Profession(s): Academic, historian
Books: Historians and the Causes of the French Revolution (1946), The Debate on the French Revolution (1950), The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1964), A History of Modern France (1965), Aspects of the French Revolution (1968).
Alfred Cobban was a British historian and academic who specialised in the history of modern France. Born in London, Cobban was educated in private schools before completing a degree at Cambridge. He became professor of French history at University College, London and was also a visiting professor at Harvard. He also edited some prominent history journals and magazines. Cobban wrote prolifically about the revolution during the 1950s and 1960s. His best known texts included The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1964) and A History of Modern France 1963). Cobban’s histories have a strong focus on social aspects of the revolution, particularly popular movements and the involvement of ordinary people. In Cobban’s view the French Revolution was chiefly a political revolution. It did not significantly alter France’s modes of production, its social classes, social mobility or standards of living. Those things would not radically change, Cobban argued, until the rapid industrialisation in the second half of the 1800s. This position put Cobban at odds with Marxist interpretations of the revolution that prevailed in the middle of the 1900s.
“The Anglo-Saxon revolutions had been directed against absolutism on behalf of a bourgeois-aristocratic alliance… The real mission of the [French] Revolution was to be the revolution of equality.”
“Historians are generally agreed that the [French] Revolution was a bourgeois revolution… There is a general assumption that the 18th century witnessed the rise of the middle classes in France as a whole.”
“The questions that need to be ask can be put in specific terms. Did the revolution promote a policy of freedom of trade and industry? Did it liberate or in any way change the role of finance? What was its influence on the commerce and the industry of France?”