Chapter 36: The Convention — The Commune — The Jacobins

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Convention formed — Its composition — Girondins — Mountain — Plain or Marsh — Activity of sections since their formation — Revolutionary Commune — Jacobin Club and — Mountain — Jacobins support — Mountain, — but oppose Girondins

On September 21, 1792, the Convention, that Assembly which has been so often represented as the true type, the ideal of a revolutionary Assembly, was at last opened. The elections had been made by all the citizens, both active and passive, but still in two degrees, which means that all the citizens had first elected the electoral assemblies, and these had nominated the deputies to the Convention. Such a mode of election was clearly in favour of the wealthy; but as the elections took place in September, in the midst of the general agitation resulting from the triumph of the people on August 10 and many who were opposed to the, Revolution, being terrorised by the events on September 2, preferred not to show themselves at all during the elections, thing were not so bad as might have been feared. In Paris, Marat's list, containing all the revolutionaries known at the Cordeliers' and Jacobin Clubs, was accepted in its entirety. The five hundred and twenty-five electors of Paris, who met together on September 2, in the Club of the Jacobins, elected Collot d'Herbois and Robespierre as president and vice-president, excluded from the lists all those who had signed the two royalist petitions known as the Petitions of the Eight Thousand and the Twenty Thousand, and voted for Marat's list.

The “moderantist” element dominated, however, all the same in the new Assembly, and Marat wrote, after the first sitting, that, seeing the character of the majority of the delegates, he despaired of the salvation of France. He foresaw that their opposition to the revolutionary spirit was going to plunge the country into endless struggles: “They will end by bringing everything to destruction,” he said, “if the small number of the defenders of the people, who will have to contend with them, do not get the upper hand and crush them.” We shall see presently how right were his forebodings.

But the events were impelling France towards the Republic, and the inclinations of the people were such that the moderantists of the Convention did not dare to resist the current which was sweeping away royalty. At its very first sitting the Convention declared unanimously that royalty was abolished in France. Marseilles, as we have seen, and several other provincial towns were already before August 10 demanding a Republic; and Paris had done so with all solemnity since the first day of the elections. The Jacobin Club had also decided at last, in its sitting of August 27, to declare itself republican, after the publication of the papers found in the Tuileries. The Convention followed the lead of Paris. It abolished royalty at its first sitting on September 21, 1792. The next day, by a second decree, it ordained that from this day all public acts should be dated from the first year of the Republic.

Three very distinct parties met in the Convention: the Mountain, the Gironde and the Plain, or rather the Marsh. The Girondins, although less than two hundred, dominated. They had already, in the Legislative Assembly, furnished the King with the Roland Ministry, and they liked to pose as “statesmen.” Composed of well-educated, refined and keen politicians, the Girondist party represented the interests of the commercial, mercantile, and propertied middle classes, who were coming to the front very rapidly under the new régime. With the support of the Moderates of the Marsh, the Girondins were at first the strongest, and it was from among them the first republican Ministry was chosen, Damon alone, of the Ministry that had come into power on August 10, had represented the popular revolution but he sent in his resignation on September 21, when the Convention met, and the power rested in the hands of the Girondins.

The “Mountain,” composed of Jacobins, such as Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon, of Cordeliers, such as Danton and Marat, and supported by popular revolutionists like Chaumette and Hérbert, was not yet constituted into a political party: that was done later through the course of events. For the time being, there rallied round them those who wanted to press on ahead and make the Revolution end in some tangible results — that is to say, to destroy royalty and royalism, to crush the power of the aristocracy and the clergy, to abolish feudalism to establish the Republic.

Lastly, the “Plain” or “Marsh” consisted of those who were undecided — men without settled convictions, always remaining “property-owners” and conservatives by instinct — those who form the majority in all representative assemblies. They numbered about fire hundred in the Convention. At first they supported the Girondins, but then deserted them in the moment of danger. Fear made them support for a certain time the Red Terror, with Saint-Just and Robespierre, but afterwards they became partisans of the White Terror, when the coup d'etat of Thermidor had sent Robespierre and his friends to the scaffold.

One might have thought that now the Revolution was going to develop without further hindrances and follow the natural path dictated by the logic of events. The trial and condemnation of the King, a Republican Constitution in place of that of 1791, war to the death against the invaders; and at the same time the abolition of all that constituted the power of the old régime — the feudal laws, the authority of the clergy, the royalist organisation of provincial administrations — all these ought to have been considered as the necessary outcome of the situation.

But the middle classes which had come into power and were represented in the Convention by the “Statesmen” of the Gironde, did not hold this opinion.

The people had dethroned Louis XVI. But as to getting rid of the traitor who had brought the Germans almost to the gates of Paris, as to executing Louis XVI., the Gironde was very strongly in opposition. Rather civil war than this decisive step! Not from fear of the vengeance of the foreigner — since it was the Girondins themselves who had undertaken to wage war against all Europe; but from fear of the Revolution, of the French people, and especially of the Paris revolutionists who saw in the execution of the King the beginning of the real revolution.

However, the people of Paris, in their sections and their Commune, had been able to form, side by side with the National Assembly, a veritable power, which gave body to the revolutionary tendencies of the Parisian population, and in the end even dominated the Convention. Let us, therefore, pause a moment before touching upon the struggles which rent the National Representation, to cast a retrospective glance on the methods by which this authority, the Commune of Paris, had been constituted.

We have seen in chaps. xxiv, and xxv. how the sections of Paris had assumed importance, as organs of the municipal life, by taking upon themselves, in addition to the police functions and the election of the judges which belonged to them by law, various economic functions of the highest importance — such as the distribution of food-stuffs, public aid, the sale of national lands, and so on, end we saw how these very functions enabled them to exercise a serious influence in the discussion of the great political questions of a general character.

Having become important organs of the public life, the sections necessarily tried to establish a federal link between themselves, and several times already, in 1790 and 1791, they appointed special commissioners with the object of coming to an understanding with each other for common action, outside the regular Municipal Council. However, nothing permanent resulted from these attempts.

In April 1792, when war was declared, the labours of the sections were suddenly augmented by a great many new functions. They had to take upon themselves the enrolment and the choice of the volunteers, the collecting of patriotic donations, the equipment and provisioning of the battalions sent to the frontiers, the administrative and political correspondence with these battalions, the looking after the needs of the volunteers' families, &c., not to mention the perpetual strife which they had to maintain from day to day against the royalist conspirators who tried to hamper their work. With these new functions, the necessity for a direct union between the sections made itself felt more than ever.

Nowadays, looking over the correspondence of the sections and their vast accounts, one cannot but admire the spirit of spontaneous organisation shown by the people of Paris, and the devotion of the men who willingly carried out the whole of this task — usually after finishing their daily labour. Here is where we may appreciate the devotion, more than religious, which was created in the French people by the Revolution. For we must not forget that if each section appointed its military committee and its civil committee, it was to the General Assemblies, held in the evening, that all important questions were generally referred.

We can understand, too, how these men, who were looking on the horrors of war not theoretically, but in reality, and were in daily touch with the sufferings imposed upon the people by the invasion, must have hated the instigators of the invasion — the King, the Queen, the Court, the ex-nobles and the rich, all the rich, who made common cause with the Court. The people of Paris thus joined with the peasants of the frontier departments in their hatred of the supporters of the throne who had called the foreigners into France. When, therefore, the idea of a pacific demonstration for June 20 was suggested, it was the sections that took upon themselves the organiation of this demonstration — it was they who afterwards arranged the attack on the Tuileries on August 10, taking the opportunity, meanwhile, to form at last the much desired direct union for revolutionary action among the sections.

When it became evident that the demonstration on June 20 had resulted in nothing — that the Court had not learned anything, and did not wish to learn anything — the sections themselves took the initiative in demanding from the Assembly the dethronement of Louis XVI. On July 23 the section of Mauconseil passed a resolution to this effect, of which they gave notice to the Assembly; and then they set to work to prepare for a rising on August 5. Other sections hastened to pass a similar resolution, and when the Assembly, in its sitting of August 5, denounced the resolution of the citizens of Mauconseil as illegal, it had already received the approbation of fourteen sections. The same day some members of the Gravilliers section went to the Assembly to declare that they were still leaving to the legislators “the honour of saving the country,” but they added: “If you refuse, however, to do it, we shall have to take it upon ourselves.” The Quinze-Vingts section, on its part, announced “the morning of August 10 as the extreme limit of the people's patience,” and that of Mauconseil declared that “it would wait peaceably and keeping watch until eleven o'clock on the evening of the following Thursday (August 9) in expectation of the decision of the National Assembly; but that, if justice and right was not done to the people by the legislative body, one hour after, at mid-night, the. fire-drum would be beaten, and every one would rise.”[179]

Finally, on August 7, the same section requested all the others to appoint in each of them “six commissioners, less orators than good citizens, who by their meeting together would form a central point at the Hôtel de Ville,” which was done on the 9th.[180] When twenty-eight or thirty out of the forty-six sections had joined the movement, their commissioners met at the Hôtel de Ville, in a hall adjoining the one where the Municipal Council met regularly — it was small in numbers that night and they took action in a revolutionary manner, as a new Commune. They provisionally suspended the Municipal Council, shut up in a hall the mayor, Pétion, dismissed the staff of the National Guards' battalions, and took over all the authority of the Commune, as well as of the general direction of the insurrection.[181]

Thus the new authority, the Revolutionary Commune, was constituted, and installed in the Hôtel de Ville.

The Tuileries Palace was taken, the King dethroned, and immediately the new Commune made it felt that August 10 was not the culmination of the Revolution inaugurated on July 14, 1789, but the beginning of a new popular revolution, marching in the sense of Equality. Henceforth it dated its documents from “the Year IV. of Liberty and the Year I. of Equality.” A whole mass of new duties began to devolve upon the new Commune.

During the last twenty days of August, while the Legislative Assembly was hesitating between the various currents, royalist, constitutionalist, and republican, which drew its members hither and thither, and was proving itself absolutely incapable of rising to the height of events, the sections of Paris and the Commune became the true heart of the French nation for the awakening of Republican France, for flinging her against the coalition of kings, and for organising in cooperation with the other Communes the great movement of the volunteers in 1792. And when the hesitations of the Assembly, the hankering of the majority of the members after royalty, and their hatred of the insurrectional Commune had brought the people of Paris to a pitch of mad fury in those September days, it was still the sections and the Commune that tried to appease them. As soon as the Legislative Assembly decided at last to declare, on September 4, against royalty and the various pretenders to the throne of France, and as soon as it signified its decision to the sections, these joined together at once, to put an end to the massacres which threatened to extend from the prisons to the streets, and to guarantee the safety of all the inhabitants.

Likewise, when the Convention met, and though it had decreed the abolition of royalty in France on the morning of September 21, “it did not dare to pronounce the decisive word `Republic” and “seemed to be waiting for some encouragement from without”;[182] this encouragement came from the people of Paris. They acclaimed the decree in the street with cries of “Vive la République!” and the citizens of the Quatre-Nations section went to the Convention, to compel it to take a step further, saying that they would be only too happy to pay with their blood for the “Republic” which was not yet proclaimed, and which was only on the next day officially recognised by the Convention.

The Commune of Paris thus became a power which took upon itself to be the inspirer, if not the rival, of the Convention, and the ally of the party called the “Mountain.”

The “Mountain” had, besides another power on its side which had been formed in the current of the Revolution — the Jacobin Club, in Paris, with the numerous societies in the provinces which were affiliated to it. It is true that this dub had none of the power and revolutionary initiative with which modern political writers endow it. The very persons composing the mother-society in Paris were chiefly well-to-do middle-class men. How could they guide the Revolution?

At every epoch, Michelet says, they had flattered themselves with being the wiseacres and political lights of the Revolution, who held the balance of it all. They did not lead the Revolution; they followed it. The tone of the club changed with every fresh crisis. But the club made itself immediately the expression of the tendency which had come to the front at a certain moment among the educated, moderately democratic middle classes; it supported this tendency by cultivating opinion in Paris in the directions desired, and it furnished the most important officials under each new régime. Robespierre, who, to use Michelet's happy phrase, was “the golden mean of the Mountain,” wanted the Jacobins “to serve as an intermediary between the Assembly and the Street, to frighten and reassure the Convention alternately.” But he understood that the initiative should come from the Street, from the People.

We have already said that the influence of the Jacobins on the events of August 10 was nil, and it so remained until September 1792, the club being nearly deserted at that time. But by degrees, in the course of the autumn, the mother-society of Paris was reinforced by many Cordeliers, and then the club revived and became the rallying-point for the whole of the moderate party among the republican democrats. Marat became very popular there, but not so “the extremists” — which in modern parlance would mean “the Communists.” These the club opposed and, later on, fought against them.

When, in the spring of 1793, the struggle entered on by the Girondins against the Commune of Paris reached its critical point, the Jacobins supported the Commune and the Mountain, in the Convention, and helped them to gain the victory over the Girondins, and to consolidate it. By their correspondence with the affiliated clubs in the provinces, the Jacobins supported the advanced revolutionists there, and helped them to checkmate the influence not only of the Girondins, but also of the royalists concealed behind them. This left the Jacobins free to turn later on against the popular revolutionists of the Commune, and so make way for middle-class reaction to accomplish the coup d'etat of the 9th Thermidor.