THE POPULAR FRONT IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION OF 1789
THE COMING OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, GEORGES LEFEBVRE, VINTAGE BOOKS, NEW YORK, 1947
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 compelled 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 bourgeois historian of the French Revolution. I have reviewed his major general work on the French revolution elsewhere (see July archives). 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 XVI, 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, large 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 key elements of the nobility and clergy very shortly turned toward counterrevolution. Professor LeFebvre documents this trend very well, especially in the case of the peasantry that he had special knowledge of and charted closely throughout his academic career.
This writer always tries to analyze and review each book on 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 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 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 parliamentary concept of the path to socialism. The long sordid history of this political device as an attempted sop by so-called leftist political leaderships to the working masses on the one hand and a betrayal of their class interests on the other are still with us today.
Even in the United States this strategy has been used and today is used by what passes for the left, on its own hook , 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 the end that strategy also undermined the French Revolution. 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. The fight of the Third Estate for power represented the popular frony policy of that day. 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 the immaturity of the working classes both socially and politically precluded a socialist solution to the problems of the day.
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. However at the beginning of the Revolution militants then could have, and should have, politically supported the popular front against the absolute monarchy. Later, of course, 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. Popular Front, 1789- Yes. Today- No. Read on.
Revised September 27, 2006