Chapter 43: Social Demands — State of Feeling In Paris — Lyons

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Effect of execution of King — Changed aspect of Revolution — Rise of counter-revolution — Paris Commune tries to keep down price of bread — Varlet — Jacques Roux — Movement against owners of large fortunes — Petition to Convention — Marat tries to stop agitation — Effect of riot — Necessity of crushing “Gironde” becomes evident

Notwithstanding the violence that the Parliamentary struggle between the “Mountain” and the “Gironde” displayed at times, it would have dragged on had it been strictly confined to the Convention. But since the execution of Louis XVI. events were moving faster, and the gulf between the revolutionists and the counter-revolutionists was becoming so wide that there was no longer any possibility of a vague, indetermined party, half-way between the two others. Opposed as they were to the natural course of development which the Revolution was following, the Girondins soon found themselves, together with the Feuillants and Royalists, in the ranks of the counter-revolutionists, and as such they had to succumb. The Revolution was still In its ascendant phase.

The execution of the King had produced a profound impression in France. If the middle classes were stricken with terror at the daring of the Montagnards, and trembled for their property and their lives, the intelligent portion of the population saw on the contrary the dawn of a new era — the nearing of that “well-being for all” which the revolutionists had promised to the poor.

The greater was their deception! The King had perished, royalty had disappeared; but the insolence of the rich was growing. Their insolence sunned itself in the wealthy quarters, even announced itself impudently in the public galleries the Convention, while in the poor districts misery grew blacker and blacker, as the sad winter of 1793 crept on, bringing lack of bread, unemployment, a rise in prices, and the depreciation of paper-money. And, in the meantime, bad news came in from everywhere: from the frontier, where the troops had melted like snow; from Brittany, where a general rising with, the help of the English was being prepared; from La Vendée, .where a hundred thousand revolted peasants were murdering the patriots with the benediction of the clergy; from Lyons, which had become the stronghold of the counterrevolutionists; from the Treasury, that now existed only by fresh issues of paper-money (les assignats); and, finally, from the Convention, which had come to a standstill, and was exhausting its forces in stormy internal struggles.

All this was helping to paralyse the revolutionary spirit. In Paris, the poor workers, the sans-culotte, no longer came to the sections in sufficient numbers, and the middle-class counter-revolutionists took advantage of it. In February 1793, the culottes dorées invaded the sections. They came in great numbers to the evening meetings, passed reactionary votes — by using their sticks in case of need — displaced the sans-culotte functionaries, and had themselves nominated in their stead. The revolutionists were even forced to reorganise their forces, so as to be able to come to the rescue from the neighbouring sections, when one section was invaded by the counter-revolutionists.

In Paris and in the provinces some sections were even compelled to ask the municipal council to guarantee to the poor men of the people who assisted at the sittings, and accepted duties on the committees, a payment of two livres per day. Whereupon the Girondins did not fail, of course, to ask the Convention to dissolve all these organisations of Sections, Popular Societies and Federations of Departments. They did not understand what power of resistance was yet in the old régime, and they did not see that such a step, taken at this moment, would have secured the immediate triumph of counter-revolution and the “Tarpeian Rock” for themselves.

However, the mass of the people was not yet discouraged. The fact is, that new ideas were ripening in many minds, new currents were coming to the surface, and seeking the form which would best express them.

The Paris Commune, having obtained large grants the Convention for the purchase of flour, succeeded or less in keeping the price of bread to three-halfpence a pound.

But to obtain bread at this price, the people had to spend the night at the bakers' doors, waiting in a queue on the pavement. And then the people understood that the Communein buying wheat at the price the monopolists extorted only enriched the speculators at the expense of the State. meant moving for ever in a circle, for the profit of the stock-jobbers. Stock-jobbing had already grown alarmingly. newly formed bourgeoisie rapidly became rich by — this means, Not only did the caterers for the armies — the “rice — bread — and — salt” (les riz-pain-sel) — make ill-gotten fortunes, but, as everything — wheat, flour, copper, oil, soap, candles, zinc, &c. — induced speculation, to say nothing of the enormous speculations on the sale of national estates, fortunes grew from nothing with an extraordinary rapidity in the sight and hearing of all.

The question: “What is to be done?” was then asked with all the tragic meaning which it acquires in times of crisis. Those to whom the supreme remedy for all social evils always “the punishment of the guilty,” could only prop the death penalty for the stock-jobbers, the reorganisation of the police system of “public safety,” and a revolutionary tribunal — which was in reality merely a return to Maillard's tribunal, without its openness, but certainly not a solution of the problem.

In the faubourgs, however, a deeper current of opinion was also forming, one which sought constructive solutions, and this current found expression in the predictions of a workman of the faubourgs, Varlet, and of a former priest, Jacques supported by. all the “nameless ones,” who in history go the name of Les Enragés (the extremists). These men understood that the theories on freedom of commerce, defended the Convention by men like Condorcet and Sieyès, were not true: that those commodities which are scarce in the market are easily to be seized upon by speculators, especially `during a period such as the Revolution was now traversing. And they set themselves to spread ideas on the necessity of communalising and nationalising commerce, and organising the exchange of goods at cost price — those ideas which later on inspired Fourier, Godwin, Robert Owen, Proudhon, and their subsequent socialist followers.

The Enragès had understood — and we will see later how a beginning of practical application was given to their ideas that it was not enough to guarantee to each man the right to work, or even a right to the land; they saw that so long as commercial exploitation existed, nothing could be done they maintained that to prevent this, commerce would have to be communalised.

At the same time, a pronounced movement was growing among the masses against the owners of great fortunes — a movement similar to that of to-day in the United States against the rapidly amassed fortune of the “trusts.” The best minds of the time were struck by the impossibility of establishing a democratic Republic, so long as there was no protection against the monstrous inequality of incomes, which was already asserting itself, and threatened to grow even worse.[213]

This movement against the monopolists and the stockjobbers was bound to produce also a movement against speculation in paper-money, and on February 3, 1792, delegates from the Commune, from the forty-eight sections and from the “United Defenders of the eighty-four departments” came before the Convention, demanding that a limit should be put to the depreciation of paper-money, due to stock-jobbery. They demanded the repeal of the decree of the Constituent Assembly which had recognised that money is merchandise, and the death penalty for stock-jobbers.[214]

This was, as we may see, a revolt of the poor against wealthy classes, who having got all possible advantages out of the Revolution, were now opposed to its benefiting the poor. And this is why, when the petitioners learned that the Jacobins, Saint-just included, were opposed to their petition, for fear, of alarming the middle classes, they spoke of them as of “those who do not understand the poor, because they themselves dine well every night.“[215]

Marat, too, tried to calm the agitation. He disapproved of the petition and defended the Montagnards and the Paris deputies whom the petitioners attacked; but he knew misery well, and when he heard the pleadings of the working women who came to the Convention on February 24, begging the protection of the legislators against the speculators, he at once took up the cause of the poor. In a very violent article, in the issue of his paper of the 25th, “despairing of seeing the legislators take any effectual measures,” he preached “the complete destruction of this accursed brood” — “capitalists,. stock-jobbers, monopolists, whom these wretched representatives of the nation encouraged, by not attacking them.”

The fury of an enraged mob is felt in this article, in which Marat demands, first, that the principal monopolists be handed over to a State tribunal, and then advocates revolutionary acts, saying that “the looting of a few shops, at the doors of which the monopolists should be hanged, would soon put an end to these malpractices, which reduce twenty-five million people to despair, and cause thousands to perish of want.”

On the same day, in the morning, the people did indeed pillage some shops, taking sugar, soap, &c., and there was talk in the faubourgs of recommencing the September massacres among the monopolists and jobbers of the Stock Exchange, and the rich altogether.

One can imagine what was made of this movement, which after all was nothing but a small riot, by the Girondins who wished to convince the provinces that Paris was a raging furnace of terror, in which no one was safe any longer. Happy at having found in Marat's article the sentence about pillage which we have just quoted, they made enough out of it to accuse the “Mountain” and the people of Paris en masse of intending to murder the rich. The Commune did not dare to approve the riot, and even Marat had to contradict himself by saying that it was fomented by royalists. As to Robespierre, he did not lose the opportunity of attributing the whole movement to the influence of foreign money.

The riot produced nevertheless the desired effect. The Convention raised, from four to seven millions, the advance it was making to the Commune to enable it to keep bread at three-halfpence the pound, and Chaumette, the procureur of the Commune, developed before the Convention the idea which was later introduced into the “law of maximum” — that the question was not solely to obtain bread at a reasonable price. It was also necessary, said he, “that commodities of secondary necessity” should be accessible to the people. There no longer exists “any just ratio between the pay of a day's manual labour and these commodities of secondary necessity.” “The poor have done as much as the rich, even more, for the Revolution. The whole life of the rich has changed, he alone (the poor man) has remained in the same position, and all he has gained through the Revolution is the right of complaining of his poverty.”[216]

This movement in Paris at the end of February contributed to a great extent to the fall of the Girondins. While Robespierre was still hoping by legal means to paralyse the party of the “Gironde” in the Convention,, the Enragés understood that so long as this party ruled in the Assembly, no progress of any sort would be made in matters of economics. They had the courage to say aloud that the aristocracy of money, of the great merchants and financiers, was rising from the ruins of the old aristocracy, and that this new aristocracy was so strong in the Convention that if the coalition of the Kings had not counted on its support, they would never have dared to attack France. It is even very probable that from that time on Robespierre and his faithful Jacobins told themselves that they ought to make sure of the Enragés to crush the Girondins, leaving till later, according to the turn events might take, the question whether to follow the Enragés or to fight them.

It is certain that ideas such as those advocated by Chaumette were bound to simmer in the people's minds in all large towns. The poor man had indeed done all for the Revolution, and while the bourgeoisie got rich, the poor man alone got nothing. Even in those cities where no popular movements similar to those of Paris and Lyons had taken place, the poor must have made similar reflections among themselves. And everywhere they must have noticed that the Girondins were a centre, round which could rally those who wished to prevent at all costs the Revolution from benefiting the poor.

At Lyons, the struggle took just the same course. It is clear that in this great manufacturing town, where the workmen lived by an industry of luxury, which unavoidably had suffered from the Revolution, the destitution was terrible. There was no work, and bread was at a famine price, three-pence a pound.

There were in Lyons, as everywhere, two parties: the popular party, represented by Laussel, and still more by Chalier, and the party of the merchant middle class, which rallied round the Girondins, as an intermediate step before going over to the Feuillants. The mayor, Nivière-Chol, a Girondist merchant, was the man of the middle-class party.

Many priests who had refused to take the oath of obedience to the Constitution were in hiding in this town, where the population had always had a leaning towards mysticism, and agents of the émigrés also were there in great numbers. Altogether Lyons was a centre for conspirators coming from Jalès,[217] Avignon, Chambéry and Turin.

Against all these, the people had but the Commune, in which the two most popular men were Chalier — an ex-priest and mystic communist, and Laussel, another ex-priest. The poor worshipped Chalier, who never ceased to preach against the rich.

It is difficult to disentangle the events which took place in Lyons during the first days of March. We only know that the unemployment and want were terrible, and that there was great unrest among the workmen. They demanded the maximum for grain, and also for those commodities which Chaumette called “commodities of secondary necessity” (Wine, wood, oil, soap, coffee, sugar, &c.). They also called for the prohibition of the traffic in tokens of exchange, whether notes, gold or silver, and wished for the establishment of a tariff of wages. The poor discussed the expediency Of massacring or guillotining the monopolists, and the Commune of Lyons, going no doubt by the decree of the Legislative Assembly of August 29, 1792, ordered searches to be made all over Lyons, similar to those which took place on August 29, 1792, in Paris, in order to lay hands on the numerous royalist conspirators sojourning in the city. But the royalists and the Girondins, rallying round the mayor, Nivière-Chol, succeeded in seizing the municipality, and proposed to deal severely with the people. The Convention, however, interfered to prevent the slaughter of the “patriots,” and for this purpose sent three commissioners to Lyons. Supported by these commissioners, the revolutionists again took possession of the sections which had been invaded by reactionaries. The Girondin mayor was forced to resign, and on March 9, a friend of Chalier was elected in the place of Nivière-Chol.

But the struggle did not end with that, and we shall see later on how, the Girondins again gaining the upper hand at the end of May, the people, the “patriots” were massacred. For the present let us only note that in Lyons as in Paris, the Girondins served as a rallying-point, not only for those who were opposed to the people's Revolution, but also for all those absolute Royalists and constitutional Feuillants who did not want a Republic.[218]

The necessity of crushing the political power of the “Gironde” became, however, still more evident when the betrayal of Dumouriez revealed whither their policy was leading.