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The Path Not Taken: French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution Review

Updated on March 24, 2021

France, as Jeff Horn points out in his work The Path not Taken: French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution 1750-1830, has not benefited from a positive historical memory of its economic development at the turn of the 19th century, as scholars have praised the development of England's industrial revolution and roundly critiqued the French economy of the period. Horn's work seeks to lay out a more nuanced understanding, showing why the French economy developed in different ways as compared to the English economy, and seeking to understand French economic growth in its own rationality and logic, rather than simply an aberration from England's. It bases its theory on labor militancy in France, holding that the French were unable to follow a liberal laissez faire economy (although the English economy was, as Horn points out, very far from this ideal itself) based on mechanizing production like across the Channel due to the increased threat of labor militancy, with machine breaking and the Revolution in France.

Chapter 1, "Divergence, Convergence, and the French Path to Industrial Development after 1750"

The French have been castigated in Anglo-Saxon - and sometimes French as well - historiography for having been slower to industrialize, and industrializing less efficiently, and thus grosso mundo having industrialized wrongly while the English industrialized rightly. Horn contests this, pointing out that at the end of the long 19th century, in 1914, the French had grown at comparatively around the same rate as the British, so that their standard of living and economic level was around that of England's, and that the characterization of British industrialization as the only path to follow and French institutions as backward in comparison is dangerously anglo-centric. The French by contrast pursued their own industrial path due to differing circumstances in France - which Horn terms the "threat from below" with the increased danger of working class rebellion and revolt in France.

The smashing of machines may be most famous in England, as shown here in this illustration of the Luddites, but it happened in France too.
The smashing of machines may be most famous in England, as shown here in this illustration of the Luddites, but it happened in France too.

Chapter 2, "A Brave New World of Work: The Reform of the Corporations and the Lettre-Patentes of May 1779

The French economy of the late ancien régime was significantly influenced by corporations which were established representatives of certain production sectors, managing and controlling their production and organization. Reforming this to create a more free market without these interest groups was an important objective of French policy makers, such as Turgot or Necker: they wished to both constrain French worker's mobility and independent agency, and simultaneously to empower French capitalists. These measures were not universally successful although some were greeted positively, as corporations resisted and workers had mixed reactions to reforms. Distrust and suspicion of workers prevented them from receiving much autonomy, and French reforms generally failed to conclusively end either the fragmentation of the French internal market or to get rid of corporations until the Revolution.

Chapter 3, Foreign Policy as Industrial Policy: The Anglo-French Commercial Treaty of 1786

Although the French were aware that the English were making important strides industrially, and were in some areas forging ahead of them, they were far from resigned to being out-competed. They were convinced that the British state had an effective mix of commercial policies that were state-supported to encourage industrial expansion. thus as strange as it may seem, one of their proposals to match England economically was to encourage free trade to strengthen economic ties and gain access to British technology, leading to the signature of a new trade treaty, the Eden Treaty, in 1786. Although roundly critiqued after the fact for being negative economically for France, Horn insists that the French actually prospered in quite a few economic sectors and this has been forgotten due to the difficulties experienced by a few flagship economic areas like textiles, and its political effects over-exaggerated due to the outbreak of the revolution in just a few more years. In fact the French took effective policy actions to introduce the new free trade regime and to control what negative effects there were, and to encourage French industry to modernize to meet the English challenge. Although the French certainly faced a stiff test, the French state was determined to meet the English head on and had a coherent ideology about how to do so.

Chapter 4, The Other "Great Fear": Labor Relations, Industrialization, and Revolution

The most crucial and important argument that Horn advances is his belief that labor turmoil and revolt, particularly machine breaking, during the 1790s in France resulted in a dramatic alteration to the French economy, as French employers were unable to follow the mechanization approach which happened in England. The English working class had been much more restive than the French one, but this reversed during the French Revolution, when machine breaking occurred across much of Northern France and the French state was unable to respond with the heavy repressive hand that the English state exercised, due to being caught up in revolution - despite the initial violent response during the Réveillon Riots in 1789. Although the machine breaking dropped off afterwards, and French workers directed their ire more against the state and capitalist structures rather than the machines, the legacy of industrial discontent and militancy served to force French employers to undertake different strategies than those found in England.

The French Revolution had to face the challenges of internal revolt, economic blockade and collapse, and foreign invasion, and implemented a sweeping command economy to channel its resources in response.
The French Revolution had to face the challenges of internal revolt, economic blockade and collapse, and foreign invasion, and implemented a sweeping command economy to channel its resources in response.

Chapter 5 La Patrie en danger: Industrial Policy in the Year II

During the crisis of 1792 and the years following, the French faced the simultaneous threat of foreign invasion, internal economic collapse, and revolt, and answered with an unprecedented degree of government economic involvement to produce a state-directed economy to survive. A combination of state-mandated prices and massive conscription of labor for the army and the war effort, including transforming Paris into a major arsenal for arms production. These programs were not only ambitious, albeit economically questionable, but also involved major experiments in enforcing labor discipline on workers in the name of national defense. Although Paris' economic mobilization was run down when the crisis passed and returned to the provinces and were privatized, the Revolution also attempted to improve production through dispersing scientific information and education, and the capture of new territories added to France's industrial production. Public opposition to foreigners and defense of traditional production methods served to blunt the helpfulness of these projects. Special agents of the Republic were responsible for enforcing the state-directed economy on the ground, such as Pointe, and who continued to exercise mediating roles as the planned economy was unwound.

The French inventor and statesman Jean Antoine Chaptal
The French inventor and statesman Jean Antoine Chaptal

Chapter 6: From Allard to Chaptal: The Search for an Institutional Formula for French Industrialization, 1789-1804

France would abandon both the laissez-faire approach of the early French Revolution, and the state planned economy of the crisis of 1792-1795, and develop a hybrid approach emphasizing individualism, private initiative, free markets, and yet an activist and interventionist state. This would encourage French productivity to compete with Britain's, through the expansion of knowledge and innovation. This led to the establishment of industrial expositions to encourage knowledge being spread, and to focus French energy on the commercial war against Britain. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, a famous French scientist, would become the penultimate exponent of this, spearheading a major expansion of the French educational and training system, and establishing a host of various Chambers of Commerce and departmental councils to encourage economic development. He also oversaw government involvement in the labor market, with labor placement bureaux and arbitration boards:

Chapter 7: Facing Up to English Industrial Dominance: Industrial Policy from the Empire to the July Revolution, 1805-1830

Chaptal's fall from power and Napoleon's rise to the throne led to the French to adopt a more mercantile, rather than state-guided free market approach that was tried under Chaptal. Napoleon's plans were for a French economic domination of Europe, although this was handicapped by the focus on luxury goods - partially a necessity since transport costs were prohibitive due to the English command of the sea. The Continental System involved massive government involvement in commercial activities, a reduction in competition which resulted in economic stagnation, and a French self-blockade which distorted market prices. Nevertheless, the French did make major industrial advances, particularly in cotton, even if they did not catch up to Britain - but not in a way which provided for organic technological improvement. The Continental System did harm Britain, but not enough to drive it to the peace table, particularly when Napoleon himself began to modify it to allow trade, while Napoleon's poor economic management and anti-smuggling policies led to further economic crises.

The collapse of Napoleon's empire led to a return to Chaptal's policies, which succeeded in enabling continued French economic growth, based on a focus on niche markets and luxury goods - a necessity given the difficulties of competition with England, limited overseas markets, and difficult transportation. The French government would support this with infrastructure development, capital accumulation, and education.

Chapter 8: Conditions and Competition: Entrepreneurs and Workers React to the New Industrial Environment

Workers and entrepreneurs both adopted strategies to attempt to ensure their material prosperity, with both establishing confederations and mutual organizations to protect themselves - despite state interdiction of any economic combinations and prescription of individualism. Worker organizations continued to have much control over the hiring and firing of journeyman and over working conditions. These organizations helped them to resist French business owners, who would often cut wages to ensure international competitiveness. Business owners meanwhile sought to reduce competition and develop the old corporations, to control worker labor through tighter supervision, and prevent excessive technical innovation threatening their established interests. Furthermore, smuggling, poor quality goods, and cheating were all used to keep profits up, or were lamented as being practiced by workers. The government introduced, or more properly, reintroduced, regulations and quality verification from the days of the Ancien régime to counter fraud, the employer's side of the incidences of theft common among workers. And smuggling represented a vital way to continue economic viability for enterprises despite high tariffs and the Continental System.

Chapter 9: Chaptal's Influence in a Niche Industry

Under the Bourbons, the state continued to invest in economic infrastructure and development, to continue an uneven economic growth which had been heavily disrupted by war, revolution, and worker militancy. Troyes is a good example of success, with mechanization being able to proceed thanks to strong local troops presence, advances in education, and innovation in textiles. Just like before, the disorder of central government authority led to machine smashing in 1848, with an effort to restore order coming in the form of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. Troyes demonstrates the different paths and necessities forced upon the French, and how they developed differently from other countries.

French economic history seems to have enjoyed an important resurgence after a long time when the principal focus was explaining why the French economy was worse than the English economy, and Jeff Horn's book is a welcome sign of the change. It shows that the French economic route was simply not following in England's footsteps ineptly, but rather that the French had their own route to development and their own economic successes, and that their development was a rational one.

The periodicization of the book allows a useful idea of how French industry expanded, in particular with relation to different ideologies - such as the seeming continuation of pre-war liberalism in the Chapel administration, or the explosion of central economic planning and the lack of competition which led to industrial technological stagnation under Napoleon. In this it shows that France was not a monolithic state and that its economic structures and outlooks varied over time - beyond just the Revolutionary Decade and its state command economy. However, while Horn insists that the Revolution's state economic structure during l'An II, 1792, demonstrated that it could produce war production and industrial development at a level which could challenge even the English model, it seems overly positive: after all the principal example, Paris, may have succeeded in producing armaments for the war effort, but it was at much greater production costs than in traditional armament manufacturing sectors. Horn becomes bogged down in minutiae about industrial policy but doesn't include enough about the long term impact, results, and what might have happened with a continuation of this policy to understand the negatives and limitations of the policy and to seriously make a case for it as a realistic alternative to a return to the state-influenced but fundamentally private economy that developed under Chaptal.

A key feature of the book is the proposition that the course of French economic history was shifted by the "threat from below", where the French revolution meant that French entrepreneurs were unable to follow the English model of industrialization. This is however, I feel not sufficiently expanded on and backed up - the book repeatedly notes that French industrialists made what for us appear as exceptionally social-disorder inducing decisions, such as cutting wages to ensure economic competitiveness. There could have been greater focus on what exactly was changed - it seems to be vaguely that the French had a reduced security for their investment environment above all else, but this should have been put down in concrete terms. Proposing that the French industrialists avoided mechanization due to the social impact and instead focused on cutting wages seems like quite the strange proposition!

Unlike many books on economic matters, The Path Not Taken lacks in statistics and tables - statistics are referred to occasionally throughout the book, but these are scattered and intermittent. Tables are found only in regards to English foreign trade. Of course, doubtless other books are around with more firm statistics, but tables could have backed up the author's arguments. The book seems more like a general picture and idea rather than tableau of production.

At times, it can become dragged down in minutiae of small individual projects and efforts. While plentiful detail is appreciated of course, in the middle of the book in the later 1790s and early 1800s it can move very slowly and deals to excess with inconsequential matters for productivity improvements in certain industries. While I suppose that this is useful to show the efforts to improve French industry in certain areas, they could have been covered much faster for little loss of content.

Quite a number of things could have been improved in Horn's book to give a more holistic look at the French economy in the period he chose to study, but his outlook is still a refreshing one. There are few books which give such a useful and broad-minded look at French economic development in the critical 1750-1830 period. French Industrialization in the Age of Revolution is (for an economic work at least) highly readable (except for the middle part in the early Revolutionary period which is dragged down by excessive small details), which is attractive in painting the French economy in terms other than merely being surpassed by Great Britain, and which well shows the hopes, and ambitions, of French economic thought and experts. Furthermore it combines together well political and economic elements of the period, with how the other interacted - such as the effect of the Terror on economic policy in France, both before and after, and the link between mercantilism and economic theory and development in France. French labor and labor militancy receive starring roles. Other books better cover purely statistical and the state of French economic development, but Horn's work does a good job and is excellent in showing how the French economy changed - and why it changed. This makes it an exceptionally useful volume for understanding the general sweep of French economic history, and understanding why the French economy developed the way it did during the early industrial era.

4 stars for The Path not Taken

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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