Revolutionary leaders afraid to move — Commune of Paris — Montagnards — Inactivity of Convention — Commissioners of Convention work only to strengthen Montagnard régime
The movement of May 31, 1793, had made it possible for the Revolution to complete the work which proved to be its principal achievement: the final abolition, without redemption, of feudal rights, and the abolition of royal despotism. But, this done, the Revolution was coming to a standstill. The mass of the people were willing to go further; but those whom the tide of Revolution had carried to the head of the movement dared not advance. They did not wish the Revolution to lay hands on the wealth of the middle classes, as it had that of the nobility and clergy, and they strained all their power to moderate, to arrest, and eventually to crush the movement that was beginning in this direction. Even the more advanced and the more sincere among them, as they gradually neared power, developed the greatest consideration for the middle classes, although they hated them. They stifled their own aspirations towards equality, they even considered what the English middle classes might say of them. In their turn they became “statesmen,” and laboured to build up a strong centralised government, whose component parts should obey them blindly. They succeeded in erecting this power over the corpses of those whom they had found too advanced, but they realised, when they themselves mounted the scaffold, that in destroying the advanced party, they had killed the Revolution.
After having sanctioned by law what the peasants had demanded during the last four years, and had already achieved here and there, the Convention was incapable of undertaking anything more of importance. Except in matters of national defence and education, its work henceforth was sterile. The legislators sanctioned, it is true, the formation of revolutionary committees and decided to pay those of the poor sans-culottes who gave their time to serve on the sections and the committees; but these measures, apparently so democratic, were not measures of revolutionary demolition or creation. They were but means for organising the power of the State.
It was outside the Convention and the Jacobin Club — in the Commune of Paris, in certain sections of the capital and of the provinces, and in the Cordeliers' Club, that a few men were to be found who understood that to secure the victories already gained, it was necessary to march further still, and they endeavoured therefore to formulate the aspirations of a social character which were beginning to appear among the masses.
They made a bold attempt at organising France as an aggregate of forty thousand communes, regularly corresponding amongst themselves, and representing so many centres of extreme democracy, which should work to establish the real equality — l'égalité de fait, as used then to be said, the “equalisation of incomes.” They sought to develop the germs of municipal communism which the law of maximum had recognised; they advocated the nationalisation of the trade in prime commodities as the best means for combating the monopolists and the speculators. And they attempted, finally, to prevent the formation of large fortunes, and to distribute those already amassed. But, once they had reached power, the revolutionists from the middle classes took advantage of the force that had been constituted in the hands of the two Committees of Public Welfare and General Safety, whose authority grew with dangers of the war, and they crushed those whom they named the Enragés — only to succumb in their turn, in the month of Thermidor, to the attacks of the counter-revolutionary middle classes.
So long as the Montagnards had to struggle against the Girondins, they sought the support of the popular revolutionists. In March and in April 1793, they appearedready to go far in company with the proletarians. But having entered into power, most of them thought only of establishing a “midway” party, taking a stand between the Enragés and the counter-revolutionists, and they treated as enemies those who stood for the aspirations of the people towards equality. They crushed them by frustrating all their attempts at organising themselves in the sections and the communes.
The fact is that the Montagnards, with one or two exceptions, had not even the comprehension of popular needs indispensable in constituting a party of democratic revolution. They did not understand the proletarian, with his troubles, his often starving family, and his still vague and formulated aspirations after equality. It was rather the individual in the abstract, the unity of a democratic society that interested them.
With the exception of a few advanced Montagnards, when a commissioner of the Convention arrived in a provincial town, the questions of employment and prosperity within the Republic and the equal enjoyment of available commodities by all interested him but little. Having been sent to organise resistance to the invasion and to rouse the patriotic feeling, he acted as a democratic official for whom the people were but the tools which were to help him to carry out the plans of the Government.
If he presented himself at the local Popular Society, it was because, the municipality being “worm-eaten with aristocracy,” the Popular Society would help him to “purify municipality,” with a view to organising the national defence and arresting the traitors.
If he imposed taxes on the rich, often very heavy ones, it was because the rich, “worm-eaten with commercialism,” were in sympathy with the Feuillants or the Federalists and were helping the enemy. It was also because by taxing them, means were provided to feed and clothe the armies.
If he proclaimed equality in some town, if he forbade the baking of white bread and recommended the inhabitants to use black or bean-bread only, he did so in order that the soldiers might be fed. And when some agent of the Committee of Public Welfare organised a popular fête, and wrote afterwards to Robespierre that he had united a certain number of young women and young patriots in wedlock, it was yet another stroke military patriotism. It is remarkable, therefore, when we now read the letters of the deputy commissioners of the Convention, addressed to the Convention or the Committee of Public Welfare, that we find nothing in them about the great questions which were then so interesting to the peasants and the working men. That military matters and those of provisioning the armies should predominate in this correspondence is quite natural. But the time was one of revolution, and the commissioners must have continually come across subjects of vital importance to the Revolution — the more so as they spoke in their letters of public feeling, of the reception given to the Montagnard Convention and its Constitution, of the difficulties of finding provisions for the armies, and of the scarcity of available means of subsistence. And yet the great economic questions, which were of such immense importance or the poor, seem to have interested only three or four of the commissioners.
The Convention had at last abolished the feudal rights, and had ordered the burning of the title-deeds — an operation which as carried out with much ill-will; and it had authorised the village communities to recover possession of those lands which had been taken from them, under various pretexts, during the past two hundred years. It is evident that to carry out these measures, and to carry them out at once, would have been the way to rouse the enthusiasm of the masses for the Revolution. But in the letters of the commissioners scarcely anything can be found on this subject. The younger Jullien, in his most interesting letters, addressed to the Committee of Public Welfare and to his friend and patron, Robespierre, only once mentions that he has had the feudal title-deeds burnt. In the same way only a passing mention of this subject is made once by Collot d'Herbois.
Even when the commissioners speak of the supplies of food — and they have often to do so — they do not go to the root of the question. There is but one letter of Jeanbon Saint-André, dated March 26, 1793, which is an exception; but even that letter is anterior to the movement of May 31: later on, he too turned against the advanced revolutionists.
Writing from the Lot-et-Garonne, one of the departments most in sympathy with the Revolution, Jeanbon begged his colleagues in the committee not to blind themselves to dangers of the situation: “It is such,” said he, “that if our courage does not bring forth one of those extraordinary events which rouse public opinion in France and give it new strength, there is no more hope. The disturbances in La Vendée and in the neighbouring departments are no doubt such as to cause anxiety, but they are really dangerous only because the sacred enthusiasm for liberty is being stifled in every heart. Everywhere men are weary of the Revolution. The rich hate it, poor lack bread . . .” and “all those who were until now termed `moderates,' who made some sort of common cause with the republicans, and who at least desired some kind of revolution, no longer wish for it now. . . . Let us say it openly, they desire a counter-revolution. Should a new Convention be summoned, the French people would either refuse to elect it, or they would elect one entirely opposed to the principles of liberty. Even the municipal councils are weak or corrupted.” Such, at least, they were found to be in all the districts that these two representatives had visited.
Jeanbon thus demanded broad and rigorous measures. And at the end of his letter he again referred to this subject in a postscript. “The poor man,” said he, “has no bread. Although grain is not lacking, it has been hoarded. It is imperative to help the poor to live, if you want them to help you to uphold the Revolution. . . . We think that a decree ordering a general levy of all kinds of grain would be very good, especially if a clause be added establishing public granaries, formed with the superfluous stock of private persons.” Jeanbon Saint-André implored Barère to take the lead in these matters. But how was it possible to arouse interest in the Convention for such things?
The strengthening of the Montagnard régime was what most of all interested the commissioners. However, like all statesmen who preceded, like all who will succeed them, it was not in the general well-being and happiness for the great mass of the people that they sought a foundation. It was in the weakening and, at need, in the extermination nation of the enemies of this régime. They soon welcomed the Terror, as a means of crushing the enemies of the democratic Republic; but never do we see them welcoming broad measures of great economic change, not even those for which they had themselves voted under the pressure of circumstances.