The Persistence of the Old Regime
In the Introduction to The Persistence of the Old Regime, Mayer gives three premises upon which his study was based. His major premise is that historians have overemphasized the forces of industrialism, cultural modernism, liberalism, and the rise of the middle class in their analyses of European history during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This, Mayer thinks, distorts the realities of European society in that era. He proposes, therefore, to counteract that widespread distortion of interpretation by showing that the preindustrial, premodern, nonliberal elements of European society were not decaying during the nineteenth century but were still vital, persistent, and indeed, still constituted the very essence and foundation of the political and civil structure of the major states of Europe. A second premise Mayer postulates is that the Great War of 1914-1918 was largely a result of the “remobilization” of Europe’s ruling classes: a culminating expression of their ancient feudal standards and their way of life. Mayer’s third premise is that World War II should be considered as an outgrowth or continuation of World War I. After 1919, the ruling classes had again recovered sufficiently to try to “resist the course of history” by aggravating the economic crisis of the 1920’s and 1930’s, sponsoring Fascism, and thus contributing to the new outbreak of war in 1939.
Mayer frankly states that he is not attempting to offer a balanced interpretation of European history between 1848 and 1914. It is his purpose to counteract the chronic overstatements of liberal historians concerning the putative decline of the old regime, and so he concentrates on the continuing strengths and pervasiveness of the ruling classes, even at the risk of skewing historic reality in the opposite direction. Furthermore, he reveals his own ideological orientation when he declares in the Preface: “I conceive of this book as a Marxist history from the top down, not the bottom up, with the focus on the upper rather than the lower classes.”
The foundations of the Old Regime were laid in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, but it was suffused with elements of feudalism which went back to a much earlier era. Economically, the Old Regime was based on land and peasant labor dominated by hereditary and privileged noble landholders. Monarchy was the standard form of government of the Old Regime. The hereditary monarchs ruled with varying degrees of absolutism while utilizing and depending on the support and services of the landed nobilities. Religious institutions formed a third major component of the Old Regime. Rooted in landholding, closely tied to the crown and the landed nobilities, and preserving much of their feudal legacy, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox institutionalized churches served as pillars of the Old Regime.
Historians have customarily regarded the eighteenth century as marking the height of the Old Regime, and seen its downfall as dating from August, 1789, when the nobility of France voluntarily surrendered their feudal rights and privileges. Equally well known to historians is the resurgence of the Old Regime in the midyears of the nineteenth century, but that resurgence has been of less interest to most historians than the gains made by the forces of progress and change.
From his reading of nineteenth century history, Mayer seeks to show that by the mid-nineteenth century, the European aristocracy had regained its dominance over the military forces and the bureaucracies in the nations of Europe, and had again infused those services with the time-honored precepts, protocols, and standards of the noble classes. The nobles had also regained their lands, their wealth, and social status in the nations of Europe.
There were, to be sure, variations in the resurgence of the aristocracy from nation to nation: greater east of the Elbe, less in Western Europe. Even in England, however, where supposedly the bourgeoisie were ascendent, Mayer finds that the aristocracy were, in truth, the ruling class, right up to 1914. He admits that the English House of Commons, elected by an expanding male franchise in the later nineteenth century, did increasingly impose limitations on the monarchy, and that the economy of England was steadily industrialized with commensurate growth of the power and influence of the middle classes, but still the English aristocracy retained much of its traditional authority. The English continued to “love a lord” and to show respect and deference to the nobility. There was, Mayer concludes, never any movement in England to remove those feudal elements of the Old Regime: the crown, the royal courts, the House of Lords, or the public service nobility. Those continued to dominate much of political life, and the landed interest remained strong in the economic life of England.
Furthermore, an “active symbiosis” of the nobility and the bourgeoisie evolved. The bourgeoisie adopted the cultural norms, the symbols, traditions, and customs of the old elites. The middle class built...
(The entire section is 2077 words.)