and culture.

Like Furet, Lynn Hunt falls firmly into the interpretive camp, though she goes even farther down this path than he does. After discussing the "poetics" or culture of the French Revolution, i.e., its language, symbolism, imagery, and representations, Hunt excavates the "sociological" phenomena with which this "poetics" continuously interacted—networks, organisations, political geography, economic phenomena, and the social, and cultural contexts of the “new political class”.

Hunt challenges both Marxist and Modernisation approaches to the French Revolution arguing that both see the Revolution in too reductionist or simplistic a fashion. Marxism, she argues, sees the Revolution in problematic unilinear evolutionary ways—as a reflection of the transition from feudalism to capitalism—and in reductionist terms—as an economic revolution of bourgeoisie or the new capitalist class. Modernisation theorists, likewise, and no less problematically, see the Revolution in developmental-evolutionary terms—as the transition from traditional to modern societies—and in too ideological a way—as brought to fruition under the guidance of those most “modern” of all human types, the educated, urbanised, capitalist elite. Since modernisation theorists regard their own societies as the pinnacle of the “modern” these commentators are open to the criticism that they have become dogmatic apologists for an ideologically inscribed form of unilinear evolution.

Hunt's view is very different. While the French Revolution created the “modern” world of democracy, authoritarianism, socialism, terror, revolutionary dictatorship, the police state, and the guillotine (utopia and dystopia meet next to the guillotine under the tree of liberty) it did not create the “modern” world imagined by either the Marxists or Modernisation theorists.

In place of these flawed Marxist and Modernisation perspectives, Hunt suggests that a dynamic model in which economic, political, social, and cultural factors interact, gives us a better understanding of what produced the French Revolution. For Hunt, the French Revolution was a product of economic factors—the budgetary problems of the ancien regime--and political factors—the calling of the Estates-General, the refusal of the aristocracy to give the monarchy new taxation power without political concessions on the kings part, the moves by the Third Estate of the Estates-General to reconstitute the political in non-corporatist and non-caste terms—which combined to provide a political opening to groups of individuals who were geographically, politically, economically, and culturally marginal, and who, with the fall of the monarchy, rose gradually to power.

This dynamic and interactionist emphasis in Hunt's approach is especially evident in her description of the “new political class” in power. Pointing out that the new power and cultural brokers were far less homogeneous than previously thought, though they did share a set of common values and common expectations about behaviour, Hunt shows how the different political outcomes of the French Revolution were inherent in each of the groups of relevant elite actors in the Revolution. Some members of this “new political class” favoured representative or republican democracy, others wanted radical egalitarian democracy, while still others strove for a new form of absolutism. Each were, in other words, motivated by different enlightenment cultural scripts.

According to Hunt, the reign of these new politicians was not marked by ideological consistency. Each of these new revolutionary elites manipulated and transformed symbols, images, and representations they created or co-opted. These symbolic changes reflect the various contigencies, whether social, economic, or political, with which the “new political class” had to contend and to which they had to adapt. For instance, Hunt notes that, over time, the popularity of the symbol “Marianne” (the elitist symbol of Liberté) declined while that of “Hercule" (the popular symbol of the people) grew. This, she argues, reflects the increasing role the popular classes were playing on the political stage in the 1790s as well as the masculinisation of the French Revolution.. Furthermore, the different representations “Hercule” took over time reflect rather different conceptions of “the people” and different didactic purposes of the powers that be.

One of the most interesting points Hunt makes has to do with to the image one segment of the new political elite, i.e., more radical elites, had of “the people”. According to Hunt, the radicals saw themselves as the embodiment of the people's will. Given that their image of “the people” did not mesh with the actuality of people in the flesh, however, their symbols were transformed in didactic or educational (some might call them re-educational) directions so they could make “the people” into their people (hence it is possible, as the dystopian scenario has it, to read Jacobin Terror as prefiguring later forms of Soviet Terror done in the name of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”).

Hunt does not only discuss those symbols and rituals manipulated by revolutionary elites. She also points out there were alternative and contradictory symbols and rituals, largely of a religious character, present among opponents of the Revolution.

Hunt's work is dynamic, historical, and non-reductionist (the holy trinity in the new social scientific theoretical catechism). In other words, she explores the complexity of the interrelation between environmental, social, cultural, and political phenomena. She rightly points out that it is in the fabric of these interrelations that new political classes, new symbols, new representations, and new images develop and she emphasises that politics is cultural. For her the old Positivist, Marxist, and Modernisation cause-effect notions are no longer applicable. There is only constant, dynamic interaction.

Of course, this is not that novel. One could argue that Furet's and Hunt's reading of Marxism it is too narrow and that the Cultural Marxists like E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, and others (not to mention symbolic anthropologists), were mining the same vein as Furet and Hunt earlier. George Rude, for instance, sees the Revolution as the outcome of a combination of both long-term and short-term factors that arose during the ancien regime: longstanding grievances of the peasants, townsmen, and bourgeoisie, the frustration of rising hopes among wealthy bourgeoisie and peasants, government debt, the break down of the government, a growing "feudal" reaction, the claims and intransigence of the aristocracy, the dissemination of radical ideas among wide sections of the populace, economic and financial crises, and the successive "triggers" of state bankruptcy, aristocratic revolt, and popular rebellion. Still, even though the British Cultural Marxists were attentive to the role of culture in human history (in this instance, the ideas of Enlightenment philosophes), they remained committed to notions of base and superstructure in which culture was, at some level, an epiphenomenon of the economic. In this respect they were doing something similar to Georg Lukács who brought a Weberian sensitivity to his Marxist analyses while claiming that processes leading to bureaucratisation were products of the “fetishisation of the commodities” explored by Marx in Kapital. Rude, for instance, sees the phenomena that “triggered” the Revolution (government bankruptcy, Enlightenment ideas, and rebellions) as being, in the final analysis, bourgeois.

Moreover, one could argue that Furet, like de Tocqueville and historian Robert Darnton, should pay more attention to the cultural scripts or symbols the revolutionaries drew upon in making their revolution (philosophy, political and economic thought, etc.). While this may be true, both Furet and Hunt, like non-Marxist cultural historians such as Robert Darnton and Keith Thomas, point up the fact that social and cultural phenomena are more complex than reductionist theories portray and that an attention to culture is essential if we are to understand and “accurately” interpret social movements and human lifeworlds.

What reductionist and normative theories of all kinds often have in common is a belief that human beings are simply responding in almost automatic fashion to the external forces impacting them. Mooney's First Peoples and Worley's Melanesians respond to the realities of economic and power deprivation by constructing elaborate apocalyptic myths of death and economic and cultural revitalisation. McCarthy's and Zald's social movements strategise about the rational use of available political and economic resources (homo rationalis) in order to mobilise the unmobilised, Hofstadter's falling status groups grow anxious over their positions in the hierarchies of life. Vulgar Marxists see humans as reflections of broad scale teleological economic processes. It is against such reductionism that cultural approaches to social movements aim their theoretical arrows as I have tried to show in this paper and that is, as I have also tried to show in this paper, all for the good.

Albert Soboul; A Short History of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989)
Georges LeFebvre; The Coming of the French Revolution (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1967)
Albert Soboul; "L'Historiographie classique de la revolution francaise: Sur des controversies recentes" in Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques, 1 (1974) pp. 141-168
Eric Hobsbawm; The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (NYC: Vintage, 1962)
Robert Darnton; "A Bourgeois Puts His World in Order: The City as a Text" in Robert Darnton; The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (NYC: Basic, 1984)
Robert Darnton; The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (NYC: Basic, 1984)
Francois Furet; Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
James Billington; Fire in the Minds of Men: The Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1999)
Alexis de Tocqueville; The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)
Theda Skocpol States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (NYC: Cambridge University Press, 1979)
Sholomo Avineri; The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968)
Lynn Hunt; Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)
Claude Mazauric; "Quelques voies nouvelles pour l'historique politique de la revolution francaise"; Annales historiques de la revolution francaise, 17 (1975), pp. 134-173
George Rude; Europe in the Eighteenth Century: Aristocracy and the Bourgeois Challenge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press., 1972)
Keith Thomas; Religion and the Decline of Magic (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971)
James Mooney, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1896)
Peter Worley; And the Trumpet Shall Sound (NYC: Schocken, 1957)
Anthony F.C. Wallace; "Revitilization Movements", American Anthropologist, 58 (1956)
Weston LaBarre; The Ghost Dance and he Origins of Religion (NYC: Delta, 1970)
J. McCarthy and M. Zald; "Social Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory", American Journal of Sociology, 82 (1977)
Mayer Zald; Organization Change: The Political Economy of the YMCA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970)
Richard Hofstadter; The Age of Reform from Bryan to FDR (NYC: Vintage, 1955)
Richard Hofstadter; The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965)

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