Name: Georges Lefebvre
Profession(s): Academic, historian
Books: Classes and Class Struggles during the French Revolution (1953), The Parisian Sans-Culottes and the French Revolution (1964), The Sans Culottes: the Popular Movement and Revolutionary Government (1972), The French Revolution 1787-1799 (1975), A Short History of the French Revolution (1977).
Georges Lefebvre (pronounced ler-fev-eh) was one of France’s leading historians of the revolution, best known for coining the phrase “history from below” and developing the theory of a four-phase revolution.
Born in Lille near the Belgian border, Lefebvre’s working-class background meant he relied on local public schools for his education. As a consequence, the young Lefebvre studied science, mathematics and languages rather than classical studies like history and philosophy.
During his university studies, Lefebvre became interested in medieval British history, particularly the tension and relationship between classes.
By his early 30s, Lefebvre had developed an interest in the French Revolution, particularly how it unfolded in rural areas. In 1924, Lefebvre completed a history doctorate, his thesis specialising in the effects of the revolution on peasant populations.
In 1939, Lefebvre wrote The Coming of the French Revolution, a close study of revolutionary causes and the events leading up to 1789. In this work, Lefebvre breaks down the French Revolution into four phases or “acts”: the ‘Aristocratic Revolution’ of 1787-88, the ‘Bourgeois Revolution’ of 1789-91, the ‘Urban Revolution’ in Paris and the ‘Peasant Revolution’ in the countryside. Each of these movements, Lefebvre claims, contained a diversity of players, causes, motives and methods; they were not unified and their interests and aims were often contradictory.
Though it was written for students and the general public more than academics, The Coming of the French Revolution became arguably the 20th century’s most influential text about the causes of the revolution. Other studies followed, including examinations of the sans-culottes and political radicalism in Paris.
Lefebvre was an avowed Marxist and most of his writings showed a left-wing fascination with class and class interests. He was not as rigidly Marxist as some of his other contemporaries, however, nor was he afraid to break the mould and draw historical understanding from beyond economic factors.
By the time of his death in 1959, Lefebvre was acclaimed as the world’s foremost authority on the French Revolution.
“The ultimate cause of the French Revolution of 1789 goes deep into the history of France and of the western world. At the end of the 18th century the social structure of France was aristocratic. It showed traces of having originated at a time when land was almost the only form of wealth… Meanwhile, the growth of commerce and industry had created, step by step, a new form of wealth and a new class, called the bourgeoisie.”
“The revolution was the culmination of a long social and economic development which… made the bourgeoisie the masters of the world.”
“The revolution of 1789 restored the harmony between fact and law. This transformation spread in the 19th century throughout the west, and then to the entire globe.”