To understand the history and the real significance of even the most prominent ideas of an epoch, it is necessary to realise what constitutes the mental background, as we may term it, of the period in question, for it is this that gives to the expressed ideas of a time their real significance. It has often been remarked that the same actual words or phrases may have a different meaning at different times. To take a familiar illustration – that of Dr Johnson’s well-known aphorism that “patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels.” The uneducated or half-educated man in the street of to-day would regard this mot as an attack by some “little Englander” on the Jingo or Imperialist with whom he is familiar, – the background of his mind, in the light of which he interprets it, consisting of the conditions of English politics that have grown up during the last generation. Needless to say, the expression to the mind of Dr Johnson, who first used it, had an entirely different, and in some respects even an opposite, meaning. He knew nothing of modern Imperialism, of the glorious British Empire upon which the sun never sets: what was in his mind was the antithesis, not between the advocate of an aggressive British Empire and a respecter of the rights of weaker peoples, but an advocate of the rights of the people of a given country against its ruling classes. This was the sense in which the eighteenth century, for the most part, understood the words “patriot” and “patriotism”, the great political antithesis of the eighteenth century being that between rulers and people. This is an obvious instance. But the capacity of the same form of words to express totally different meanings according to the age in which they appear, and the great danger of their entire falsification by reading into them the mind of a later period, can never be sufficiently present to the sense of the historian. Every form of ideas that belongs to a past period of history, no matter how modern it may look, we may be quite sure is not what it appears to us of the twentieth century at first sight. The intellectual background of the men who enunciated the ideas in question is so different, that the meaning present to them in the expressions used and the meaning they evoke in us cannot possibly be the same.
The above remarks apply to our estimation of eighteenth century thought generally, and, not least, to the thought of the French Revolution. To understand this thought properly, we have to investigate the conditions that reflected themselves in the mental background of the leading actors. One thing we have to do is to eliminate all conceptions having their origin in the doctrine of evolution from their mental framework. This it is somewhat difficult for the present generation effectually to accomplish. Our whole thought is so bound up with the notion of development, that it is difficult for us to realise the intellectual attitude of the man of intelligence to whom this idea has never presented itself. Yet, needless to say, to the eighteenth century thinker in general it was entirely absent. Very noticeable is this in the theories of society prevalent during the eighteenth century, and that formed the groundwork of the thought of the Revolution. The main principle upon which it all turned was that of conscious and arbitrary construction. Society, as it existed, was conceived as the outcome of a contract made in remote ages, and which might be unmade or altered at the will of its individual members at any time. The classics still bulked largely in the cultured man’s outlook on history, politics, and the world in general. In seventeenth-century England this was modified by the place the English Bible held in the imagination of all classes. Hence in the British political struggles of the seventeenth century we find the Old Testament the great storehouse of instances on which the popular imagination falls back. In France of the eighteenth century, on the contrary, the classical tradition held undisturbed sway, alike with the cultivated and the popular intelligence. The very names indicate this. In the place of Biblical names we have Anacharsis Clootz, Anaxagoras Chaumette, Gracchus Babeuf, and the like. Everyone with the smallest smattering of education talked Roman History, just as in the English political movements of the preceding century everyone talked Old Testament. As for the literary movement in France, this was derived mainly from English sources. Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Mandeville, Bolingbroke, and other less known English writers contributed to build up the theories of Condillac, Helvetius, D’Holbach, Voltaire, Rousseau and the Encyclopaedists.
Political and social ideas of the time were naturally dominated by the leading political forms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These were absolutism, working through a bureaucracy, on the one side, and an all but rightless people, composed more or less of a downtrodden peasantry in the country, and a middle – class, still largely composed of small masters, in the towns. A proletariat in the modern sense, which implies the existence of the great machine-industry, did not exist. But a population, not as yet relatively very numerous except in a few large towns, of journey-men and labourers, which was destined to become the groundwork of the modern proletariat, did undoubtedly obtain, but obtained only as an economic appendix of the small middle-class [in modern Marxist terms: petty bourgeoisie] to which reference has been made. The old feudal landowning class, which had come down from medieval times, had now in the main become an absentee landowning class, dancing attendance at courts and growing financially poorer. While still retaining many of its feudal privileges, it functioned for the most part through its members holding positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy which centred in the Crown. As a consequence of the foregoing conditions, the leading political category of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was that of Ruler and Subject. Similarly, the leading economic category was that of Rich and Poor. It may be said, of course, that these categories obtain also to-day. But they are no longer dominant as categories in their bare abstractness, as they were in the eighteenth century. In the Western Europe of modern times absolutism has uniformly broken down in favour of some form of popular representation. Hence there is, in theory at least, no longer a pure and unadulterated Ruler in the old sense, any more than there is a pure and unadulterated Subject in the old sense. In a word, with the dominance in the political sphere of some form of Constitutionalism, the edge of the old antithesis has become blunted. It has no longer, in its old and bare form, the incisive force that it once had.
Again, the corresponding leading antithesis of the eighteenth century in economics, that of Rich and Poor, has likewise in a measure lost its pregnancy in the modern world. The rich are no longer an approximately homogeneous class over against the poor, as also a relatively homogeneous section of society. There is no one class of rich men more or less completely dominating the economic situation of to-day, as did the French noble and higher ecclesiastic of the ancien régime. In the most recent developments of modern Capitalism, it is true that the financial Capitalist takes the lead. But he does not, as yet, completely dominate the economic situation. The Industrial Capitalist or Syndicate plays a scarcely less important part in the economic system of the modern world, while the old Landowner, who has come down from the ages of feudalism, still continues to exist, even if he no longer flourishes as of yore. The interests, moreover, of the Landowner as such, and of the Industrial Capitalist as such, are often in strong conflict. The same may be said of the small Capitalist and of the large Capitalist. In fact, the Capitalist class itself is not homogeneous. If there is no homogeneous rich class to-day, there is certainly no homogeneous poor class: the small middle-class is more or less decadent. The “Poor”, like the “People”, is, in short, an expression covering various distinct social groups to-day, with aims and interests by no means always harmonious, not to say identical. to-day the economic antithesis receives its most adequate expression, not in the vague and more or less amorphous concepts of “Rich” and “Poor”, but in the extreme poles of the antithesis, that of Capitalist on the one hand and Workman on the other.
The Capitalist System, which forms the economic basis of present society, points more and more to the possessor or effective controller of the means of production, on the one hand, and the workman who has nought but his labour power, on the other, as representing the salient economic antithesis of the world in which we live. It is, if one will, of course only a mode of the old time-honoured antithesis of Rich and Poor, but its importance consists in the fact that it is a mode which defines the relation with regard to contemporary conditions which the old, vague antithesis of Rich and Poor does not do. The latter sufficed for a time when the class conflicts of the modern world were in embryo, when the modern Proletariat, with its economic complement, the great Industrial Bourgeoisie, was in its infancy.
At that time the working classes of the towns, taking them in the bulk, were not yet readily distinguishable, as regards their interests, from the poorer sections of the middle-class. The whole question seemed only one of degree, from the well-to-do (for that time) large employer of labour like Reveillon or Santerre, a rara avis, of whom only a few specimens existed in Paris and in other large towns, through the small master working himself and employing a few journeymen to assist him, to the small independent craftsman who could not afford to employ labour, down to the journeyman labourer himself. There seemed no essential economic halting-place. At the top of the scale you had a man relatively rich, but still not rich as the noble was rich, and at the lower end of the scale you had various gradations of poverty. Outside this small industrial middle-class of the towns was to be found the man of the land, the peasant, who formed the bulk of the population of France. Here, in the peasant in his hut, as against the noble in his chateau, the lord of the countryside, was to be found the antithesis of rich and poor in its most direct and its sharpest form. Bad seasons and abject local conditions had driven numbers of the peasantry into the towns, both before and during the early years of the Revolution. These detached elements of the rural class formed a vagabond population, living from hand to mouth, and not fitting into any distinct section of society as then organised. In the France of the eighteenth century, the intellectual and bureaucratic middle-class, including the middle ranks of the clergy, attached by social and economic bonds to the smaller noblesse, and which formed the intellectual backbone of the moderate side of the Revolution, are not to be confounded, it should be observed, with the industrial middle-class. Though also men of the Third Estate, they must not be identified with the former. From them the ranks of the Constitutionalists and Girondists were mainly recruited.
From what has been said, it will be evident how the appeals of Babeuf and those who thought like him were necessarily to the poor in general, unlike the appeal of the modern Socialist agitation, which is pre-eminently to the working-classes of the great industry – to the modern proletariat. Similarly, from the political side, the appeal of the French Revolutionist was to man in general. He called upon him to claim his rights as citizen. The appeal of the modern Socialist is not so much to man in general, to man in the abstract, as to man as the producer of wealth; in other words, to the workman. He, the Socialist, calls upon the workman, as the producer of wealth, to claim his right as a class, to be at once possessor, controller, and organiser of production and the enjoyer of the wealth produced. The idea of citizenship is not sufficiently definite for modern use. All these considerations are necessary to be taken into account in judging the outlook of the men of the Revolution. Their sociological and political prospective was abstract. They regarded all things as dominated by abstractions – right, virtue, citizenship, man.
Even the great Revolutionary trinity, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, was conceived of in the abstract way of looking at things peculiar to the eighteenth century. In the absence of the idea of evolution it was inevitable that society should be regarded as governed by such abstract notions. Modern Socialist thought, on the other hand, seeks a realisation of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” in the concrete development of a new society from germs present in existing society. It takes its stand upon a social growth – economical, political, and ethical – which has in the past proceeded, in the main, independently of the conscious will of man. To the eighteenth century, liberty eras a formal pattern, to be applied as a label is applied in the most superficial manner. The modern mind sees that oftentimes a formal liberty, such as that, for example, comprised in so-called “liberty of contract” as between the possessor of the means of production and the propertyless workman, is a mere form and nothing more – a form concealing a content which is its very opposite. It is seen clearly by the modern revolutionary thinker that the superficial form of any idea may easily be only a blind, and that what we have to look to is its concrete embodiment in a given society. To this more than a mere label is necessary. The Paris of the French Revolution was enamoured of the bare word “liberty,” and felt it a revolutionary duty to apply it on every occasion and in every detail of life in its barest form, so that the Parisians of 1793 opened all the cages of their song-birds and let the inmates fly away, with the result that the streets of Paris were strewn with the dead bodies of canaries and other hapless victims. This is a trivial illustration of devotion to a term applied in its hard, formal abstraction, or as a label.
We are not free even in the present day from the worship of an abstract phrase connoting an idea regardless of its real content. This is very noticeable in the modern Feminist movement. We find the notion of chivalry, as implying consideration and deference for weakness, exploited to its fullest extent by the Feminist advocate, by using the notion of weakness as a superficial label applied to every member of the female sex, regardless of the facts or circumstances of any given case, or of the general social conditions obtaining to-day. As a matter of fact, the physical strength or weakness of the individual counts for very little in the present age, when disputes are decided, not by personal prowess, but by the power of the State, through its accredited organs. A woman in the power of the law or opposed by superior force could under no circumstances be in worse case than a man similarly situated. But the fact is, by virtue of this very sex weakness she is in a much stronger position than the man, and hence deserves much less pity than a man would do under like circumstances. A maudlin sentiment is sought to be aroused in the public mind by the employment of the notions of weakness and chivalry as the label, the justification for which is purely formal and abstract, and which is contradicted by the content of every given case, as determined by existing law and public opinion. Formal sex weakness and disability has thus been converted into real sex strength and domination. But by dint of ignoring this conversion, and taking his stand on physiological facts which under modern conditions have become purely irrelevant, the feminist can succeed in hoodwinking public opinion as to the reality embodied in the facts, and hence as to the true distribution of effective strength and weakness between the sexes in modern society.
Though the course of the French Revolution upo to the time of Gracchus Babeuf’s entry into the political arena, is one of those matters with which every modern representative of Macaulay’s schoolboy is supposed to be familiar, it may not be out of place for those readers whose Revolution lore is not altogether as fresh as it might be to devote a few pages to a short sketch of the course of events from the assembly of the States-General on May the 5th, 1789, to the Revolution of the 9th of Thermidor, July the 27th, 1794, consequent on which the political activity proper of Babeuf began.
The day after the opening of the States-General was signalised by the insistence of the Third Estate on its being joined by the other Estates in the large hall of Versailles. Wrangling as to the form the deliberations should take – the First and Second Estates, i.e. the nobility and higher clergy, with few exceptions, refusing to unite in the same council chamber with the Third Estate – continued till June the 15th, when, on the proposal of the Abbe Siéyès, the Third Estate proclaimed itself the representative assembly of the French nation. The title of National Assembly was adopted the next day. This action was followed on the 20th of the month by the closing of the great hall by the king and the adjournment of the Constituent National Assembly to the Tennis Court, where the famous oath was taken not to separate till a constitution had been given to France. The king in vain attempted to annul the action of the Third Estate, and finally, after some days, agreed to the union of the Estates as a National Assembly.
On the 11th of July the king refused to accede to the Assembly’s request to remove the troops then at Versailles, and at the same time dismissed the popular minister, Necker. The latter event aroused the whole of Paris, and was followed by meetings and tumults throughout the city. The next day a citizen guard was formed in Paris sixty thousand strong, pikes were forged and guns sought for. On the 14th, in the belief that a royal attack on the city from Versailles was imminent, the search for arms was redoubled, the Bastille was stormed and taken.
Emigration of nobles now began on a large scale, and at the same time the burning of chateaux went on throughout the countryside. On the celebrated night of the 4th of August the Assembly abolished all feudal rights, and established equality before the law and personal liberty, by decree. Within the next few days the lands and buildings of the Church were in principle declared national property. Necker, who had been recalled by the king after the taking of the Bastille, towards the end of September made vigorous but abortive attempts to raise by loan sufficient money to meet the situation.
Meanwhile starvation and want made fearful havoc in Paris, till on October the 5th several thousand women, followed by immense crowds, marched to Versailles, Lafayette following later on with his National Guards. The Assembly and the royal palace were invaded by the populace, the majority of whom remained in Versailles through out the night, renewing the attack on the palace the following day. The upshot of the whole affair was that on the afternoon of October 6th the royal family were forced to follow the crowd to Paris, taking up their residence in the Tuileries. The Assembly soon transferred itself also to Paris, where it continued its work of building up the constitution.
The map of France was now altered, the old provinces abolished, and their place taken by eighty-three departments, with corresponding administrative bodies. The old parliaments were abolished and new law courts established. The civil constitution of the clergy was now completed and promulgated. On November the 3rd the Assembly formally confiscated the effects of the clergy, abolishing them as a separate order.
About this time the Jacobin Club, so called from its meeting in the old Jacobin convent in the Rue St Honoré, began to exercise an important influence in public affairs. The work of federating the newly organised French nation in its new districts and departments now went on apace, but all the time plots were being hatched to get the king away to Metz, there to place himself at the head of an army that had been formed by the emigrant aristocrats. Some of the principal of these nobles were maintained at Trier, Turin, and other places in the neighbourhood of the French frontiers by the Court. The ecclesiastical estates were now sold, and served as the security for the new issue of paper money (assignats) inaugurated by Necker. On the 14th of July of this year, 1790, the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, a great festival of the Federation of all France was held in Paris, on the Champs de Mars. Soon after this, fresh clubs sprang up in all directions, which became affiliated to the Jacobin Society of Paris. In Paris itself, the Club of the Cordeliers, which embraced Danton, Marat, and Hébert, was founded as a more democratic rival of the Jacobins.
In August occurred the famous affair of Nancy, which began by an outrage offered to two envoys of a Swiss regiment by French officers. This Swiss regiment became popular with French revolutionists everywhere. Bouille, the commander of the troops on the eastern frontier, ordered the Swiss to evacuate Nancy, where they were quartered. They refused, with the result that Bouillé, with the aid of some German regiments and seven hundred royalist guards, ordered a massacre, in which half of the Swiss regiment fell, after which twenty-one were hanged and fifty sent to the galleys. This affair of the “Nancy massacre”, as it was called, was an epoch-making event, fraught with important consequences to the Revolution. Henceforward the Assembly, which had played an equivocal role in the whole business, together with the king condoning Bouillé’s crime, became more and more distrusted by the popular party. The clubs developed an extraordinary activity, and rose to be of paramount importance in the political life of Paris and of France.
Early in September, soon after the news of the Nancy massacre arrived in Paris, Necker escaped from Paris and France, having become unpopular, and impossible any longer as Finance Minister. In January the clergy in the Assembly were challenged to take the oath to the Constitution. Many of them refused, thereby exacerbating the situation. On April the 2nd, Mirabeau, the most powerful mediating force between the old and the new regimes, died. This left an opening for the influence of Robespierre and other leaders of the Jacobin and Cordelier Clubs.
On the night of the 20th of June the famous attempted flight of the king took place, the idea being that Louis, together with his family, was to be received by Bouillé on the eastern frontier, prior to the latter marching on Paris with his army to suppress the Revolution. The king, as is well known, was recognised by the ex – dragoon and postmaster Drouet, who apprised the authorities at Varennes, the next town at which the royal party would have to change horses, with the result that Louis and his belongings were brought back to Paris. Henceforward the popular party was becoming more and more republican. The moderate party in the Assembly succeeded in getting the king reinstated after his virtual abdication, under conditions, which did not, however, satisfy the popular party, the latter demanding his summary dethronement, if not the establishment of a Republic. A gigantic petition to this effect, and claiming that the matter should be brought before the nation, was carried to the Champs de Mars by an immense crowd on July the 17th of this year (1791). Lafayette, accompanied by the mayor of Paris, Bailly, arrived on the ground at the head of a force of the National Guard: result, the notorious massacre of the Champs de Mars. This event produced consternation in the ranks of the popular party, and a temporary check to the Revolutionary movement.
At the end of September the Constituent Assembly, which, as we have seen, consisted of the members of the States – General elected in 1789, was dissolved. The newly elected Chamber, called the Legislative Assembly, met on the 1st of October. In this second parliament the party called at the time Brissotins, from their leader Brissot, but known subsequently by the name of Girondins, from the department of the Gironde, from which many of their chief orators came, was in the ascendancy. Pétion became mayor of Paris. Meanwhile the king vetoed various decrees passed by the Assembly. At the same time he was compelled formally to remonstrate to the central European Powers for harbouring and encouraging the émigrés who held a kind of court at Coblentz, and whose agents were active throughout Europe in their avowed intention of invading France at the first opportunity to restore the absolute monarchy. France remained in a state of seething discontent throughout the ensuing winter, and the relations with foreign powers were to the last degree strained.
Finally, in March 1792, Louis was forced to appoint a Girondin ministry, which promptly demanded explanations from the Austrian Court. The upshot was a kind of ultimatum on the part of the emperor, demanding a return to the ancien régime, including the restoration of Church property, and the cession of Alsace to the German princes.
War was at last declared on the 20th of April, on the proposition of the king, who hoped for a successful invasion of the country, resulting in the restoration of his own power, and also by this means to drain off into the army to a large extent the revolutionary elements of the home population. The declaration of war was greeted with enthusiasm in Paris, as affording a relief from the tension of the previous months. The French forces consisted of three armies – the army of the north under Richambeau, the army of the centre under Lafayette, and the army of the Rhine under Luckner. The war began by an unsuccessful invasion of Brabant. The Jacobins accused the counter – revolutionaries generally of plotting for the defeat of the French armies, and the officers of treachery. On June the 28th the Assembly decreed the formation of a military camp before Paris. This decree, together with another concerning the priests who refused to take the oath of loyalty to the constitution, Louis peremptorily vetoed.
On the 20th of June an insurrectionary movement took place in Paris, the populace breaking into the Tuileries. From this time the movement for the deposition of Louis and the abolition of the monarchy gained by leaps and bounds every day. On June the 28th, Lafayette, having left his army, appeared in Paris to demand the suppression and punishment of the Jacobin party for the riot of the 20th. He obtained no favourable hearing from anyone, and returned discomfited to his army, which he not long afterwards deserted, fleeing across the frontier.
Throughout France now the enrolling of volunteers went on; numbers of these came to Paris, ostensibly for the festival of the 14th of July. On the 22nd of July the country was declared in danger; the enrolment of volunteers received a double impetus. Recruits from the provinces arrived daily in Paris. The Paris wardships or sections declared themselves in permanent session. On the 25th, Brunswick launched his famous manifesto from Coblentz, and started on the march to Paris. Some members of the newly enrolled Federal guards formed a permanent committee at the Jacobins, while the forty – eight sections of the city appointed a central committee from their number to sit in the Hotel de Ville. On the 29th a newly created battalion of guards from Marseilles arrived in Paris, singing its war hymn, subsequently known as the Marseillaise. The demands for the dethronement of the king, by the Jacobin and popular party generally, became more clamorous and insistent than ever. Finally, on the 9th of August, a general assembly of the sections took place at the Hotel de Ville, at which it was agreed to demand the immediate abdication of the king, failing which, it was resolved to storm the palace of the Tuileries at midnight. The old municipal council, with its mayor, was then declared dissolved, and its place taken by a Revolutionary Commune.
The attack on the Tuileries took place actually in the early morning of the 10th of August, with the result that is well known. Louis was subsequently imprisoned with his family in the Temple, under the orders of the Revolutionary Commune. By the end of August news of the clerical and royalist outbreak in La Vendée reached Paris. The arrest of supposed royalist plotters within the capital took place wholesale. From the 3rd to the 6th of September the so – called September massacres were enacted by a body of persons between two and three hundred strong, who went from prison to prison killing supposed traitors. At about the same time Dumouriez, at the head of the raw levies of volunteers recently formed, drove back from the wooded ridges of the Argonne the armies of Brunswick. A week or two later a decisive victory of the French at Valmy relieved the situation.
The old Legislative Assembly having been dissolved, and a National Convention convoked on a basis of universal but indirect suffrage, the new legislative body opened its sittings on September the 21st. The dethronement of the king and the establishment of a Republic was immediately decreed. A committee to draw up the basis of a new constitution, founded on the sovereignty of the people, was nominated. Within the Convention, two distinct parties formed themselves, the old Girondist party reinforced, and the popular party, representing mainly the Paris deputies, called the Mountain, from the fact of its members sitting on the highest benches of the place of assembly. Outside these two parties were the mass of members called the Plain, or, in derision, the Marsh. The latter usually voted with the party which was for the time being in power. The famine in Paris, especially the scarcity of bread, now assumed serious proportions; bread riots were of daily occurrence. Within the Convention, exacerbation of parties grew daily more acute. The special bête noire of the Girondists was Marat, but they also dreaded Robespierre, as aiming at the Dictatorship. After weeks of wrangling, Louis was finally judged by the Convention and condemned to death without delay. On the 21st of January 1793 his execution took place on the Place de la Revolution, formerly Place Royale.
After the king’s death the feud between the Mountain and the Gironde grew more bitter. The Girondists, claiming to represent the provinces as against Paris, the stronghold of the Mountain, favoured a federal republic; the Mountain, on the other hand, insisted on an united and centralised republic, dominated by Paris. The large towns of the departments favoured the federal idea, and hence its exponents, the Girondists, while Paris remained faithful to the Mountain. Up to this time the executive power had, in the main, continued uninterruptedly in the hands of the Girondins. But the disasters now overtaking Dumouriez, the favourite general of the party, in his attempt to invade Holland, cast a suspicion of treachery, not only upon Dumouriez himself, but more or less affected the whole Girondist faction in the popular mind. Demands were made on various sides for the arrest and expulsion of twenty-two of the leading Girondists. In March, forty-four thousand communes throughout France now each appointed its permanent revolutionary committee to watch affairs, and especially to arrest and imprison suspected traitors and reactionaries.
The Girondists now succeeded in getting a commission appointed to inquire into alleged plots of the Jacobins and the popular party generally. They also obtained the indictment of Marat on a charge of inciting to disorder and breaches of the peace. Marat was tried, but triumphantly acquitted. These measures did not serve their authors, the Girondins, in any way, but merely helped to irritate their opponents. The rage of Paris, the Mountain, and the Jacobins against the party hitherto dominant in the Convention reached its climax in the last days of May, when the Commune took the lead in a popular insurrection against the Convention and the authorities. This ended on the 2nd of June in the arrest of twenty-two of the Girondist deputies, two ministers, and of the hated Commission of Twelve. The only hope for the Girondist faction lay now in the raising of the departments against what was represented as the dictatorship of Paris.
On the 14th of July, Charlotte Corday, egged on by Girondist misrepresentation, murdered Marat. The effect of this event throughout the country was immense. It roused the indignation of the whole of revolutionary France, vastly strengthening the position of the Mountain and the Jacobins. Up to this time the situation of the Girondists was not unfavourable. The chances of the Girondists’ insurrection seemed by no means hopeless. They had the bulk of the provinces with them, including the large cities of the south. But before the end of July the Girondist army melted away without having struck a blow. The cities Lyons, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Caen, etc., that still adhered to the Girondist cause, were taken by the National Forces of the Republic, and for the most part paid heavily for their partisanship. Meanwhile the committee for drawing up the new constitution had finished its labours. The draft was submitted to the forty-four thousand communes of France, and accepted by an enormous majority. On the 10th of August, the anniversary of the taking of the Tuileries, the constitution was promulgated in Paris with great rejoicings. This was the famous Constitution of 1793, which became the political sheet-anchor of the French democracy. Soon after the revolution which had placed the Mountain in power, the recently formed and now strengthened executive body, the Committee of Public Safety, had decided that a democratic constitution in accordance with the views of the Jacobins should be drawn up. The task of doing this was entrusted to a prominent member of the Convention, the ex-noble and friend of Danton, Hérault de Sechelles. He was assisted by four other Montagnards – St Just, Couthon, Ramel, and Mathieu. His draft was adopted by the Convention on June the 10th. It may be remarked that the question of the constitution had been prominently before the Convention, and more than one draft had been made by the Girondists, which had been received coldly by the Convention and public opinion, and actively opposed by the Mountain. The constitution of H6rault de Sechelles and his colleagues, called the Constitution of 1793, was the first and only constitution emanating officially from the Mountain and the Jacobins. This constitution, though adopted, as stated, by an enormous majority of the French people through their primary assemblies, was suspended immediately after it was promulgated, and never became operative.
Invasion now threatened France from all sides. It was in August 1793 that the two committees, that of Public Safety, sometimes called the Committee of Government, and that of General Security, concerned mainly with the executive functions of police, respectively, were given largely increased powers, amounting practically to those of a dictatorship. Superhuman efforts were now made to raise and equip more troops; everywhere were enlistments and requisitions. The Republic has been adequately described as presenting, in this autumn of 1793, the appearance of an armed camp. It was now that the “Reign of Terror” began in earnest. The Committee of Public Safety declared that the Republic was revolutionary, and must remain so until all danger from the enemy was past. The incriminated Girondists were tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined. The rest of the party were either imprisoned or outlawed. Marie Antoinette, generals, ex-deputies of the constituent and legislative assemblies, nobles, and officials of the ancien régime fell beneath the national knife, now in daily operation.
In October 1793 the revolutionary government was proclaimed, the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety came into full force, and with it the power of its now strongest member, Robespierre. The Committee of Public Safety being installed as, de jure, the supreme authority in France, it found that it had to make up its account with the de facto authority of the day, to wit, the Paris Commune. At first it was the Commune that effectively dominated the situation. Chaumette and Hébert had just instituted the worship of Reason on the ruins of Catholicism. The Commune, by means of its revolutionary army, consisting of six or seven thousand men under the command of Rousin, the dramatic author, undertook the purification of the provinces from reactionary elements, although its immediate action was mainly confined to the departments around Paris. But throughout France at this time guillotining was going on. Carrier was sent to Nantes; Lebon to Arras; Maignet, Fouché, Barras, Fréron were despatched to the cities of the south; and everywhere the revolutionary committees were active in hunting down traitors or supposed traitors.
By the end of 1793 fourteen armies were in the field. The year closed amid the success of the French arms everywhere. Friction, however, between the two rival central powers, the Committee of Public Safety and the Paris Commune, had already begun. The attack on the Paris Commune, or the Hébertist faction, as it was now called, from Hébert, one of its chief members and editor of the Pere Duchesne journal, by the followers of Robespierre, was started by Robespierre himself on September the 5th. But the Commune was still strong. In October it inaugurated the new worship of Reason. Robespierre’s determination to crush the rival power was now formed. At the same time, within the Convention, the Mountain was, however, showing signs of getting out of hand. Two members, who expressed the view that the committees were terrorising over the Convention, were arrested and imprisoned in consequence. In the provinces the representatives “on mission” dominated the situation, acting in many cases as local dictators.
The friction between the Committee of Public Safety, whose soul was Robespierre, and the Commune of Paris, led by Chaumette and Hébert, continued throughout the early part of 1794. Of the two chief clubs, the Jacobins and the Cordeliers, the stronghold of Robespierre and his Committee was the Jacobins; that of the Commune, i.e. of Hébert and his followers, was the Cordeliers. But there was a third party already in the field. Danton and his friends had been for some time past “lying low”. Danton himself had been away at his home at Arcis, whence he was recalled by his political associates. The latter, with the approval of their leader, started a journal vehemently hostile to the Hébertists and the Terror, which was edited and mostly written by Camille Desmoulins. It was called Le vieux Cordelier, in allusion to the Cordeliers Club in the old days when Danton was its moving spirit. In their campaign against the Terror, the Dantonists hoped to find support in the Convention, but, as events proved, they were relying on a broken reed. Robespierre and his party had now two enemies to contend with. On the one hand he had the L’Énrages, as they were termed, namely, the Hébertists, and on the other the Pacivists, that is, Danton and his friends. It was not part of Robespierre’s purpose, or that of his committee, to relax the Terror at this moment. On the other hand, Robespierre was much concerned that the handling of the system of the Terror should not get into the control of his Extremist enemies on the opposite side.
Early in March matters reached a climax. One or other of the two rival powers had to succumb. The only course for the Hébertists and the Cordeliers lay in a successful insurrection, which would break the power of the committee and of Robespierre. The beginnings of an attempt were made, but miscarried. A panic seemed to seize the Cordeliers, and no more active measures were taken. Robespierre had now the upper hand, and lost no time in having the leaders of the “Hébertist faction” arrested and dragged before the Revolutionary Tribunal, there to be charged with conspiring to destroy the Revolution by discrediting it through the excesses of their doctrines and policy.
Accordingly, on March the 24th, the leaders of the Extremist party, Hébert, Ronsin, and Momoro, with others, went to the guillotine, Chaumette following a few days later. The revolutionary army was disbanded, and the Commune reorganised and filled with the creatures of Robespierre. Having crushed his Extremist rivals, it only remained for Robespierre to destroy his Moderate foes. This followed with little delay. On March the 30th, Desmoulins, Philippeaux, and Westermann, with other friends of Danton, were arrested. Danton himself in vain attempted to get a hearing in the Convention, Robespierre effectually succeeding in closing his mouth. On April the 3rd he, together with the members of his party, was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, where he defended himself with such vigour that Robespierre had to extort a decree from the Convention depriving the accused of the right of speech. Two days later Danton and the remaining Dantonists were sent to the guillotine.
The power of Robespierre was now supreme. His next thought was the foundation of a deistic cult, of which he himself was to be the sovereign pontiff, as a counterblast to the atheistic worship of Reason inaugurated by the Hébertists. The Convention obediently voted his instructions in this respect, end the Festival of the Supreme Being was held on June the 8th, 1794, in the Tuileries gardens, the principal features of the ceremony being an oration from the high-priest Robespierre, following which he set fire to certain stage-property figures constructed to represent atheism and other doctrines of the Hebertists that he disliked. The Convention, which at Robespierre’s behest had shortly before decreed the existence of a Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul, was, two days after the festival in honour of these dogmas, called upon by the same dictator to pass the celebrated law of Prairial, which enacted that no prisoner haled before the Revolutionary Tribunal should have the right of any defence whatever.
The next weeks saw a frightful increase in the activity of the guillotine, which every day received its holocausts. But at the same time an undercurrent of fear and detestation and indeterminate revolt was rising higher and higher every day. Meanwhile, on the 26th June, the battle of Fleurus was won by General Jourdan, and the enemy driven from the Austrian Netherlands. Thus was France freed from danger, and the last point of her threatened frontiers relieved. The imminent danger of a foreign invasion was now definitely conjured, and therewith the main excuse for the institution of the “Terror” crumbled to pieces. But nevertheless the Terror continued.
At last the reckoning came. It was on the 9th of Thermidor (27th of July) 1794. Robespierre, feeling himself with his little group of satellites daily becoming more and more isolated amid the hatred and imperfectly suppressed revolt of Convention and committee men, on the 8th of Thermidor (July the 26th) appeared in the Convention after a long absence, with a violent and threatening speech, demanding powers to purge the Convention and the committees alike. This, after a moment’s hesitation on the part of the Convention, started the open revolt against the Robespierrian dictatorship. At the sitting of the following day, Robespierre and his partisans, including his brother, Couthon, St Just, and Lebas, were decreed accused. In the early morning of the 28th, Robespierre and his partisans were surrounded in the Hotel de Ville. At four o’clock in the afternoon Robespierre himself and the other chiefs of the Robespierrian faction fell beneath the guillotine. Thus ended the celebrated revolution of the 9th of Thermidor (27th of July), year II (1794). The immediate upshot was the end of the system of the Terror, soon followed by serious modifications in the public authorities. Various economic measures passed by the Convention to relieve distress, among them the Law of Maximum, were repealed during the ensuing months. The Jacobin Club was closed in November, and the Convention began steadily and unmistakably to enter the pathway of reaction.
It was now, during this autumn of 1794, that the great political activity of Gracchus Babeuf in Paris began, and began in the sense of the Thermidoreans, as the makers of the recent revolution were termed. The earlier period of his Paris journalism was signalised, as the reader will see, by vehement attacks on the fallen régime of the Terror and all connected with it. His subsequent change of opinions in this connection must be directly attributed to the reactionary character assumed by the new government, which was manned by Thermidoreans, and by the Convention itself, dominated, as it was, by the members of the same party and other reactionary elements, such as the remnants of the Girondin faction which were allowed to regain possession of their seats in the national legislature. With his growing bitterness towards the new authorities and the daily increasing reaction generally, moreover, grew Babeuf’s clearness of vision as to the ends he ultimately had in view. The Constitution of 1793, and the other political objects for which he strove, he now regarded merely as a means towards a communistic state of society, which was necessarily conceived by him under the only guise possible for a man of the eighteenth century to envisage it.
Last updated on 29.2.2004