By Stephen J. Miller
Marxists have long debated how to conceptualise the absolutist states of early modern Europe. Absolutism calls to mind royal sovereignty, whereas feudalism indicates decentralised seigneurial authority. Absolutism thus gives the impression of opposing feudal authority. If absolutism militated against feudalism, did it therefore represent progress? Did it emerge along with, or on account of, capitalism? Friedrich Engels argued in 1884, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, that absolute monarchies developed in a period of equilibrium in the class struggle between the old feudal nobility and the new urban bourgeoisie. The state power, mediating between the two social classes, acquired a degree of independence from both of them. Absolute monarchy took power from the nobles but left them with indirect influence in the royal court, army, and the higher administration, and allowed them to plunder the peasantry and state treasury. The monarchy, at the same time, protected the bourgeoisie through tariffs, monopolies and a relatively orderly administration of public affairs and justice.
These reflections shaped Marxist and non-Marxist interpretations of the absolutist state for about a century. Georges Lefebvre’s The Origins of the French Revolution, long the standard work on the subject, presented the nobility as a privileged class enjoying the benefits of feudal rights. The nobility fought to take power back from royal absolutism in the eighteenth century. During this same period, the bourgeoisie grew in wealth and numbers, thanks to the expansion of industry and commerce, elaborated an enlightened ideology, and took power from the nobility in 1789.
Since the 1970s, a growing number of historians, guided by Marxists, challenged this view of the monarchy. They showed that French kings constructed absolutism by consolidating the feudal authority of nobles, integrating them into the state, and managing their divergent interests. The nobles used the various branches of the state coercively to take the surplus from peasant production, like they had under feudalism, rather than through capitalist free contract. In so far as the bourgeoisie developed, it did so in accordance with this feudal logic, parlaying gains from trade into positions within the absolutist state.
Jon Elster does not take up these debates directly, but the evidence and insight, elaborated in France Before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime, place this book within the succession of histories of absolutism written since the 1970s. A Norwegian scholar, Elster earned his PhD from the Université Paris 5 René Descartes in 1972 with a dissertation on Karl Marx written under the direction of Raymond Aron. He has written dozens of books, including titles on ancient Hebrew and Greek thought, Leibniz, the social sciences, and the sociology of rationality and irrationality. Elster achieved renown as a theorist of analytical Marxism, an intellectual movement of the 1980s, which applied techniques of the social sciences, such as rational choice theory, to elucidate Marxist concepts.
Elster finds that one of the enduring features of the entire period, from the personal reign of Louis XIV in 1661 until the Revolution of 1789, was the possession of power as hereditary property. Patrimonial governance precluded bureaucratic rationality. The king, as the ancestral holder of the state, had the right to evoke cases from the tribunals and have them judged by his agents, making the royal administration judge in the cases brought against it. Such patrimonialism was replicated on the local level in the form of seigneurial justice, owned by lords, whose judges decided cases regarding feudal domains. The number of gallows on the lords’ domains reflected their rank in ancien régime society. Elster argues that seigneurial justice, like venal offices and other forms of hereditary power, distinguished elites from common subjects much more than did tax exemptions.
It was Marxist scholars of the 1980s and 1990s who drew attention to the patrimonial features of absolutism. Indeed, it is strange, given Elster’s dissertation and books on Marx, that he has ignored this literature in France Before 1789. William Beik, for instance, argued that venality tied absolutism to its feudal past by consecrating a new form of private ownership of public authority, allowing rich and influential subjects to share in the profits and prestige of the state. Louis XIV could not take government power from the holders of venal and seigneurial rights, because he did not have a bureaucracy at his disposal or an alternative means of maintaining order. Kings therefore relied on provincial elites, who used the king’s name to wield government authority to their advantage. ‘Landlords combined the power to command and judge with the right to collect dues and dominate the local economy, each power supported the other.’
Though Elster has ignored Beik, he refers to Herbert Lüthy’s similar argument that rent extraction permeated the monarchy. Wealth expanded in the eighteenth century, Lüthy maintained, as upper-class consumption of luxury goods stimulated artisanal production. The century saw industrial and technical progress without much capitalist concentration nor changes to the social structure. Peasant smallholders did not suffer expropriation and did not benefit from the prosperity. The dominant class appropriated the peasants’ and artisans’ surpluses thanks to official positions embedded in the monarchy. The crown had eliminated the feudal competitors for power, transforming them into clients, by the second half of the seventeenth century. Henceforth, feudalism consisted of a hierarchy of rights and properties within the state (entitling their possessors to revenue) rather than a hierarchy of fiefs as it had in centuries past. This ancien régime feudalism limited the king’s power, because the state offices diverted revenue from royal coffers to the private fortunes of elites.
Rafe Blaufarb has shown that patrimonial authorities extended beyond state offices to the landholding system of the ancien régime. Feudalism, as understood in the eighteenth century, denoted a constitutional form based on privately-owned public power and hierarchical landholding. Every time a lord took possession of a fief, the tenants had to drop to their knees publicly and ceremonially acknowledge that they held their properties from their new master. This tenurial system, which remained until the revolutionary era, injected notions of lordly superiority and personal servitude into property ownership.
One of the merits of France Before 1789 is to show that when venal officers, especially the high justices or parlementaires, referred to the monarchical constitution, they meant both the rentier offices in the state described by Lüthy as well as the feudal property described by Blaufarb. Indeed, Elster drew on his years of study of political psychology to explain how the persistence of feudal rights fuelled the violent upheavals of the revolutionary era. Face-to-face contempt, which the peasants routinely experienced in their dealings with the lords and their stewards, left deeper marks than did envy at a distance. The nobles’ power over their tenants in the form of seigneurial justice stirred more resentment than did their tax exemptions. Seigneurial exactions heightened the peasants’ sensitivity to conjunctural events and bred interpretations of malignity. Subsistence crises, for instance, led the populace to seek culprits. People believed that the nobles intentionally starved the people.
Elster offers a more informative overview of ruling-class exactions than have previous historians. Few societies have an inequality extraction ratio of 100 percent. This ratio would mean that a small upper class receives the whole national product minus what is needed for working people to survive. ‘In contemporary France … [the inequality extraction ratio] is about 32 percent. In England and Wales in 1759, it was 55 percent. In France in 1788, it was 76 percent, comparable to the Roman Empire in 14 A.D.’
Elster, in a word, offers an inciteful analysis of the power relations of French absolutism and the political attitudes these relations elicited. Since Elster’s focus, clearly conveyed in the title, is ancien régime France, it may seem unfair to criticise the absence of a temporal and spatial analysis of how this regime came into being or how it differed from other early modern states. Yet this absence results from Elster’s intellectual formation. Ellen Meiksins Wood argued – in a 1989 essay on ‘Rational Choice Marxists’, including Jon Elster – that this school of thought describes social forms as already-given, static property relations peopled with rational individuals in possession of endowments and relational attributes. Rational Choice Marxism specifies the context in which rational choices are made. But how this context came into being – and how the conflicts, characteristic of it, shape the evolution of history – is beyond the remit of Rational Choice Marxism. Thus, although Elster’s evidence and argumentation show that the elites of all three estates pursued positions of prestige and power and that they used the positions to appropriate the economic surplus of the realm, he does not show how these social relations related to the feudal past or capitalist future, how they emerged or changed over time. The index does not even contain entries for feudalism, capitalism, or the bourgeoisie.
Henry Heller, by contrast, contends that capitalist exploitation of labour-power became more prevalent, at the expense of feudal rent extraction, over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Heller thus reaffirms Lefebvre’s depiction of a rising bourgeoisie anxious to break open the stifling structures of the ancien régime. Other scholars, such as William Sewell, argue that, although the expansion of manufacturing and commerce did not give rise to a bourgeoisie conscious of itself as a revolutionary class, the growth of commodity production did enlarge the ranks of the wealthy educated classes, lay the basis for a public sphere of intellectual debate, and alter conceptions of social difference from the qualitative to quantitative, from birth to wealth. People’s participation in the logic of the market – in which a person’s value depended on their capital rather than their hereditary rank – nurtured notions of civic equality inimical to privilege and arbitrary government. One finds no trace of these arguments in France Before 1789.
Elster, we have seen, instead focuses on the structure of lordships and offices offering access to prestige, power, and wealth. Yet, because he does not distinguish these structures from what preceded them, he leaves the reader with no way of understanding why elites came to rely on heritable forms of authority. For this historical dimension, one need only consult the Annales School. Guy Fourquin, synthesising this research, showed that serfdom declined, as the pressure and resistance of peasant communities led the lords of Mâconnais, Normandy, Picardy, and all the regions of the West, as well as the Île-de-France, to grant liberty to their dependents in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These enfranchisements consisted of legal documents which detailed fixed annual payments owed by the peasants in lieu of the arbitrary levies previously imposed by the lords. Serfs in other parts of France were tempted to flee to these places of liberty. Villagers across the realm, seeing the proliferation of emancipations, no longer tolerated servile bonds.
Robert Brenner elaborates that, from the twelfth century onward, the lords sought to stem the erosion of their income – as the value of the fixed payments diminished due to inflation – by attracting peasants to schemes of colonisation. The lords enticed peasants to clear and farm new lands with offers of freedom from arbitrary levies and the right to inherit their plots. Other lords in northern France and neighbouring areas had to offer similar advantages to dissuade their dependents from fleeing and joining these colonisation projects.
The feudal regime continued to erode in this way until the emergence of royal authority toward the end of the crisis of the fourteenth century. Royal tribunals asserted their authority relative to the lords’ jurisdictions, but based their judgements on local customs, and thereby enshrined seigneurial law in the jurisprudence. The courts recognised the heritability of peasant tenures yet perpetuated the seigneurial burdens on them. As the peasants reoccupied abandoned lands in the period of reconstruction after the Hundred Years’ War, the lords made periodic surveys to keep a record of rights and verify which parcels belonged to their domains. They carried out these surveys at shorter intervals and with greater precision in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The lords enjoyed the right, acknowledged over a large part of the realm, to claim from their peasants, every twenty or thirty years, the costs incurred in revising the volumes detailing the exactions to which the peasants were liable. The tribunals of emergent absolutism thus authorised innumerable petty encroachments, which accumulated a seigneurial burden on the peasants. The intendants, primarily fiscal agents, kept this feudal reaction in check by protecting rural communities, as sources of royal taxation, from excessive exploitation but, as servants of the crown, respected the seigneurial regime as a mainstay of the state and social order.
By the eighteenth century, France’s resources consisted of fertile and diverse lands, and a large laborious population. The peasants had to make a living as well as pay taxes, seigneurial dues and tithes. They could hope to enlarge their holdings and improve the status of their families. Although they rarely achieved all these goals, their efforts to do so explain France’s wealth and power relative to other monarchies of Europe. Peasants engaged in many varied activities to meet the needs of their families and generate the necessary surplus for taxation. Specialisation was the dangerous exception since cornfields were particularly liable to crop failure. The typical peasant was therefore an amalgam of market gardener, mixed farmer, vine-grower, day labourer, spinner or weaver, blacksmith, or nail-smith, occasionally an innkeeper, and usually a poacher and sometimes a smuggler.
The labouring population, in this way, retained control over the means of subsistence and production. France did not go through a process of primitive accumulation in which unfree peasants and independent producers became free wage workers left with nothing but labour to sell. Since the peasants continued to produce their own food and most of the other goods they needed to survive, money and commodities could not be transformed, through the purchase of labour-power, into capital. To the contrary, the exploitation of the peasants remained within the feudal mode of previous centuries. The emergence of the absolutist state did not entail a struggle for power against the autonomous authority of feudal lords. Over the course of the early modern period, the monarchy expanded its authority, and multiplied the number of venal tribunals, by enforcing the legal customs negotiated during the class conflicts of the feudal era. Although these customs confirmed the heritability of the peasants’ plots of land and fixed their payments to the lords, the customs also confirmed seigneurial jurisdictions and privileges.
Elster analyses the peasants’ resistance to the demands of the state and lords. He draws on his knowledge of political psychology and rational choice theory to show that, although people felt indignation when they observed an injustice targeting another person, this emotion proved weaker than the one triggered by being the actual victim. Observing injustice at a distance could still incite collective action when large groups of observers felt indignation together. Alternatively, when many people suffered together as victims, their responses depended on perceptions of what others would do. People turned out in numbers when they felt sure that they would not be acting alone. Such collective action typically consisted of resistance to the demands of the authorities, or of attacks on property, records, or persons. Insurrections rarely consisted of indiscriminate looting.
Meiksins Wood argued, in her essay on Rational Choice Marxism, that, however illuminating the foregoing mode of analysis may be, it abstracts its subjects from historically specific relations and endows them with choices characteristic of autonomous individuals in a capitalist society. In the case of eighteenth-century France, these relations encompassed the peasant community, the original characteristic of French rural history, which formed the basis of the peasants’ livelihood and conception of justice. The peasants held plots of land in different parts of villages to avoid seeing adverse weather or crop disease wipe out their entire harvest and subsistence. It would have been irrational to expend the time and money required to fence off the strips of land and exclude one another’s farm animals from them. Villagers therefore had common crop rotations and gathered their cattle in a herd with rights to pasture over all the land after the harvest. Common rights formed an even stronger bond than these traditions of collective farming. Households depended on common grazing areas in waste or woodlands even when they had access to meadows and fallow fields. Woodlands also provided timber. Marshes provided peat and rushes. Peasants used the brush on heaths for bedding, and the turves, broom, and bracken for mulches. These terrains also served as a reserve of arable land when the population expanded. The collective resources and grazing rights made smallholders and manual labourers less dependent on hiring themselves out to noble and bourgeois landowners. The intendants, moreover, helped keep the rural community together for the purpose of policing, raising militia men, and collecting taxes.
Elster never acknowledges the existence of the peasant community, even though it had formed the framework of political calculations since at least the year 1000. During the crisis of the feudal economy in the early decades of the fourteenth century, the lords’ encroachments on collective rights to moors and forests, used by the peasants for pasture and additional farmland, sparked bitter, violent uprisings. Unrest hardly abated over the following centuries. Peasants and artisans took part in at least 8,500 rebellions against restrictions on use rights, seigneurial exactions, and above all fiscal officers from 1660 to 1789. The passing of time did not change the violent character of these episodes. The solidarity of the common people remained everywhere the norm.
These rebellions, pitting the peasant community against the authorities, arose out of what Robert Brenner has termed the social-property relations of early modern France. Members of communities perceived that the tax officials and powerholders were the sources of their misery. The monarchy financed a massive structure of offices by increasing taxes on the peasant communities, whose members had established essentially full property rights in the land. Seigneurs maintained relatively restricted access to demesne land and feudal levies on the peasantry, and thus had less ability or interest in resisting the expansion of the absolutist state. The monarchy effectively reorganised much of the aristocratic class within itself by assembling a patrimonial group. Many nobles no doubt asserted particular privileges, such as tax exemptions and the liberties of local estates, against the centralising monarchy. Yet they also saw the absolutist state as a critical source of offices and other forms of privilege supported ultimately by arbitrary taxation.
Pierre Goubert estimated that, under Louis XIV, a tenth of the population, comprising nearly all the nobility, most of the clergy and the whole of the bourgeoisie – the privileged classes, in a word – lived off the revenue scraped from the land by the inhabitants of the countryside and swelled and transformed by their labour and the labour of town workers. The privileged classes received a third of the common people’s surplus by dint of their land managers and sharecroppers, and another third by dint of seigneurial rights: quitrents, as well as the innumerable fees, minor exactions, levies on property sales and so forth. Another means of receiving revenue from the land consisted of pensions, benefices, offices, and governorships bestowed by the king on his favourites and loyal servants.
The bourgeoisie – comprising officials on the road to ennoblement, state pensioners (especially in Paris), elites with a private income, and even some members of trades and manufacturers – took nearly as much revenue from the country as did the nobles. Members of the bourgeoisie owned land, only less than did nobles. They received revenue from loans to the peasants and from positions as the nobles’ land managers. They also gained revenue by belonging to the companies of tax farmers, which granted the king the estimated revenue of his dues and taxes, and then collected an even greater sum from the peasantry. The bourgeoisie thus obtained wealth in the same way as the nobility did. The middle classes aimed to join the second estate.
Of course, the bourgeoisie, despite sharing the same forms of wealth and status as the nobles, led a revolution against them in 1789. Elster offers intriguing insights into how it was possible for the bourgeoisie, as exploiters, to lead a revolution against nobles belonging to the same dominant class. Offices and privileges, Elster explains, formed a cascade of ranks, each one publicly displaying to the ones below that they were beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving of scorn. Since the nobles enjoyed hereditary rights to the top ranks in the monarchy, it was only natural for them to believe in the quality of their biological endowment. New nobles could prove this quality over the course of at least two or three generations. Nobles created a cult of ancestry and old aristocratic names. During the 1500s, the Estates General proved incapable of uniting and imposing regular meetings on the crown because of interminable conflicts over préséance. In 1614, for instance, the nobles reacted furiously to the Third Estate’s claim to be the nobles’ ‘younger brothers’ and thus of the same blood. Meetings of the Estates General degenerated into internecine strife when such issues of vanity and amour-propre were at stake. Contempt for subordinates did not stop at the Third Estate. Town judges looked down on merchants, who did the same to the labouring population. The only way to avoid enduring public displays of contempt was to acknowledge one’s inferiority.
Elster argues that, in relations between the bourgeoisie and nobility, the resentment of contempt had a more powerful impact than did the envy of the nobles’ privileges. The obverse of contempt is shame. When the pain of shame seemed to come from intentional expressions of contempt, the pain turned into anger. ‘The French Revolution became inevitable when the reaction of the members of the third estate to the contempt of the nobles changed from shame to anger’.
However, because Elster ascribes the context for such psychological responses solely to the status relations, rather than the origins and evolution of this context, he offers no explanation as to why it took until 1789 for contempt to cause anger and thereby provoke revolution. Nobles had shown contempt to the Third Estate for centuries. What changed at the end of the 1780s? Perry Anderson offers clues as to why the revolution came about when it did. He pioneered the historiography of absolutism as the consolidation of the feudal order, dislocated by the class struggles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, rather than as a power independent of the bourgeois and noble classes. The paradox of French absolutism, Anderson argued, is that at the moment of its triumph – when the augmented army and authority of the Sun King provided the model for monarchs across Europe – Louis XIV failed to impose himself on the Continent. The reason is that the parliamentary monarchy of England had grown stronger thanks to the country’s capitalist economy and the rationalised state apparatus in the wake of the century of revolution. The War of the Spanish Succession ushered in Britain’s imperial dominance over much of the globe at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Elster presents the contrary logic by which the French state operated. He reasons that absolute rulers could not make credible promises, because they had the patrimonial authority to undo their promises. They thus did not enjoy good credit. Lenders preferred a system which would allow them to withdraw funds at any time. Such a system required that the crown always have a certain amount of cash on hand. But after 1680, the crown’s coffers were always empty. The monarchy repeatedly used various forms of bankruptcy such as the debasement of the currency, the suspension of reimbursements, cuts to interest rates, and the use of the ‘flight forward’ of future revenues to pay for current expenses. Investors had little confidence in royal finances, and the crown had to pay high rates of interest, leaving less revenue for ordinary expenses. The ‘escalation of debts was due in large part to the fact that the kings were unable to make themselves unable to break their promises’.
Again, however, without an explanation of why France developed patrimonial structures of government, and how these structures differed from England’s – where an elected parliament of capitalist landowners underwrote state finances – one has no way of understanding why these weaknesses precipitated a collapse into revolution in 1789. Because of England’s capitalist economy and streamlined state, it sustained the financial strains of warfare better than France did. England not only defeated France in the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763) but also drove Louis XV’s government into precarious financial straits. The American War of Independence (1775 to 1783) hastened the budgetary crisis, which obliged Louis XVI to call the Estates General in 1789. The stage was thus set for the contempt, perennially shown to the largest stratum of the dominant classes – the jurists, office holders, rent and dues collectors of the Third Estate – to cause shame and anger when it became clear that the high clergy and nobility intended to preserve their monopoly over the most lucrative, honorific, and powerful posts in the state. The upper social strata of the Third Estate then put themselves at the head of popular revolts and made a revolution in favour of legal equality and careers open to talent.
To sum up, Elster has drawn on his erudition in political psychology, rational choice theory and Marxism to make France Before 1789 a rich book, which depicts a patrimonial monarchy in vivid detail. Elster shows not only that the king’s possession of sovereign power allowed him to punish recalcitrant elites, but also that these elites’ possession of offices and seigneurial domains allowed them to impose themselves on common subjects. Indeed, the possession of seigneurial justice demonstrated the lords’ place in the governmental hierarchy and distinguished them from the rest of the population. The lords, clergy, and monarchy, Elster maintains, imposed an extraordinarily high rate of exploitation, leaving the peasants with only about a quarter of their harvests.
The patrimonial essence of the monarchy, however, made it difficult for the kings to execute edicts. Elites possessed offices and lordships as property and could refuse to enforce policies. The kings’ ownership of supreme power also weakened the financial system. The monarchy did not contend with a chamber representative of the landed classes, which might guarantee government assets and impart confidence in state finances. Kings could plunder treasuries and break monetary contracts. Investors had little confidence in royal finances, and kings had to pay ruinous rates of interest.
France Before 1789 portrays, moreover, the bitterness, which accumulated within and below this hierarchy of powers and ranks. Each possessor of authority, from the king down to rural judges, showed contempt to subordinates. Elster convincingly argues that the resentment of contempt motivated royal subjects more than did the jealousy of privileges. Face-to-face contempt left deeper marks than did envy at a distance. This contempt bred shame and then, in the 1780s, the anger that exploded in the Revolution at the end of the decade.
One does not learn from France Before 1789 how the ancien régime came into being. Elster’s mode of analysis posits the hierarchy of offices and seigneuries as a given and then proceeds to describe the social relations and psychological effects of this governmental system. The origins of the social relations and where the conflicts, which the social relations made possible, might lead is absent from the book.
Elster, for instance, entertains the possibility that the peasants could have used their resources to invest in cattle or put new land under cultivation. He argues that they often refrained from doing so because of the possibility of new taxes appropriating the potential gains. Such reasoning, however, assumes individuals who choose rationally between various courses of action, as if within a capitalist society. Their horizontal relations, which shaped the peasants’ economic calculations, are missing. Their resources, to be exact, comprised structural relations making the resources relevant. In particular, the peasant community maintained the subsistence plots and use rights.
The peasant community, moreover, made possible the class struggles anterior to the ancien régime monarchy, struggles that ultimately brought it into being. Thanks to the strength of peasant communities, the rural population forced the lords to offer enfranchisements in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Peasants thus asserted control over the lands from which they saw to their subsistence. This prior history put pressure on the lords, over the following centuries, to build their own political community – the monarchy’s hierarchy of powers, which Elster describes so well – capable of defending the nobles’ lands, seigneurial rights, and state fiscal levies on the peasant community.
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 Engels 1990, p. 271.
 Lefebvre 1988, pp. 1–2, 16, 36, 45, 47, 49, 86, 217.
 Beik 1985, p. 29. See also pages 13 and 219.
 Lüthy 1998, pp. 12, 15–16, 19–20.
 Blaufarb 2016, pp. 4, 8–9.
 Elster 2020, p. 63.
 Meiksins Wood 1989, pp. 74–5.
 Heller 2015; Heller 2009; Heller 2006; Jones 2003; Sewell 2010; Sewell 2014.
 Fourquin 1975, pp. 542–4, 556, 564–5.
 Brenner 1996, p. 254.
 Bloch 1966, pp. 128–34.
 Goubert 1970, p. 34.
 Anderson 1979, pp. 17–18; Parker 1996, pp. 14, 27.
 Meiksins Wood 1989, p. 48.
 Meuvret 1987, pp. 10, 12–13, 29–30, 35, 37; Jones 2016, pp. 92–3; Bloch 1966, pp. 164, 175, 180–1, 220–1, 229.
 Fourquin 1975, pp. 626, 628–9; Bloch 1966, pp. 39–41, 44–5, 47, 164, 175, 185–6, 227–9; Nicolas 2002, pp. 29, 56, 76–7, 156, 158, 181.
 Brenner 2003, pp. 654, 659, n. 20; Parker 1996, pp. 99–101, 112.
 Goubert 1970, pp. 46–7.
 Goubert 1970, pp. 46–8.
 Elster 2020, p. 232.
 Anderson 1979, pp. 105–6.
 Elster 2020, p. 230.
 Miller 2020; Comninel 1987; Meiksins Wood 2016, p. 12.