Chapter 68: The 9th Thermidor — Triumph of Reaction

Causes of overthrow of Robespierre — Evils of transfer of land — Republican successes abroad — Terror continues — Dantonists, Girondins and “Marsh” unite to overthrow Robespierre — Unpopularity of Committee of Public Welfare — Robespierre attacks Barère and Fouché — His speech in Convention — Effect of speech — 9th Thermidor — Arrest of Robespierre and his associates — Efforts of Commune — Capture of Hôtel de Ville — Execution of Robespierre and Terrorists — End of Revolution — Reactionaries continue executions — Attempted rising of workers — Execution of last of Montagnards — Triumph of middle classes — Royalist manifestations — Massacres of revolutionists — Reaction succeeded by Directory — Final effort of revolutionists — Napoleon proclaims himself Emperor

If Robespierre had many admirers, who adored him, he had also quite as many enemies, who utterly detested him and lost no opportunity of making him odious by attributing to him all the horrors of the Terror. Nor did they neglect to render him ridiculous by connecting him with the doings of an old mad mystic, Catherine Théot, who called herself “the Mother of God.”

But still it is evident that it was not personal enmities which overthrew Robespierre. His fall was inevitable, because, he represented a régime that was on the point of foundering. After the Revolution had passed through its ascendant phase, which lasted until August or September 1793, it entered upon its descendant phase. It was now passing through the Jacobin régime of which Robespierre was the supreme expression, and in its turn this régime had to give place to the men of “law and order,” who were longing to put an end to the unrest of revolution, and were only waiting for the moment when they could overthrow the Terrorists of the “Mountain” without provoking an insurrection in Paris.

We cannot overestimate all the evil resulting from the fact that in economic matters the Revolution was based on personal gain. A revolution should include the welfare of all, otherwise it is certain to be crushed by those very persons whom it has enriched at the expense of the nation. Whenever a shifting of wealth is caused by a revolution, it ought never to be for the benefit of individuals, but always for the benefit of communities. Yet it was on this point precisely that the Great Revolution fatally erred.

The estates, which were confiscated from the church and the nobility, were given to private persons, whereas they should have been restored to the villages and the towns, because they had formerly belonged to the people — being, as they were, the lands which individuals had fastened upon under the protection of the feudal system. There have never been any cultivated lands of seigniorial or ecclesiastic origin. Apart from a few monastic communities, neither lords nor priests had ever with their own hands cleared a single acre. The people, those called vilains or manants, had cleared every square yard of cultivated soil. It was they who had made it accessible, habitable, and given value to it, and it was to them it should have been restored.

But, acting in the interests of a middle-class State, the Constituent and Legislative Assemblies, and even the Convention too, acknowledged the legal claims of lord, convent, cathedral, and church to lands which in former times had been appropriated by those props of the then growing State, and they took possession of these lands and sold them chiefly to the middle classes.

It can be imagined what a scramble for a share in this booty took place when estates, of which the total value amounted to from ten to fifteen thousand millions of francs, were on sale for several years under conditions extremely favourable to the purchasers — conditions which could be rendered still more advantageous by currying favour with the new local authorities. In this way the famous “black bands” were formed in the provinces, against which all the efforts of the Convention's commissioners were powerless.

The pernicious influence of these pilferers, reinforced by the Paris stock-jobbers and the army contractors, spread by degrees to the Convention itself, where the honest men among the Montagnards found themselves confronted by “profitmongers” and helpless against them. What was there to oppose to them? Once the Entragés were crushed and the sections of Paris paralysed — what remained in the Convention beside the “Marsh”?

The victory of Fleurus, won on June 26 (8th Messidor) over the combined forces of Austria and England — a victory which ended the campaign in the North for that year — and the successes gained by the Republic's armies in the Pyrenees, the Alps, and on the Rhine, as well as the arrival of a transport laden with wheat from America — at the cost, be it said, of several battleships — these successes served in themselves as powerful arguments with the “moderates,” who were anxious to restore order. “What,” said they, “is the good of a revolutionary government, now that the war is almost over? It is time to go back to legal conditions, and to put an end to government by revolutionary committees and patriotic societies in the provinces. It is time to restore order and to close the period of revolution!”

But the Terror, so generally attributed to Robespierre, far from relaxing, was still fully maintained. On the 3rd Messidor (June 21), Herman, a government official, “commissaire des administrations civiles, police et tribunaux,” a man much attached to Robespierre, sent in a statement to the Committee of Public Welfare, asking permission to inquire into the plottings among the prisoners and hinting that “it might be necessary presently to purge the prisons.” He was authorised by the committee to hold the inquiry, and forthwith began the sending of those horrible “batches,” those cartloads of men and women to the guillotine, a sight more abominable to the Parisians than the September massacres. These executions were all the more odious because no one knew where they would end, and because they went on in the midst of balls, concerts, and other festivities given by the class that had so recently grown rich, and amid the derision of the royalist jeunesse dorée, who grew daily more aggressive.

Everyone must have felt that this state of things could not last, and the Moderates in the Convention took advantage of it. Dantonists, Girondins, and the members of the “Marsh,” joined ranks, and concentrated their forces on Robespierre's overthrow, as the first point to be gained. The condition of Paris favoured their designs, as the Committee of Public Welfare had succeeded in crippling the sections — the true centres of the popular movements.

On the 5th Thermidor (July 23) the general council of the Commune, in which Payan, an intimate friend of Robespierre, was now all powerful, did much to injure its popularity by issuing a decree that was absolutely unjust to the workers. The council ordered in all the forty-eight sections the proclamation of the maximum, which was to fix the limit of the workers' wages. As we have seen, the Committee of Public Welfare had already made itself unpopular with the sections by destroying their autonomy, and appointing the members of several of their committee.

The moment, therefore, was ripe for attempting a coup d'état.

On the 21st Messidor (July 9) Robespierre had at length decided to begin the attack upon his enemies. Eight days previously he had been complaining at the Jacobin Club of the war that was being waged against him personally. He now went into particulars, and made some allusions to Barère — that very Barère who until then had been the pliant instrument of his faction, whenever a bold stroke had been needed in the Convention. Two days later, again at the Jacobin Club, he made a direct attack on Fouché for his terrible doings in Lyons, and succeeded in having him summoned to answer for them before the club.

By the 26th Messidor (July 14) war was declared, as Fouché had refused to appear before the Jacobins. As to the attack on Barère, it meant also an attack on Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne, as well as on two powerful members of the Committee of Public Safety, Vadier and Voulland, who often conferred with Barère and had collaborated with him in the business of the prison plots.

All those of the Left, therefore, who felt themselves threatened — Tallien, Barère, Vadier, Voulland, Billaud-Varenne, Collot d'Herbois Fouché — banded themselves together against the “triumvirs” — Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon. Moderates, such as Barras, Rovère, Thirion, Courtois, Bourdon, and the rest, who, for their part, would have liked to see the downfall of the whole “Mountain,” including Collot d'Herbois, Billaud-Varenne, Barère, Vadier and the others, no doubt said to themselves that it was best to begin by attacking the Robespierre group, as, once that was overthrown, the rest could be easily managed.

The storm burst in the Converntion on the 8th Thermidor (July 26, 1794). It must have been expected; for the hall was thronged. Robespierre attacked the Committee of General Safety in a carefully prepared speech and charged it with conspiring against the Convention. He was there, he said, to defend the Convention and himself against slanders. He also defended himself against the charge of dictatorial tendencies, and he did not try to be conciliatory towards his adversaries — even towards Cambon, of whom he spoke, as well as of Mallaremé and Ramel, in terms borrowed from the Enragés, calling them “Feuillants, aristocrats, rascals.”

He was permitted to finish, because people were anxious to know his conclusions, and when he had expressed them it was perceived that in reality he was asking for an increase in his own authority and that of his group. There was no new outlook, no new programme in his speech. It was only the demand of a Government member for more power — still more power, to be used for purposes of repression.

“What is the remedy for the evil? “he said in conclusion. “The punishment of the traitors, a complete reconstruction of the Committee of General Safety, the purification of that committee and its subordination to the Committee of Public Welfare; the purification of the Committee of Public Welfare itself; and unity of Government under the authority of the National Convention which was the centre and the judge.”

It was understood then that he confined himself to asking for more authority to be vested in his triumvirate, to be used against Collot and Billot, Tallien and Barère, Cambon and Carnot, Vadier and Voulland. The conspirators of the Right must have rubbed their hands. They had only to let Tallien, Billot-Varenne and the other Montagnards act.

The evening of the same day the Jacobin Club rapturously applauded Robespierre's speech and made a furious demonstration against Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne. It was even proposed to march against the two committees. But nothing went beyond mere talk. The Jacobin Club had never been a centre of action.

During the night Bourdon and Talhen secured the support of the Conventionals of the Right, and apparently the plan agreed upon was to prevent Robespierre and Saint-Just from speaking.

The next day, the 9th Thermidor, as soon as Saint-Just rose to read his statement — which, by the way, was very moderate, for it only asked for a revision of Government procedure — Billaud-Varenne and Tallien would not allow him to read it. They demanded the arrest of the “tyrant,” meaning Robespierre, and shouts of “Down with the tyrant! “were re-echoed by the whole of the “Marsh.” Robespierre attempted to speak, but he, too, was prevented. An order was given for his prosecution, including his brother, Saint-Just, Couthon and Lebas, and they were immediately arrested and taken off to different prisons.

Meanwhile Hanriot, the chief of the National Guard, followed by two aides-de-camp and some gendarmes, was galloping through the streets in the direction of the Convention, when two of the members of the Convention, seeing him pass in the Rue Saint-Honore, had him arrested by six of the very gendarmes under his command.

The General Council of the Commune did not meet until six o'clock in the evening. It then issued an appeal to the people, calling on them to rise against Barère, Collot, Bourdon and Amar, and Coffinhal was despatched to deliver Robespierre and his friends who, it was thought, were kept under arrest in the building occupied by the Committee of General Safety, but Coffinhal found there only Hanriot, whom he released. As to Robespierre, he had been taken first to the Luxembourg, but the officials there refused to receive him; and, instead of going straight to the Commune, and casting in his lot with the party of insurrection, he went to the Police Office on the Quai des Orfèvres, and remained doing nothing. Saint-Just and Lebas went as soon as they were free to the Commune, and Coffinhal, again sent by the Council to seek Robespierre, had to force his hand to compel him to go to the Hôtel de Ville, which he reached about eight o'clock.

The Council of the Commune began to arrange for a rising, but it became clear that the sections had no mind to rise against the Convention in favour of those whom they charged with having guillotined Chaumette and Hebért, killed Jacques Roux, ejected Pache from office, and destroyed the autonomy of the sections. Paris, moreover, must have felt that the Revolution was dying out, and that the men for whom the Council of the Commune appealed to the people to rise were in no way representative of the popular cause.

By midnight the sections had made no sign of stirring. Louis Blanc says that they were in a state of division, their civil committees being unable to come to agreement with the revolutionary committees and the General Assemblies. The fourteen sections that obeyed the Commune in the first instance did nothing, while eighteen were hostile, and of these, six were in the immediate neighbourhood of the Hôtel de Ville. The men of Jacques Roux' section, the Gravilliers, even formed the first nucleus of one of the two columns that marched upon the Hôtel de Ville at the order of the Convention.[352]

In the meantime, the Convention was declaring the insurgents and the Commune outlaws, and when this declaration was read in the Place de la Grêve, Hanriot's artillerymen, who had been posted there with nothing to do, slipped away one by one. The Place was quite deserted when shortly afterwards the Hôtel de Ville was invaded by the columns from the Gravilliers and the Arcis. A young gendarme, who was the first to enter the room in which were Robespierre and his friends, fired a pistol-shot which broke Robespierre's jaw. The Hôtel de Ville, the very centre of the resistance, was thus taken without a blow being struck in its defence. Thereupon Lebas killed himself, the younger Robespierre tried to kill himself by leaping through a window from the third story; Coffinhal caught hold of Hanriot, whom he accused of having lost their cause, and hurled him out of window; Saint-Just and Couthon allowed themselves to be arrested quietly.

The next morning, after a mere form of identification, they were all executed, to the number of twenty-one. They went to their death in the Place de la Révolution by a long route amid the insults of counter-revolutionary crowds. The fashionable people who hastened to enjoy the spectacle were even more festive than on the day of the execution of the Hébertists. Windows were let at fabulous prices, and the ladies who sat in them wore full dress. Reaction was triumphing. The Revolution had come to an end.

Here we, too, shall pause, without narrating the details of the orgies under the White Terror, which began after Thermidor, or the two attempts at insurrection against the new régime: the movement of Prairial in the Year III. and the conspiracy of Babeuf in the Year IV.

The opponents of the Terror, who were always talking of clemency, wanted it only for themselves and their friends. The first thing they did when they came into power was to execute all the partisans of the Montagnards whom they had overthrown. In the three days, the 10th, 11th, and 12th Thermidor (July 28, 29, and 30) there were a hundred and three executions. Denunciations poured in from the middle classes and the guillotine was working hard — this time on the side of reaction. From the 9th Thermidor to the 1st Prairial, in less than ten months, seventy-three Montagnard representatives were condemned to death or imprisoned, while seventy-three Girondins re-entered the Convention.

It was now the turn of the real “Statesmen.” The “maximum” on commodities was speedily abolished, which produced a violent crisis, during which stock-jobbing and speculation attained gigantic proportions. The middle classes held high holiday, as they did again later on after June 1848 and May 1871. The jeunesse dorée organised by Fréon ruled Paris, while the workers, seeing that the Revolution was vanquished, crept back to their hovels to meditate on the chances of the next upheaval.

They attempted to rise on the 12th Germinal, Year III. (April 1, 1795), and again on the 1st Prairial (May 20) demanding bread and the Constitution of 1793. On this occasion the faubourgs showed much spirit, but the middle classes had had time to organise their forces. The revolutionary tribunal had been abolished, so the last of the Montagnards — Romme, Bourbotte, Duroy, Soubrancy, Goujon and Duquesnoy — were condemned to death by a military commission and executed.

Thenceforth the middle classes remained masters of the Revolution and the descendant phase continued. The reaction soon became frankly royalist. The troupe dorée no longer remained concealed, but openly wore the grey coat with the green or blue colour of the Chouans[353] and ill-treated all those known as “terrorists” — that is to say, all republicans. There were persecutions both wholesale and retail. Whoever had assisted in any way in the execution of the King — or in his arrest after the flight to Varennes, whoever had taken any part whatever in the assault on the Tuileries, was pointed out to the royalists and life made insupportable for him.

In the departments, especially in the South, the “Compagnies du Jésus,” the “Compagnies du Soleil” and other royalist organisations practised wholesale reprisals. In the prisons at Lyons, Aix and Marseilles they killed all those who had taken part in the former government. Mignet says: “Nearly every place in the South had its second of September,” and that, of course, means its royalist second of September. Besides these wholesale massacres, the members of the above-named Societies of Jesus and the Sun held individual man-hunts. In Lyons, whenever they found a revolutionist who had escaped their massacres, they killed him and threw the body into the Rhône without any pretence at a trial. Similar deeds were enacted in Tarascon.

The reaction increased until at last the Convention broke up on the 4th Brumaire, Year IV. (October 26, 1795). The Directory succeeded it and prepared the way for the Consulate first and the Empire afterwards. The Directory was a terrible orgy of the middle classes, in which the fortunes acquired during the Revolution, especially during the Thermidorean reaction, were squandered in unbridled luxury. For, if the Revolution had put in circulation eight milliards of paper-money, the Thermidorean reaction went ten times as fast in that direction, for it issued the amazing sum of thirty milliards in paper within fifteen months. By this we can calculate the amount of the fortunes which had been accumulated by the “profitmongers,” thanks to these tremendous issues of paper-money.

Once again, in May 1796, the revolutionary Communists under the leadership of Babeuf tried to get up an insurrection through their secret society, but they were arrested before it was ripe. An attempt to raise the camp at Grenelle on the night of the 23rd Fructidor, Year IV. (September 9, 1796), also failed. Babeuf and Darthé were condemned to death, and killed themselves with a dagger on the 7th Prairial, Year V. But the royalists had their failure too, on the 18th Fructidor, Year V. (September 4, 1797), and the Directory lasted until the 18th Brumaire, Year VIII. (November 9, 1799).

On that day Napoleon Bonaparte carried out his coup d'état, and national representation was completely suppressed by the ex-sans-culotte, who had the army on his side.

The war, which had lasted seven years, had thus come to its logical conclusion. On the 28th Floréal, Year XII. (May 18, 1894), Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, and then war broke out again, to last with brief intervals until 1815.

Chapter 69: Conclusion

When one sees that terrible and powerful Convention wrecking itself in 1794-1795, that proud and strong Republic disappearing, and France, after the demoralising régime of the Directory, falling under the military yoke of a Bonaparte, one is impelled to ask: “What was the good of the Revolution if the nation had to fall back again under despotism?” In the course of the nineteenth century, this question has been constantly put, and the timid and conservative have worn it threadbare as an argument against revolutions in general.

The preceding pages supply the answer. Those who have seen in the Revolution only a change in the Government, those who are ignorant of its economic as well as its educational work, those alone could put such a question.

The France we see during the last days of the eighteenth century, at the moment of the coup d'etat on the 18th Brumaire, is not the France that existed before 1789. Would it have been possible for the old France, wretchedly poor and with a third of her population suffering yearly from dearth, to have maintained the Napoleonic Wars, coming so soon after the terrible wars of the Republic between 1792 and 1799, when all Europe was attacking her?

The fact is, that a new France had been constituted since 1792-1793. Scarcity still prevailed in many of the departments, and its full horrors were felt especially after the coup d'etat of Thermidor, when the maximum price for all food-stuffs was abolished. There were still some departments which did not produce enough wheat to feed themselves, and as the war went on, and all means of transport were requisitioned for its supplies, there was scarcity in those departments. But everything tends to prove that France was even then producing much more of the necessities of life of every kind than in 1789.

Never was there in France such energetic ploughing, Michelet tells us, as in 1792, when the peasant was ploughing the lands he had taken back from the lords, the convents, the churches, and was goading his oxen to the cry of “Allons Prusse! Allons Autriche!” Never had there been so much clearing of lands — even royalist writers admit this — as during those years of revolution. The first good harvest, in 1794, brought relief to two-thirds of France — at least in the villages, for all this time the towns were threatened with scarcity of food. Not that it was scarce in France as a whole, or that the sans-culotte municipalities neglected to take measures to feed those who could not find employment, but from the fact that all beasts of burden not actually used in tillage were requisitioned to carry food and ammunition to the fourteen armies of the Republic. In those days there were no railways, and all but the main roads were in the state they are to this day in Russia — well-nigh impassible.

A new France was born during those four years of revolution. For the first time in centuries the peasant ate his fill, straightened his back and dared to speak out. Read the detailed reports concerning the return of Louis XVI to Paris, when be was brought back a prisoner from Varennes, in June 1791, by the peasants, and say: “Could such a thing, such an interest in the public welfare, such a devotion to it, and such in independence of judgment and action have been possible before 1789?” A new nation had been born in the meantime, just as we see to-day a new nation coming into life in Russia and in Turkey.

It was owing to this new birth that France was able to maintain her wars under the Republic of Napoleon, and to carry the principles of the Great Revolution into Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and even to the borders of Russia. And when, after all those wars, after having mentally followed the French armies as far as Egypt and Moscow, we expect to find France in 1815 reduced to an appalling misery and her lands laid waste, we find, instead, that even is its eastern portions and in the Jura, the country is much more prosperous than it was at the time when Pétion, pointing out to Louis XVI. the luxuriant banks of the Marne, asked him if there was anywhere in the world a kingdom more beautiful than the one the King had not wished to keep.

The self-contained energy was such in villages regenerated by the Revolution, that in a few years France became a country of well-to-do peasants, and her enemies soon discovered that in spite of all the blood she had shed and the losses she had sustained, France, in respect of her productivity, was the richest country in Europe. Her wealth, indeed, is not drawn from the Indies or from her foreign commerce: it comes from her own soil, from her love of the soil, from her own skill and industry. She is the richest country, because of the subdivision of her wealth, and she is still richer because of the possibilities she offers for the future.

Such was the effect of the Revolution. And if the casual observer sees in Napoleonic France only a love of glory, the historian realises that even the wars France waged at that period were undertaken to secure the fruits of the Revolution — to keep the lands that had been retaken from the lords, the priests and the rich, and the liberties that had been won from despotism and the Court. If France was willing in those years to bleed herself to death, merely to prevent the Germans, the English, and the Russians from forcing a Louis XVIII. upon her, it was because she did not want the return of the emigrant nobles to mean that the ci-devants would take back the lands which had been watered already with the peasant's sweat, and the liberties which had been sanctified with the patriots' blood. And France fought so well for twenty-three years, that when she was compelled at last to admit the Bourbons, it was she who imposed conditions on them. The Bourbons night reign, but the lands were to be kept by those who had taken them from the feudal lords, so that even during the White Terror of the Bourbons they dared not touch those lands. The old régime could not be re-established.

That is what is gained by making a revolution.

There are other things to be pointed out. In the history of all nations a time comes when fundamental changes are bound to take place in the whole of the national life. Royal despotism and feudalism were dying in 1789; it was impossible to keep them alive; they had to go.

But then, two ways were opened out before France; reform or revolution.

At such tines there is always a moment when reform is still possible; but if advantage has not been taken of that moment, if an obstinate resistance has been opposed to the requirements of the new life, up to the point when blood has flowed in the streets, as it flowed on July 14, 1789, then there must be a Revolution. And once the Revolution has begun, it must necessarily develop to its last conclusions — that is to say, to the highest point it is capable of attaining — were it only temporarily, being given a certain condition of the public mind at this particular moment.

If we represent the slow progress of a period of evolution by a line drawn on paper, we shall see this line gradually though slowly, rising. Then there comes a Revolution, and the line makes a sudden leap upwards. In England the line would be represented as rising to the Puritan Republic of Cromwell; in France it rises to the Sans-culotte Republic of 1793. However, at this height progress cannot be maintained; all the hostile forces league together against it, and the Republic goes down. Our line, after having reached that height, drops, Reaction follows. For the political life of France the line drops very low indeed, but by degrees it rises again, and when peace is restored in 1815 in France, and in 1688 in England — both countries are found to have attained a level much higher than they were on prior to their Revolutions.

After that, evolution is resumed: our line again begins to rise slowly: but, besides taking place on a very much higher level, the rising of the line will, in nearly every case be also much more rapid than before the period of disturbance.

This is a law of human progress, and also a law of individual progress. The more recent history of France confirms this very law by showing how it was necessary to pass through the Commune to arrive at the Third Republic.

The work of the French Revolution is not confined merely to what it obtained and what was retained of it in France. It is to be found also in the principles bequeathed by it to the succeeding century — in the line of direction it marked out for the future.

A reform is always a compromise with the past, but the progress accomplished by revolution is always a promise of future progress. If the Great French Revolution was the summing up of a century's evolution, it also marked out in its turn the programme of evolution to be accomplished in the course of the nineteenth century.

It is a law in the world's history that the period of a hundred or a hundred and thirty years, more or less, which passes between two great revolutions, receives its character from the revolution in which this period began. The nations endeavour to realise in their institutions the inheritance bequeathed to them by the last revolution. All that this last could not yet put into practice, all the great thoughts which were thrown into circulation during the turmoil, and which the revolution either could not or did not know how to apply, all the attempts at sociological reconstruction, which were born during the revolution, will go to make up the substance of evolution during the epoch that follows the revolution, with the addition of those new ideas to which this evolution will give birth, when trying to put into practice the programme marked out by the last upheaval. Then, a new revolution will be brought about in some other nation, and this nation in its turn will set the problems for the following century. Such has hitherto been the trend of history.

Two great conquests, in fact, characterize the century which has passed since 1789-1793. Both owe their origin to the French Revolution, which had carried on the work of the English Revolution while enlarging and invigorating it with all the progress that had been made since the English middle classes beheaded their King and transferred his power to the Parliament. These two great triumphs are: the abolition of serfdom and the abolition of absolutism, by which personal liberties have been conferred upon the individual, undreamt of by the serf of the lord and the subject of the absolute king, while at the same time they have brought about the development of the middle classes and the capitalist régime.

These two achievements represent the principal work of the nineteenth century, begun in France in 1789 and slowly spread over Europe in the course of that century.

The work of enfranchisement, begun by the French peasants in 1789, was continued in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Austria by the armies of the sans-culottes. Unfortunately, this work hardly penetrated into Poland and did not reach Russia at all.

The abolition of serfdom in Europe would have been already completed in the first half of the nineteenth century if the French bourgeoisie, coming into power in 1794 over the dead bodies of Anarchists, Cordeliers, and Jacobins, had not checked the revolutionary impulse, restored monarchy, and handed over France to the imperial juggler, the first Napoleon. This ex-sans-culotte, now a general of the sans-culottes, speedily began to prop up aristocracy; but the impulsion had been given, the institution of serfdom had already received a mortal blow. It was abolished in Spain and Italy in spite of the temporary triumph of reaction. It was closely pressed in Germany after 1811, and disappeared in that country definitively in 1848. In 1861, Russia was compelled to emancipate her serfs, and the I war of 1878 put an end to serfdom in the Balkan peninsula.

The cycle is now complete. The right of the lord over the person of the peasant no longer exists in Europe, even in those countries where the feudal dues have still to be redeemed.

This fact is not sufficiently appreciated by historians. Absorbed as they are in political questions, they do not perceive the importance of the abolition of serfdom, which is, however, the essential feature of the nineteenth century. The rivalries between nations and the wars resulting from them, the policies of the Great Powers which occupy so much of rise historian's attention, have all sprung from that one great fact — the abolition of serfdom and the development of the wage-system which has taken its place.

The French peasant, in revolting a hundred and twenty years ago against the lord who made him beat the ponds lest croaking frogs should disturb his master's sleep, has thus freed the peasants of all Europe. In four years, by burning the documents which registered his subjection, by setting fire to the châteaux, and by executing the owners of them who refused to recognise his rights is a human being, the French peasant so stirred up all Europe that it is to-day altogether free from the degradation of serfdom.

On the other hand, the abolition of absolute power has also taken a little over a hundred years to make the tour of Europe. Attacked in England in 1648, and vanquished in France in 1789, royal authority based on divine right is no longer exercised save in Russia, but there, too, it is at its last gasp. Even the little Balkan States and Turkey have now their representative assemblies, and Russia is entering the same cycle.

In this respect the Revolution of 1789-1793 has also accomplished its work. Equality before the law and representative government have now their place in almost all the codes of Europe. In theory, at least, the law makes no distinctions between men, and every one has the right to participate, more less, in the government.

The absolute monarch-master of his subjects — and the lord-master of the soil and the peasants, by right of birth — have both disappeared. The middle classes now govern Europe.

But at the same time the Great Revolution has bequeathed to tar some other principles of an infinitely higher import; the principles of communism. We have seen how all through the Great Revolution the communist idea kept coming to the front, and how after the fall of the Girondins numerous attempts and sometimes great attempts were made in this direction. Fourierism descends in a direct line from L'Ange on one side and from Chalier on the other. Babeuf is the direct descendant of ideas which stirred the masses to enthusiasm in 1793; he, Buonarotti, and Sylvain Maréchal have only systematised them a little or even merely put them into literary form. But the secret societies organised by Babeuf and Buonarotti were the origin of the communistes matérialistes secret societies through which Blanqui and Barbes conspired under the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Philippe. Later on, in, 1866, the International Working Men's Association appeared in the direct line of descent from these societies. As “socialism” we know now that this term came into vogue avoid the term “communism,” which at one time was dangerous because the secret communist societies became societies for action, and were rigorously suppressed by the bourgeoisie then in power.

There is, therefore, a direct filiation from the Enragés of 1793 and the Babeuf conspiracy of 1795 to the International Working Men's Association of 1866-1878.

There is also a direct descent of ideas. Up until now, modern socialism has added absolutely nothing to the ideas which were circulating among the French people between 1789 and 1794, and which it was tried to put into practice in the Year II of the Republic. Modern socialism has only systematised those ideas and found arguments in their favour, either by turning against the middle-class economists certain of their own definitions, or by generalising certain facts noticed in the development of industrial capitalism, in the course of the nineteenth century.

But I permit myself to maintain also that, however vague it may have been, however little support it endeavoured to draw from arguments dressed in a scientific garb, and however little use it made of the pseudo-scientific slang of the middle-class economists, the popular communism of the first two years of the Republic saw clearer, and went much deeper in its analyses, than modern socialism.

First of all, it was communism in the consumption of the necessaries of life — not in production only; it was the communalisation and the nationalisation of what economists know as consumption — to which the stern republicans of 1793 turned, above all, their attention, when they tried to establish their stores of grain and provisions in every commune, when they set on foot a gigantic inquiry to find and fix the true value of the objects of prime and secondary necessity, and when they inspired Robespierre to declare that only the superfluity of food-stuffs should become articles of commerce, and that what was necessary belonged to all.

Born out of the pressing necessities of those troubled years, the communism of 1793, with its affirmation on of the right of all to sustenance and to the land for its production, its denial of the right of any one to hold more land than he and his family could cultivate — that is, more than a farm of 120 acres — and its attempt to communalise all trade and industry — this communism went straighter to the heart of things than all the minimum programmes of our own time, or even all the maximum preambles of such programmes.

In any case, what we learn to-day from the study of the Great Revolution is, that it was the source and origin of all the present communist, anarchist, and socialist conceptions. We have but badly understood our common mother, but now we have found her again in the midst of the sans-culottes, and we see we have to learn from her.

Humanity advances by stages and these stages have been marked for several hundred years by great revolutions. After the Netherlands came England with her revolution in 1648-1657, and then it was the turn of France. Each great revolution has in it, besides, something special and original. England and France both abolished royal absolutism. But in doing so England was chiefly interested in the personal rights of the individual particularly in matters of religion, as well as the local rights of every parish and every community. As to France, she turned her chief attention to the land question, and in striking a mortal blow to the feudal system she struck also at the great fortunes, and sent forth into the world the idea of nationalizing the soil, and of socializing commerce and the chief industries.

Which of the nations will take upon herself the terrible but glorious task of the next great revolution? One may have thought for a time that it would be Russia. But if she should push her revolution further than the mere limitation of the imperial power; if she touches the land question in revolutionary spirit — how far will she go? Will she know how to avoid the mistake made by the French Assemblies, and will she socialize the land and give it only to those who want to cultivate it with their own hands? We know not: any answer to this question would belong to the domain of prophecy.

The one thing certain is, that whatsoever nation enters on the path of revolution in our own day, it will be heir to all our forefathers have done in France. The blood they shed was shed for humanity — the sufferings they endured were borne for the entire human race; their struggles, the ideas they gave to the world, the shock of those ideas, are all included in the heritage of mankind. All have borne fruit and will bear more, still finer, as we advance towards those wide horizons opening out before us, where, like some great beacon to point the way, flame the words: LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY.

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Apr 28 2012 02:33


The great French revolution, 1789-1793 - Peter Kropotkin

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