France before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime by Jon Elster

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

In his book, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (1856) Alexis de Tocqueville  claimed that the French Revolution (1789–1799) was never intended to change the whole nature of traditional society. It was not interested in tearing down all forms of the ancien régime or in creating a state of permanent disorder. He argued a theory of continuity, not of disruption. The revolution was essentially a movement for political and social reform. There was an increase in neither the power nor the jurisdiction of the central authority. Instead, control was transferred in quick succession first to the people themselves and from there to a powerful autocracy.

The revolution set out to replace feudalism with a new social and political order, based on the concepts of freedom and equality, and to bring about the complete dissociation between French social classes, the Estates. There was no suggestion of force. Since feudal times, ancestral estates had been left in the hands of caretakers as their owners flocked to the power centre around the king. A result was that the nobility and church hierarchy lost connection with the common poor while the growing middle class emulated the nobility. In Tocqueville’s view, this situation was a breeding ground for revolution.

De Tocqueville’s interest was always in trying to understand the ancient regime. His broad and general analyses grew out of his intuitive knowledge of eighteenth-century France. He described this tumultuous era in terms of individual and group psychology and the functioning of institutions.

Elster’s focus is more specific. He is interested in France’s National Constituent Assembly of 1789 and matters pertaining to it. “I focused on aspects of the pre-constitutional systems that would prove relevant for the understanding of the constitution-making processes, while ignoring some aspects that would normally have their place in a free-standing monograph” (ix). Elster explains that, in his book, weights given to elements of the ancien régime will be shaped by their relevance to constitution-making. He identifies, specifically, the rural and urban conflicts that set constitution-making into effect. His source material is broadly based and of impeccable value.

When the term ancien régime is used, most people with some historical knowledge know it refers to the time before the French Revolution and very little more. Elster’s initial chapter describes at great length and in solid depth the nature of this eighteenth-century phenomenon. Valuable footnotes are appended as necessary. This chapter concludes with a provocative question that asks whether the regime might have survived if Louis XVI had not resurrected the parlements in 1774.

Chapter Two reminds readers that Elster’s interest is in social and political psychology as well as institutional analysis (ix). “In this chapter and the following, I consider the mental precursors and causes of action – motivations and beliefs – of the main categories of agents in the ancien régime” (32). These are huge chapters in excess of one hundred pages in length, a sure indicator of Elster’s prime focus.  Such a heavy focus calls out for closer review and reveals what Elster believes is a new approach to history writing, one that supplements the historian’s craft with the tools and insights of modern social science. The statement in the advertising materials that “Elster draws on important French and Anglo-American scholarship as well as a treasure trove of historical evidence from the period, such as the Memoirs of Saint-Simon, the letters of Madame de Sévigné, the journals of the lawyer Barbier and the bookseller Hardy, the Remonstrances of Malesherbes, and La Bruyère’s maxims” (website Princeton University Press) is confirmed.

Chapters Two and Three were devoted to the psychology of ordinary citizens. Chapter Four considers the psychology of absolute power i.e. of the monarchs. “I argue that the psychology of the kings was in a sense self-defeating” (139). They searched for glory, their power was subject to unwritten constitutional laws, and they led Court officials who could not be relied on. This is a chapter of about fifty pages. Chapter Five identifies something that is often overlooked – that genuinely representative groups existed under the ancien régime. Chapter Six (the Conclusion) addresses themes that have been noticed in the text but not addressed by the author. Chapter Six highlights these and includes a full discussion. Of particular interest is an evaluation of sorts of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings.

This is a book of scholarship, of immense interest, and of value to a wide audience.

France before 1789: the Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime


By Jon Elster

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-14981-3

$US34.00; 280 pp

Scroll to Top