No matter debate as to the validity of Marxism as political theory, it is difficult to argue with the premise that conflict between social classes must go to national revolutions, and if only through examining the circumstances of such revolutions historically. What emerges, in fact, is that they are “explosions” within the nations because the social is inherently linked to the economic and power structure realities; that is, the social class exists through its economic and control status. When disparities go to extremes, it is then virtually inevitable that the class perceiving itself as oppressed will rise up against the class with power. This by no means assures equality as developing afterward, but the point remains that social class, an identity based on other realities, is a constant and powerful element in revolutions, and conflict between classes may easily generate revolt. This is supported by the following examinations of the French and Haitian Revolutions.
The French Revolution
In general terms, the French Revolution is widely perceived as a battle between the poor and the ruling classes, in which the former violently overthrew the existing nobility and monarchy to establish a republican society. In these terms, the Marxist emphasis on social class is powerfully in place; there can be few greater differences in class, that is, than the peasants who organized and stormed the Bastille, and the wealthy elite who became victims of the mob violence. Many historians and critics oppose this view, however. It is believed that class divisions cannot account for the the Revolution, and because there is evidence that the bourgeoisie, or common people, shared interests with the nobility. It is argued that the nobility was already moving toward capitalist enterprises, which would involve them with the bourgeoisie, and that the latter were also investing in land (Margadant 444). Consequently, there was a blurring of the lines between the classes, and it is then unlikely that social conflict was the core cause of the Revolution.
Certainly, the Revolution was not a case of one class violently destroying another. Aside from the factors noted above, the French nobility itself had lost a great deal of its own power by the late 18th century (Heller 66). At the same time, it must be remembered that the Revolution itself was not triggered by the new middle class, existing in relative harmony with the nobility. From 1775 on, it was widely noted that the lowest, or peasant, class was no longer willing to pay tithes and observe land rights of those holding property. Clearly, differences in economic standing then defined these classes as such. Then, it is also noted that the new middle class could not have seized power by itself; it required the violence of the peasant class to destroy the ancien regime (Heller 67). It is then a mistake to confuse different levels of social class as weakening the force of social class in the Revolution, just as it is necessary to recall that class itself is shaped by economic standing, which in turn goes to political power. Consequently, the French Revolution was very much a result of intense class conflict.
The Haitian Revolution
Those critics who argue that social class is largely irrelevant regarding the French Revolution would likely insist the same regarding the Haitian. This uprising, certainly, was not about social class in any conventional interpretation of the term. This was the legendary revolt of the slaves, demanding liberty and a new republic. The destruction of Napoleon’s great army by Dessalines and his slave followers seems so dramatic (Fergus 68), it defies the idea of social class and instead suggests a revolution powered more by political urgency and the violent unrest of a grossly oppressed people. In plain terms, the divisions within the pre-Revolution society were so extreme, social class seems immaterial.
Such a perspective, however, ignores the critical reality which demands reiteration. There is no such thing as social class as existing only unto itself, as the class itself is shaped by the roles people play within the society. Then, it is a great error to view slaves as apart from social class, even as their condition is so linked to the economic concerns of their owners. Prior to the Revolution, and likely true in other circumstances, the economic structure of Haiti went to the creation of a “social class” unlike any other: slaves. This is a class defined by the utter lack of any social status or identity whatsoever, and what then occurs is that the slave experiences “social death.” They are the permanent enemy within the home environment, and the identity then has a social class by virtue of having no class at all (Jenson 29). It is in fact arguable that such a class must lead to the greatest conflicts within the society, as was the case in the American Revolution. In plain terms, those with nothing banded together to overthrow those with power, and each population then fell within the class dictated by their economic standing. Moreover, that commerce and social class are inextricably linked, and also go to political power, is affirmed by how Marx assesses the Haitian Revolution. He saw this as a great stride toward universal freedom for the oppressed (Fergus 68), and within this understanding is knowledge of the nature of class as complex, and created by other forces.
In a very real sense, it is as misguided to hold that only social class conflict generates revolution as it is to deny the impact of it. More exactly, and as social class represents far more than mere social status, revolutions triggered by such conflict are inevitably triggered by other tensions and realities. If the French had an emerging middle class and a nobility by no means exercising great power, it remains true that the peasant class ignited the conflict that would bring down the monarchy and promote the new republic. If Haitian slavery is widely seen as apart from social class, it must be recognized that this lack of social identity fueled revolt. Economic and degrees of political power, essentially, create class levels within a society. As with the French and Haitian Revolutions, then, social class conflict is a powerful and motivating element in revolutions.
- Fergus, Claudius K. Revolutionary Emancipation: Slavery and Abolitionism in the British West Indies. Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2013. Print.
- Heller, Henry. The Bourgeois Revolution in France, 1789-1815. New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2009. Print.
- Jenson, Deborah. Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press.
- Margadant, Ted. W. Urban Rivalries in the French Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.