Democracy and Military Service. Jean Jaurès 1907

Chapter VI
The French Revolutionary Tradition.

IN pleading for a National Militia, we are not under the illusion that any number of untrained, or even half-trained troops, can form a strong foundation of national defence. But let us look clearly at both sides of the militia question. Historians have pointed out, only too truly, the weakness of the hasty levies raised in 1792, and again, after the defeat of our regular armies, in 1870. But there are two facts worth noting on the other side. First, even these half-baked militiamen of 1792 and 1870 did sometimes fight with startling success; and, if Germany had been a less tenacious and well-organized foe, they might have secured as a drawn contest, or even final victory, in 1870. Secondly, these militias were raised suddenly under stress of a sudden crisis; everybody knows how difficult it is to extemporize armies under stress of actual war. The militia which we propose, on the other hand, will be an integral part of the national life, as in Switzerland. “What real parallel is there between those hasty formations of the past, patched up under the shadow of a great catastrophe, and a great popular army with its permanent organization in time of peace with its serious apprentice-ship even at school, with its periodical manoeuvres, its thorough preparation of rank and file, adequately armed and equipped, arrayed for a most formidable defence, with its own theory and practice of war which has long been rehearsed by officers and soldiers alike?” “It would be a national crime to allow men to believe that: the sudden inspiration of courage, enthusiasm or genius can make up for a patient, methodical and strong organization.” We propose no such thing; we propose a militia even more systematic and better trained than that of Switzerland. It was under the inspiration of this Swiss system that the armies were formed which saved the French Republic.

As early as December 12th, 180, a few months after the storming of the Bastille, Universal Military Service was proposed by one of the most prominent Radicals, Dubois-Crancé. In his great speech in the Chamber, he said: “I lay it down as an axiom that every French citizen must be a soldier, and every soldier a citizen, or we shall never have a Constitution .... We must face our enemies with 150,000 regular troops, to cover our frontiers and to march whithersoever they may be needed for defence. Behind these, we must have 150,000 provincial militiamen, to supply the wastage of the regular army, when necessary; these will cost nothing. Finally, I propose a third line of more than 1,200,000 armed citizens, ready to defend their homes and their liberties against all comers .... I believe that France, by adopting this system, might realize St. Pierre’s dream of perpetual peace; for what power would dare to despise alliance with a nation which can raise an offensive force of 300,000 soldiers, and defend its own frontiers by a barrier of more than 1,200,000 men? “ And, if the revolutionaries themselves had had sufficient self-control to follow a purely defensive policy, the anticipations of Dubois-Crancé might have been realized. He proposed to keep even his first-line troops in barracks for only a quarter of each year, and to regulate promotion by a double system of election. The Captains and Majors of each regiment were to form an Administrative Council. When a corporal was wanted, all the corporals would vote for candidates from among the privates; the three who received most votes would be presented to the Administrative Council, which would choose one for corporal. If a candidate, twice refused by the Council, be presented a third time, the Council must either accept him or justify their refusal by court-martialling him. In the same way the sergeants would propose three corporals for a vacancy, and so on up to major. The major is elected by uncontrolled vote of the captains, and the Colonel is promoted automatically by seniority from the lieutenant-colonels. But all such proposals were premature; and the Chamber, which had abolished the old semi-compulsory militia, decided to trust entirely to the voluntary system. The Regulars were professionals, serving for pay, drawn from the poorest classes, and officered by aristocrats or rich men. Behind these stood a National Guard, from which the poorest classes were excluded. Firstly, no man could legally serve in it who was not a voter; and more than a third of the male population were excluded from the suffrage by a property qualification. Secondly, even the poorer among the voters were excluded by the fact that the National Guard found their own equipment and received no compensation for loss of time at drill. Yet the nascent Revolution preferred this system, with its obvious social defects, to Dubois-Crancé’s too bold proposal for distributing the military burden over the whole able-bodied population.

The first stage towards democratization was the introduction of the elective principle into the National Guard. Then, with the growth of Republican feeling and the embodiment of a great part of the National Guard as a paid force, many of the poorer citizens insisted on their right to serve: Danton, in the midst of his preparations for the storm of the Tuileries proclaimed, ‘’that no one class of citizens has a right to claim for itself the exclusive privilege of saving France.” On the 18th of August, 1791, the Chamber decreed that all the nation might be armed and some ten days later, it decreed universal suffrage. “ How many historians fail to observe that this general arming of the people and this idea of a national militia were born of the same movement which created universal suffrage and the Republic!”

In April, 1792, the French Government, already almost Republican, declared war upon Prussia and Austria, who were plotting an invasion to restore the despotism of Louis XVI and to crush the whole work of the Revolution. There was a splendid response to the first call for volunteers; but Carnot, one of the most determined Republicans and the future organizer of victory, saw further than this. In presenting the report of the military commission, he wrote to the National Assembly (Aug. 1, 1792) “ Your Commission proposes that you should furnish muskets and uniforms to all men who have the will and the strength to help in the national defence. We propose it to you as the only act of rigour proportionate to the present crisis, — the only resolution which can strike terror into our enemies at home and abroad — the only means of founding a new military system which, by making all the citizens into soldiers, shall at last deal a death blow to the spirit of distinction, by annihilating that last and terrible guild which is called the Regular Army. ... It is necessary that, as J. J. Rousseau said, every citizen should be a soldier from duty, and not by trade.[1] When we have made peace (or sooner it may be) all the line battalions must become battalions of the National Guard.” And Carnot, expressly founding his arguments on the facts of the Swiss militia, goes on to describe how he would keep the whole nation trained in time of peace, and how such a manly organization would help to “stifle all the mean and degraded passions which lead a nation to slavery.” Upon which Jaurès comments:

“these accents of manly simplicity and of proud courage will never find a fresh echo in men’s hearts until the army, freed from all the baseness and violence produced by the class and caste spirit, and purified from all spirit of aggression, has become nothing more than the supreme protection, and the last resource, of a peace-loving and justice-seeking society. The sturdy anti-militarist proletariat of to-day will be the first to understand these words of Carnot’s, and to thrill at the sound of them. I want only to emphasize this great point, that the idea of national militias is a legacy from the Revolution to us; it rose in the minds of Frenchmen at the very moment when our nation was concentrating all its strength to abolish royalty, to drive back the anti-revolutionary invasion from within and from without, and to create a new order of unalloyed democracy ... There are men who condemn the militia idea, and will not listen to the Swiss example, asserting that the army system of democratic Switzerland cannot suit democratic France. To them I would answer that, at the moment when France was agonizing under the .double menace to her liberty and to her nationality, and was seeking the best form of army to protect both liberty and nationality, her thought went out to this Swiss militia. Moreover, the man who proposed that truly national and popular organization was no mere dreamer. Carnot knew the old army of the monarchy, in which he had done brilliant service. He knew also what the new age needed; for it was he who was destined soon to endow revolutionary race with incomparable force of method and of initiative.”

This was in April, 1792. In August, advanced democrats were suggesting that “suspects” should be forcibly enrolled and sent to the front; and Barère, a few days later, demanded the enrolment of all citizens on the successive group-system. But, a month earlier, the first practical step in compulsion had been taken; powers had been given to “ requisition “ men for supplementing what was still lacking in voluntary enlistment. In February, 1793, the Government issued a decree which “contained, in germ, universal conscription."[2] An immediate levy of 300,000 men was decreed; each Department was assessed in proportion to its population, and was bound to produce the number fixed, whether willing or unwilling. The framers of this decree committed the grave error of permitting substitution. The measure was soon found insufficient, and in August the Republic decreed a “ levee en masse,” by classes. All young men from 18 to 25 were called out at once; and, in the frontier districts, the whole able-bodied population. At the same time, the Government “associated the growing hopes of the proletariat with this lofty national effort; the livelihood of the poor was secured by progressive taxes upon the rich. While requisitioning workmen for the armament factories, the Republic demanded from them continuous labour, because no pause could be permitted in the production of muskets and cannon; but the prices of work were fixed by discussion between umpires chosen by the workmen on one side, and the nation on the other. Government hastened the distribution of communal lands to the poorer peasants, proclaiming that, when they possess the land, they will be more ready to defend it .... For the first time, a whole great nation entered into the fray, with its inexhaustible wealth of men and of possessions, fighting not only for its own rights, but for those of mankind.”

Let its trace the part played by the election of officers these revolutionary armies.[3]

It is undeniable that a good many incapables were thus promoted; but it must be remembered that the professional army itself was not in a good state, and that it also contained a large proportion of incapable officers. France, it is true, was fortunate in the mistakes of her enemies, whose delays and hesitations enabled her to set her house in order. The invaders gave her time; and in time the elective system produced good results. There is much good to set against the undoubted weaknesses of system. It resulted in many political jobs; but the common interest of all soldiers in the success of French arms did, on the whole, outweigh .political prejudices on her side. The correspondence of Carrier, one of the most violent soldier-politicians, contains numerous testimonials to the ability of certain Conservative officers and the military weakness of other devoted Republicans; even to Carrier, the one decisive criterion was that of efficiency. The Committee of Public Safety, again, adopted the same criterion; unsuccessful soldiers, however “sound” in their politics, were remorsely superseded or cashiered as soon as their incompetence was recognized. This firmness on the part of the higher authorities did much to counterbalance the defects of election. Some the newly-elected officers, it is true, were replaced for political motives; but many others were superseded on purely military grounds; and, now that the army represented all classes in the nation, the education and intelligence of the privates did much to raise the professional level of their officers. The standard of military education rose as time went on. But, even so, these masses of new soldiers, with new officers, were often terribly deficient in tactics and in discipline; and “even those who most definitely favoured the elective principle, like Carnot admitted that it too often resulted in the promotion of incapables.” Other Republican commissioners with the army were more pessimistic; one official report attributes the indiscipline of the soldiers to the officer’s dependence on his electors and to “the tedious forms which must be gone through before culprits can be punished.” It adds “what is going on under our eyes is so fatal that, unless some means be found of rendering officers quite independent of their soldiers, you must give up the idea of getting real armies.”

A remedy was found in the “Amalgamation System” of Dubois-Crancé. This was voted in February, 1793, but not completed until August, 1794. The army was now organized in half-brigades, each of which consisted of one battalion of Regulars and two of Volunteers (as the new levies were called; in spite of the fact that most were pressed men). Under stricter discipline and more experienced officers, these formations rapidly improved, and finally became the victorious armies of the Revolution. But we must remember that, by this time, even the Regular officers had to a large extent been chosen b election; the Amalgamation, therefore, cannot truly be called an abandonment of the elective system. The greatest victories of the French Republic had already been won before the elective system was abandoned, and, though it was judged unsuitable for the more regular armies of 1796 onwards, it is not fair to emphasize only its weaker side. It helped to keep the army in touch with the nation; it frustrated Royalist plots; we must remember, also, that the Revolution began to need large bodies of professional soldiers only when it began to violate its own traditions of liberty. Therefore, concludes Jaurès, “ I believe that the Revolution, if its normal democratic course had not been interrupted or disturbed, would have ended in an army-system which would have laid far less stress on barrack-life and on professional militarism than the present French system. On the other hand, I believe it would have centralized military education and military life more strongly than is done at present even by the Swiss militia, though this militia is more concentrated and more fully-organized than it was in Carnot’s day.”

1. ‘Carnot is probably alluding to the opening words of Rousseau’s Contrat Social, Bk III, ch. 15: “ As soon as public service ceases to be the principal business of the citizens — as soon as they prefer purse-service to personal service — the State is already tottering to its fall. When fighting is needed, they pay troops and stay at home; when counsel is needed, they name deputies and stay at home. By dint of laziness and money, they at last possess soldiers to enslave the country, and representatives to sell it.”’ — Editor.

2.. Jaurès might have put this even more strongly; Dubois-Crancé, in his speech in favour of the requisition, had plainly told the Chamber: “it can only be effected by the proportionate Conscription of all able-bodied citizens, in every department, except so far as they can raise substitutes “ (C. Rousset, Les Volontaires, 1870, p.165). An admirable description by a gardener who went as a volunteer under this levy may be found in L’Armée à travers les Ages, vol. I, p.187. — Editor.

3. A description of these same events from the anti-socialist point of may be found in Rousset’s Les Volontaires. Both sides are very ably presented by L. Dussieux, L’Armée en France, vol. II, pp.376-8, 395-6. He concludes that the elective system was inevitable in the earlier Republican armies; that at the worst it gave as good results as the old system of purchasing commissions and that it was answerable for a great deal of the French success. As the armies grew more definitely professional, the elective system died out. In 1795 it restricted to two-thirds of the promotions; and in 1796 it was abolished altogether. — Editor.