The French Revolution Against Caste

By Blake Smith

In his incendiary essay, What is the Third Estate?, published in successive, increasingly strident editions throughout 1789, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès sketched a program for the French Revolution. He called for the abolition of the hereditary nobility and the foundation of a new form of government headed by a meritocratic elite. French society, he insisted, should no longer be divided into three Estates (the clergy, nobility, and commoners), but be refashioned around the principle of civic equality, with power and rewards for those who showed themselves the most talented and hard-working. Sieyès offered a critique of legal inequality, conceptualized as “privilege,” and presented egalitarian meritocracy as the most rational and just form of society. This not only provided an orientation for the French public’s diffuse demands for political change in the pivotal year 1789, but also expressed ideas that remain common sense in capitalist liberal democracies today. What is the Third Estate? is one of the founding documents of modern politics. It anticipated the emergence of societies based on a relationship between equality before the law and competition for economic and political power. It also foreshadowed possibilities of mass violence against supposedly backward peoples. 

Sieyès’s arguments for revolution depended on a vision of the world and history in which a potentially progressive nation was held back by ‘foreigners’ who reduced it to the status of South Asia’s caste-based society.  References to caste and South Asia appear in several key passages in What is the Third Estate?, but have been given little attention in the scholarly literature. Reading Sieyès’ pamphlet with attention to its references to the Subcontinent reveals that in order to attack what was coming to be known as the Old Regime in France, Sieyès had to reimagine his own country through the stereotypes of Orientalism. 

What is the Third Estate? was written as part of Sieyès’ efforts to make sense of Louis XVI’s summoning of the Estates General on January 24, 1789. Desperate for support as it grappled with a budgetary crisis, and unable to make headway with traditional institutions like the Parlement of Paris, the French monarchy convened this medieval purposeful body, which had not met since the previous century. But the convocation of the Estates General escalated debates over the government’s financial difficulties into a struggle over the nature of political and social life in France. 

Delegates to the Estates General caucused in three different chambers, one for each Estate—a fact that many members of the public, and of the Estates General itself, found an anachronism, and indeed an affront to a self-consciously “enlightened” era. As the Estates General began to meet in the spring of 1789, tensions escalated, leading to a decisive series of events in late June as delegates from the Third, joined by reform-minded allies in the other two Estates, came together and declared themselves a National Assembly. 

Although Sieyès was a clergyman, he had been elected as a deputy to the Third Estate, and had been making arguments against the Estates system since the fall of 1788, when he wrote an “Essay on Privileges,” in which he attacked the nobility as a “privileged class.” In his analysis, privilege was an  evil that subverted the principles of true society, by which honor and power should flow to those who contributed the most through their work. With the first edition of What is the Third Estate?, howeverSieyès seems to have considered that adopting the language of “caste” might further his goal of treating privilege as a principle alien to France and treating the nobility as a group foreign to the French “nation”. He alternated between the terms “privileged caste” and “privileged class,” writing as well of the “caste of nobles” and the “caste that supplies the Church, Robe and Sword” with members (the Robe and Sword being traditional divisions of the nobility, and the upper ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy being reserved for nobles).

The word ‘caste’ was not common in eighteenth-century French, outside of direct references to South Asia—never before had it been used in a sustained way to comment on domestic politics. But Sieyès insisted that caste “is just the word to use. It refers to a class of men who, having no function or any utility, nonetheless enjoy the privileges attached to their person simply by dint of their existence.”  He went on, criticizing the practice of reserving certain posts in the French government for nobles, which he saw as an unfair advantage to “all those of the same caste.” This was one instance of a larger pattern of abuses of which examples could also be found in “reports by travelers to India.” In a footnote, Sieyès referred the reader “on the subject of Indian castes” to Guillaume Raynal’s Histoire des Deux Indes, buttressing his polemical use of the term ‘caste’ with a reference to a text in which South Asia, bound by caste and despotism, was said to be incapable of progress.[1]

These references to South Asia have not captured scholars’ attention, likely because Sieyès’ main line of attack against the “privileged caste” was couched in references to European history, not Orientalist stereotypes. He twisted traditional arguments that had been made by defenders of aristocratic privilege, who claimed (in a narrative known in the French historiography as the thèse nobiliaire) that nobles were descendants of Germanic invaders who had conquered France during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Such arguments presented eighteenth-century nobles’ special status as something earned by an ancestral right of conquest. But, Sieyès noted, they could be turned around to justify violence from below. If the common people of France were the descendants of “Gauls and Romans” who had been tyrannized by foreign enemies, then they should ask themselves: “Why not, after all, send back to the Franconian forests all these families still affecting the insane claim to have been born of a race of conquerors and be heirs to rights of conquests?”[2]

Supporting this (pseudo-)historical argument that nobles, as foreign conquerors, had no place in France, was a broader claim that the division of French society into hereditary categories was essentially foreign. The Estate System in France, Sieyès claimed, was no better than—and in fact identical with—the caste system in South Asia. Both were examples of a common, world-wide “order of things… despicable, monstruous, destructive of all industry, inimical to social progress, degrading to the human race in general and intolerable to Europeans in particular.”[3] Linking caste and Estate, Sieyès presented hierarchical social divisions based on birth as offenses against a universal human nature. At the same time, however, he reintroduced a sense of European difference and superiority by claiming that this injustice is especially problematic in Europe, where, presumably, people were or ought to be more enlightened. 

Sieyès revolutionary re-appropriation of Orientalist conceptions of caste was something less than coherent. Throughout the eighteenth-century, French thinkers, including Montesquieu and the Abbé Raynal, had described caste as a timeless, unchanging system that had prevented South Asia from making any cultural, social or economic progress for thousands of years. This perspective both simplified the complex realities of caste in the Subcontinent, and imagined South Asia as the reverse-image of a progressive Europe. Thus for Sieyès to claim that French society suffered under the same “order of things” that prevailed in South Asia both familiar (insofar as it linked South Asian caste with stasis and oppression) and radical (insofar as it broke with the tradition of using Orientalist clichés to justify the European status quo). If French Estates were equivalent to castes, this would mean that France was divided into three castes, with the Third Estate forming a caste of its own. But Sieyès only referred to the nobility a caste; he never referred to the Third Estate using this term. Instead, he called the Third Estate “the nation”, and suggests that “caste” is something extraneous to, or parasitic upon, the national body. 

Although it made little logical sense to pit “caste” against “nation” (when, taking the analogy seriously, all members of Old Regime society would belong to one caste or another) the move was rhetorically effective, launching the term “caste” into the French political lexicon as an insult. It became a generic term of abuse that could target any group, noble or otherwise. Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre distinguished between the “privileged caste” of nobles from the “the French people,” while one of his critics, the playwright Jean-Louis Laya (1761-1837), described the Jacobins themselves as a “caste of oppressors” opposed to the French nation. [4] “Caste,” now detached from any reference to the Subcontinent, had become another word for “faction” or “party”, a self-seeking group opposed to the national interest.

While Sieyès was using comparisons between caste in South Asia and the Estates system in France to structure his calls for Revolution, officials in France’s South Asian colonies used caste to justify the exclusion of their South Asian subjects from political participation. When the inhabitants of Pondicherry, France’s largest colony in the Subcontinent, sought the right to vote in local elections and join the new national guard, they were refused. Officials claimed that South Asians were too attached to their caste identities to appreciate equality and fraternity. 

Reading the divergent appeals to caste in these colonial documents and in What is the Third Estate? reinforces Srinivas Aravamudan’s claim that the French Revolution was a turning point in the history of  Orientalism. Aravamudan argues that 1789 represents a moment when European elites denied the legitimacy of both historical Western societies and contemporary Asian ones. The space for a curious, self-critical European interest in Asia disappeared along with a respect for Europe’s own classical and medieval pasts, as an orientation toward the future and a capacity to nurture economic progress seemed to be the most important criteria for evaluating societies.[5]

There was indeed a connection between the Revolution’s rejection of the Old Regime past and Orientalism’s rejection of the Asian present. Across the second half of the century, and with particular force in the years 1789-1799, a suite of concepts drawn from European encounters with Asian societies were used to make generalizations about various institutions and practices that had organized life in France throughout the early modern period. Imagined as coherent, hegemonic, oppressive systems called “feudalism,” “privilege,” “prejudice,” “the Old Regime”, etc., these diverse ways of doing things came to seem to many thinkers and political figures like alien forms that were oppressing a long-suffering French nation. This vision of French society was an oversimplification. Pre-revolutionary institutions and practices were more diverse, diffuse and fluid than their critics claimed them to be. By attacking the “Old Regime”, French revolutionaries were to some extent fighting an imaginary enemy. Yet they were not merely tilting at windmills; their campaign against the “Old Regime” transformed France’s political culture and structures. 

Correlative of what we might call “Old Regime-ism” was the intellectual work of Orientalism, by which South Asia, like French society under the monarchy, came to seem as an unchanging, despotic system out of alignment with enlightened values. The processes of elaborating stereotypes of French and South Asian society fed into each other in texts such as Sieyès’s What is the Third Estate?, each stereotype making the other seem more convincing. Yet Old Regime-ism and Orientalism served different ends. The former inspired French revolutionaries to transform their society; the latter mobilized French colonial administrators to try to fix South Asia in place, ignoring local demands for change. 

Comparisons between caste and Estate in the French Revolution mark the rise of a self-consciously modern and ostensibly egalitarian politics making claims on two conflicting registers: one on behalf of a universal human nature that has been denied its rights, and another on behalf of a particularly enlightened group authorized to expel or dominate others. Insofar as What is the Third Estate? is a programme for modern revolutionary politics, then that politics is from its outset both a promise and a threat, a vision of a liberated humanity shadowed by stereotypes of degenerate others. 

Alongside this antinomy of revolutionary politics, which promises universal freedom even as it frames some people and communities as freedom’s necessary enemies, is another contradiction. Sieyès’ global vision, linking diverse forms of hierarchy in a single “order of things” to be exposed and eliminated, was limited not only by his enduring essentialisms (European vs South Asian, Gauls vs Franks) but also by his class politics. As William Sewell has shown in his Marxist interpretation of “What is the Third Estate,” Sieyès’ revolution was meant to create a society in which a minority of ‘talented’ men could rule a nation of productive, docile workers. The triumphant abolition of old hierarchies was to pave the way for the domination of a new class of capitalists and administrators. 

Even today, apparently radical critiques of hierarchy in Western democracies turn to South Asian caste, limited by the same essentialisms and meritocratic horizons that characterized “What is the Third Estate?” Isabel Wilkerson, for example, in her recently published Caste: the Origins of Our Discontent (2020) compares race in the United States to caste in India. She finds that both are inegalitarian systems of hereditary inequality founded on “hostility” to groups marked as inferior. Both were founded on conquest, as “people said to be Aryans” invaded North America and South Asia and installed oppressive regimes. “Anyone who truly believes in meritocracy,” she insists, should oppose such a system.[6]

Wilkerson is untroubled by the fact that ‘Aryan’ did not exist as a category in the early modern Atlantic—or that many historians of South Asia no longer subscribe to the ‘Aryan invasion’ narrative, now seen by many as a myth that served the interest of British colonial elites who saw themselves as the successors of this original invasion. Nor does she hesitate to use essentialist race-thinking to describe the 2016 election as a “existential fight for primacy in a country whose demographics had been shifting beneath us all.” Non-white immigration, she claims, will displace the United States’ “historic ruling majority, the dominant caste in an unspoken hierarchy… whites would no longer be the majority.”[7]

It is hardly less flabbergasting to hear that white supremacy in the United States has historically been unspoken as it is to hear that the far-right view of the election as an “existential” clash between races is indeed correct. Like Sieyès, Wilkerson mobilizes her enemies’ vision of a country divided into distinct groups with fixed essences, locked in a struggle for power.  She echoes white nationalists’ claims that demographic transformations will endanger a historically constant white essence (as though whiteness were an empirical reality and not a changing category of self-understanding that has expanded or contracted at various moments in our history). However where Sieyès called for violent revolution against the ruling class, Wilkerson appeals to “radical empathy” to overcome “anti-black sentiment.” Where Sieyès called for ethnic cleansing, Wilkerson advocates pseudo-therapeutic solutions.[8]

While Wilkerson’s comparison of caste and race thus differs from Sieyès’ comparison of caste and Estate, the texts share a common horizon, one in which much of our thinking about inequality continues to operate. Within this framework, the various forms of inequality throughout the world are a political problem (only) insofar as they interfere with meritocracy. Resistance to these unmeritocratic inequalities takes the form not of banishing the identitarian divisions that had pitted people against each other in the old “order of things,” but mobilizing them to affirm historically oppressed groups against historical oppressors. Reading “What is the Third Estate” as a founding document of this global vision—riven with contradictions and limitations and productive of modern hierarchies based on ‘merit’ (i.e., social class)—reminds us both of the power of thinking different forms of inequality together, and the danger that such thinking can advance novel forms of domination.

Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago. His research on eighteenth-century European interactions with South Asia has appeared in French Cultural StudiesHistory of European IdeasJournal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, and other venues. He is the translator of two works of francophone fiction from India: K. Madavane’s To Die in Benares and Ari Gautier’s The Thinnai.

Title image: Jacques Réattu, La Liberté, l’Égalité chassant de leur territoire les castes privilégiées Marseille, 1795, Musée Réattu, inv. 868.1.210.

Further Readings:

Srinivas Aravamudan, Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Adrian Carton “Shades of Fraternity: Creolization and the Making of Citizenship in French India, 1790-1792” French Historical Studies, vol. 31, 4, (2008), p. 581-607. 

William Sewell, A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: the Abbé Sieyès and ‘What is the Third Estate’? (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994).


[1] Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Political Writings, ed. and trans . Michael Sonenscher (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2003), 94-6.

[2] Sieyès, 94.

[3] Sieyès, 95-6.

[4] Robespierre, Discours, ed. Marc Bouloiseau, Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1950-58), 117. Jean-Louis Laya, L’Ami des Lois, vol. 6 (Paris: Maradan, 1793), 7.

[5] Srinivas Aravamudan, Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 9.

[6] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), 385-6, 82-3.

[7] Wilkerson, 6.

[8] Wilkerson, 385.

One thought on “The French Revolution Against Caste

  1. This was an entertaining read.

    I wonder, was Sieyès work mentioned at all in Edward Said’s classic work, ‘Orientalism’? (Been a long time since I read it)


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