THE present German Revolution has no centre, whereas the French Revolution was controlled from Paris. That Revolution, as well as the Regiment of Terror that operated within it, are quite incapable of comprehension, without a consideration of the economic and political importance which Paris had acquired for France as a whole. No town in the 18th, or indeed the 19th century has exercised such power as did Paris at that period. This was due to the importance which the royal residence as being the central Government possesses in a modern bureaucratic centralised State, so long as economic decentralisation, which modern industrial capitalism and the development of means of transport bring in its train, has not set in.
In a feudal State the powers of its central body, of its monarch, are in reality very few. Its functions do not extend very far, nor is the corresponding government apparatus at all large. This apparatus can be very easily transferred from one city or estate to another. The monarch is all the more often compelled to resort to this measure, so long as the system of transport remains in an undeveloped state, and so long as the separate localities do not suffice to maintain him and his retainers. Hence he has more urgent cause to visit personally the different regions of his domain, since this is the only means whereby he may count on preserving their fealty and obedience. In those early times, therefore, it was the chief business of the monarch to wander from place to place like a nomad, seeking out one rich pasturage after the other, forsaking it as soon as he had exhausted its possibilities.
In process of time, however, the government apparatus undergoes development, especially as a result of the increase in production, which the money system makes possible, and which exacts tribute in payment of easily transportable coin, instead of cumbrous natural products. In proportion to the increase of tribute, the power of the monarch increases also, likewise the government apparatus in the form of a bureaucracy and a standing army. Wandering from place to place thus becomes impossible. Monarch and government must be established in some fixed place. In former days single large towns were the central points of commerce, being situate in the centre of the kingdom and wealthier than the smaller provincial towns. Thus they eventually became capitals, which the monarch chose as his place of residence, and henceforward one special city was chosen for the permanent abode of both government and monarch. Here there were soon collected together all who had to do with the government, and it was to this quarter that the taxes of the whole kingdom came, only a part of which ever found its way back. It was here that tradesmen in the service of court and government settled down, as well as financiers, who came as bankers to do business with the State.
At the same time, the power of the monarch exceeded that of the nobility, whose independence was soon broken. The monarch would not tolerate the actions of the great nobleman who would settle down on his own estates, far from the king’s residence. He was to remain at the court, under his personal supervision, in exclusive service on the monarch, which was service in very truth, vain and profitless. His independent functions in the administration of the public services were taken from him, and given to bureaucrats and officials whom the monarch appointed and paid. The courtiers were gradually reduced to being mere drones, whose one duty in life it was to sit at the royal court and dissipate the revenue obtained from their own estates. What they, therefore, in early days consumed in their own castles and fortresses, together with their retainers, soon flowed into the court town and increased its wealth. There they built new palaces alongside of the king’s; they squandered their riches in riotous living, since they were deprived of all serious office. And the capitalist “parvenus,” who came to the fore with them, tried to imitate them.
Thus the royal residences, as distinct from the country places and the “provincial towns,” became not merely the centre of the wealth of the whole country, but the centre also of a life of pleasure. This exercised a strong hold over those in the country and, indeed, many outside, who had the means to live a life of enjoyment, or who had the inclination and the capacity for acting as ministrants of joy to the pleasure-seekers, whom they succeeded in fleecing.
But more serious-minded people were attracted to the residence towns. Whereas the nobles who lived on their solitary estates had nothing for pastime except to eat and drink, hunt and make merry with the girls of the neighbourhood, the town introduced finer manners and pleasures. The nobility began to evince an interest in the arts, and the patronising of science soon became the “fashion.” Thus artists and intellectual men soon gathered to the royal residence, where they hoped more speedily to gain advancement. The more the bourgeoisie increased in number in the residential towns, the more the artists and writers flocked to the place, hoping there, alongside of the nobility, to find some foothold and a market for their wares. Thus it is clear that numbers of industrial people and dealers were drawn to the place, in order to meet the requirements and needs of all these elements. Nowhere was there such prospect of making one’s fortune as in the royal residence towns. Thither flocked all who had intelligence, self-confidence, and energy.
Yet it was not everyone who accomplished his object. There were numerous cases of failures, who formed another characteristic of the capital. They were the crowds of the riff-raff proletariat, who sought to better themselves in the capital, because it was there that they could best hide themselves and await the turns of fortune, which they could soon put to advantage. They were men such as Riccaut de la Martinière. Not only art and science, but also unbridled pleasure-seeking, along with bitterest poverty and frequent crime became another feature of the royal capital.
Corresponding to the peculiar social position was a peculiarity of mental attitude which animated the population. But it was not the same, in every royal residence. Quantity often gave place to quality.
In a small state, or in a community that was economically in a backward condition, the residential town was small, so that many of the characteristics mentioned above were lacking. In such a town the most prominent feature was the dependence of the inhabitants on the court, and this dependence was not only economical and political, but spiritual as well. The mentality of the courtier became coarser, rougher, and more naive, and was reflected in the provincial population, who derived their light from the capital.
This was the origin of the strongly monarchic and servile mentality of the German people and its attendant “provincialism.” It was a mentality which, at the time of the rise of the bourgeois democracy, brought its pioneers to the forefront. It caused the desperate Börne to declare: “Other peoples are servants. The Germans are those who are served” – a thought more cynically expressed by Heine: “Germany, the pious children’s nursery, is not a Roman den of murderers.”
But mental and spiritual conditions were different in a large royal town. The larger the town, the smaller the number and influence of the people attracted to the court, as against the rest of the population, who sought to establish their fortunes there. The greater the number of the disillusioned and dissatisfied, the greater became their solidarity and their strength. This state of affairs did not encourage those people alone; it strengthened the opposition of those who, without having personal grounds for grievance, nevertheless clearly recognised the harm from which State and society were suffering. Such opposition was everywhere rife. In the smaller towns it lay dormant, in the larger towns it dared to express itself.
Among the royal residences of the continent in the 17th and 18th centuries the largest was Paris, capital of the most important State at that time in Europe. It numbered, at the end of the 18th century, about 600,000 inhabitants. Weimar, the royal residence and the spiritual centre of Germany, numbered about 10,000.
The inhabitants of Paris early showed their rebellious spirit. Thus arose the agitation of the Frondes in 1648, which had as its origin the conflict between the government and the Paris Parliament, which was the supreme tribunal. Barricades were erected, until finally the King, had to flee Paris. This was in 1649, the same year in which Charles First was beheaded in England. The struggle lasted until 1652, in which year the monarchy had to come to some agreement, which, however, soon led to the re-establishment of absolutism. The capital had united with the high nobility in the fight, and that formed an unequal combination. And the high nobility could carry nothing to success against the monarchy. Paris had not the same power of opposition to act against Louis that London had against Charles.
The struggle of the Frondes took place when Louis XIV was still adolescent. The rising of the Parisians and his flight made a deep impression upon him. In order not again to experience similar humiliation, he established his residence outside Paris. Of course, he was obliged to leave the Government machinery behind; but as the settled place for his court he chose a spot that was near enough to Paris to ensure a permanent and quick means of communication with the royal residence, yet far enough distant to be protected from any street disturbances. In the year 1672 the building of his new palace, which was to cost him, or rather, his people, a million of francs, was begun in Versailles, 12 miles distant from Paris. In the coming centuries it often gave proof at it had been built in defiance of the rebels in Paris.
Although Paris often rose in determined opposition to the central power of the State, its attitude towards that power did not always give token of unified action. On the one hand, it strove for independence and detachment from the State power, and yet its wealth and power depended on the size of the empire, and on the strength of the State power in the empire. It strove for the autonomy of the community, and yet drew the greater advantage from State centralisation which, itself, by its very existence, it encouraged.
It was the prominent position of Paris over all other parts of the Empire which, in the course of that 18th century, welded together the different conquered provinces of France in such sound national unity. What otherwise could have united the Alsatians with the Bretons, or the Flemings with the Gascoigners? But they all had relations with Paris. Their finest sons were to be found there, where they merged into one single and unified nation. The contradiction occasioned by the fact that Paris formed, at one and at the same time, the strongest support of the centralising State power, as well as its most vigorous opposition, was reflected in the attitude of Paris towards the provinces. In Paris the evils and abuses from which the Empire was suffering, were quickest brought to light. Paris had, more than any other place, the courage to expose and brand them. It soonest acquired the strength to attack them. Hence it became the protagonist of the whole of suffering France. The people in the provinces, through being scattered about, were backward in intelligence, and were dispirited and powerless. They saw in Paris their pioneer, their saviour, and they often followed the lead given by Paris with the utmost enthusiasm.
Yet not always. For this very Paris became large and powerful, not only because of the labours of its inhabitants, but also through the exploitation of the provinces, which resulted in the lion’s share of the commodities created in the provinces flowing into Paris, where it was partly squandered and partly turned to account for the accumulation of capital, for the enrichment and strengthening of the exploiters and profiteers in the country. Hence, along with the confidence reposed in progressive Paris, there was engendered a genuine hatred of Paris as an exploiting capital; thus arose opposition between the royal residence and the provinces. According to the historical situation, sometimes the one, sometimes the other gained the upper hand.
The economical opposition was rendered more striking because of the different points of view, which arose from the differences in the social milieu. In the open country and in the provinces economic stagnation was apparent. Hence the conservatism and adherence to traditional moral views. Moreover, whosoever would not acknowledge these views had to conceal the fact, for in the narrow circles of village and small town, everyone was under the control of the whole community.
Such control was entirely lacking in a very large town. There one could afford to be bold and laugh to scorn obsolete traditions. And these traditions were attacked from above as well as from below: that is to say, as much by the arrogant pleasure-seeking nobility and the capitalists as by the masses of the lower orders, who in their misery and their continuous uncertainty would not be deterred by considerations for private property, having lost their respect for family life. Between these two sections there stood large groups of intellectuals and parasites, who were often in as deep misery as the beggar proletariat, although they had access to some of the pleasurable life enjoyed by the resident nobility and the large financiers.
It was no wonder, therefore, that the modest bourgeois and the peasants were as much horrified by the crass immorality of this Babel of the Seine, as the witty Parisians were inclined to deride the barren philistinism and the narrow prejudices of the provincials.
In religious matters the same opposition arose as in the case of morals. For the peasants, in their seclusion from the world, the cleric was the only educated person who troubled about them, who established some means of communication between them and the outer world, and who supplied them with some knowledge beyond the range of the church steeple. The fact that this knowledge had long been surpassed by the rapid development of science could make no impression on the mind of the illiterate peasants in the open country. They clung to Church and religion, showing respect, however, only for the spiritual treasures of these institutions. They showed no inclination to acquire for themselves the material possessions of the Church.
For the Parisians, on the other hand, the Church property was of less importance than the influence of the Church and her conceptions of religion.
If in the Middle Ages the Church was a means for acquiring and guarding knowledge; the civil and secular knowledge, ever since the Renaissance, had long surpassed that supplied by the Church. To the people of the towns the Church appeared to be no more a means for extending knowledge, but rather for hindering it. The opposition was rendered more bitter equal through the attempt by the clericals to come off equal with the secularists (of whose superiority they were becoming increasingly aware), by the introduction of State measures of repression and compulsion, made in their defence. The secularists retaliated with their sharpest intellectual weapons and with crushing contempt, as well as with the most thorough methods of scientific research. They conducted the campaign against the Church with all the more zeal and interest, because by these methods, and under the conditions then prevailing, they bid fair to win over the dominant aristocrats and the bureaucrats, or at least to ensure their neutral position, provided they, in their zeal, should proceed with due caution. For the aristocrats, as well as the bureaucrats, not only despised the teachings of traditional religion; they found the Catholic Church a frequent handicap to them, because it would not unconditionally ally itself with rating State apparatus. Thus the struggle against the Church was less dangerous than the fight with absolutism; and hence the rising. opposition m the State devoted its energy first to settling matters with the Church.
But even in this we find a certain divergence. The reigning bodies set themselves in opposition to the Church wherever it showed aspirations to become an independent organisation, but the Church nevertheless appeared to them to be indispensable as a means for keeping the lower orders in subjection. This divergence was noticeable even in the circles of the extreme intellectuals. Voltaire coined the phrase, “Ecrasez l’infame” – “Down with the infamous (Church)” – but he discovered that religion must be preserved for the people.
A similar cleavage made its appearance in the lower ranks of the Paris populace and their leaders. Certainly they were all in opposition to the Church, and wished to have nothing to do with it. But according to the class position of the proletariat, which is always inclined to draw hard conclusions and adopt radical solutions, some of their number preached and propagated the most thorough-going atheism and materialism. Others there were who were repelled by this line of thinking, because it was the creed adopted by the aristocrats and capitalist exploiters, especially of the revolutionary period. The opposition between the believing and the atheistical Socialists was maintained in France up to well in the 19th century. Even Louis Blanc in his History of the French Revolution placed himself on the side of Rousseau and Robespierre, who, in opposition to the atheists, Diderot and Anarchasis Cloots, clung to their belief in God: “They realised that atheism sanctifies confusion among men because it presupposes anarchy in heaven.” Louis Blanc overlooked the fact that, for the atheist, heaven exists just as little as the Lord God himself. As in the case with direct class opposition, all these differences and contradictions were bound to lead, through a gigantic upheaval like the Revolution, to the bitterest conflicts.
Last updated on 19.1.2004