What Is the Third Estate?

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The first page of Qu'est-ce que le Tiers Etat?

What Is the Third Estate? (French: Qu'est-ce que le tiers-état?) is a political pamphlet written in January 1789, shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, by the French thinker and clergyman Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836). The pamphlet was Sieyès' response to finance minister Jacques Necker's invitation for writers to state how they thought the Estates-General should be organized.

In the pamphlet, Sieyès argues that the third estate – the common people of France – constituted a complete nation within itself and had no need of the "dead weight" of the two other orders, the first and second estates of the clergy and aristocracy. Sieyès stated that the people wanted genuine representatives in the Estates-General, equal representation to the other two orders taken together, and votes taken by heads and not by orders. These ideas came to have an immense influence on the course of the French Revolution.


The pamphlet is organized around three hypothetical questions and Sieyès' responses. The questions are:

  • What is the Third Estate? Everything.
  • What has it been hitherto in the political order? Nothing.
  • What does it desire to be? To become something...

Sieyès continues by analyzing the political situation of the time, arguing that the dominance of the first and second estates in the political arena constitutes a monopoly that treats the Third Estate unfairly. He advocates equal representation of all three orders in government, and asserts that taxes and government policy should affect all portions of society equally.

Throughout the pamphlet, Sieyès argues that the first and second estates are simply unnecessary, and that the Third Estate is in truth France's only legitimate estate, representing as it does the entire population. Thus, he asserts, it should replace the other two estates entirely. The Third Estate has to pay tax.

The idea of the pluralistic state theory was led by English political philosophers such as G. D. H. Cole, J. N. Figgis and H. J. Laski, eventhough it has its origins in French and Italian philosophers preceding the French revolution like Sieyès, who argued that state centralized sovereignty was flawed and should undergo radical transformation towards a decentralized and federated form of authority, which means the dealings of society would be organized and operated by independent associations and therefore self-governed. A comprehensive collection of writings was released under "Pluralist Theory of the State".[1]

Modern equivalent theories building upon the ideas within pluralistic state theory is libertarian socialism and free-market anarchism. An example of the former is guild socialism, one of the founders of which is G. D. H. Cole, a prominent figure behind pluralistic state theory.

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