what leads to revolutions? what did it look like for France?

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detroitted eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The question asks what leads to revolutions and what did “it” look like for France? Restated, this asks how those factors played out in leading up to the French Revolution. 

In a very generic sense, revolutions occur when the governed feel that their expectations for government cannot be met through the established mechanisms of that government. All governmental systems (even dictatorial/despotic ones) have mechanisms for conveying popular desires to those in power, and for determining which of those desires will be addressed and to what extent. That being said then, the transition from social stability to revolution typically occurs when expectations change and the established governmental mechanisms prove unable or unwilling to adapt to those new expectations. 

The change in expectations can come from many directions, and often more than one force is at work. Economic change often leads to changing views about proper political structure. In the case of the French Revolution, the key causes can be analyzed as follows: 

  1. The control of substantial economic productive capacity by an expanding middle class (bourgeoisie) which was not matched by control over policies affecting that production capacity (most importantly taxation).

  2. The allocation of important institutional roles (military, clergy, senior bureaucratic) through birth and connection rather than a clear meritocracy.

  3. The rise of enlightenment political thought regarding the role of reason rather than divinity in determining the proper course of human affairs.

  4. The failure of the existing structure to provide for basic human needs when food production faltered.


Looking at these factors, one can see economic power shifting to those without political power, coupled with changes in political thought which taught that reason (accessible to all) should drive political decisions rather than divine right (as reflected in birth circumstances). When the existing system proved unable to meet basic needs, but recourse for those whom it failed was not available, the stage was set for rebellion.

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