Socialist Worker

Revolutions led to a new kind of society

Jonathan Maunder concludes our series by looking at the convulsions that led to feudalism’s end

Issue No. 2148

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte


England and Holland emerged as powers representing a new capitalist logic of production by the end of the 17th century.

It took an intense struggle in both countries to break free of the constraints of the old feudal order. Yet nowhere else in Europe experienced such a decisive break.

It wasn’t until 100 years later that a revolution took place in France that finally allowed the unfettered spread of capitalism across Europe, and then the world.

By 1789 the French monarchy had ruled for over 1,000 years. But it was in financial trouble and King Louis XIV wanted to impose new taxes.

He called a meeting of the “three estates” – the clergy, the nobles, and the “third estate”, who were meant to represent the rest of the population.

This estate, mostly lawyers, some businessmen and bankers, refused to go along with the king’s plans.

They proclaimed themselves to be a “national assembly” and demanded a constitution.

The king’s forces mobilised to put down this challenge to his authority. This triggered a response from the poorest sections of society.

The people laid siege to the Bastille prison in Paris, which was a prominent symbol of the monarchy.

The pressure from below led the national assembly to declare the abolition of feudalism and to pass a “Declaration of the rights of man”.

In 1792, following the defeat of reactionary foreign forces who were working with the king, a new convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic.

The last remaining aspects of the old order were swept away. Tithes paid to the bishops and abbots were abolished.

Plans were made to establish formal education and spread scientific knowledge. Some soldiers elected their officers.

In January 1793 the king was executed.

The representatives of the “third estate” were not automatically revolutionary. They initially wanted a constitutional monarchy.

But the king’s response to this and the pressure from the masses forced them to make a decisive break with the old way of doing things.

They instituted a new order based on the new bourgeois values of “formal” equality, free movement of trade and constitutional government.

But the revolution suffered terrible reversals, culminating in the seizure of power by Napolean Bonaparte, an army officer. He made himself emperor in 1804.

But the organising of production around capitalist goals rather than feudal ones remained intact.

The revolutionary army spread across Europe, linking up with local forces to push through the abolition of serfdom and feudal dues.

The revolutions in England, Holland and France were crucial in creating the conditions for capitalism to expand.

By the late 19th century capitalist production based on industrial methods existed from Russia in the east through Europe to the US in the west.

The establishment of capitalism laid the basis for a new class struggle between the owners of industry and those who were forced to work for them.

Those who had earned their living using their own tools now worked and suffered in the new factories of the 19th century.

As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in 1848, “these labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market”.

But by combining together workers could fight their exploitation and pose an alternative logic based on the common ownership of production by the workers themselves – a system known as socialism.

Crucially, the level of production developed under capitalism meant that for the first time in human history there was the potential to produce enough goods and food to meet everyone’s needs.

Because capitalism is driven by profit rather than human need this potential cannot be realised until this system is overthrown.

The transition from feudalism to capitalism laid the basis for the struggle for socialism. This can finally realise the historic dream of real freedom, equality and democracy for all.

In this struggle we would do well to remember the words of Engels, who said, “History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights.


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