Short thoughts on French and Russian Revolutions

The French Revolution was caused, primarily, by a confluence of three factors:

  1. Bad harvests=> to starving peasants. Starving peasants will risk death for food.
  2. The gov’t went deep into debt to fund expensive wars and could extract no more taxes from the starving peasants.
  3. The legal system was crusty and inefficient, due to old age.

The Russian Revolution was primarily caused by WWI:

  1. It was far more expensive than Russia could afford,
  2. Unarmed peasants ordered to fling themselves in front of German machine guns react a lot like starving peasants told to go eat cake
  3. Probably a lot of starving peasants.

I don’t know if the Russian legal system was as crusty as the French one, but the whole thing was run by Nicholas, which is not a good sign.

In both cases, the immediate priority for the revolutionary gov’t ought to be halting the deaths of the peasants. Things like standardizing weights and measures or executing the monarch, whether you like those ideas or not, far fall, fall below “getting people bread” and “getting rid of the machine guns.”

Unfortunately, at least in the Russian case, instead of replacing their old, peasant-starving gov’t with a gov’t sensitive to the caloric needs of its people, they replaced it with a gov’t that was massively better at not getting overthrown by starving peasants.

Leading promptly to the starvation of millions of people.

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13 thoughts on “Short thoughts on French and Russian Revolutions

  1. Those two revolutions differed from common peasant rebellions. Both revolutions had a group of elite intellectuals providing a framework for an entirely new system of government – and thus providing “revolutionary legitimacy” for totally changing system of government. Prior peasant rebellions were against individual kings/dynasties, but revolutionary rebellions were against Monarchism in general.

    When a rebellion is against poor king, the rebellion is for actual good government. When a rebellion is against a total regime, it’s likely that it’s not for good government – but for different government.

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    • Seeing the French revolution led to what many have described as one of the first genocides, “The war in the Vendee”. The Vendee was the region with the least urban aristocracy, which apparently meant that the peasants generally backed the royalists or opposed the revolutionaries to a greater extent than elsewhere.

      Also in the case of the American revolution, the Caribbean and Canadian territorities remained under British control so loyalist could be expelled/flee to culturally similar regions rather than have to remain and live with the rebel government.

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  2. Following up on Denswend, Eric Hoffer makes the case in THE TRUE BELIEVER that the Russian revolution was greatly enabled by the liberation of Russian serfs fifty years prior. One has to wonder how things would have played out if, during WWI, the Russian infantry were still serfs.

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  3. Peasants have often gone hungry. If hungry peasants explain the French and Russian revolutions, your next assignment is to explain why history doesn’t record far more revolutions than it does.

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    • Hungry peasants have often revolted.
      French Revolution happened right around a nadir in the “little ice age,” kicked off immediately a big hail storm wiped out a big chunk of crops, and liberalization of trade with England put a bunch of people in textiles out business.

      IIRC, English Revolution also happened around the time of another nadir.

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    • We discussed monarchs in the previous post on the subject, but the reforming power grabs by Louis XIV and Peter the Great predated the revolutions by a good hundred years or so, so I still think it reasonable to consider possible immediate triggers.

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