Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

Here is part two of Alan Wood's article on the history of the French Revolution, first published in 1989 to mark the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille

 Part Two: 1793, Rise and Fall of the Jacobins

The dialectic of revolution is a book sealed with seven seals for modern-day bourgeois historians who seek to distort the real processes by which their class came to power.

french_rev3.jpgThe counter-revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie in the bourgeois democratic revolution was already analysed by Marx and Engels after the revolutions of 1848-9. In the 20th century nowhere has the bourgeoisie in the colonial and ex-colonial countries played anything but a reactionary role. In Russia, tsarism was overthrown not by the so-called bourgeois liberals but by the working-class in the February revolution and then decisively in October.

But even in the classical period of the bourgeois revolution. the overthrow of the feudal-absolutist regimes was accomplished, not directly by the bourgeoisie, but by the most revolutionary sections of the petit-bourgeoisie which temporarily succeeded in mobilising behind them the most oppressed layers of society, the semi-proletarian masses of town and countryside. That was as true in 17th century England as in France over 100 years later.

From the outset, the French bourgeoisie and its political representatives strove for a deal with reaction. They feared that the masses would not stop at the abolition of the aristocracy's feudal privileges but mount an assault on property itself

Brissot, leader of the Girondins, railed against "disorganisers" who would "level everything - properties, wealth, the price of stables, the various services owed to society." He reflected the panic of his wealthy patrons. However, in the moment of supreme danger the revolution's salvation depended upon the mobilisation of the most oppressed masses of society.

The Jacobins and Girondins originally belonged to the same party. But whereas the latter recoiled at stirring up the "lower depths" of society, the Jacobins saw that this was the only alternative if the revolution was to be secured.

In reply to Brissot, Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, attacked the "false patriots…who want to set up the Republic only for themselves, who need to govern only for the advantage of the rich."

While the Assembly delayed, the masses were again galvanised into action by the threat of counter-revolution. The Duke of Brunswick, heading the invading armies, issued a manifesto threatening "signal vengeance" if any harm was done to the King and Queen.

This was no idle threat. All over France royalist groups, well supplied with money and arms, were awaiting the signal to wreak havoc in the rear. Already in 1791 and 1792 there had been royalist uprisings in Perpignan, Arles, Lozere, the Vivarias, Yssingeaux and the Vendee.

Confident of success, the King finally staged what amounted to a parliamentary coup d'etat, dismissing the Girondin Ministry on 13 June 1792. All the conditions for a monarchist coup were prepared. With the Austrians and Prussians at the door, Lafayette was only concerned with "the enemy within", offering the King his troops "to crush the Jacobins."

Undoubtedly the entry of the Austrian and Prussian armies into Paris, accompanied by royalist emigres, would have presaged butchery on a scale to make the subsequent revolutionary "Terror" look like a vicarage tea party.

But again the "sans culottes" saved the day. Danton, Marat, Chaumette and Hebert formed a new revolutionary Commune, providing an organised expression for the masses who elected delegates from their "sections". They carried out yet another insurrection on 10 August 1792. The Tuileries Palace was stormed and Louis forced to flee for protection to the very Assembly against which he was conspiring!

Under the masses' pressure, the Assembly suspended the King and carried out a series of progressive laws. Universal manhood suffrage was finally conquered. Emigres' lands were confiscated to be sold in small lots though in practice most were sold in large estates to the wealthy.

Nevertheless, the August insurrection was a major turning point. By their action the masses showed they would tolerate nothing less than a root and branch transformation of society. The old basis for compromise was destroyed. The moderate Girondins were forced to break off secret negotiations with the King. All forms of government, parties and institutions were thrown into the melting pot.

The political centre of gravity shifted within the Assembly with the growth of the Jacobin left at the expense of the Girondin centre. More importantly, the axis of power passed from the debating chamber to the street, from the National Assembly to the revolutionary organs of local power and the clubs which inspired them and armed them with ideas and slogans.

The revolutionary communes began to occupy centre stage, particularly the Paris Commune dominated by the "men of 10 August" - Danton, Marat, Hebert and Chaumette.

The Jacobins, the radical wing of the petit-bourgeois democracy, succeeded because they, unlike the Girondins, were prepared to lean upon the masses to deal with reaction. They did not hold up their hands in horror at the "September massacres" when the Paris sans culottes broke into the prisons to stage a plebeian settling of accounts with aristocratic counter-revolution.

Grim as these events were, they can only be understood in the light of the terrible danger which hung over revolutionary Paris. The later experience of counter-revolutionary Thermidor in 1794 and the White Terror which followed the defeated revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 shows what kind of bloodbath could have been expected had reaction triumphed.

Unlike the countless victims of the Thermidorian Terror, murdered without the slightest pretence at a trial, at least the sans culottes improvised tribunals before which the imprisoned aristocrats were given a chance to defend themselves. Nor was this a complete formality, as has been alleged. While 1,465 prisoners were killed, 1,335 were acquitted - a fact hardly mentioned by writers anxious to portray the Paris "mob" as bloodthirsty monsters.

The September massacres represented a desperate act of self-defence by revolutionary Paris, a spontaneous action meant to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy.

On 20 September 1792 the newly elected Convention which replaced the Assembly met in the Tuileries. The Girondins now represented the right wing. The left, sat on the highest benches, were known as the "Mountain".

Under the impact of the August insurrection and the September massacres, the Girondins, who in any case were formal republicans, voted with the Jacobins for the abolition of the monarchy. From this moment on, the revolution was characterised by the struggle between the Mountain and the Gironde within the Convention and the growing hostility of the Paris Commune to the Convention as a whole.

The trial of the King, or Louis Capet (his family name) as he was then called, brought out the tensions between those who wished a halt to the revolution and those under the pressure of the masses who were prepared to go to the end. It was impossible to seriously struggle against reaction without dealing with the "first link in the chain of counter-revolution". But the Girondins balked at executing Louis which they rightly understood would mark the point of no return for the revolution.

Overruling the Girondins' delaying tactics, the Convention voted by a small majority for execution. The revolution had burnt its bridges. In the words of Danton: "The coalised Kings threaten us; so we hurl at their feet as a gauge of battle, the head of a King."

The defeat of the aristocracy and the overthrow of the monarchy by the second French revolution, the August insurrection of 1792, crystallised the class contradictions within the revolutionary camp. As the revolution advanced, the more vacillating element in the Convention moved sharply to the right while the Jacobins, under pressure of the masses, moved left. An open split became inevitable.

This reflected the intensification of the class war. The big bourgeoisie had made fortunes out of military contracts, financial speculation and the purchase of church lands. The mass of the people suffered from shortages, soaring prices and the rapid depreciation of the currency. The washerwomen of Paris demonstrated with the slogan: "Du pain et du savon" (bread and soap). Grocers' shops were sacked in food riots.

The horrified Girondins slandered the rioters as "agents of Pitt" - the British Prime Minister. Under the guise of "federalism", the Girondists reflected the panic of the wealthy merchants of Bordeaux, Nantes, Lyons and Toulon at the events in Paris. In reply, the semi-proletarian masses demanded more centralism, increased powers for the Convention, revolutionary terror to crush reaction and the purging of the Convention of the right

The movement reached its peak with the "Journees" of 31 May to 2 June 1793. The Convention's debating hall was invaded by a mass of sans culottes demanding the expulsion of the Girondin deputies. This insurrection marked the decisive victory of the revolution: the triumph of the most revolutionary wing based on the plebeian masses in Paris against the reactionary bourgeoisie and its Girondin agents.

The eruption of the masses onto the scene was caused by the desperate situation for the revolution which can only be likened to the darkest years of the civil war in Russia after 1917 when the Soviet government was attacked by 21 foreign armies and when at one stage the Bolsheviks controlled only an area around Petrograd and Moscow.

A Spanish army had crossed the Pyrenees. The Prussians had invaded from the East. Toulon was treacherously surrendered to the English. In the Vendee region a bloody revolt began, threatening Nantes. The Girondists staged uprisings in the provinces on the side of counter-revolution. Paris was shaken as the news came in of the defection of Marseilles and Lyon.

The French revolution, particularly at its high point of 1793-4, was a great war of social liberation waged by the French people against incredible odds. They confronted powerful and numerous enemies both within and without. Against them were ranged the great powers of Europe. Yet, against all odds, they succeeded.

Such a victory would have been inconceivable except for the concentration of power into the hands of the most determined and audacious elements of the revolutionary democracy. The Committee of Public Safety set up by the Convention acted as the cutting edge of the war against internal reaction, while the "levee en masse" provided the mass forces needed to smash external intervention.

So long as it was directed against the agents of the old regime and enemies of the revolution, the Terror played a necessary and progressive role in the context of the extremely dangerous situation on the internal front. In any case, the scope of the Terror has been exaggerated, especially in Paris. Only 15 per cent of the death sentences were pronounced in Paris: 19 per cent in the South East and 52 per cent in the West where the civil war was raging.

Without doubt excesses were committed, for example in Nantes and in Lyons, under the notorious Joseph Fouche who later became an agent of Thermidorian, Bonapartist and even royalist reaction and ended up a millionaire with the title of the Duke of Otranto. But excesses occur in every war, particularly a civil war. Not even the fiercest critic of the Terror has explained how the revolution could have survived without it in this hour of mortal peril.

In any event, the Terror was only one feature of the implacable war waged by the revolution. Far more important was the incredible and unprecedented mobilisation of the entire nation which was the secret of a success which seemed impossible.

To persuade the people to fight, the Jacobins made concessions to the demands of the masses. The constitution of 1793 was the first truly democratic constitution - a direct conquest of the masses in struggle. No matter that this constitution under prevailing conditions was never really put into effect. In practice, the masses had already imposed their own direct revolutionary democracy through their "sections" where mass meetings of the poorest citizens were in almost permanent touch with their trusted representatives.

The Paris sans culottes kept control over the Convention by continuous vigilance. The public galleries were always crowded, cheering the most radical wing of the Mountain and keeping the vacillating elements in line.

The common tendency to characterise the Jacobins as a kind of "socialist" party is however entirely out of place. Despite the ceaseless rise and fall of parties and programmes which invariably brought the radical trend to the fore, the class content of the French revolution never ceased to be bourgeois in character. Robespierre's faction was merely the most consistently revolutionary of the petit-bourgeois trends that dominated the Convention.

Pressurised by the masses, the Jacobins carried the bourgeois revolution to its limits and, to some extent, beyond, making inroads into private property. This in no sense represented a socialist tendency in Jacobinism which stood firmly on the ground of bourgeois property, but only the desire to conciliate the semi-proletarian sans culottes, a section of which undoubtedly wished to go further.

In September 1793 new mass demonstrations forced a reluctant Jacobin dominated Convention to grant the law of the "general maximum" or ceiling on prices. The new war effort required a strict control of the economy which imposed restrictions on capitalism. The Committee of Public Safety waged a ruthless war against speculation and profiteering. The property of exiles and rebels was seized. There was even an element of nationalisation, for example of the arms industry and army supplies. Limits were placed on wealth and inheritance. The confiscated wealth of the aristocrats and counter-revolutionaries financed relief for the old, sick, widows and orphans.

These measures received the enthusiastic endorsement of the masses, providing the key to military victory. And what a victory! The world had never before witnessed the spectacle of a people risen in arms. Apprentices, ploughboys, blacksmiths, labourers rushed to answer the appeal and an astonished Europe looked on as this ragged army of untrained volunteers proceeded to inflict defeat after defeat on the well-drilled regiments of England, Prussia, Austria and Spain.

What turned the scales, apart from skilful generalship, was above all the morale of the revolutionary soldier and the ability to pour in a mass of men and material by levies and requisitions.

By the end of 1793, the enemy had been virtually driven from French territory. The revolution was triumphant on all fronts. Feudal dues were finally abolished without compensation. In June 1793 the Convention passed a vital law which effected a genuine agrarian revolution, handing back to the peasants all the land taken from the village communes. The triumph of the peasant was complete. The power of the aristocracy was broken.

But precisely as the revolution reached its flood tide it began to ebb. With the revolutionary dictatorship of the Jacobins, the bourgeois revolution had reached and gone beyond its limits. To proceed further would threaten bourgeois property. This was not the agenda of Robespierre and the other Jacobin leaders.

The bourgeois revolution differs from the socialist revolution just as the capitalist system differs from socialism. The laws of motion governing capitalism do not depend upon the conscious will of the ruling class. Capitalism "regulates itself" through the blind play of the market. Consequently, it does not require a conscious and scientific programme to bring it into being.

On the contrary the fierce passions and revolutionary energy required to overthrow the old regime could never have been called forth by an appeal to the values of the market place, the morals of the money grabber and the sordid reality of wage slavery for the many.

The socialist revolution can only be brought about by the conscious activity of the masses fighting for their self-emancipation. By contrast, the bourgeois revolution, essentially the transfer of power from one privileged minority to another, must always be based upon illusions. The 17th century English bourgeois regarded themselves as the elect of God, fighting to establish the rule of the saints upon earth. Their French equivalents, nearly 150 years later, appealed to "Reason" end spoke of "liberty, equality and fraternity". But given the concrete development of the productive forces, these ideal forms could only be filled, in the last analysis, with a capitalist content.

The victory of Jacobinism, the most consistent and revolutionary wing of the petit-bourgeoisie, brought the revolution's leaders before the contradictions between the aspirations of the aroused urban masses and the objective limits of the bourgeois revolution. Jacobinism itself was destroyed by this contradiction.

desmoulins.jpgA section of Jacobins around Danton and Desmoulins wanted to call a halt, concentrating their fire on the continuing terror.

Another faction grouped around Hebert and Roux represented the extreme plebeian left wing of Jacobinism, based on the Paris Commune and the Paris sans culottes. This so-called "faction d'enrages" had the upper hand in the "sections" and supported the terror and the requisitions which they saw as a weapon against the rich. The growing power of the enrages since the fall of the Girondins began to frighten the Jacobin leaders, pushing Robespierre and Danton into a temporary and unstable alliance.

At the other extreme, with the threat of counter-revolution removed, the propertied classes, including now a big section of the peasantry, reacted against the years of "storm and stress". The wealthy demanded "order" and protection against the Paris sans culottes. The middle class longed for peace and quiet, to get on with the job of enriching themselves. Inside the Convention, the "crapuds du Marais" (frogs of the Marsh), former Girondin sympathisers, the vacillating centre, cowed and silent in the previous period, became restive.

Robespierre attempted to balance between the factions and classes. But inevitably he came down in favour of the propertied classes against the "excesses" of the sans culottes.

By the beginning of 1794 the masses were worn out by four long years of fighting. The continuing collapse of the paper currency, long queues, bread shortages and general poverty contrasted sharply with corruption in high places. True, Robespierre still lived in a joiner's house in the Rue St. Honore and Saint Just would dine off a hunk of bread and a few slices of sausages still seated at his desk. But the Convention was riddled with speculators and swindlers who had made their fortune out of the public purse.

Discontent was rife among the Paris poor and the rank and file Jacobins. The Hebertists now controlled the Cordeliers Club, Danton's old base, and talked openly about the "sacred right of insurrection". But the class balance of forces had already decisively shifted against them.

The Jacobins had leaned on the popular masses to strike blows against the Girondins. Once these had been eliminated, Robespierre's first priority was to direct his fire against the left. The Jacobin Jeanbon Saint Andre gave the game away: "Our greatest enemies are not without; we see them; they are among us; they wish to carry the revolutionary measures further than we do."

With power concentrated in the hands of the Committee of Public Safety, the independently functioning sections represented a potential threat to Jacobin power. Therefore they took steps to subordinate the 40,000 revolutionary committees to the Committee of Public Safety which began a purge against the left, so undermining the Hebertists' base of support.

In March 1794, Hebert and 19 followers were suddenly arrested and executed. The masses, exhausted and disoriented, for once failed to react. This event was generally seen as the end of the revolution. Though Robespierre attempted to balance this with a blow against the right wing Jacobins, executing Danton and his supporters, the pendulum began to swing irreversibly to the right.

Once the fear of the sans culottes had been removed, the balance of forces within the Convention was swiftly transformed. A section of the Jacobins moved over to the Marsh, leaving Robespierre and his group isolated. The split was reflected in the Committee of Public Safety itself

robespierre.jpgThe coup d'etat of the 9th Thermidor (27 July) 1794 was the inevitable result. Feeling the groundswell of discontent which now affected all classes, a faction of disaffected Jacobins revolted against Robespierre.

They were immediately joined by the "frogs of the Marsh" who had previously fawned on Robespierre. They now turned like a pack of baying hounds. A year earlier such a parliamentary coup would have stood no chance of success. The masses would have rushed to arms and the reaction would have been instantly crushed.

In fact, on the night of the 10th Thermidor, the issue was in the balance. Robespierre was rescued and taken to the Paris Commune. But this time the masses did not respond and the relatively small forces commanded by the Convention were able to retake Robespierre and the others who were immediately executed without even the pretext of a trial.

The victory of the Thermidorian reaction allegedly ended the "terror". But those historians who dwell upon and exaggerate the revolutionary terror draw a discreet veil of silence over the bloody White Terror which followed.

The exact number of victims will never be known because most were murdered by night with no trial, no defence and no records. In the following three days alone there were 103 executions of prominent Jacobins. Revolutionaries were hunted down and butchered, especially in the South. In the prisons of Lyons, Aix and Marseilles, reactionary gangs like the "compagnies du Jesus" killed all who had taken part in the previous government.

Meanwhile, most of the social conquests of the urban poor were liquidated. The Law of the Maximum was the first to go. The cost of living rocketed. The winter of Year III (1794-5) was a period of extreme poverty and wretchedness With 1790 as a base of 100, price inflation reached 580 by January 1795, 720 by March and 900 by April. In May there was an uprising in the working class suburbs of Paris, St. Antoine and St. Marcel, demanding "bread and the constitution of 1793." But with no clear programme, perspective or leadership, the revolt collapsed, a pathetic after-echo of the great "journees" of 1789-93.

The new constitution of the Thermidor was the banner of inequality. The right to property, not present in the 1789 constitution and first included as a safeguard by the Jacobins in 1793, was now clearly spelt out: "Property is the right to enjoy and dispose of one's possessions, one's revenues and the fruit of one's labour and industry…the maintenance of property is the foundation upon which the cultivation of the soil, all production and every means of labour and the whole social order rests." Once more the suffrage was restricted to exclude both the aristocrats and the poorer citizens.

In a few years France had passed from absolute monarchy through a constitutional monarchy to a bourgeois republic. After July 1794 it swung back to a directory, bonapartism, and finally, after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, to an absolute monarchy. On the basis of this, the revisionist school of historians ask: was it all worthwhile? "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" (the more things change, the more they stay the same), as the French saying goes.

But the French revolution marked a decisive social and political transformation: the smashing of the power of the aristocracy; the radical clearing out of the Augean stables of feudalism; and the distribution of land to millions of small peasant proprietors. Despite all the vicissitudes of the political superstructure, the fundamental social conquests of the revolution remained.

This constituted the fundamental power of the revolution, even in the period of Bonapartist reaction, enabling the regime to take on the combined forces of reactionary Europe and carry Napoleon's victorious army to the gates of Moscow. Even the restoration of the Bourbons after 1815 did not touch the peasants' lands. The "ancien regime" could not be re-established, even on the bayonets of Wellington and Blucher.

The repercussions of the revolution cannot be overstated, giving a powerful impulse to the revolutionary-democratic movements in Spain, Germany, Italy, to the national liberation movements in Poland and Ireland, and even kindling the spark of the colonial revolution in the Caribbean.

The earliest manifestation of the Russian Revolution, the Decembrist uprising of 1825, was directly inspired by the example of the French revolution. As late as 1905, the workers of Moscow and St. Petersburg sang the workers "Marseillaise" on their demonstrations. Not least in France itself every revolutionary movement right up to the Paris Commune of 1870-71 took as its starting point the revolution of 1793.

click here to read part one

click here to read the 1999 introduction


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