Policy of “Mountain” — Royalist tendencies of Girondins — They reject agrarian law, and swear to respect property Continuous conflict between Gironde and “Mountain” — Socialistic aims of Montagnards — Brissot and Robespierre — Order versus Revolution
Since August 10 the Commune of Paris had dated its documents from “the Fourth Year of Liberty and the First of Equality.” The Convention dated its acts from “the Fourth Year of Liberty and the First Year of the French Republic.” And in this little detaiI already appeared two ideas confronting one another.
Was there to be a new revolution grafted upon the preceding one? Or would France confine herself to establising and legalising the political liberties won since 1789? Would she be content with consolidating the middle-class government, slightly democratised, without calling upon the mass of the people to take advantage of the immense readjustment of wealth accomplished by the Revolution?
Two totally different ideas, and these two ideas were represented in the Convention, one by the “Mountain,” and other by the Gironde.
On the one side were those who understood that for the destruction of the ancient feudal system, it was not enough to register a beginning of its abolition in the laws; and that, to bring the reign of absolutism to an end, it was not enough to dethrone a King, set up the emblem of the Republic on the public buildings, and print its name upon the headings official papers; that this was only a beginning, nothing the creation of certain conditions which would perhaps permit remodelling of the institutions. And those who thus understood the Revolution were supported by all who wished the great mass of the people to come forth at last from the hideous poverty, so degrading and brutalising, into which the régime had plunged them — all who sought, who strove to discover in the lessons of the Revolution the true means of elevating these masses, both physically and morally. With were great numbers of the poor, whom the Revolution had taught to think.
And opposed to them were the Girondins — a party formidable in its numbers: for the Girondins were not only the two hundred members grouped around Vergniaud, Brissot and Roland. They were an immense portion of the French nation; most all the well-to-do middle class; all the constitutionalists whom the force of circumstances had made republicans, but who feared the Republic because they feared the domination of masses. And behind them, ready to support them, while waiting for the moment to crush them too, for re-establishing royalty, were all those who trembled for their wealth, as well as for their educational privileges — all those whom the Revolution had deprived of their old privileges, and who were sighing for the return of the old régime.
In fact, we see quite clearly that not only the “Plain,” but also three-fourths of the Girondins were royalists as much the Feuillants. For, if some of their leaders dreamed of kind of antique republic, without a king, but with a people obedient to the laws made by the rich and the learned, the greater number would have very willingly accepted a king. They gave ample proof of this by their good fellowship with the royalists after the coup d'état of Thermidor. And, all things considered this attitude of mind of the Girondins is quite comprehensible, because the essential thing for them was the establisbment of government by the middle classes, who were then rapidly growing in trade and commerce, on the ruins of feudalism, and, as Brissot used to say, “the preservation of property” was for them the main point.
Hence their hatred of the people and their love of “order.”
To prevent a rising of the people, to constitute a strong government, and to protect property, this was what essential for the Girondins at this moment; and it is because most historians failed to comprehend this fundamental character of Girondism, that they have sought for so many other secondary circumstances to explain the conflict out between the “Mountain” and the Gironde.
When we see the Girondins “repudiating law,” “refusing to recognise equality as a principle legislation,” and “swearing to respect property,” we may perhaps think all that a little too abstract in a hundred years' time. Those formulas had, however, in the time of the Revolution, a very exact meaning.
To reject the agrarian law meant at that time to reject the attempts to place the land in the hands of those who cultivated it. It meant rejecting the idea, so popular among the revolutionists sprung from the people, that no landed property — no farm — should be of more than 120 arpents (about 180 acres), that every citizen had a right to the land; and that it was necessary to seize the property of the émigrés and, the clergy, as well as the large estates of the rich, and to divide them' between the poor labourers who possessed nothing.
“To take the oath to respect property” was to deny to the rural communities the right of resuming possession of the lands which had been taken from them for two centuries, by virtue of the royal ordinance of 1669; it was to oppose, in favour of the lords and of the recent middle-class buyers of land, abolition of the feudal rights without redemption.
Finally, it was to combat any attempt at levying upon the rich commercial class and the stockjobbers a progressive tax; it was to keep the heavy charges of the war and the Revolution upon the poor only.
The abstract formula had thus, as we see, a very tangible meaning.
In fact, over each of these questions the “Mountain” had to carry on a bitter struggle against the Girondins; so much so, that it was forced to appeal to the people, to approve of insurection and to expel the Girondins from the Convention, inorder to be able to make even a few steps in the direction just mentioned.
For the time being, this “respect for property” was asserted by the Girondins in the smallest things, even in the inscribing the words Liberty, Equality, Property, on the base of the statues which they carried at a festival; in the embracing of Danton when he said at the first sitting of the Convention: “Let us declare that all properties, territorial, individual and industrial shall be for ever respected.” At these words the Girondin Kersaint fell upon his neck, saying: “I repent of having called you a sedition-monger this morning,” which was as much as to say, “Since you promise to respect middles property, let us pass over your responsibility for the September massacres!”
While the Girondins were thus endeavouring to organise middle-class republic, and to lay the foundations for the enrichment of the middle classes on the model set by England after her revolution of 1646, the members of the “Mountain” — or rather, the advanced group among them, which for a short time took the lead over the moderate section, represented Robespierre — sketched the broad outlines of what would have been the basis for a socialist society — meaning no offence to those of our contemporaries who wrongfully claim to be the first to have done so. The Montagnards wanted, first, to abolish the last vestiges of feudalism, and then to equalise property, to destroy the great landed estates, and give the land to all, even to the poorest labourers. They intended at the same time to organise the national distribution of the products of prime necessity, estimated at their just value, and, by means of a properly handled taxation, to fight “commercialism” — that is, the whole tribe of rich stock-jobbers, bankers, merchants and captains of industry, who were rapidly multiplying and accumulating large fortunes.
At the same time, they had proclaimed, since 1793, “the universal right of well-being — well-being for all,” which the socialists later on turned into “the right to work.” This right had been already mentioned in 1789 (on August 27), and again in the Constitution of 1791. But even the most advanced of the Girondins were too fettered by, their middle-class education to comprehend this right of universal well-being, which implied the right of all to the land and a complete reorganisation, freed from speculation in the distribution of the products necessary for existence.
The Girondins were generally described by their contemporaries as “a party of refined, subtle, intriguing and, above all, ambitious people,” fickle, talkative, combative, but in manner of barristers. “They want the Republic,” said Couthon, “but they want also the aristocracy.” “They displayed much tenderness,” said Robespierre, “but a tenderness which sighed almost exclusively for the enemies of liberty.”
They felt a kind of aversion towards the masses; they were afraid of them.
At the time when the Convention assembled, the gulf that separated the Girondins from the Montagnards was not understood. Many saw only a personal rivalry between Brissot and Robespierre. Madame Jullien, for instance, a true friend of the “Mountain” and a true democrat in sentiment, in her letters, called upon the two rivals to cease their fratricidal struggle. But it had already become a struggle between two opposite principles: the party of order and the party of the Revolution.
The people, in a period of strife, and, later on, the historians, always like to personify every conflict in two rivals. It is briefer, more convenient for conversation, and it is also more “romantic,” more “dramatic.” This is why the struggle between these two parties was so often represented as the clashing of two ambitions, Brissot's and Robespierre's. As is always the case, the two heroes in whom the people personified the conflict were well chosen. They were typical. But, in reality, Robespierre did not accept the principle of equality to the extent it was accepted by the Montagnards after the fall of Girondins. He belonged to the group of moderates. In and May 1793, he understood that, if he wanted the Revolution to triumph, he must not separate himself from those who demanded expropriatory measures, and he acted accordingly — leaving himself free to guillotine later the Left wing, the Hébertists, and to crush the “extremists.” Brissot on the other hand, was not always a supporter of he admitted “disorder” up to the moment when his had come to power. But, all things considered, the two represented the two parties very well.
A struggle to the bitter end was, therefore, inevitable between the middle-class party of order and that of the popular revolution.
The Girondist party, having come into power, wanted that everything should now be restored to order; that the Revolution with its revolutionary proceedings should cease, as soon as they took the helm. No more disturbance in the street; everything was henceforth to be under the orders of the minister, appointed by a docile parliament.
As to the party of the “Mountain,” they wanted the Revolution to accomplish such changes as would really modify the whole of the conditions prevailing in France: especially for peasants, who represented more than two-thirds of the population, and the poverty-stricken folk in the towns; changes which would make it impossible ever to go back to the royal and feudal past.
Some day, a year or two later, the Revolution would calm itself; the people, being exhausted, would have gone back into their cabins and hovels; the émigrés would return; the priests and the nobles would again get the upper hand. Therefore it was all the more urgent that they should find everything changed in France; the land in other hands, already watered with the sweat of its new owners; and these owners regarding themselves not as intruders, but as having the right to plough this land and to reap it. They must find the whole of France transformed in its manners, its habits, its language — a land where every man would consider himself the equal of his fellow men from the moment he handled the plough, the spade, or the tool. But for this it was of absolute necessity that the Revolution should continue even though it had to sacrifice a number of those whom the people had appointed to be their representatives, by sending them to the Convention.
Of course such a struggle would be a struggle to the death. For it must not be forgotten that these men of order an government, the Girondins, nevertheless considered the revolutionary tribunal and the guillotine as the most efficacious wheels of government. But it could not be avoided.
Already on October 24, 1792, when Brissot published his first pamphlet, in which he demanded a coup d'état against the disorganisers, the “anarchists” and the “Tarpeian Rock” for Robespierre; already from October 29, when Louvet made in the Convention his speech of accusation in which he demanded the head of Robespierre, the Girondins were holding the knife of the guillotine suspended over the heads of the “levellers, the abettors of disorder, the anarchists,” who had had the audacity to take sides with the people of Paris and their revolutionary Commune.
Ever since that day the Girondins had not ceased in their efforts to despatch the “Mountain” party to the guillotine. Thus, on March 21, 1793, when the defeat of Dumouriez at Neerwinden became known at Paris, and Marat rose to accuse him of treason, the Girondins nearly killed him in the Convention; was saved merely by his cool audacity; and three weeks later, on April 12, returning to the charge, they ended by getting the Convention to send Marat before the revolutionary tribunal. Six weeks later, on May 24, it was the turn of Hébert, the vice-procureur of the Commune; of Varlet, the working-man preacher of socialism, and other “anarchists” they caused to be arrested in the hope of sending them the scaffold. In short, it was a regular campaign for turning the members of the “Mountain” out of the Convention, for throwing them down the “Tarpeian Rock.”
At the same time the Girondins were organising counterrevolutionary committees everywhere; and they kept up an uninterrupted stream of petitions, directed against the Montagnards coming to the Convention from person who styled themselves “friends of law and liberty” — we know to-day what that means — while those of them who were in the Convention wrote letters, full of calumnies, to their friends in the provinces, exciting them against the “Mountain,” and especially against the revolutionary population of Paris. And while the commissioners of the Convention made superhuman efforts to repel the invasion, and tried to stimulate the ardour of the people by applying measures of equality, the Girondins opposed them at every point, in all directions, by means of the despatches they sent to their electors. They endeavoured even to prevent the collection of necessary information concerning the estates of the émigrés which had to be confiscated and put up for sale.
In his Patriote française, Brissot conducted a bitter campaign against the revolutionists, and altogether the Girondins demanded — nay, they insisted on — the dissolution of the revolutionary Commune of Paris; and they went even so far as to demand the dissolution of the Convention and the election of a new Assembly in which none of the present members of the Convention could be re-elected. And finally, a “Commission of the Twelve,” which lay in wait for the moment when a coup d'état should enable them to send the chief members of the “Mountain” to the scaffold.