Karl Kautsky

Terrorism and Communism

Chapter IV
The First Paris Commune

The Paris Proletariat and Its Fighting Methods

HITHERTO we have always spoken of the “Parisians.” Naturally not the whole population of Paris is to be included under this head, for there were many classes in sharp contrast to one another. By the “Parisians” the great mass of the population in the capital was to be understood, viz., the small bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Under the latter we must not think of the modern proletarian, who is the outcome of gross industry. Certainly there were some manufacturers in Paris; but the largest section of their workmen was either engaged in service of the most varied kind as labourers and porters, or it formed a body of artisans’ apprentices, who hoped one day themselves to became independent artisans. Besides these, there were countless small labourers as home workers, as well as middle-men of all kinds, who lived in bitterest poverty and the most wretched insecurity.

This poverty and insecurity made the social position proletarian; whereas by their class position, i.e., according to the sources of their income, they were small bourgeois, whose ideal was a comfortable bourgeois existence. Nothing is more misleading than the confusion between position according to income and position according to class. This confusion was made by Lassalle, and is being made to-day by those of our Russian comrades, who believe that the poor peasant has other class interests than the rich peasant, and has the same class interest as the wage-earning proletariat of the towns. This is just as false as the conclusion of those who believe that the small capitalists have other class interests than the large capitalists, and that their opposition to the capital of finance goes together with the class opposition of the proletariat to capital. The small capitalists wish to become big capitalists, the small peasantry also wish to increase their property – this, and not a Socialist society is their object. The former just as much as the latter wish to increase their income at the expense of the workmen, the small peasants through lows wages and long working hours, the small capitalists through high prices for food.

The poor elements in Paris, therefore, at the time of the great revolution were, according to their class position, small bourgeois, in spite of the proletarian conditions of their existence.

These conditions gave them no objects which were different from those of the better-placed small bourgeois, although they gave them means for the growing struggle which were less sympathetic to the more prosperous small bourgeois.

The starving man cannot wait. He is in despair, and, therefore, does not stop to consider his choice of means. For him little attaches to life; he has nothing to lose save his bonds, and he, therefore, risks everything during the time of an upheaval, which shall prepare for new conditions of things, and in which he hopes to gain the world.

Thus it was the proletariat, the great mass of the population of Paris, which formed the great driving power in the Revolution. Their desperate inconsiderateness made them masters of Paris, made Paris the ruler of France, and let France triumph over Europe.

Their fighting means lay in armed insurrection. Their risings were not unprepared; nor did they spring themselves from out of the prevailing conditions. They were much much more organized Still they did nevertheless arise from the spontaneous pressure of the masses, not of their leaders; and it was only through the masses that these risings were often irresistible in their force. An upheaval, which has to be fomented by the leaders, instead of these latter being forced from below, is a sign that the necessary driving force is wanting, and that the whole movement is doomed to failure. During the whole time of the growth of the Revolution, it was the masses who were the driving force, the leaders the driven. While this lasted things moved forward. When the contrary happened, and the leaders found it necessary to incite the masses to fight, the Revolution was already in decline.

But if an upheaval can reckon on success only when it is spontaneous, and not initiated by the leaders, this is not to say that it has the best chance of winning when it is not organised. The Paris insurrections of the Great Revolution had their foundations in the organisation of the masses.

Even in the first signs of disturbance, in the storming of the Bastille, there were already nuclei for organisation. Later they received closer and more permanent foundation.

In the Revolution each community claimed for itself the greater independence. The Constitutional Assembly by the law of December 22, 1789, established the conditions which, in consequence of the sudden loss of power on the part of the State, had everywhere come into being. The communities acquired a high level of self-administration, viz., the control of the whole of the local police and the command of the citizen guard, as well as of the National Guard, which was being formed in the towns.

But at the same time the bourgeoisie strove to keep the lower classes from sharing in their measure of power. The National Assembly made the fine distinction between active and passive citizens. Active were those who paid a direct tax on at least three days’ wages. They alone had the vote for the local council and for the National Assembly. From them alone the National Guard was recruited. These bodies afterwards developed into representative associations of the moneyed classes.

But in Paris the “passive” citizens organised also, as well as their friends from the ranks of the active citizens, along with the official local representative council. They armed themselves in their own way.

For the purposes of voting Paris was divided into 60 districts, which had to select the candidates. After these had been named, the districts disappeared. But they nevertheless remained, and became organised an their own initiative as permanent institutions of the municipal administration. They would not suffer repression, and at the time when before July 14 (the storming of the Bastille) all Paris was in a state of upheaval, they began to arm the people, and to act as independent authorities. After the conquest of the Bastille the districts had already become acknowledged institutions of the municipal administration. In order to come to some understanding, a central bureau was opened, where special delegates could come together, and have mutual exchange of thought. In this way there arose the first attempt at a Commune – the result of a movement upwards by means of a uniting of the district organisations, which in revolutionary fashion had come about through the initiative given by the people. While the National Assembly was gradually undermining the power of the King, the districts and then the sections gradually enlarged their sphere of activity among the people. They established the connection between Paris and the provinces, and prepared the ground for the revolutionary Commune of August 10. (Kropotkin, The French Revolution, 1, pp.174-179. In accordance with his anarchistic standpoint, Kropotkin has given special importance to the history of the Commune in the Revolution. Apart from special works, his books afford the best study of this history. As a consequence, he treats the Parliamentary activity at the time far less satisfactorily.)

The National Assembly tried to put an end to the District Councils. Through the law of May 27, 1790, the division of the constituencies in Paris was altered. But the “passive” citizens ignored the veto. The sections were now the central point of revolutionary activity. Soon there was no communal or State question which was not taken over by these sections, and in the settling of which they were not actively concerned. The result of this was that the general assembly of these sections became a permanent institution. It was only through the permanency of their nature that intensive activity could be developed.

On August 10, 1792, the sections entirely superseded communal representation, which had already become totally effete, and they formed something new, the revolutionary Commune, to which each section sent three commissioners. Thenceforward, it was this Paris Commune which, supported by these sections, determined the course of the revolution.

The subsequent works on history have failed to give the sections their due. Their work was performed by the nameless many. The great names of the Revolution shone more in the Club of the Jacobins than in the sections. But what the Club achieved owed its success to the sections, and often it was the Club which was the part that hesitated and hung back. Only the proletariat, which had nothing to lose, was able to rush without hesitation boldly into the unknown.

Through the Commune the proletariat of Paris arrived at a dominating position in revolutionary France. But this position was a divided one, like the position of Paris in the country, and like that of the proletariat of that time in general society.

Small bourgeois according to their class-consciousness, they adopted the point of view of private property as against the means of production. They could not get rid of private property, they needed it in order to go on producing and live. Yet their attitude as poor wretches was one of hostility to the property of the rich, whose prosperity angered them, and whose wealth arose from their misery. It was this very recklessness towards the great feudal and capitalist property which gave them that energy in fighting the counter-revolution, and which, thanks to the pre-eminent position of Paris, made them pioneers of the Revolution, in which the great bulk of the nation took such active interest. In their powerful struggles against feudalism and the monarchy in France, and against the whole monarchical system of Europe, the. revolutionary proletariat of Paris had behind it the whole strength of the nation, the most powerful nation in the world. As a result they were able to defy the men in power all the world over; indeed, the power of these men came into their hands. It was during that time that the powerful revolutionary self-consciousness of the Paris workman came into being. Through it he became the, much admired type of the whole fighting international proletariat up to the days of the second Paris Commune, and even up to the closing decades of the last century.

Yet this very class represented the worst consumers of Paris, for they imperatively demanded cheap foodstuffs, and never more than in the days of the great revolution, which, in the literal sense of the word, could be called a famine revolt. In consequence the poor of Paris were drawn into increasing conflict with the peasants, the middlemen, the moneyed people, with those elements in fact which, by reason of their private property, came off best in regard to the means of production, since the abolition of private property was impossible owing to the system of retail dealing then prevalent, nor was any such abolition attempted or even proposed. When in regard to this antithesis the proletarians tried to show their power in Paris, and the power of Paris over the provinces, they were made to realise that they could not for long as a minority maintain themselves against the majority. So they went to pieces in spite of their former triumphs.

The proletarians went into the Revolution expecting to banish all misery by getting rid of the misery of feudalism, in the same way as the bourgeoisie had promised and meant. They now seized political freedom and power, and still it was only the bourgeois and the peasant who arrived at any measure of prosperity. Poverty in the large towns was not diminished; on the contrary, the real pinch of poverty first began to make itself really felt.

Starvation and a rise in prices are the outstanding features of the whole time of revolution. They are generally explained as being due to the fact that a number of bad harvests followed in succession. To me, however, it seems that the starvation during the Revolution was not due to this alone, but was a direct consequence of the Revolution itself.

Production among the peasants was at that time, to a high degree, self-sufficing. The peasant had scarcely any need of the industrial products of the town, except for articles of luxury. He produced not only his own food-stuffs, but also the raw materials for textile industry which he himself manufactured. He also constructed his own simple furniture and many of his household tools, whatever else he needed in the industrial line was furnished him by village workmen. The fact that, in spite of this, he did sell his produces in the town was due not to his own industrial needs, but to the taxes with which the State had burdened him. He could not pay these if he did not bring to market his corn, cattle, wine, or whatever else he produced at home.

Besides all this, he had to pay his feudal lord in kind, as well as to perform a certain amount of forced labour on his lord’s estate. Of the land products, which these feudal lords thus amassed, only a small portion was used for home consumption; the greater part they sold, in order to get money for a life of pleasure in the town.

Taxes and feudal obligations therefore provided the monies, on the one hand, which flowed into Paris and there reached circulation; they also provided, an the other hand, the produce which was sold for bare cash to provision Paris.

The Revolution temporarily put an end to feudal obligation, as well as to taxes, as the State had no power to collect these. The peasants were therefore no longer in such necessity to sell as they were before. In the first place, they made use of their newly-gained freedom to eat to their fill, and to put an end to the starvation conditions, to which State and Feudalism had condemned them. What remained over of their produce they decided to sell, only at very high prices. Nothing henceforward forced them to sell cheaply. For that reason alone a rise in prices, and a contrast between Paris and the Provinces was bound to arise, and this contrast assumed an exaggerated farm. In 1793 the Convention had actually formed a revolutionary army of 10,000 men, whose duty it was to scour the villages and requisition food for Paris, in a similar way to that recently tried in Russia, and with equal failure. This is one of the features that makes the Russian Revolution of to-day assume great resemblance, even in external matters, to the great bourgeois Revolution of the 18th century.

The contrast was made even more drastic by the war, which led to France’s being “encircled,” and which hindered the lack of provision from being mitigated by any impart from without. It made the Parisians suffer still more from hunger, and loaded the country people with heavy war burdens, in the shape of universal conscription.

The Parisians had the strongest motives for desiring victory. They, as a revolutionary centre, would have been the first to feel defeat. Moreover in Paris national feeling was strongest developed. On the greatness and tile strength of the Empire directly depended the greatness and strength of Paris. The men of the “Mountain,” of the extreme left of the Convention coined the phrase – “the one indivisible Republic,” and the word “Patriot” soon had the significance of radical revolutionary.

Utterly different was the attitude of the peasants towards the war. Those on the frontier certainly wanted to be rid of a foreign invasion, and they of all others were most threatened with the return of feudal bondage through a foreign victory. They, therefore, felt as patriotic as the Parisians. That was especially true of the Alsatians. It was different for those who were far removed from the frontier, and thus were not threatened by foreign invasion. These peasants did not grasp the political import of the war. They only felt the burdens of war which, according to them, were imposed on them by the regicidal and godless Parisians. Such provinces as La Vendée, Normandy and Brittany, under certain circumstances, could go so far in their opposition to Paris as to proceed to an open revolt, whenever they could get the necessary leadership. This was provided from time to time by the anti-revolutionary aristocrats. But the revolutionary bourgeois also embodied in the Girondines, once attempted a similar revolt of the provinces against Paris, as we have already seen.

The financiers likewise came along with the peasants into conflict with the proletarians and the small bourgeois. Indeed, the opposition was even more pronounced, and had even more direct consequences. It was not an opposition between workmen and industrial capitalists, who at the time did not play a very large part. Even after the Revolution St. Simon reckoned these latter among the working classes. It was the opposition to moneyed and trade capital, to usurers, speculators, dealers and sellers. These men did not themselves cause the lack of provisions, but they exploited the calamity and increased the stress. We need not dwell on this. We ourselves have had terrible experience of this for the last five years.

During this time of misery, profiteering caused by high prices became grossly provocative. Along with this was to be classed the profiteering of the war contractors – since 1792 – as well as of those who speculated in land. The National Assembly had confiscated church possessions – perhaps a third of the French landed property.

In addition to this, the aristocratic emigrants, who had fled from France in order to fight the revolution from without, were likewise deprived of their property. Their land was also confiscated. Yet all this enormous property did not remain in the possession of the State, nor was it divided among the poor peasants, but sold up. This, in the first instance, was the result of the low state of finance, which gave the final blow that caused the Revolution. But the Revolution did not raise the state of finance; on the other hand, it was depreciated, because the peasants could no longer pay their taxes. Often those who made a profit out of the selling of confiscated land-property would buy new tracts of land at a low price, solely with the intention of parcelling them up and selling them in small sections at a high price.. The financial difficulties of the State were little helped by this means, but the speculators in property flourished exceedingly.

In her necessity there was no other means open to the State than the issue of revolutionary paper money. This soon began to grow to an enormous extent. Hence a new cause of high prices arose, as well as a cause for extraordinary fluctuation of exchange and prices, which state of affairs was again turned to their own advantage by the speculators and moneylenders.

Thus there grew up from among the ruins of the old feudal system of property a new capitalistic system, which grew, along with the general distress, in proportion as the proletariat rose to power. This strange situation showed clearly enough how little the mere possession of political power is able to affect the working of economic laws, so long as the necessary social conditions are lacking,. Nevertheless the proletariat of Paris was hungry.

They did not examine what, under the given economical conditions, was possible and what was inevitable. They were in power, and determined to make the most of it, in order to arrive at that Utopian state of equality and brotherhood and of general prosperity, which the intellectuals among the bourgeoisie had promised them. As they could not alter the process of production, they tried by the help of coercive means to change the results of this process – means of which our own days have given us more than enough viz., high prices, compulsory loans, which corresponded roughly to our war-credit and similar measures. All of these, however, were less capable of diminishing the distress than they are to-day, on account of the scattered production, the lack of statistics, and the paralysing of the central power in its relation to the districts, which existed at that time.

As time went on, the contradiction between the political strength of the proletariat and its economical situation became greater. And along with this the oppression caused by the war became worse. Hence the rulers among the proletariat in their despair turned more and more to outward methods, to bloody intimidation and terrorism.



The Failure of Terrorism

Through the Commune the revolutionary bourgeois and proletariat of Paris ruled the whole of France. But they took care not to exercise their power directly, and to give as their watchword:- “All power to the Commune.” They knew that the Empire was to be held together and ruled only by an Assembly that represented the whole Empire. They therefore avoided touching on the convention in the National Assembly. They maintained their power not without the Convention nor even against it, but through it.

Lenin must have formed a similar plan, otherwise it would be difficult to discover why he convoked the constitution, instead of allowing votes for it to be taken. Yet the Commune was more fortunate than he; for it understood how to make use of this important instrument, which Lenin on the very first day unwillingly cast aside.

Certainly the “mountain” in the Convention, which went hand in hand with the Commune, was in the minority; nevertheless, the majority was not made up of politicians of strong character and firm conviction. Many of them proved to be uncertain and hesitating. They allowed themselves to be influenced by the Paris milieu; and where that was not strong enough to cause them to vote with the “mountain” it was sufficient to place energetic pressure on them, to make them vote as was desired.

By means of these molluscs, of this “bog,” the “Mountain” was able to occupy a majority in the Convention.

Yet in the stress of time, which often demanded swift measures, the legislating activity of the Convention was not always satisfactory. And even the laws proved to be ineffectual to cope with social need and necessity. Every oppressive law, be it never so strict, puts limitations on its sphere of activity, if only for the reason that it enjoins certain rules which give the oppressed occasion and opportunity, with a little skill, to turn them to their own advantage. This policy of oppression, which is directed against phenomena that are closely bound up with existing relations and are therefore ineradicable, is obliged sooner or later to liberate itself from the shackles of laws which itself has formed, and to have recourse to lawless oppression and finally to Dictatorship.

This, and this alone, is the real meaning of the ward Dictatorship: it is a form of government, not merely a state of affairs. It represents arbitrary force, which by its very nature can be put into practice by one person alone, or only by a very small circle of persons, knowing how to operate without any formal conditions, or willing to be led by one man alone. To ensure collaboration, every large circle requires definite rules, an administration, etc. – in other words, it is already bound by laws.

The type of dictatorship as a form of government lies in personal dictatorship. Class-dictatorship is pure nonsense. Class-rule without laws and regulations is unthinkable.

Since the repressive measures against profiteers, speculators and counter-revolutionaries hopelessly failed, the proletarian element had recourse to a dictatorship.

As early as March 25th, 1793, the Convention had to form a “Committee of Public Safety and General Defence,” which gradually acquired the powers of an absolute autocracy, whose members were very small in number. At first this Committee consisted of 25, which number was afterwards reduced to 9. All consultations were secret. It controlled ministers and generals, appointed and dismissed officials and officers. It dispatched commissioners with unlimited powers and could take whatever measures it regarded as necessary. These measures had to be carried out by the ministers without question. It was indeed responsible to the National Assembly, but this was a mere formality, as that body literally trembled before the Committee. Restrictions were laid on the powers of this Committee to some extent at least; for it was ordained that the Committee should be re-elected each month, and that it should have no control over the State treasury. Soon this “Committee of Public Safety” became the exclusive organ of the “Mountain.” But the more the dictatorial orderings of this body increased the greater became the dictatorial power of a single personality in their midst, viz., Robespierre.

As further instruments of the dictatorship two other institutions were created: (a) a Police Committee, called the Committee of General Security, and (b) the Extraordinary Revolutionary Tribunal, which had to adjudge in all cases of counterrevolutionary activity, and of attacks on the liberty, equality and inviolability of the Fatherland.

To be suspected and denounced by a “Patriot” was sufficient for a man to he condemned to death, and indeed without any chance of appeal.

Louis Blanc, in his History of the French Revolution, has given the following account of the organisation of the Reign of Terror.

We find a tireless Club, that of the Jacobins, which animated Paris with its life.

Paris, which has been divided up into groups of inhabitants called ‘Sections,’ gives expression to the ideas and thoughts prevailing in the Club.

The Commune, the centre of the ‘Sections,’ formulates these ideas and thoughts into laws.

The ‘Committee of Public Safety’ infuses life into these laws in all the various departments of State activity – in the State administration, in the choice of officials, in the army, through the commissioners; in the provinces, and in every part of the Republic, through the revolutionary committees.

The ‘Committee of Public Security’ has the task of exposing all objectionable and disagreeable elements.

The extraordinary Revolutionary Tribunal hastens to punish them.

Such was the revolutionary machine. (Histoire de la Revolution Française, Bruxelles, 1856, II. p.519.)

In the most unsparing manner this fearful apparatus was set to work.

It was hoped, by this means, to get the better of the smugglers, the extortioners, and speculators, especially if smugglers, extortioners and speculators were summarily beheaded.

But the economical situation was less calculated than ever before to encourage the belief, that in manual labour of any kind lay a gold-mine. And more than ever before each individual became a victim of the worst misery, in the larger towns at least, if he had money, and a good deal of money, at his disposal. The Regime of Terror did not shrink from striving for gold, only it strove to get what it coveted by underhand methods. Hence a new source of self-enrichment, and corruption arose in the form of bribery.

The more dangerous it became to be caught, the more inclined were the people “wanted” to buy off and silence the exposer of their misdeeds by appropriate offers of part of their spoils. And the greater the misery, the greater was the temptation on the part of individual bodies of the revolutionary administration to make a source of profit out of shutting their eyes.

In this way, despite the furious activity of the guillotine, new property was being accumulated, and other capitalists grew up in the place of those who had been beheaded; nor did hunger and famine diminish.

These new capitalists sprang up direct from the small bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and the ranks of the revolutionaries, with whom they proved themselves to be among the most desperate and the most cunning, by no means, however, among those of strongest character. But the best elements among the revolutionaries, the disinterested, and the most self-sacrificing were, at the same time, involved in continual struggles at the frontier, as well as in civil wars. Thus the ranks of the revolutionary proletariat were depleted from two aides through the death of the best elements, and the gradual appearance of the most vicious and hardened among them in the class of adventurers. It lost on both sides its most energetic members. The remainder became more and more apathetic and discouraged. The revolution had been going on for four years; it had brought the peasants and the financiers privileges, even wealth; but for the proletariat, who had fought with most energy and self-sacrifice, and who ultimately succeeded in uniting in their hands the power of France, the revolution had nothing to offer. It did not even satisfy their hunger; on the contrary, it increased it. Even the bloody Regime of terror fared no better. What had it indeed to expect from politics? Doubt, distrust and exhaustion began to make their presence felt amongst them.

It soon came to pass that the ruling powers in the Paris Commune had vast demands to settle. We have seen already that the power of the various “sections” consisted in the fact that all citizens took permanent active interest in their doings. Moreover, the sections were meeting uninterruptedly, and themselves had to settle all matters connected with administration and political action. But as time went on that became impossible; the proletarians and the small bourgeoisie had to be productive in their labours. How otherwise were they to live? With occasional work, which might at any moment be broken off, they could not proceed very far. So long as the revolutionary fire glowed within them, and so long as they hoped to derive economic benefit from a revolutionary policy, they endeavoured to make the best of their conditions. The more they began to doubt, the more they sought salvation in productive labour, instead of in politics. They became more and more willing to allow one department after another to pass into the hands of the various sections. They allowed these sections to appoint State-paid officials, whereby the bureaucratic centralisation of the Empire, which was to come later, was gradually introduced. At the same time, the prosperous people and their followers in the sections, to whom they made payments in some form or other, soon outnumbered the others; for the simple reason that they were men of leisure and could find time to meet, whereas the proletarians and the small bourgeois, who were bound to work for a living, appeared less and less at the meetings. Hence, there was a danger that the former should gain the majority over the latter.

A sign of the decline of revolutionary activity in the sections is furnished by the decision of the Convention, given on September 9, 1793, which limited the number of sittings to two in the week, and granted to each member, who had to work for his living, the sum of two francs for each sitting. But this did not check the growing slackness in attendance.

Along with this there was also a marked change in the relations between the masses and their leaders. During the period when the revolution was on the increase, it was the masses who urged on the leaders, inspiring them with energy and confidence in victory. Such is the proper relation between the masses and the leaders, whenever and wherever any popular movement is to meet with success. The leaders will always display more hesitancy than the masses, whenever a revolution is in progress; because they, more than the masses, can take better account of possible eventualities, and see better than they the difficulties that are bound to arise.

But this time the leaders were in a position in which they needed renewed energy on the part of the masses if they were to maintain themselves and not be completely submerged. For the masses were becoming exhausted, and began more and more to doubt and despair. So it fell to the leaders to spur on the people, to rouse and inspire them. Such a condition of things always betokens in any popular movement that the inward strength is lacking, that it has not yet acquired that strength, or has lost it already.

In order to encourage the people, the regime in power had to give the appearance of possessing strength; it was obliged to intoxicate them and thus make them oblivious of the want of social and economic success. This effect was best obtained by inciting the lust for blood. So this was a further reason for continuing the system of Terrorism, indeed, for increasing it and making it more effective. Finally, the growing nervousness of the men in power, occasioned by the feeling they had that the ground was slipping away from under their feet, helped materially to the same result. With the desperation that followed, the bitterness increased, not only against those who were enjoying class privilege, but also against members of their own faction, who held the same general principles as they, though differing in minor details. Thus those in power felt with increasing misapprehension that every mistake and every false step would eventually lead to ruin.

It is significant of the rise of a revolution that it proceeds on its way unhindered by any piece of folly that may have been enacted. In a state of decline, on the contrary, a revolution may feel the dire effects of the slightest error.

The more precarious the position of the leaders of the Revolution became, the more bitterly did the different groups quarrel among themselves; hence the more imperative did it seem to each one of them to suppress the other, in order to save the Revolution.

Among the men of the “Mountain” there had been at the very outset marked differences between the “believers” (if not actually practising “church-believers”) and atheists; between the Philistine Puritans and the cynical epicureans, between the inconsiderate and the considerate. But this did not prevent their harmoniously working together. When these different groups began to attack one another, with such rage as to employ the “Regime of Terror” as a means of suppression one against the other, that was already a sign of the decline of the Revolution. The fate of the Revolution was already sealed when Robespierre’s faction dragged before the revolutionary tribunals the Hébertistes, as being “Ultra-revolutionary” and the Dantonists for being “corrupt” and “too moderate,” and succeeded in making them share the same fate on the guillotine (March, 1794) which they had prepared for the Girondins some months before.

These terrorist measures were already a sign of the downfall of the Revolution; they further aided it by causing the masses in the Paris Commune to split, thus turning the disciples of the guillotined into enemies of the revolutionary government. At the same time, and as a result of the growing apathy of the masses, the government was obliged to withdraw the various functions, hitherto assumed by the sections, from those bodies, and to transfer them to state officials.

The police, and in particular the political police, fell into the hands of the two central bodies, who really had the State power in their own hands, and they were the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of Security of the Convention. The police became an all-powerful instrument of an almighty government, and at the same time it changed from being one of the institutions of the various sections, which functioned in full publicity, into one wholly secret in character. The secret police thus became an invisible power, which was supreme over everything else in the State.

But all the efforts of the leaders to save themselves by terrorist means were frustrated. The ground on which they stood began to shrink from under their feet. They could only, as a last resort, increase the system of terrorism and the police power. But the sole result was that, as they all felt their position to be more and more threatened, they banded themselves together in a desperate attempt to withstand opposition; since in the decisive moments these rulers had nobody to support them.

Kropotkin, an enthusiastic admirer of the Paris Commune in the Revolution, and therefore one who would be anything but an opponent of that institution, has well described the fatal path that terrorism was bound to take. In the 67th chapter of his book on the French Revolution, entitled Terrorism, he makes the following remarks: “The darkest feature (apart from the war without) was the attitude of the provinces, especially in the South. The wholesale massacres, practised without any distinction, against the counter-revolutionary leaders, as well as against those whom they led and organised by the local Jacobins and delegates of the Convention, had engendered such profound hatred that it now became a question of war to the knife. And the position became increasingly difficult, since nobody, whether in the locality or in Paris, could proffer any more salutary advice than a resort to the extremest means of revenge.”

He quotes incidents in proof of his statement, and then shows how Robespierre felt himself compelled to push terrorism to the extreme. Louis Blanc believes that Robespierre himself wished to detach himself from the system of terrorism, the pernicious results of which he foresaw and keenly felt. But he could find no other way of getting the better of the men within his own ranks, who were sworn to terrorism, than by fighting them by terrorist means in their most aggravated forms. Louis Blanc says: “Robespierre wanted to make those men tremble who themselves had made the whole world tremble before them. He conceived the bold plan of felling them with their own battleaxes, and of crushing terrorism by means of terrorism itself.” (History of the French Revolution, II, p.748).

It is a disputable point, whether such were Robespierre’a motives or not. Certain it is, however, that he himself forced through the decree of the 22 Prairial (June 10th, 1794), which removed altogether the last vestiges of legal security accorded to political suspects. In the Revolutionary Tribunal the defenders of such suspects were removed, and the legal procedure was carried out according to the dictates of “sane human reason” alone. The verdict depended on the “judge’s conscience” and on his “mediatory powers,” whatever they might be.

As early as February 24th, 1794, Robespierre had declared: “They are trying to govern the revolution by means of chop-logic. Trials of conspiracy against the Republic are conducted as if they were trials between private persons. Tyranny kills and liberty pleads in its defence. And the penal code, which the conspirators themselves have drawn up, is the very system according to which they are condemned.”

The only punishment that was to be recognised was the death penalty. It was to be meted out even to those “who had disseminated false news, with intent to cause dissension or confusion among the people, who aimed at undermining the moral status or attempted to poison the public conscience.” By such measures every government can instantly silence opposition. Kropotkin, referring to this, says: “To promulgate this decree meant nothing less than declaring the bankruptcy of the revolutionary government. Thus the effect of this decree of the 22 Prairial was to bring the counter-revolutions to full maturity within the space of six weeks.”

Instantly, on the strength of this decree, some 51 people were executed. “Thus the new decree, everywhere known as Robespierre’s decree, began immediately to take effect. It caused the Regime of Terror to become at once the object of intense hatred.”

Immediately there were wholesale trials of 150 suspects, who were summarily executed in three batches.

It is unnecessary to dilate any longer on these executions. It is sufficient to say that from April 17th, 1793, the day of the establishment of the revolutionary tribunals, up to the 22 Prairial of the year 4 (June 10, 1794), that is to say during the course of fourteen months, the Tribunal in Paris has already issued orders for the execution of 2,607 persons. But since the promulgation of the new decree the same tribunal, in the course of only 46 days, from the 22 Prairial to the 9th Thermidor (July 27th, 1794), condemned to death 1,351 persons. The people of Paris began to shudder with horror at the sight of all these executioners’ carts, in which the condemned were conveyed to the guillotine, and which the five executioners with difficulty succeeded in emptying day by day. Soon there was difficulty in finding cemeteries enough to bury the dead; for on every occasion, when a new cemetery was opened in the working-class quarters of the city, lively protests were made.

The sympathies of the working-class population of Paris now turned towards the victims; the more so, because the rich had fled, or were in hiding somewhere in France, thus leaving the poor to the mercy of the guillotine. As a matter of fact among 2,750 of the guillotined, whose status Louis Blanc was able to verify, only 650 belonged to the wealthier classes. It was even whispered that on the “Committee of Safety” was sitting a Royalist, an agent of Batz, who instigated the executions, in order to make the Republic hated. Certain it is that every fresh wholesale massacre of this kind hastened the downfall of the Jacobin Regime.

The whole world felt itself threatened by Robespierre and his followers. The whole world accordingly united together against them, “Extreme Radicals,” “Moderates,” Girondines and Montagnards (known as the “Mountain”), terrorists and humanists, proletarians and bourgeois.

Robespierre’s power came to an end at the first attempt made by those whom he threatened to show their teeth. His appeal to the populace an the 9th Thermidor met with indifferent reception. He succumbed. At the same time the Commune of Paris lost the last apparent claim to power that it had exercised so long. The revolution thereupon reverted to the basis favoured by the economic conditions then prevailing, namely, to the supremacy of the bourgeoisie.


Last updated on 19.1.2004