Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution

The Consequences of the Taking of the Bastille

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2010.

The effects of the taking of the Bastille were immense. It seemed to all the peoples of the world that humanity’s jail had fallen. It was more than the Declaration of the Rights of Man: it was the declaration of the people’s might in service to human right. It was not only light that reached the oppressed of the universe from Paris, it was hope. And in the millions upon millions of hearts held by servitude’s dark night was seen, at the same hour, liberty’s first dawning.

Paris’ victory put a decisive end to the offensive by royalty and the court. Pushed by the queen and the princes, the king had marched against the Assembly and against the Revolution at the royal session of June 23. He had just marched against Paris and the revolution on the hesitant and violent days of July. Everywhere repelled, he closed himself in in an underhandedly defensive position, and it was he who would now suffer repeated assaults: on October 6 with the flight to Varennes, on June 20, and on August 10 he would leave the offensive to the revolutionary people. The main gear of royal power was broken on July 14, or at least so damaged that it would never fully spring back. And already, on those days of coup d’état and aggression, a kind of paralysis could be felt.

While the Bastille was invested neither Besenval nor Marshal de Broglie risked taking the people from behind. What were they waiting for and why did they give de Launay the order to hold out instead of going to his assistance?

Obviously a new fear of responsibility had gripped these hearts that were set in their ways, that were used to only one form of peril, and the vast uprising of an entire people, without wiping out their courage, at the very least disconcerted it. Their instructions also must have been vague. On the 14th Louis XVI answered the envoys of the Assembly that it was impossible for the events in Paris to have been the result of orders given the troops. What then was the king’s plan?

Perhaps, in order to reassure his conscience, he had systematically refused to foresee the possible course of events. Perhaps he imagined that Paris, laid low by the mere presence of a vast military apparatus, would cease to be a tumultuous aid and the latter, feeling the dead weight of the immobilized capital, would walk uncertainly and stumblingly, ready to fall at the least shock.

The king, warned by the events of the 14th, learned that he had to take the force of the revolution into account. He would exercise cunning against it or would call foreign armies against it, but from that day forward he renounced any form of direct aggression, any declared offensive.

The Assembly, having still to foil intrigues but no longer having to fear or repel royal force, was able to undertake a fight against another great power of the past, the church.

At the same time that it thus liberated the National Assembly, the events of July 14 made the people aware for the first time of its strength and conscious of its role in Paris. The Assembly remained important. During these stormy days the permanent committee of electors deputized them, and the Parisian revolution only felt itself truly strong and legitimate through its contact with the national revolution.

What is more, the assembly itself had set a noble example of firmness and even of heroism. Its Tennis Court Oath, its serene and invincible resistance after the session of June 23, had electrified hearts and the most intrepid of Paris’ combatants had no other ambition than that of showing themselves to be worthy of the bourgeois revolutionaries who, without weapons and solely through the force of right and courage, had emerged victorious. It is nonetheless true that alone and without the assistance of the people of Paris the National Assembly would have ended up succumbing. And so the Revolution, which until then had had but one base, one center: the Assembly, from that point on had two corresponding centers, the Assembly and the people of Paris.

A few days after July 14 sieur Bessin, orator of the faubourg Saint Antoine, presented himself at the bar of the Assembly to request monetary aid for the workers of the faubourgs whose salaries had been suspended during the three days of agitation: “Messieurs, you are the saviors of the fatherland, but you too have saviors.” The transcript says that this energetic opening fixed the attention of the Assembly, and I fully believe this. It was the very meaning of the great event of July 14 that was appearing before it. Whatever its strength, whatever its majesty, it suddenly felt itself under the protectorate of Paris, and perhaps some unease was mixed in with the joy of the recent victory.

But these were but imperceptible nuances, and when on July 15 the Assembly sent its delegates to the capital to consecrate and legalize the Revolution it was with an enthusiasm mixed with respect that they were received by an immense crowd. Mounier, the touchy and rich bourgeois, always armed with suspicion of democracy, was won over by the respectful and cordial fervor of this reception.

From that day Paris was emancipated, and in the heat of events it improvised its municipal constitution before the Assembly was able to organize the municipalities through a general law, before it was able to elaborate the national constitution.

The former city bureau, whose counter-revolutionary spirit we saw in the person of provost Flesselles, was swept away. Bailly was named mayor by acclamation; Lafayette was named commandant general of the Parisian bourgeois guard. Through these two names Paris attached itself to the two greatest memories of liberty: Bailly represented the tennis Court Oath and Lafayette was the American Revolution.

Paris, with its revolutionary and humane instincts, at the very moment that it organized itself municipally opened itself wide to the liberty of the two worlds. Like ramparts that can be seen against the light of deep space, the city’s walls were silhouetted against the great light of universal liberty. It was concentric with the human horizon, and it could be felt that this circle of municipal life would expand until it took in all of humanity. Following Paris’ example countless communes were to be established throughout France, to administrate and to fight, to crush any attempt at counter-revolution, and to make up for the failings of royal executive power suddenly annihilated or reduced. And all these communes, born in the same commotion of liberty and need for order, were to federate with that of Paris. From the first weeks numerous bourgeois guards affiliated with the Parisian bourgeois guard and fraternal addresses were sent from all corners to the Paris municipality.

It is not surprising that one year later the festival of the federation was celebrated on July 14. For it was on July 14, 1789 that the federation of the communes of France was truly born. The same instinct warned all groupings of citizens, all the cities at the same time that liberty would be precarious and weak as long as it only rested on the National Assembly, and that it must have as many centers as there were communes. Mixed in in this way in the daily life of citizens, animated and renewed by boundless energy, the Revolution would be invincible.

But all these spontaneous and multiple energies had the Assembly as their political center, Paris as their dominant seat, and the Revolution as their ideal center. They were naturally and necessarily federated. These were great days when in the ardor of combat a clear and decisive idea affirmed itself. The storm’s lightning flashes seemed to melt into the splendid light of a summer’s day.

By reviving municipal life July 14 brought to the foreground of the action a proletariat that had been relegated to the background. To be sure, the workers, the poor were far from putting their hands on municipal power. As we will soon see, they will be excluded from the bourgeois guard and they will not sit in the district assemblies. Parisian municipal life will for quite some time continue to be marked by a more narrowly bourgeois character than the central action of the Assembly. But it was impossible to organize in Paris the legal power, at first of sixty districts, then of forty-eight, without a certain number of these districts and sections vibrating with popular strength and passion. While Robespierre’s voice was half stifled and repressed at the National Assembly Danton’s voice resounded in the district of the Cordeliers. Multiplying the points of power meant multiplying the points of contact between power and the people. It was thus, despite all legal barriers, increasing the possibilities and occasions for poplar intervention and tilting the Bourgeois revolution, not towards socialism – the idea for which has not yet been born – but towards democracy. Had there been a complete dispersal, if each commune had been a tiny closed world, the bourgeois oligarchy would have finished by laying hands on all these separate mechanism of mediocre vigor.

But when this multiplicity of local activities combines with a great general movement that inspires all the gears, then the continuity and vehemence of action little by little give power to the most ardent, the most active, and the most robust. This is why July 14, at the same time that it was a great bourgeois victory, was a great popular victory. Of course the fighting peoples’ direct participation on that great day did not have immediate consequences for the proletariat. The Revolution’s origins were so profoundly bourgeois that a few weeks after July 14 when the National Assembly, freed by the people from the court’s attacks, set up the electoral regime and excluded millions of the working poor from the vote, not a single deputy, not even the most democratic of them, remembered that at the Bastille the workers of Paris conquered the title of active citizens for the poor of France. This immediate participation of the people in the great events of the Revolution seemed an accident both glorious and fearsome that must not become the rule in the regular workings of a free and ordered society.

And yet it wasn’t in vain that from its first steps the bourgeois revolution had to have recourse to the vehemence of workers’ hearts and the might of workers’ muscles. When the war against the Vendéens, against the émigrés, against the foreigners would drive revolutionary tension to its highest point, when the people would, alongside the heroic bourgeois, all the gates of the revolution, they finally had to be given the rights of the city. Like the slaves of antiquity who conquered their liberty on the battlefield, the proletarians would conquer the right to vote and a few brief hours of political sovereignty on the bourgeois revolutions fields of combat.

Long would be the effort and short the victory. But that the proletariat was able, by the daring ladder of events, to climb for a moment to the leadership of the bourgeois revolution – or at least participate in it alongside the most daring bourgeois – was for it a title and a promise for the future. And so it is that we have without any difficulty glimpsed countless workers among the enormous mass that on July 14 first invested the Invalides and then the Bastille. They weren’t dupes when they mounted their assault. Though disarmed the next day by the distrustful bourgeoisie, then executed on the Champ de Mars two years later, they nonetheless marked the great revolutionary day with their courage and their strength. And thanks to these valiant men there is nothing under the sun today that belongs wholly to the bourgeoisie, not even its Revolution.