Chapter 37: The Government — Conflicts With the Convention — The War

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

New Ministerial Council — Danton, at first its leader, later forced to resign — Roland succeeds him — Council inactive — Real power in hands of Danton Commune, Sections and Jacobins — Council attacks Danton, Marat, and Robespierre — Conflict between convention and Commune — Provinces become hostile to Commune and people of Paris — Girondins attack Paris sections — Revolution and war — Girondins desire war Peasants of frontier enthusiastic — Western France not eager — Country unprepared — Plan of Dumouriez and Lafayette — Germans advance — Battle of Valmy — Danton negotiates with Duke Of Brunswick — Further republican successes — Battle of Jemmapes — England — Consequences of war — The Vendée

The first care of the Convention was not to decide what should be done with the dethroned King, but to determine which party should profit by the people's victory over the Tuileries — who should rule the Revolution. Whereupon there broke out those conflicts which for eight months hindered the regular development of the Revolution and, until June 1793, held in suspense the great questions, such as that of the land, the feudal dues, and so on, and led to the exhaustion of the people's energy, to indifference, to that lassitude which made the hearts of those who witnessed it to bleed, as Michelet has so well expressed it.

On August 10, after pronouncing the “suspension” of the King, the Legislative Assembly had handed over all the functions of central executive power to a council composed of six ministers — chosen from without the Assembly, the majority being Girondins — Roland, Servan, Clavière, Monge, and Le Brun — with the addition of Danton, whom the Revolution had placed in the position of Minister of justice. This council had no president; each minister presiding for a week in turn.

The Convention confirmed this arrangement; but Danton, who had become the soul of the national defence and diplomacy, and who exercised a preponderating influence on the council, was forced to resign by the attacks of the Girondins. He quitted the Ministry on October 9, 1792, and his place was filled by the insignificant Garat. After this, Roland, the Minister of the Interior, became the most influential man of the Ministerial Council, and kept his post until January 1793, when he resigned after the execution of the King. In this position he exercised all his influence, and permitted the Girondins grouped round him and his wife to employ all their energy to prevent the Revolution from developing along the broad lines which had been marked out for it since 1789: the establishment of a democracy, the definite abolition of the feudal system, and some steps towards an equalisation of conditions. Danton, however, was still the inspirer of diplomacy, and when the Committee of Public Safety was instituted, in April 1793, he became the real Minister of Foreign Affairs on this committee.[183]

Although in power and dominating the Convention, the Gironde did not know actually what to do. As Michelet truly says, “it perorated,” but it did nothing. Not having courage for revolutionary measures, neither had it enough for open reaction. Consequently, the real authority, both for initiative and for action, rested in Danton's hands in the war and diplomacy, and in the hands of the Commune of Paris, the sections, the popular societies, and partly with the Jacobin Club with regard to revolutionary measures in the interior. Powerless to act itself, the Gironde directed furious attacks upon those who did act, chiefly against “the triumvirate” of Danton, Marat, and Robespierre, whom they violently accused of dictatorial tendencies. There were times when it was asked whether these attacks should come to a head — whether Danton was to be ostracised and Marat sent to the guillotine.

However, as the Revolution had not yet exhausted its vitality, all these attacks failed. They only made the people more ardently in favour of Marat, especially in the faubourgs of Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marceau; they augmented the influence of Robespierre in the eyes of the Jacobins and of the democratic middle class, and they raised Danton still higher in the eyes of all those who loved to see Republican France defying the Kings. To them Danton was the man of action capable of heading off the invasion, of frustrating the royalist plots at home, and of establishing the Republic securely, even at the risk of his life and his political reputation.

Ever since the first sittings of the Convention, its Right, formed by the Girondins, had renewed the shameful conflict with the Commune of Paris, which they had been leading in the Legislative Assembly since August 11. They owed their power to the insurrection, organised by the Commune, and yet they attacked it with a hatred which they had never displayed for the Court conspirators.

It would be wearisome to narrate here in full all these attacks of the Gironde upon the Commune. It will be enough to mention some of them.

The first was over the auditing of the accounts; it was aimed at the Commune and its Watch Committee, as well at Danton. It is evident that during those disturbed months of August and September 1792, under the extraordinary circumstances created by the movement of August 10 and the foreign invasion, money had to be expended by Danton, the only active man in the Ministry, without too much exactitude of accounts, whether for the diplomatic negotiations which led to the retreat of the Prussians, or for getting hold of the threads of the plot of the Marquis de la Rouèrie in Brittany, and that of the princes in England and elsewhere. It is also very plain that it was not easy for the Watch Committee of the Commune, which equipped and sent off every day, in haste, several thousand volunteers for the frontier, to keep very exact accounts. But it was just upon this weak point that the Girondins directed their first attack and their insinuations, demanding that a complete account from September 30 should be rendered. The Executive of the Commune, that is, its Watch Committee, sent in an extremely clear statement of its accounts,[184] and justified its political action.

But in the provinces, doubts as to their honesty remained hanging over Danton and the Commune; and the Girondins in their letters to their friends and agents made as much as possible out of these doubts.

At the same time the Girondins tried to give the Convention an anti-revoIutionary guard. They wanted the Directory of each department — the Directories were, as we know, reactionary — to send to Paris four foot-soldiers and two mounted men, making in all 4470 men, to guard the Convention against the possible attacks of the people of Paris and the Commune! And a powerful agitation was necessary among the sections, which appointed special commissioners to resist the passing of this vote, and to prevent the formation in Paris of a reactionary guard.

But it was chiefly the September massacres that the Girondins never ceased exploiting in order to attack Danton, who in those days acted hand in hand with the Commune and the sections. After “drawing the veil,” and almost justifying those days by the mouth of Roland[185] as they had justified previously the massacres of La Glacière at Lyons by the mouth of Barbaroux,[186] they now manœuvred so well in the Convention that on January 20, 1793, they obtained from it an order of prosecution against the authors of the September massacres, in the hope that the reputation of Danton, Robespierre, and Marat would be blackened by this inquiry.

By degrees, taking advantage of the constitutionalist and royalist current, which asserted itself among the middle classes after August 10, the Girondins succeeded in creating in the provinces a feeling of hostility towards Paris and its Commune as well as towards the party of the “Mountain.”

Several departments even sent detachments of federates to defend the Convention against “the agitators who wanted to become tribunes and dictators” — Danton, Marat, and Robespierre — and against the people of Paris. At the appeal of Barbaroux, Marseilles — this time “commercialist” Marseilles — sent up to Paris, in October 1792, a battalion of federates composed of rich young men from the merchant city, who marched through the streets of Paris, demanding the heads of Robespierre and Marat. They were the precursors of the Thermidor reaction; but, fortunately, the people of Paris defeated the plot by winning over these federates to the cause of the Revolution.

Meanwhile the Girondins did not fail to make a direct attack on the federal organisation of the Paris sections. They wanted at any cost to destroy the insurrectional Commune of August 10, and they succeeded in getting new elections for the General Council of the Paris municipality. Pétion, the Girondist mayor, resigned at the same time. Here again, however, the sections frustrated these manœuvres. Not only had the party of the Mountain the majority in the elections, but a revolutionary as advanced and as popular as Chaumette was appointed procurator of the Commune, and the editor of the Père Duchesne, Hébert, became his deputy (December 2, 1792). Pétion, who was no longer in sympathy with the revolutionary sentiments of the people of Paris, was not re-elected, and Chambon, a moderate, took his place; but he remained there only two months, and on February 14, 1793, he was replaced by Pache, formerly Minister of War.

This was how the revolutionary Commune of 1793 was constituted — the Commune of Pache, Chaumette, and Hébert, which was the rival of the Convention and played so powerful a part in the movement of May 31 — June 2, 1793, which ended in the expulsion of the Girondin leaders from the Convention, and pushed forward with ardour the popular revolution of the Year II. of the Republic which stood up for Equality and, finally, for Communism.

The great question of the moment was the war. On the successes of the armies depended the future development of the Revolution.

We have seen that the advanced revolutionaries, like Marat and Robespierre, had not wanted the war. But the Court called in the German invaders to save royal despotism: the priests and nobles furiously wanted the war, hoping to regain through it their ancient privileges; and the neighbouring governments saw in a war upon France the means of combating the spirit of revolution which was beginning to show itself in their own dominions, as well as a good opportunity for wresting from France some provinces and colonies. The Girondins, on the other hand, desired the war, because they saw in it the only way to succeed in limiting the authority of the King without appealing to a popular rising. “It is because you do not wish to appeal to the people that you wish for war,” said Marat, and he was right.

As to the people, the peasants of the frontier departments, when they saw the German armies headed by the emigrant nobles massing themselves on the Rhine and in the Low Countries, they understood that it was a question for them of taking up arms to defend their rights over the lands they had retaken from the nobles and clergy. Therefore, when the war with Austria was declared on April 20, 1792, an astounding enthusiasm was displayed by the inhabitants of the departments close to the Eastern frontier. The levies for the volunteers, for one year, were made with enthusiasm, to the singing of Ça ira! and the patriotic gifts flowed in from all sides. But this was not the case in the regions of western and south-western France: there the people did not want the war at all.

Nothing, moreover, was ready for the war. The forces of France, not numbering more than 130,000 men, spread out from the North Sea to Switzerland, badly equipped and commanded by royalist officers and staffs, were not in a condition to resist an invasion.

Dumouriez and Lafayette at first conceived the bold plan of rapidly invading Belgium, which had already in 1790 tried to detach herself from Austria, but had been vanquished. The Belgian Liberals had appealed to the French, but the attempt failed, and thenceforth the French generals kept on the defensive, the more so because Prussia had joined with Austria and the German princes to invade France, and moreover, this coalition was strongly and openly supported by the Court of Turin, and secretly by the Courts of St. Petersburg and London.

On July 26, 1792, the Duke of Brunswick, who commanded one of the invading armies, composed of 70,000 Prussians and 68,000 Austrians, Hessians and émigrés, began to march upon Coblentz, publishing as he went a manifesto which roused the indignation of all France. He threatened to set fire to the towns that dared to defend themselves, and to exterminate their inhabitants as rebels. If Paris dared to break into the palace of Louis XVI., the city would be subjected to an exemplary dragooning that would never be forgotten.

Three German armies were to enter France and march upon Paris, and on April 19, the Prussian army crossed the frontier and took Longwy and Verdun without a struggle.

We have seen the enthusiasm that the Commune succeeded in rousing in Paris when this news arrived, and how it replied by causing the leaden coffins of the rich to be melted down for balls, and the bells, as well as the other church furniture in bronze, to be turned into cannon, whilst the churches were used as vast worksheds, where thousands of people worked making the volunteers' outfits, singing, as they sewed, the Ça ira and the Marseillaise, the stirring hymn of Rouget de l'Isle.

The émigrés had made the allied kings believe that they would find France ready to receive them with open arms. But the openly hostile attitude of the peasants and the September days in Paris made the invaders pause. The inhabitants of the towns and the peasants of the Eastern departments understood very well that the enemy had come to take away the fruits of all their conquests, and it had been chiefly in the regions to the East that the risings of the town and country parts, in 1789 and 1790, had best succeeded in destroying feudalism.

But enthusiasm was not sufficient to conquer. The Prussian army was advancing, and now with the Austrian army, it had already entered the forest of the Argonne, which extended over a length of eleven leagues, separating the valley of the Meuse from the barren Champagne. Dumouriez' army tried vainly by forced marches to stop the invasion. It succeeded only in occupying just in time an advantageous position at Valmy, at the exit from the great forest, and here the Prussians, on September 20, met with their first check, while trying to gain possession of the hills occupied by the soldiers of Dumouriez. Under the circumstances, the battle of Valmy was an important victory — the first victory of the peoples over the kings — and as such it was hailed by Goethe who accompanied the army of the Duke of Brunswick.

The Prussian army was compelled to make a halt under torrential rains in the forest of the Argonne, and as everything was lacking in the arid plains stretching in front, it became a prey to dysentery, which made frightful ravages among the men. The roads were liquid mud, the peasants on the watch — everything foreboded a disastrous campaign.

It was then that Danton negotiated with the Duke of Brunswick for the retreat of the Prussians. What the conditions were is not known to this day. Did Danton promise him, as it has been later maintained, to save the life of Louis XVI.? It is possible. But if this promise was made, it must have been conditional, and we do not know what engagements were undertaken in return by the invaders, beyond the immediate retreat of the Prussians. Was the simultaneous retreat of the Austrians promised? Was a formal renunciation of the throne by Louis XVI. spoken of? We are only able to make conjectures.

All we really know is that, on October 1, the Duke of Brunswick began his retreat by Grand-Pré and Verdun. Towards the end of the month he recrossed the Rhine at Coblentz, accompanied by the curses of the émigrés.

Dumouriez thereupon, after giving Westermann orders to “escort the Prussians back politely,” without hurrying them too much, went to Paris, on October 11, evidently to see how the parties were divided and to determine his own line of conduct. He so arranged it that, although he did not take the oath to the Republic, he was nevertheless very well received by the Jacobins, and from that time he undoubtedly began to press keenly the candidature of the Duke de Chartres for the throne of France.

The insurrection, which had been arranged in Brittany by the Marquis de la Rouêrie to break out at the time when the Germans would be marching on Paris, also came to nothing. Information about it was given to Danton, who was able to grasp the threads of it, in Brittany as well as in London. But London remained the centre of the conspiracies of the princes, and the island of Jersey was made the centre for royalist stores of arms. The intention was to land a small army somewhere on the coast of Brittany, to seize Saint-Malo with the aid of the local royalists, and to hand over this port of great military and commercial importance to the English.

At the same time, the French army of the South, command by Montesquiou, entered Savoy the very day the Convention opened. It took Chambéry four days later and introduced into Savoy the peasant revolution against feudal landlords.

At the end of the same month of September, one of the armies of the Republic, commanded by Lauzun and Custine, passed the Rhine and took Spires by assault on the 30th. Worms yielded four days later, and on October 23, Mayence and Frankfort-on-the-Maine were occupied by the armies of the sansculottes.

In the North, there was another series of successes. Towards the end of October, the army under Dumouriez entered Belgium, and on November 6, it gained a great victory over the Austrians at Jemmapes, in the environs of Mons — a victory which Dumouriez had arranged in such a way as to bring glory to the son of the Duke de Chartres — and to sacrifice two battalions of Parisian volunteers.

This victory opened up Belgium to the French. Mons was occupied on the 8th, and on the 14th Dumouriez made his entry into Brussels. The people received the soldiers of the Republic with open arms. They were expecting them to initiate a series of revolutionary measures, chiefly concerning property. Such was also the idea of the “Mountain” — at least of Cambon — the man who had organised the immense business of selling the lands of the clergy as a guarantee for the assignats, who was at that moment organising the sale of the estates of the emigrant royalists, and who asked nothing better than to introduce the same system into Belgium. But whether it was that the “Mountain” lacked courage, attacked as it was by the Girondins for its want of respect for property, or that the aims of the Revolution had not found the necessary support in Belgium, where only the proletarians were on the side of the Revolution, while all the well-to-do middle classes and the formidable power of the priests were opposed to it. At any rate, it remains a fact that the Revolution — which might have combined the Belgians with the French, was not accomplished.

With all these successes and victories there was enough to intoxicate the lovers of the war, and the Girondins triumphed. On December 15, the Convention issued a decree in which it defied all the monarchies and declared that peace should not be concluded with any of the Powers until their armies had been expelled from the territory of the Republic. In reality, however, the situation within looked rather gloomy, and the very victories of the Republic only set the seal upon the union between all the monarchies.

The invasion of Belgium decided England as to her rôle. The dawn of republican and communist ideas among the English, which was manifested by the foundation of republican societies, and found its literary expression in 1793 through the remarkable work on free communism, by Godwin, “On Political Justice,” had inspired the French republicans, especially Danton, with the hope of finding support in an English revolutionary movement.[187]

But industrial and mercantile interests carried the day in the British Isles. And when republican France invaded Belgium and fortified herself in the valley of the Scheldt and Rhine, threatening to take possession of Holland, England's policy was decided.

To take away France's colonies, to destroy her power on the sea, to check her industrial development and her colonial expansion — this was the policy to which the greatest number adhered in England. The party of Fox was crushed and Pitt's was in the ascendant. Thenceforth England, strong in her fleet and still stronger in her money with which she subsidised the continental powers — Russia, Prussia, and Austria among them — became and remained, for a quarter of a century, the head of a European coalition. It was a war of complete exhaustion between the two nations. And this war forcibly brought France to a military dictatorship.

Besides, if Paris, threatened by the invasion, was transported by a sublime enthusiasm and its best elements hastened to join the volunteers from the departments of Eastern France, it was also the war which gave the first impulse to the rising in the Vendée. It furnished the priests with a pretext for exploiting the reluctance of the population to leave their shady groves and go fighting, they knew not where, upon the frontier: it helped to arouse the fanaticism of the Vendéans and to make them revolt, at the very time when the Germans were entering France. We shall see later how much evil was wrought for the Revolution by this rising.

But if it had been only the Vendée! All through France the war created such a terrible condition of things for the great mass of the poor folk that one cannot but ask, how did the Republic succeed in passing safely through such a formidable crisis?

The harvest of 1792 was a good one for wheat; but on account of the rains it was only fairly good for the oats and barley. The exportation of cereals was forbidden, and yet for all that there was a famine. In the towns, for a long time nothing so terrible had been seen. Long files of men and women besieged the bakers and the butchers, spending the whole night in the snow and rain, without the certainty of getting one scrap of bread in the morning even at an exorbitant price. And this, at a time when quite a number of industries had been stopped almost completely, which meant no work.

The fact is that one cannot with impunity take away from a nation of twenty-five millions nearly a million men in the flower of their manhood, and perhaps half a million of beasts of burden, without its being felt in agricultural labour. Neither can the food-stuffs of a nation be subjected to the inevitable wastage of war without making still blacker the misery of the poor — at the same time that a horde of exploiters enrich themselves at the expense of the public treasury.[188]

Questions concerning all these vital facts were being launched like thunderbolts into the very midst of each popular society in the provinces and into each section of the great towns, to find their way thence to the Convention. And above everything rose the greatest question of all upon which all the others depended: “What was to be done with the King?"