From the rising of the Jacquerie in 1358 to the calling together of the National Assembly in 1789, France had passed through the development of her social system, from a congeries of great and small more or less independent feudal territories, to France as a nation under one autocratic monarch. A succession of civil and religious wars kept the country in never-ending turmoil, until a great central organisation in Paris, with the King at its head, arose out of the long struggle between the Crown and the nobility. Louis XI, Henry IV, Richelieu and Mazarin prepared the way for the virtual despotism of Louis XIV and Louis XV. But during the whole of the four hundred and forty years which separated the days of Etienne Marcel and Charles the Bad from the time of Louis XVI and Robespierre – a period longer than that covered by the Roman Empire in its strength – agriculture had undergone little change, and the position of the peasantry remained much what it had been. Although the more rigorous forms of serfdom had slowly fallen into desuetude, production on the land remained, as it had been for thousands of years, the most important industry.
The Court and the aristocracy had meanwhile lost touch with the mass of the people. There had been no meeting of the States General for more than five whole generations (1613-1789). Instead of feudal lords living upon their estates and fulfilling, however badly, their legal functions in the society of the epoch, the great landowners had for the most part become mere hangers-on of the Court, participating in its waste and extravagance, and employing agents and bailiffs on the spot to exact from the peasant tenantry the last farthing in the way of dues. Their own continuous impoverishment rendered them the harshest of landlords from a distance; while their continuous absenteeism, drawing away the substance of the people from the provinces to the metropolis, not only destroyed all direct personal relations between the nobility and the people on their estates, but intensified the economic drawbacks of a system that was rapidly falling into decay from other causes.
Such was the state of affairs over the greater part of France. Where the landlords still resided upon their properties, as in La Vendee and districts of Southern France, both the economic position and the social relations were less strained, as was apparent even in the worst crises of the Revolution. But during the latter portion of the reign of Louis XIV, and the whole of the reign of Louis XV, matters went steadily from bad to worse for the bulk of the peasantry. A few of the cultivators improved their status, and the middle class was strengthening its position in the cities, towns and communes. But the mass of the agriculturists became poorer and poorer; land was actually going out of cultivation to an extent which in numerous districts meant ruin for Government and people alike; many of the poverty-stricken semi-serfs, compelled to abandon their holdings, tramped in misery along the highways and sought refuge in the towns; while, in the period immediately preceding the crucial years from 1784 to 1789, a series of bad harvests desolated France and brought actual famine to the poor both in country and town.
At the same time, the public debt had swollen to enormous proportions, and the deficit in the annual budget of the Government increased year by year: a debt which there was no means whatever of reducing, and a deficit which could not possibly be avoided under the legal system of taxation then in vogue. For the middle class, who acquired their money by trade and money-lending, and the impoverished tillers of the soil, bore the whole burden of the national imposts. The nobility and the clergy, who, between them, held practically the whole of the landed property of France, were entirely exempted from taxation, and the lawyers, a most powerful social group, then as ever, under the domination of private property, also escaped taxation very frequently.
Such a method of government as that of the ancien regime, going on under these conditions from generation to generation, must sooner or later break down. Economic and social causes work slowly forward to their inevitable end, regardless of the persons engaged in consciously or unconsciously aiding or obstructing their development. Threatened classes rarely foresee, or, if a few foresee, they are unable to meet circumstances by the prompt and capable legislation which can alone preserve themselves from overthrow. This was certainly the case with the nobility and landowners generally before the French Revolution. There were warnings all round that dangerous movements were inevitable, unless strong measures were promptly taken to meet the growing demands and resentment of the Tiers État, the rising middle class, and the formidable upheavals of the neglected and despised Fourth Estate – the peasants. The long and increasingly serious succession of peasant insurrections, from the early days of the reign of Louis XVI, though superficially they seemed merely an exaggerated form of the local revolts against oppression which had been going on for many centuries, were, for careful observers from abroad, clear evidence that this almost universal outbreak might easily develop into definite social revolution. Subversive ideas filtering down from above, and the reflex action of this continuous and furious material unrest going on below, made ready the whole social structure for a complete change. It might even have appeared that the manifest intention of the peasants to obtain entirely new conditions of existence would secure for them, as by far the most numerous and important portion of the population, the dominant influence, when the Revolution itself should be the outcome of their spasmodic attacks.
But, as even historians and essayists who most sympathise with the just claims of the toiling agriculturists now freely admit, tliis could not be. Why? Because, unlike the Tiers État, the peasants were not ready as a class to take up their historic role of emancipation. They knew what they wanted to get rid of, but they were not competent to administer the new forms which would reflect their own economic supremacy, should they succeed in obtaining it. As will be seen, therefore, they succeeded wholly in the destructive, but only partially in the constructive, side of such policy as they formulated. The Tiers Étate, or bourgeoisie, on the other hand, though they also may not have laid down consciously a complete plan of action in the event of success, did understand perfectly well that administration in their own interest must inevitably follow legislation in their own interest. They had arrived at the stage where they could easily fill all the posts then occupied by the nobility and the King’s nominees; and they never forgot that, when they had secured full possession of private property, and equality so far as the right to compete freely without any embarrassing restrictions, they had virtually won all that they most desired to win.
This accounts first for the extraordinary moderation of the bourgeoisie in the early stages of the Revolution, when once they had made themselves the indispensable leaders of the National Assembly, and posed as voicing the national aspirations. It accounts also for the determination, and even fury, with which they attacked the peasantry when these, to the bourgeoisie, misguided and ignorant folk, threatened to shake the foundations of private property altogether by destroying the chateaux, burning public documents, sweeping away all feudal dues of every kind, resuming the communal lands seized by the nobility, and dividing up the Church lands. The Revolution to them meant simply the conquest of political and economic power directly or indirectly by the Tiers État. “What is the Tiers État?” asked the Abbé Sieyes. “Nothing.” “What should it be?” “Everything.” That summed up all the law and all the prophets for the French bourgeoisie.
Below the fine phrases of the French revolutionary orators and the high ideals with which some of them were inspired, we come always upon the sordid considerations of hard cash. From the very commencement, with only one or two aristocratic exceptions, the real leaders of the National Assembly and the Revolution were members of the Tiers État. They were in the grip of middle-class ideals. Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre, the Girondins, the whole of the principal orators and organisers, with the exception of Marat, Anarcharsis Clootz and Chaumette, Le Roux, L’Ange, and later Baboeuf, were tight bound in the trammels of bourgeois thought and private property conceptions. The peasantry, who constituted the bulk of the population, were not directly represented in the National Assembly at all, and indirectly only to a very small and inefficient extent. The same with the artisans and men driven from the land into the towns. These people exercised great pressure from without through the Commune of Paris, and other friendly and partially affiliated communes throughout the country. But it was only by such pressure, and by very threatening attacks from the peasants under arms, that the factions in the National Assembly were driven to enforce the practical measures passed by their own Assembly. These measures were accompanied by such restrictions, in the shape of heavy cash payments by the peasantry in return for the removal of the old feudal abuses and tyrannies, that the enactments themselves were mainly rendered nugatory. As a matter of fact, the National Assembly itself passed law after law extending these restrictions, and insisting that the peasants should pay the feudal dues claimed and perform customary work. More than this, when the peasants took the enforcement of the original vote of the Assembly into their hands, attacked the chateaux, endeavoured to seize and burn the feudal titles in the communal and municipal archives, and refused to let the agents of the landlords collect money from them or extort services from them, the bourgeoisie actually took up arms against them as “brigands.” The peasants were, then, not citizens who were asserting their rights, as unanimously voted in 1789 by the Assembly, but gangs of robbers who tried to interfere with those sacred rights of private property which were as dear to the Tiers État as to the privileged classes. Naturally enough, the peasants refused to accept frequent defeats, and even multitudinous hangings and torturings, as decisive; and the true revolutionists of Paris, Lyons, Marseilles and other towns sympathised with them and used their influence to support their revolts. It is, in fact, beyond all question that, though the National Assembly at first voted with immense enthusiasm for doing away root and branch with the entire feudal system, the same Assembly at once set to work to pass laws in contravention of their own resolution. The following dates show what occurred.
On 4th August 1789 the abolition of the entire feudal system joyfully and unanimously voted in principle by the Assembly; while at the same time mortmain, the game laws – which were very onerous – and private seigneurial courts of justice were obrogated. These were immense reforms, which meant a great and pacific revolution for the benefit of the whole agricultural population.
But, at the end of 1789 and the beginning of 1790, laws were passed by the same Assembly which reconstituted and confirmed nearly all the old abuses, and decreed that any advantages accrueing to the peasants by the vote of 4th August should be fully paid for by them, to the landowners, at their value in money.
Peasants who refused to accept this law and would not pay for the removal of injustice were treated again as malefactors, and were harried by the forces of the municipalities. If they rose in revolt against this improper action they were treated legally with little short of the same brutality and cruelty as had been the lot of their ancestors for thousands of years.
The Feudal Commission appointed by the Assembly did all that was possible to compel the peasants to pay their old feudal dues. Things became worse rather than better. More and more the reactionists harried the peasantry with stringent enactments; more and more the peasantry retaliated against their oppressors, doing their utmost to crush their enemies in successive risings.
Not until four full years had passed since the first declaration of the annulment of the feudal rights and customs did the complete defeat of all the reactionary forces in Paris and other important towns cause these feudal iniquities to be swept away without redemption and without any possibility of resuscitation. But for the overthrow of the monarchy and its supporters, including the eloquent but reactionary Girondins, the final removal of a system which, as all can now see, had long outlasted its period of even partial usefulness, might have dragged on for some years more.
It is well to understand thoroughly this portion of the revolutionary movement, because apologists for the ancien regime, and bitter opponents of the French Revolution in every shape, carefully overlook the many efforts made by the reactionaries of various kinds to restrict the application of all real peaceable reforms, and to change the old method as little as possible. It was this persistent policy of counter-revolution, working steadily on, openly in the Assembly and the clubs, secretly in the underground coteries, which exasperated all who desired to bring about thorough-going changes and drove them to extreme courses. For the object of the Court and its agents and sympathisers was to prevent the execution of measures already accepted, as well as to arrest the course of inevitable change.
The time was fully ripe for three great transformations: the passing of economic and political power to the Tiers État and the bourgeoisie, the destruction of the old feudal ties, and the transference of the land to the cultivators. To check this revolution, so fully and unconsciously prepared in the course of previous centuries, was quite impossible. But those who opposed its development naturally forced the other side to try for more than was then economically or socially attainable; and these efforts, in turn, fortified reaction, and finally produced a military dictatorship.
Nothing but the actual figures of taxation and impoverishment can give a clear conception of the true state of France from the accession of Louis XVI onwards. That some districts were better off than others, being favoured in the matter of fiscal imposts, is well known. In these areas a fair amount of prosperity might be observed generally, even among the smallest proprietors, accompanied by that sprightly demeanour and obvious enjoyment of life which distinguish the majority of the French people, when once freed from grinding anxiety, excessive toil and continuous hardship. It is also true that a few of the peasantry themselves, throughout the provinces, had succeeded in rising above the level of their fellows, just as some of the slaves of old time became even rich under still more arduous conditions for the mass of the slave class, or as wage-earners have been able, occasionally, to acquire wealth and become capitalists. But these were exceptional cases; and it is certain that the very men who had thus partially emancipated themselves were those who were most active in leading their fellow-peasants to attack and destroy the old oppressive feudal system.
The general taxation, and the manner in which it was extorted by the farmers-general of the revenue, constituted by itself a crushing burden, apart from the feudal dues and servitudes. So excessive was the weight of this taxation upon the agriculturists that, in districts where the valuation was strictly made, and the payments were rigorously exacted, assuming the produce of an acre to be worth £3,2s. 7d., the proportion which went to the Crown was £1,18s. 4d., the landlord took 18s., the actual cultivator being left with only 5s. Or if the land were cultivated by the peasant owner himself, his share was only £l, 4s. 3d., while the Crown still took £1,18s. 4d. Thus, if the produce of an acre had been divided into twelve parts, nearly seven and a half of such parts went to the Crown, three and a half to the landowner and only one to the actual cultivator. The taille and the vingtieme imposts – affecting agricultural labour exclusively and rising in proportion to its returns – with other smaller burdens amounted to £6,840,000 a year. The taxes on consumption amounted to £10,400,000 a year. Hence the small proprietors, who had practically no appeal against such crushing imposts, since the intendants and the courts of justice were all at the disposal of the Crown, had been compelled in several departments to abandon their tillage altogether; and, as already noted, to crowd propertyless into the large and small towns, with no means of subsistence save what they could gain by selling their labour power to the rising middle class.
It has been stated on good authority that, in some provinces, more than half the land was derelict, owing to the impossibility of paying the taxes and dues, and leaving any margin to support the cultivator and his family. Miserably poor, with little hope of bettering their lot – such was the constitution of the mass of the French people. The social relations were as harsh as the economic. The absentee nobles hanging round the Court still regarded their tenants, in most provinces, as mere beasts of burden, whose sole right to existence consisted in supplying their lords and masters with the means of elegant waste: the peasants looked upon the King’s tax-gatherers, and also the landowners with their agents and bailiffs, as men who directly and brutally robbed them of the fruits of their labour – in short, as blood-suckers of the foulest type, ever ready to resort to tyranny and torture when payments fell due and were not discharged. This feeling the unfortunate tillers of the soil took with them into the towns, when stress of circumstances and actual famine drove them starving from their fields and huts; and it was their furious resentment and lust for vengeance which largely accounted for the ferocity displayed. There is no need to imagine special breeds of murderers deliberately imported from without for purposes of massacre in Paris and other great cities. Plenty of men and women fired with justifiable hatred were already on the spot. In the country, naturally, the class animosity was quite as bitter. The peasants were getting power, but bad harvests brought famine; their worst enemies were close at hand in the persons of the agents of their landowner and in the chateaux, which the latter rarely visited, though his game ravaged their fields and ruined their crops. Consequently, abominable as were the communications, utterly uneducated as were the mass of the people, impossible as was any thoroughly centralised organisation for the specific purposes of revolt, ignorant as nearly all the districts and communes were of what was occurring in the metropolis, the indisputable truth remains that, though the peasants were destitute of arms, the same causes produced similar effects, and resulted in the like attacks upon the nobility over nearly the whole of France. Nothing but a mass of serious and unendurable economic and social oppressions could have produced discontent so general and hatred so implacable.
But this same discontent and hatred could not of themselves have brought about the Revolution, had not the entire system been worn out. In the early days of Louis XIV, for example, though there were bitter grievances at the beginning of his monarchy, in spite of capable management of the finances, and even in the latter part of his reign, when successful and unsuccessful wars had well-nigh ruined the entire country, such a movement could not have been carried on with any hope of victory. The old forms, economic, social, political and religious, were still effective, and seemed permanent for the mass of the people. The same may be said of the greater part of the reign of Louis XV. Upheaval was possible, revolts were frequent, but the monarchy and nobility still stood firm. Nor when, as we can now see, everything was ready for a great change did the most capable French observers really anticipate what soon afterwards occurred. So advanced and shrewd a man as the Socialist Abbé Mably said, only five years before the fall of the Bastille: “The revolution will never come.”
Nothing, also, could have been more moderate than the demands in the list of grievances set forth by the peasantry from the various provinces. In this moderation they followed the example of the bourgeoisie. The King was actually popular, and was looked to as the source of reforms against the nobles. A careful study of the rise and spread of the revolutionary spirit shows clearly that, determined as the Tiers État was to assert itself, when once the political outlet was opened which had been closed for a hundred and seventy-five years, the mass of the people had little idea of their own power: so little that a powerful monarch or a bold statesman might have brought about, peacefully and effectively, greater and more beneficial changes than those which the eight years of revolutionary turmoil eventually secured. But this has, hitherto, been the invariable course of events in European movements, political and social, successful and unsuccessful; the dominant minority has never been able to meet inevitable developments with sagacity and courage. “Nous etions des laches,” replied one of the aristocratic emigrants at Coblenz, to a friend who asked him why they had failed to stay the revolutionary current and direct it into fertilising channels. And this was true. Not that the nobles were physical cowards. They and their womenkind showed marvellous personal intrepidity throughout, under circumstances where temporary breakdown might have been excusable. But moral cowards they unquestionably were. They dared not, like the Daimios and Samurai of Japan, recognise that they had outlived their epoch and lead their countrymen at what appeared great personal sacrifice into the inevitable new period. They fell, not because they and the Court were extravagant, wasteful, lascivious, corrupt and cruel. They had been all this for generations. Their overthrow was due to the fact that they and their feudalism had become useless.
But the same could not be said of the King. At the commencement of his reign, when advised by Turgot and Malesherbes, and before he fell under the complete domination of the fatal foreign woman, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI displayed most of the qualities which our Charles I had so wholly lacked. It may have been too late, as some say, to begin the removal of feudal rights in 1774-1776, but, quite clearly, the people did not think so. Opposed by the Parliament of landlords in his support of Turgot’s measures for suppressing feudal abuses, the King, incensed at this selfish conduct and the similar policy pursued by the merchants, took the strong course of enacting definite edicts against the corvée and other wrongs inflicted of old upon the people, in a Lit de Justice of 12th March 1776. The opposition to the King’s removal of this “barbarous slavery ruinous to the countryside” made Voltaire’s “old blood boil in his old veins”; and he spoke of the King’s Lit de Justice as “le lit de bienfaisance.” Sir Robert Walpole wrote in similar terms, declaring that the resistance of the Parliament to the admirable reforms proposed by MM. Turgot and Malesherbes was more scandalous than the most ferocious whim of despotism. Paris itself was widely illuminated by transparencies, proclaiming “Vive le roi et la liberté.” The people in town and country went wild with delight when the news got round, and a few excesses were seized upon as evidence of the malign effect of all reform on the masses.
Two months later, on the 12th May 1776, the King, weakly giving way to the cabals of the nobility, and to the malefic influence of his wife, dismissed Turgot from the Court, Malesherbes having resigned before. Voltaire was dumbfounded at this victory of reaction. He wrote: “France would have been too fortunate. These two ministers united together would have performed miracles. I shall never console myself for having seen the birth and the death of the golden age which they were preparing for us.” They came full butt up against all the vested interests and time-hallowed prejudices of their age – only thirteen years before the beginning of the Revolution – and were defeated by the greed and bigotry of the nobles, the rich men of the Tiers État and the Queen. Galiani’s letter to Madame d’Epinay, quoted by M. Rocquain, sums up the situation: “We have arrived at the days of which Livy speaks: ‘Such a period are we in that we can neither endure our ills nor their remedies’.’
It is well to remember, when we are shocked at the horrors of the Revolution, thus rendered certain by the madness of the reactionists and the weakness of the King, that the French peasants and workmen, the lower bourgeoisie and artisans, had long been systematically cheated and betrayed in the matter of reforms, before they were driven to resort to armed revolution. Louis XVI had to choose between a domestic coup d’état in his house, followed by a direct alliance of the Crown with the mass of the people, or a surrender to foreign petticoat government and the uncontrolled domination of his worthless aristocracy. He made his choice and lost his head. From 1776 to 1789 were years of preparation for popular action, the full force of which, as said, was not understood even by the Tiers État and the people themselves. From. the downfall of Turgot and Malesherbes, however, onwards, the Crown had really the sole option: se somnettre ou se demettre – to submit or resign. When the King apparently submitted he once more had the people with him; when he persisted in lying and intriguing, the guillotine stood ready at his door. But his death and the removal of so many rich and poor citizens by the Red, and so very many more by the White Terror, were, when all is said, not strictly important incidents, regrettable though they were, in the great class war, which terminated in the economic and political victory of the bourgeoisie. The actual loss of life on both sides was quite trifling compared with that during the Napoleonic wars, and still less noteworthy than the butchery during the recent tremendous clash of arms. But, what is worth serious consideration at the present time is the fact that the Tiers État, or bourgeoisie, in France and in other countries, which was so bloodthirsty and relentless in pursuit of its own emancipation and dominance when once it obtained the mastery, preached assiduously peace, perfect peace, as the only justifiable method of obtaining any reforms for the disinherited class below, which constituted the bulk of the population. This is a very convenient, if hypocritical, form of pacifism.
But what the overwhelming majority of the population, the peasants of the country and the poor of the towns, eventually gained was acquired with great difficulty and at serious risk. After the first burst of revolutionary fervour, reaction, as all the world knows, made way steadily. Not only did the King and the Court, Lafayette and the leaders of the wealthy middle class, with the Girondins, turn against the people, but the invading Austrian and Prussian forces, encouraged from the Tuileries, and even from the Assembly itself, made sure that they would capture the French metropolis, relieve the French King from the control of his subjects, slaughter all the Jacobins and revolutionists generally, and restore the ancien regime. No reliance whatever could be placed upon the Assembly. The situation was most threatening at home and from without. Marat, whose character and conduct were first seriously defended by Bax, and a study of whose writings convinced Jaurès that this remarkable man had been shamefully traduced – even Marat, who had never lost heart in the most desperate situation, was in despair. Before the 10th August 1792 he seriously thought of leaving Paris, where he had been hunted about for several months. Yet the 10th August was the critical day of the whole Revolution. Had not the Commune of Paris taken up the leadership of the people against the Court and the Convention, it is almost certain that reaction would have won, temporarily at least. But the butchery of the half-armed populace by the royal troops, the clear evidence of the growing strength and organisation of the monarchical party, the news from the eastern front of constant treachery by the chiefs of the old army, the wholesale devastation of territory carried on by the invading German-Austrian armies, roused once again the real revolutionary enthusiasm of 1789 – and more.
How the French survived the desperate struggles between the growing strength of reaction and the reawakened zeal of the revolutionists, the counter-revolutionary risings in Lyons, Bordeaux and other cities, the terrific war of reprisals and extermination in La Vendée, where the greater part of the peasantry fought for Church and King, and were massacred wholesale by the revolutionists, the triumphant advance of the allied armies till checked at Valmy and Wattignies, the lack of funds to maintain the Republican forces and want of arms to equip them against the enemy from without and the royalist and bourgeois foes within – how the French nation continued to live through this terrible stress and strain is one of the marvels of that extraordinary period. But with the collapse of the monarchical resistance on 10th August, and the imprisonment of the royal family, a new spirit seems to have been breathed into the genuine Republican party. Through anarchy and upheaval the revolutionists fought on in the field and in the Assembly, until, in spite of the machinations of the Girondins and their middle-class supporters, they passed the great democratic constitution of 24th June 1793, which swept away finally and without compensation all the feudal claims, put an end to the monarchy, and placed power in the hands of the people. This was the high-water mark of the whole Revolution. Little was done afterwards. The excesses of the revolutionists in the provinces after their victories, the reign of terror in Paris itself, the furious personal animosities of the factions, the failure of the men in control to develop any high national policy of construction which the whole nation could grasp – all this played into the hands of those of the bourgeoisie who had made large fortunes out of the purchase of public lands with the issue of huge masses of paper money, and thus fortified the elements of disgust and reaction in every way. With the fall of Robespierre and his friends on the 9th of Thermidor, these anti-revolutionary forces controlled by the well-to-do class, who feared nothing so much as the shock to private property – a feeling which, as we have seen, manifested itself very early in the Revolution – came into control and avenged themselves upon their enemies. Then, being incapable of mastering the military element, or of developing, in their turn, any clear and comprehensive policy, or even suppressing the active disappointment of a deluded people, thev fell under the domination of a powerful military genius, who saved them their property at the expense of their liberty. But Napoleon himself, and the monarchist rulers of the old Bourbon family who followed him, could not put back the clock upon the dial of social development.
What the peasantry had gained they, in the main, kept. Even at the height of the ecclesiastical and monarchical power imposed upon France by the Allies in 1814 and 1815, it was impossible to recover for the dispossessed landowners a portion of the lost relics of serfdom and aristocratic privileges that had been abrogated in 1793. Nor can it be denied that the relief from the intolerable oppression of belated feudalism enabled France, rural France – which is, when all is said, the real France – to develop resources and produce agricultural wealth to an extent which astonished Europe. This it was which enabled her armies first to withstand and repel invasion, and then to sweep forward as conquerors on a mission which began as a revolutionary movement, proceeded as a succession of campaigns to obtain Imperial domination, and ended in favour of the kingship that had been so tragically dethroned.
But the peasants, whose stupendous toil and sacrifice gave France, by their labour at home and their prowess in the field, the first position in Europe, gained in the long run no complete emancipation from their penal servitude on the soil. Taxes and local dues still pressed hard upon them. The land is ever a hard task-master; and the antagonism between country and town is based, under the city rule of the middle class, upon a permanent clash of interests. Small owners, such as constitute the majority of the population of France, have, save under exceptional circumstances, all the drawbacks which result from agricultural tillage conducted at a mechanical disadvantage. Overworked, parsimonious, conservative and at times reactionary, the small cultivators, with all their counterbalancing good qualities, have acted as a drag upon French progress for more than a hundred years. Not for eighty years was even a bourgeois republic definitely established. The French Revolution, as is now admitted even by its most strenuous applauders, secured but a small portion of those freedoms which its leaders and followers claimed for the mass of the people; nor has it fully succeeded in doing so up to this day.
For, over against the masses of the cultivators, determined to rid themselves of the feudal dues and servitudes at any cost, and resolved to obtain possession of the land, but seeing no further into the economic future than those two immediate reforms, stood the French bourgeoisie. This was the only class which was ready by education, organisation, knowledge of business and administrative training to take up and carry on the public services, to develop and extend the great money power, to substitute the pecuniary rule of the bankers, merchants, traders, capitalists, lawyers and professions generally for the personal domination of the feudal nobility and the landowners. They were out to make a revolution for the most selfish and sordid reasons. The object was not to gain freedom for all, but freedom for their own mastery of all the rest. Never in human history were great ideals prostituted to baser ends. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” is the glorious motto still inscribed on the buildings and banners of the French Republic. But what did those noble abstractions mean to the class triumphant in the French Revolution, the class whose members were its leaders throughout? Liberty to exploit by wage slavery and iy. [?] Equality before laws enacted in the interest of the profiteers, and justice administered in accordance with their profiteering notions of fair play. Fraternity as a genial brotherhood of pecuniary exploitation. “The Rights of Man” deliberately perverted to the right to plunder under forms of equity.
Thus were the noble conceptions of high-minded idealists translated into the language of sordid capitalist life. But the real meaning of these fine words, under a higher system of society, still remains, behind their misapplication of yesterday and to-day. This some of the revolutionists, who were nevertheless devoted to private property, saw dimly, and the Communists of the period plainly proclaimed. There can be no social equality, that is to say, between the rich and the poor: no real equality between the full man and the fasting. There can be no liberty unless an ample supply of all necessaries and luxuries of life is permanently secured by light labour for all. There can be no fraternity where one class is able to squeeze unpaid labour out of the wage-earners, who possess nothing but their labour power to sell. It was the Communists, such as Babeuf, preaching these doctrines, whom the Republicans specially hated and finally shamefully guillotined. Their views, unrealisable as they were at the time, drove the whole set of profiteers headlong into the arms of reaction. Property was the one God of the middle-class leaders of the French Revolution. Their first names were classical, instead of Biblical, as with the English upsetters of the monarchy; but they worshipped Mammon with more whole-hearted assiduity than the Puritans and slaughtered Communists with far greater fervour than the Cromwellians dispatched Levellers. The views of Morelly, Mably, Le Roux, L’Ange, Chaumette and others were premature in the days of the French Revolution. But they only anticipated events. Their theories, not those of Rousseau and Marat, inspired men of action like the whole-souled and self-sacrificing hero, Blanqui, and laid the foundations of the more developed Communism of Fourier and the encyclopaedic elaborations of the great St Simon.
Evolution, in the sociologic sense, was not understood, as we understand it, in the eighteenth century. Some still thought that it was possible to go back to the golden age of the past, where the domination of gold was unknown, instead of, as St Simon truly said, to the golden age of the future, where the fetishism of gold will be finally dethroned, and wealth will be communally appropriated and distributed for the benefit of each and all. It is the fashion, nowadays, to speak of all such as Utopian socialists: it would be as reasonable to gibe at the great Roger Bacon as a Utopian scientist. When Fourier declared, in 1825, that competition would inevitably find its logical term in monopoly: when, in 1802, Robert Owen stated that wealth, even with the powers then possessed by society, might easily be made as plentiful as water, if men would but combine and overmaster the great machinery of production which controlled them: when, more than a hundred years earlier still, John Sellers pointed out that money frequently acted not as a means of exchange, but as a malefic hindrance to social production, by the necessity it imposed, in a society where exchange was dominant, of converting wares into cash – they each and all were truly scientific in their estimation of the facts of their period, and displayed a marvellous faculty of forecasting the future. It is easy to underrate the influence which such intelligent anticipations have had during the last century upon the practical efforts to advance into the new period. It is even remarkable that the Communists, who advocated “direct action” to bring about the changes which they desired and hoped to accomplish, took for granted, in their survey of the past, that man in society began with communism all over the world, as sociological investigations have now decided that he did. This was at the time an almost unverified hypothesis; and the idea of the “social contract,” which had been deliberately outraged by the power of malice aforethought, was purely imaginary. Nevertheless such ideas have had widespread attraction for active agitators all over Europe, and in France have inspired many conspiracies and insurrections. They have also kept burning, in the heart of the proletariat of all the towns, that passionate devotion to democracy and equality which have constituted the French, and particularly the Parisians, the continuous leaders of modern social idealism. Their refusal to recognise failure or to accept defeat have been of incalculable value to their noble and enduring cause.
Last updated on 7.7.2006