The Myth of the Peasant Democracy
This chapter discusses the myth of the peasant democracy wherein peasants were able theoretically to become the masters of France. When universal manhood suffrage was proclaimed in 1848, they constituted well over half the population and in 1939 they were still by far the largest single class. However, they did not make use of their power. It also discusses a history of the peasantry that cannot be written simply in terms of the issues, which parliaments debated, or of the parties who were divided on these issues. Bourgeois preoccupations certainly affected the peasants, but the main reason why the peasants did not throw their weight more decisively was that they were fighting other battles, largely unchronicled by the literate classes but with far more importance to them. It is with these battles that this chapter is concerned. This chapter highlights that while some saw the peasant either as the raw clay from which civilisation had to be fashioned, or as an obstacle to the spread of enlightenment, others, who wished to change society as it had developed, saw in the peasant the repository of unsullied virtues.
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