Albert Mathiez 1920
Source: Annales Révolutionnaires, Vol 12, 1920;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2010.
Most manuals, if not all, represent the Hebertists as bloodthirsty madmen having no other program than a violent and unreasoning hatred of Catholicism and against the very idea of religion. This summary judgment is not only unjust; it proceeds from a singular ignorance of facts.
M. Aulard proved some time ago that atheist demonstrations during the period of dechristianization were isolated and rare. Hébert himself protested that he wasn’t a preacher of irreligion. The festivals rather than the cults of reason and liberty were not the work of one party. The Hebertists didn’t invent them since they existed before them and they flow in a direct line for the festivals of the federation. It wasn’t the Hebertists but rather a friend of Danton, Fabre de l’Églantine who instituted the revolutionary calendar, aimed at serving as a support for the cult of the fatherland which the majority of the revolutionaries intended to oppose to the old cult, which for them was identified with the counter-revolution. The religious policies of the Hebertists were not specific to them. There was nothing original in them.
The Hebertist program was essentially a vast program of both internal and external national defense, a perfectly coherent program which it is easy to sum up in a few words.
The Hebertists, who appeared on the scene at the moment of the great perils of August 1793, were super-patriots, bitter-enders as we say, who indignantly rejected any idea of negotiations with the enemy and for this reason from the first day opposed the Indulgents, the Dantonists, who had lost confidence in victory. If they wanted war à outrance it was not only from patriotic pride, from the conviction that a premature peace would be fatal to the Revolution and would kill the democratic republic, it was also from self-interest, of course. Many of them were political refugees who came to France not only in search safety for their persecuted heads, but also the means to free their countries of origin from feudal and monarchic oppression: Anacharsis Cloots, who dreams of pushing France’s frontiers to the Rhine in order for Cleves, his tiny fatherland, to be included in the great nation; the Banker Koch and the Dutch refugees, who fled the vengeance of the stathoulder and who could only return home with the triumph of the sans culottes; the Geneva lawyer Grenus, who came to Paris to call for assistance against the bourgeois aristocrats who governed his native city; the Liegois Fyon and Wilmotte, the Belgians Charles d’Or, Proly, and Walckiers who participated in the revolt against the prince bishop and Austria and who would only free their countries if the enemies of France, who were also theirs, were pushed back across the Meuse and the Rhine; finally the natives of Mainz and the Germans like Euloge Schneider, Wedekind, and Forster, who mixed their personal cause with that of the French Revolution. All of these refugees, numerous at the Cordeliers Club, constituted a solid nucleus around Hébert.
They had their newspaper, “Le Batave,” which even more than “Le Père Duchesne” pushed with all its might for a revolutionary crusade against tyrants. Finally it must be added that thanks to the war many of the Hebertist leaders occupied lucrative military jobs, that they populated the offices of the ministry of war led by Vincent, one of their men, and that they alone constituted the cadres of the revolutionary army, of which Ronsin and Mazuel were the leaders. For the latter war had become a career.
But how, by what measures, were they to pursue the war to the bitter end, till the liberation of Belgium, of Holland, of the Rhineland? The Hebertists, as was the case with the Girondins in the past, and whose continuators they are in this regard, counted on the virtues of propagandism. Hérault de Séchelles, their man and who for a time directed diplomacy, paid from secret funded a legion of emissaries he employed to propagate in foreign countries – even neutral ones – the good word of revolution. But it was clear that this didn’t suffice. First it was necessary to bring together internally the instruments of victory. The Hebertists took the initiative for all the great measure that would save the fatherland, and they imposed most of them on a Convention that was at first hostile.
Since the revolutionaries were found particularly in the cities and the cities were threatened with starvation by the people of the countryside, who hid their goods and refused paper money, the Hebertists took up in their name the social program of the Enragés, with whom too many historians confuse them. The Enragés didn’t see beyond the social program; they had no opinions concerning foreign policy. The problem of poverty absorbed all their activity. For their part the Hebertists only took up the idea of the forced use of the assignat, the maximum, and requisitions as a function of national defense. They realized that social laws could only be applied by terror and in their name Chaumette went to the Convention on September 5 calling for the law on suspects. The Hebertists were in so little agreement with the Enragés that the latter were victim of this law on suspects, which they didn’t fail to protest against.
In the minds of the Hebertists the terror was as much an economic as a political weapon. Through it they hoped to open the storehouses of the peasants and feed the recruits of the first requisition, which levy they were the first ones to call for.
The first requisition or levée en masse sent men from 18 to 25 to the borders. It provided the human material needed for both the repression of internal rebellions and the freeing of the territory. This mass of conscripts had to be clothed, armed, and equipped. Here again the Hebertists pushed for revolutionary measures. It was under their pressure that war manufactories, open air forges, the extraction of saltpeter in all cellars, mandatory labor for the idle, and progressive taxation of the rich was organized.
But the Hebertists were impatient. They readily accused of incompetence or ill will men in government who had the perilous honor of realizing their ideas and translating into acts their often vague suggestions. Their revolutionary propagandism in neutral countries was not without peril. They risked causing differences with Switzerland and the United States, whose friendship was all the more necessary in that these two countries were the source of primary materials needed for our manufacturing.
Their ceaseless criticism of the administration of the Committee of Public Safety, the insulting contempt they demonstrated towards members of the Convention they considered too moderate, their reiterated demands that the constitution of 1793, which wasn’t adapted to the state of war, the excesses they committed in the application of the laws on taxes and requisitions and which, in frightening the merchants and farmers, threatened to aggravate the economic situation, and finally, the presence among the foreign refugees of their party of extremely suspect individuals, suspected with verisimilitude of being enemy agents hiding behind a demagogic mask. All these circumstances taken together alarmed the Committee of Public Safety, which soon saw in the Hebertists a serious danger for the Revolution and the Fatherland. When the Hebertists committed the supreme imprudence of talking about insurrection they were finished.
But history must render them the justice they are owed. Before becoming a danger they were a force. They were neither mad nor demented.