Communist movement and land — Economic importance of land — Agrarian proposals — View of Dolivier — Industrial demands — Proposals of L'Ange — Problem of means of subsistence — Question of exchange of produce — Summary of situation — Evils of repression
The dominating idea of the communist movement of 1793 was, that the land should be considered as the common inheritance of the whole nation, that every citizen should have a right to the land, and that the means of existence should be guaranteed to each, so that no one could be forced to sell his or her work under the threat of starvation. “Actual equality” (l'égalité de fait), which had been much spoken of during the eighteenth century, was now interpreted as the affirmation of an equal right of all to the land; and the great transfer of lands which was going on through the sale of the national estates awakened a hope of a practical realisation of this idea.
It must be borne in mind that at this time, when the great industries were only just beginning to grow, the land was the chief instrument of exploitation. By the land the landowner held the peasants in his hands, and the impossibility of owning a scrap of land compelled the peasants to emigrate to the towns, where they became the defenceless prey of the factory-owners and the stock-jobbers.
Under such circumstances the minds of the communists necessarily turned to what was described then as the “agrarian law” — that is to say, to the limitation of property in land to a certain maximum of area, and towards the recognition of the right of every inhabitant to the land. The land-grabbing that was then practised by speculators during the sales of national estates could but strengthen this idea; and while some demanded that each citizen desiring to cultivate land should have the right to receive his share of the national property, or at least to buy a part of it under easy conditions of payment — others, who saw further ahead, demanded that all the land should again be made communal property and that every holder of land should get only the right of temporary possession of that land which he himself cultivated, and only for so long as he cultivated it.
Thus Babeuf, fearing perhaps to compromise himself too much, demanded the equal division of communal lands. But he also wanted the “inalienability” of the land, which meant the retention of the rights of the commune, or of the nation, over the land, i.e., possession by the individuals, not ownership.
On the other hand, at the Convention, during the debate on the law on the partition of communal lands, Julien Souhait opposed the final partition proposed by the Agricultural Committee, and he certainly had on his side the millions of poor peasants. He demanded that the division of communal lands, in equal portions, among all, should be only temporary, and that they might be redivided after certain periods of time. The use only would be conceded in this case to separate individuals, as it is in the Russian Mir.
Dolivier, a curé of Mauchamp, following a similar line of thought, expressed, in his Essai sur la justice primitive, “two immutable principles: the first, that the land belongs to all in general and to no one in particular; and the second, that each has the exclusive right to the produce of his labour.” But as the land question dominated all others at this time, he preferred to dwell especially on the first of these two propositions.
“The land,” he said, “taken as a whole, must be considered as the great common-land of nature” — the common property of all; “each individual must have the right of sharing in the great common-land (au grand communal). One generation has no right to make laws for the next, or to dispose of its sovereign rights; how much stronger, then, the reason for not disposing of its patrimony!” And further: “Nations alone, and by sub-division the communes, are the real owners of their land.”
In fact, Dolivier recognised a right of property, transmissible by inheritance, in the case of movable property only. As to the land, no one should be allowed to possess any part of the common property, except what he with his family could cultvate — and then only as a temporary possession. This, of course, would not prevent common cultivation being done by the commune, side by side with farms cultivated individually. But Dolivier, who knew village life well, disliked the farmers as much as the big landowners. He demanded “the complete subdivision of the big farms”; “the utmost division of land among all those citizens who have none, or who have not enough of it. This is the only adequate measure which can put life into our villages, and bring comfort to all the families now groaning in misery, through a lack of means for rendering their work remunerative. . . . The land,” he added, “will be better cultivated, domestic resources will be more numerous, and the markets consequently more abundantly supplied; we shall get rid of the most abominable aristocracy, that of the farmers.” He foresaw that greater agricultural well-being would be attained in this way, and that there would never again be any need of regulating the prices of the means of subsistence by laws, which “is necessary under the present circumstances, but nevertheless is always inconvenient.”
The socialisation of industries also found champions, especially in the Lyons region. The Lyons workers demanded that wages should be regulated by the commune, and that the wages should be such as to guarantee subsistence. It was the “living wage” of modern English socialists. Besides, they demanded nationalisation of certain industries, such as mining. The proposition was also put forward that the communes should seize upon the industrial enterprises abandoned by the counter-revolutionists, and work them on their own account. On the whole the idea of the commune becoming a producer of all sorts of commodities was very popular in 1793. The utilisation of the large tracts of uncultivated land in the parks of the rich, for communal market gardening, was a widespread idea in Paris, and Chaumette advocated it.
It is evident that much less interest was taken then in industry than in agriculture. Nevertheless, Cusset, a merchant whom Lyons had elected member of the Convention, already spoke of the nationalisation of industries, and L'Ange elaborated a project of a sort of “phalanstery,” where industry would be combined with agriculture. Since 1790 L'Ange had carried on an earnest communist propaganda at Lyons. Thus, in a pamphlet, dated 1790, he put forward the following ideas: “The Revolution,” he wrote, “was going to be a salutary change; but then it was spoiled by a change of ideas, by means of the most abominable abuse of riches. The sovereign (that is, the people) has been transformed.” “Gold,” wrote further, “is useful and beneficial in laborious hands, but it becomes dangerous when it accumulates in the coffers of capitalists. Everywhere, sire, wherever your Majesty may look, you will see the land cultivated, but by us; it is we who till it, we who have been the first owners of the land, the first and the last effective possessors of it. The idle who call themselves landowners can but collect the surplus of our subsistence. This proves, at least, our rights to co-proprietorship. But if, then, we are co-proprietors, and the sole cause of any income, the right of limiting our consumption, and of depriving us of the surplus, is the right of a plunderer,” which is, to my mind, a very concrete conception of the “surplus value.”
Reasoning always from facts — i.e., from the crisis in the means of livelihood through which France was passing — he proposed a system of subscription of all the would-be consumers, entitling them to buy at fixed prices the whole of the crop — all this to be reached by means of free association, gradually becoming universal. He also wanted to see common stores, whereto all the cultivators could carry their produce for sale. This was, as we see, a system which avoided in the commerce of commodities both the individualist monopoly and the obligatory State system of the Revolution. It was the precursor of the present system of co-operative creameries united to sell the produce of a whole province, as may be seen in Canada, or of a whole nation, as is the case in Denmark.
On the whole, it was the problem of the means of subsistence that was the preoccupation of the communists of 1793, and led them to compel the Convention to pass the law of maximum, and also to formulate the great principle of the socialisation the exchange of produce — the municipalisation of trade.
In fact, the question of the trade in cereals was foremost over France. “Full freedom in the grain trade is incompatible with the existence of our Republic,” said the electors of Seine-et-Oise before the Convention in November 1792. “This trade is carried on by a minority with a view to its own enrichment, and this minority is always interested in bringing about artificial rises in price, which invariably make the consumer suffer. All partial measures against this speculation are dangerous and impotent,” these electors said; “it is half-way measures that will ruin us.” All the trade in grain, the entire provisioning must be carried on by the Republic, which will establish “a fair proportion between the price of bread and the price of a day's labour.” The sale of the national estates having given rise to abominable speculations on the part of those who bought these lands, the electors of Seine-et-Oise demanded the limitation of the size of the farms and the nationalisation of trade.
“Ordain,” they said, “that no one shall be allowed to undertake to farm more than 120 arpents of 22 feet to the perch; that no landowner be allowed to cultivate more than one such farm, and that he will be obliged to lease out any others he may possess.” And they added: “Place, moreover, the duty of providing the necessary food-stuffs for each part of the Republic in the hands of a central administration chosen by the people, and you will see that the abundance of grain and the fair proportion between its price and the day's wage will restore peace, happiness and life to all citizens.”
It is evident that these were not ideas from the brain of Turgot or a Necker; they were born of life itself.
It is interesting to note that these ideas were accepted both by the Committee of Agriculture and that of Commerce, and were developed in their report on the means of subsistence laid before the Convention. In fact, they were applied, at the instance of the people, in several departments of the Eure-et-Loir, Berry and the Orléanais. In the department of Eure-et-Loir, on December 3, 1792, the commissioners of the Convention were nearly killed by the people, who said: “The middle classes have had enough, it is now the turn of the poor workers.”
Later on, similar laws were violently advocated by Beffroy (Aisne), and the Convention, as we saw already when referring to the law of “maximum,” attempted to socialise on an immense scale all trade in objects of prime and secondary necessity, for the whole of France, by means of national stores, and by establishing in every department what would be found to be “fair” prices for all commodities.
We thus see, budding during the Revolution, the idea that commerce is a social function; that it must be socialised, as well as the land and the industries — an idea which was to be elaborated later on by Fourier, Robert Owen, Proudhon, and the communists of the `forties.
We perceive even more. It is clear to us that Jacques Roux, Varlet, Dolivier, L'Ange, and thousands of town and count folk, agriculturists and artisans, understood, from a practical point of view, the problem of the means of subsistence infinitely better than the Convention. They understood that taxation alone, without the socialisation of the land, the industries and the commerce of the nation would remain a dead letter, even if it were backed up by a legion of repressive laws and by the revolutionary tribunal.
It was the system of selling the national estates adopted by the Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly and the Convention, that had created those rich farmers whom Dolivier considered, and quite rightly, as the worst form of aristocracy. The Convention did not begin to notice this until 1794. But then, the only thing they were able to do was to arrest the farmers in hundreds and to send them to the guillotine as monopolists (accapareurs). However, all these Draconian laws against monopoly (such as the law of July 26, 1793, which prescribed the searching of all lofts, cellars, and barns belonging to farmers) resulted only in spreading in the villages hatred against the towns, and against Paris in particular.
The revolutionary tribunal and the guillotine could not make up for the lack of a constructive communist theory.