The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the Ideals of the Third Estate and the Inevitability of Its Victory

The question of inevitably depends upon ones understanding of history and how it unfolds. To assume the victory of the Third Estate was inevitable vastly ignores the importance of human agency in the historical process. Human praxis, the action and reflection taken by real people involved in the material reality of a particular instance, plays a prodigious role in the flow of events. Active, engaged leadership in conjunction with large-scale participation by popular segments of society create the potential for fundamental changes to occur in society. France, given its historical, economic, social, and political reality in 1789, provided a matrix in which this potential could be cultivated. Therefore, the Third Estate, while not necessarily inevitably victorious, was at a level of consciousness and organization in 1789 that allowed for the development of radical changes in French society.

This period of French history illuminates a lucid example of the conception that ideas are created and fostered within a particular context or historical circumstance and not simply logically abstracted without material influence. The events leading up to 1789 had proven the failure of the monarchy to provide for the masses. Market deregulation leading to increased grain prices coupled with terrible harvest years fueled animosity towards wealthy noble land-owners and politicians. The Catholic Church maintained a state monopoly on the religious domain of French society and, fueling its cultural hegemony, was entitled to tithes from the population (usually one-tenth of a person’s wage) and exempt from many of the most burdensome taxes. The vast majority of society was composed of peasant laborers, around 80 percent, who barely survived on subsistence agriculture as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and possibly small landowners (Doyle 16). Urban workers toiled for long hours and spent anywhere from a third to half of their regular income on bread (20-22). Taxes on nearly everything, most onerously a salt tax imposed upon commoners, prevented trade and movement of goods, further augmenting the misery of living under a wealthy monarchy. Nobles, often holding much of the arable land, were entitled to a host of benefits such as tax exemptions, hunting rights, and control over local politics and peasants’ lives. A new class, the bourgeoisie, composed of wealthy merchants and landowners, was also rising in stature and number and giving challenge to the old nobles who relied upon birthright and not merit or money.

Huge disparities alone, however, do not provide the impetus for revolutionary change needed to transform society. Rich and poor, a minority dominated the majority, had existed since the development of agricultural, sedentary societies. These factors alone do not explain the victory of the Third Estate. While popular food riots had erupted in past decades throughout urban centers, and continued to do so throughout the revolution (98), these were largely purely economic and material demands, without far-reaching political significance. It was within this context that new ideas began to emerge, ideas that questioned religious dominance, rigid monarchial control, and hereditary status. Enlightenment ideals began to emerge in French society as various pamphlet writers, newspaper editors, and street agitators argued, questioned, and articulated these ideas to the masses. Coffee shops and pubs became centers of debate and discussion. Popular leaders emerged, and French society became open to a wide range of debate by 1789. One observer described how “Every hour produces something new. Thirteen [pamphlets] came out today, sixteen yesterday, ninety-two last week… Nineteen-twentieths of these productions are in favour of liberty, and commonly violent against the clergy and nobility” (104). Without such persistent agitation and organization on behalf of popular sentiment, the victory of the Third Estate could not have been achieved.

Still, many of the aristocrats hoped to maintain the debate within the parameters of established institutions, and only called upon popular, grassroots pressure when it was vital to them achieving some goal. Republican rhetoric aside, the concerns of the bourgiousie were limited to the well-to-do sectors of society who simply requested political representation and market opportunities. Democratic participation by the masses was to be hemmed in and used as a medium to accomplish these goals, but not to allow radical redistributions of wealth or life-affirming social policies. The king’s court subjugated parliament (the only articulation of certain sectors of the population, not all that democratic in and of itself), which was often bypassed and allowed for complete subjugation of the political realm by the monarchy. By time the king had been forced to call in the Estates-General in 1788 (with the same structure that favored the nobility and clergy), popular sentiment was already shifting and for the first time people felt as if they had made a major victory against despotic rule; in December, when the Third Estate forced Louis XVI to double its size, people rejoiced further. The victory of the Third Estate occurred within a massive uprising of popular revolt and sprang consciousness forward considerably from the previous year: spring and summer saw food rioting across Paris, other cities, and the countryside, rebellious crowds roamed the streets and burst into Versailles, on June 30 4,000 protestors freed ten rebellious guards (108), various political associations sprung up and debate clubs became increasingly popular, a massive crowd stormed the Bastille, the symbol of the monarch’s oppressive control, and forced the guards to surrender the governor (110) and marks the transition from the “bourgeois revolution” to the “popular revolution,” grain shortages galvanized the peasantry to take up arms against public enemies, attacked manor houses and castles, and refused to pay tithes and feudal dues (114-5). Such popular expression was the manifestation of the masses’ ideological developments during this period.

Obviously, the majority of nobles and clergy did not support such strong sentiments, since they ultimately challenged both the First and Second estates and the monarchy itself; thus, the Third Estate became the “Assembly of the known and verified representatives of the French Nation,” excluding the previous ruling elites (104). This string of events culminated in August 1789 with the passage in the Estates-General of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which defined law as “the expression of the general will made by the direct or indirect participation of all citizens,” guaranteed equality before the law, implemented progressive taxation, and reiterated the importance of freedom of thought and expression (118-9). Such important democratic gains were weakened, however, with the advent of the controversial “active citizen” concept which effectively downsized the electoral pool to the wealthier segments of society (124). Secular, rational thought was posited as a replacement for religious dogma (as exemplified, even if of nominal importance, with the new naming of the months of the year) and republican ideals (split along conservative and radical lines) were articulated in place of monarchial control. August saw the abolition of feudal rights and privileges, reflecting the will of the people whom had been subjugated under the yoke of feudalism for centuries. In October, 7,000 women of Paris marched on Versailles to demand bread, a common theme throughout the revolution, and force the King to return to Paris (122). Finally, in the last months of 1789, church lands are confiscated to make up for the national debt (132). Thus, by the end of 1789, the implementation of the ideals of the revolution were well on their way to becoming a historical reality.

Despite the shortcomings, the Third Estate victory was undoubtedly a manifestation of the popular will and consciousness of both urban and rural sectors; their consciousness, more often than not, remained steps ahead of their political leaders and assembly representatives who were, by the very nature of their class loyalty, reflective of a more economically conservative stance. More importantly, however, was that the Third Estate victory was not only an expression of popular consciousness, it was the result of dedicated organization, engaged agitation, and militant activism on part of the French people. Popular leaders emerged to articulate demands and expressions of the peoples’ will; political organizations acted as a piston-box in guiding the steam of the masses’ energy as to not allow its dissipation. Therefore, no such thing as inevitably exists in the historical process. Human praxis, given the right material conditions, remains the most powerful agent in determining the course of events. The revolution and its ideals would be ultimately defeated, given the prodigious threat of civil war and the onslaught of imperial regimes inextricably linked with the gradual abandonment of the revolution and its radical principles by the bourgeoisie. Regardless, the French Revolution has had an enormous impact on the world and should be remembered as a time in history when the people took matters into their own hands. History is not deterministic, and the events of France in 1789 today still give people a glimpse into what is possible; as Zhou Enlai, foreign minister under Mao, stated in 1949 when asked for his what he thought the impact of the French Revolution was, “It is too early to tell.”
Works Cited


Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. (Oxford University Press, 2002).

BBC News. “Zhou Enlai,” Inside China’s Ruling Party. Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/asia_pac/02/china_party_congress/china_ruling_party/key_people_events/html/zhou_enlai.stm; Internet.
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