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

Author(s):Horn, Jeff
Reviewer(s):Johnson, Noel D.

Published by EH.NET (May 2007)

Jeff Horn, The Path Not Taken: French Industrialization and in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. ix + 383 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-262-08352-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Noel D. Johnson, Department of Economics, Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The subject of Jeff Horn’s well researched new book is the Path Not Taken by France into the industrial world. In nine exhaustive chapters Horn, an associate professor at Manhattan College, argues his thesis: that far from being an incompetent imitator of the “British” model of industrial success, France pursued its own path to industrialization. For Horn, the defining event that led to the unique French path was the Revolution and the “threat from below” that it magnified. The credible threat of popular violence in France resulted in the government being unable to repress working class opposition to liberal economic reforms and technological innovation as the British did. As a result, industrialization in France proceeded along a path characterized by greater state intervention in the economy, mediating between the interests of labor and capital. The book will appeal most to a specialist audience already somewhat familiar with the France vs. Britain “retardation-stagnation,” “revisionist,” and finally, “anti-revisionist” debate. Horn, a “revisionist,” takes the refreshing approach of avoiding discussion of the macroeconomic variables which are the bread and butter of these arguments. Instead, his important contribution is to focus on the relationship between politics and industrial policy. The book makes a fundamental contribution by placing the political events of the Revolution at the center of the explanation for the divergent paths of British and French industrialization.

Horn’s argument can be usefully separated into three parts: The path of French industrialization at the end of the Old Regime, the impact of the Revolution on this path, and finally, the lasting impact of the Revolution on industrial policy in the following decades. After framing the argument, he launches into a discussion of industrial policy before the Revolution. In Chapter 2 on the attempted reforms of the corporations Horn argues that the Bourbon government was aware of what was going on across the Channel. Far from being tied to traditional methods of production, ministers actively attempted to introduce reforms that emulated what they perceived to be British industrial policy. Horn rightly points out that the French perception of British free markets efficiently allocating resources, ? la the Wealth of Nations, was off target. The discussion of the gradual chipping away of privilege begun by Turgot in 1776 and never quite completed until 1791 is a welcome contribution to a subject often glossed over by economic historians. It is clear that the French Monarchy wanted to steer the state in a different direction, what requires greater understanding is what forces prevented it from making the turn. Horn argues vehemently that the government’s attempts to eliminate corporate privilege foundered because of resistance by entrepreneurs who were fearful of what workers would do if new technology (Horn focuses on machinery) was introduced into the workshop. This emphasis on French fear of a “threat from below” is a major theme of the book, but it seems one-sided in this context. Surely, the state was constrained by both labor and capital during eighteenth century? Research by John Bosher, David Bien, and Hilton Root, among many others, has made clear the connection between privilege and the finances of the Bourbon Monarchy. Is it reasonable to think that the only reason these privileged corps feared change was because of a threat of popular violence? Perhaps they also simply wanted to protect their rents?

Chapter 3 on the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty of 1786 also does an effective job at arguing for the active role of bureaucrats, inventors, and some entrepreneurs in trying to steer France towards a more “British” industrial policy. This is useful ammunition against those who would claim that the French were hamstrung by a preference for “traditional” modes of production. The vigor with which the French pursued the Commercial Treaty, and the attempts by the government to enforce its provisions, constitute excellent evidence to this effect. Nonetheless, Horn at times confuses the desires of certain Old Regime players to introduce liberalizing reforms with the effectiveness of these attempts. For example, Horn discusses the views of John Holker, the inspecteur g?n?ral des Manufactures ?trang?res, concerning the possibilities of mechanizing spinning in Normandy. Holker’s views on eliminating regulations that blocked the introduction of new methods are excellent evidence of the desire for reform in France. However, Holker’s suggestion that the lack of fast-running streams to provide power could be made up for by “fast moving horses” seems to epitomize the problem facing French policy makers trying to allocate resources without the benefit of British style institutions. Horn’s conclusion on page 87 that the “British model” of industrialization was off to a “promising” start in France before the Revolution seems to ignore the very constraints he so carefully elucidates in the previous seventy pages.

In Chapter 4 Horn discusses labor militancy and machine breaking in Britain and France in detail. His evidence on labor uprisings in both countries is compelling. One of the main differences between the two movements was that, while labor militancy was more pronounced in Britain up to 1789, the Revolution cast French machine breaking in an understandably more radical light. The key question posed by this evidence is, “Why was there no revolution in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century?” Again, Horn’s single-minded pursuit of the thesis that the “threat from below” was the source of the divergent path of the French state prevents him from attacking the question of why this threat existed in France and not in Britain. His evidence suggests that labor militancy was worse in eighteenth century Britain than in France, requiring “massive repression” of the working class by the English state. If England and France were on similar paths during the years leading up to the Revolution, why was the English state capable of quelling rebellion, whereas the French state seemed to cave in? There must be more to the story than labor.

Chapter 5 and 6 explicitly deal with the impact of the Revolution on industrial policy. The institutions which Bourbon ministers had been trying to reform since Turgot were finally disassembled by the Revolutionaries. The Allard law suppressing corporations and the Le Chapelier law forbidding coalitions were both passed in 1791. With these vestiges gone, the path was finally open for the government to follow the British path to industrial success. However, the crisis years of 1793-1795 instead compelled the government to impose a command economy in order ensure that food and armaments were available to defeat the First Coalition. In the long run, this state of affairs could not persist and by 1800 a middle path between the government intervention of 1793-1795 and the more “liberal” policies of the British was being laid by ministers such as Jean-Antoine Chaptal. Chaptal and others recognized that French entrepreneurs possessed the industrial technology to compete with the British, however, they also recognized that existing institutions did not create the incentives to use this technology. Horn’s discussion of carding technology is very helpful in illustrating this point. To make the classical distinction, given the institutions that were inherited from the more radical phases of the Revolution, in 1800 the French had the inventions they needed to compete, but not the incentives to innovate. Chaptal and others attempted to fill this void by actively promoting technology through specialized schools, prizes, tax free enterprise zones, protective tariffs, and industrial expositions.

Horn’s discussion in Chapters 7, 8, and 9 on the influence of the “Chaptalian Compromise” between state intervention and Laissez Faire is a valuable contribution. He correctly points out that it would be unreasonable to think that the French would want to compete directly with the British in aftermath of the Revolution. There was a role for the state to play in getting French industry back on its feet. Horn’s discussion of the extent of smuggling during the years of the Continental System and after is, as he states, evidence that entrepreneurs resisted the intervention of the state. His interpretation of this widespread smuggling as evidence that industrialization does not always proceed under the rules of laissez faire is interesting. Though, I wonder whether the correct counterfactual should be, “Would France have industrialized more quickly under a different set of rules?” Horn, presumably, would answer this question in the negative, pointing to the ever-present “threat from below” that made it impossible to impose discipline on the workforce without significant government intervention. Again, though, I am not satisfied by the emphasis on labor. Horn’s own discussion of the abandonment of Napoleon’s liberal labor policies is instructive. We are told that, “… workers increasingly left employers who imposed or enforced the high degree of industrial discipline deemed necessary to maximize the efficiency of production” (p. 204). However, at the same time, “… many entrepreneurs pressed to find competent and disciplined laborers, simply stole them from others with promises of higher wages and better conditions” (p. 204). Sounds like a well-functioning market that is redistributing surplus from capital to labor. Unsurprisingly, “… vociferous complaints from entrepreneurs all over France prompted the government to intervene in the name of international competitiveness” (p. 204). The government responded to complaints from entrepreneurs by reintroducing restrictions on labor mobility and wages. This sounds remarkably like a “threat from above” rather than a threat from below. It is entirely possible that labor would have been a lot less threatening if entrepreneurs did not collude with the state to keep their wages low.

The Path Not Taken fills an important void in research on French industrialization. Jeff Horn is to be congratulated for tackling a question often avoided by researchers, the relationship between political change and economic growth. While I have reservations concerning some of his conclusions, the story Horn outlines is compelling. Hopefully, this book will set a precedent and more researchers will find the courage to incorporate the Revolution, along with its formidably complex political history, into their investigations of French industrialization.

Noel D. Johnson is a visiting assistant professor of economics at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges. His most recent work on the Company of General Farms in seventeenth century France was published in the Journal of Economic History. He also does empirical research on the process of institutional change, which was presented most recently at the meetings of the American Economics Association.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century