Position of sections — “Popular societies” — Opposition of Jacobins — Attitude of Robespierre — Sections gradually deprived of their powers — Control of police — Revolutionary committees subordinated to Committee of Public Safety — State absorbs sections — Revolution doomed
Towards the end of 1793, two rival powers stood facing one another: the two committees — of Public Welfare and of Public Safety — which governed the Convention, and the Commune of Paris. Yet the real strength of the Commune lay neither in its extremely popular mayor Pache, nor in its equally popular procureur Chaumette, nor yet in his deputy Hébert, nor in its General Council. It was to be found in the sections. And therefore the central government was steadily endeavouring to subject the sections to its authority.
After the Convention had withdrawn the “permanence” of the sections of Paris; that is to say, their right of calling their general meetings as frequently as they chose, the sections began to found “popular societies” or “sectional societies.” But these societies were viewed very unfavourably by the Jacobins, who in their turn were becoming “government men.” Therefore, at the end of 1793, and in January 1794, there was much talk in the Jacobin Club against these societies — the more so as the royalists were making a united effort to invade and to capture them. “Out of the corpse of monarchy,” said Simond, one of the Jacobins, “came an infinite number of poisonous insects, who are not sufficiently stupid to attempt its resurrection, but who try nevertheless to prolong the convulsions of the political body.” In the provinces especially, these “insects” were successful. An enormous number of émigrés, continued Simond, “lawyers, financiers, agents of the ancien régime,” overran the country, invaded the popular societies and became their presidents and secretaries.
It is evident that the popular societies, which in Paris were merely the same sections under another name, would have easily “purified” themselves by excluding from their midst the disguised royalists, and then have continued the work of the sections. But their entire activity displeased the Jacobins, who viewed with jealousy the influence of these “new-comers” who “vied with them in patriotism.” “If one believed them,” said the same Simond, “the patriots of 1789 . . . are nothing but overtaxed or worn-out beasts of burden who ought to be slaughtered because they can no longer keep pace with the novelties in the political life of the Revolution.” And he betrayed the fears of the middleclass Jacobins when he spoke of the “fourth legislative body” which these new-comers would have liked to convoke, in order to go further than the Convention. “Our greatest enemies,” added Jeanbon Saint-André, “are not without; we see them: they are amongst us; they wish to carry revolutionary measures further than we do.” Thereupon Dufourney spoke against all the sectional societies, and Deschamps called them the petites Vendées.
As to Robespierre, he hastened to bring forward his favourite argument — foreign intrigues. “My suspicions,” said he, “were only too true. You see that the hypocritical counterrevolutionists are dominant in them. Prussian, English and Austrian agents want, by these means, to annihilate the authority of the Convention and the patriotic ascendency of the Facobin Society.”
The hostility of the Jacobins against the popular societies was evidently nothing but hostility against the sections in Paris and against all similar organisations in the provinces, and this hostility was but an expression of similar feeling in the Central Government. Consequently, as soon as the Revolutionary Government was established by the decree of the 14th Frimaire (December 4, 1793), the right to elect justices of the peace and their secretaries — a privilege which the sections had enjoyed since 1789 — was taken from them. The magistrates and their secretaries were henceforth to be nominated by the General Council of the department. Even the right of the sections to nominate their relief committees, and of themselves to organise relief work, which they had turned, as we saw, to such good account, was taken from them in December 1793, and given to the Committees of Public Welfare and Public Safety. The popular organisation of the Revolution was thus struck at its very root.
But it is especially in the concentration of police functions that the leading idea of the Jacobin government appears in full. We have seen the importance of the sections as parts of the life of Paris, both municipal and revolutionary; we know what they were doing for the provisioning of the capital, the enlisting of volunteers, the raising, arming and despatching of volunteer regiments, the manufacture of saltpetre, the organisation of labour, the care of the poor, &c. But besides these functions the sections of Paris and the provincial popular societies also performed police duties. This had dated, in Paris, from July 14, 1879, when the citizens had themselves formed their district committees, in order to take charge of the duties of the police. Later on, the law of September 6, 1789, confirmed them in the discharge of these duties, and in the following October the municipality of Paris, still a provisional body, at this period, founded its secret police under the name of “The Search Committee.” The municipal government, sprung from the Revolution, thus revived one of the worst traditions of the ancien régime.
After August 10 the Legislative Assembly decreed that all the police duties of “public safety” should pass to the councils of the departments, the districts and the municipalities, and a Committee of Supervision was established, with its subordinate committees in every section; but as, by degrees, the struggle between the revolutionists and their enemies became keener, these committees were overwhelmed with work, and on March 21, 1793, new revolutionary committees, each made up of twelve members, were established in every commune and in every section of the communes of the large towns, which, like Paris, were divided into sections.
In this way, the sections, through the medium of their revolutionary committees, became police bureaux. The duties of these revolutionary committees were limited, it is true, to the supervision of strangers; but they soon acquired rights as extensive as those of the secret police in monarchical States. At the same time one can see how the sections, which, to begin with, had been organs of the democratic revolution, became gradually absorbed by the police functions of their committees, and how these latter, becoming less and less municipal bodies, changed into mere police officials, subordinate to the central police, which was in its turn subject to the Committee of Public Safety.
The two committees — of Public Welfare and of Public Safety — separated the revolutionary committees more and more from their rival, the Commune, which in this way they weakened, and by disciplining them to obedience they transformed them into machinery of the State. Finally, under the pretext of suppressing abuses, the Convention transformed them into salaried officials; and at the same time it subordinated the 40,000 revolutionary committees to the Committee of Public Safety, to which it gave also the right of “purifying them,” and even of nominating their members.
The State's seeking to centralise everything in its own hands, as the monarchy had done in the seventeenth century, and its depriving the popular organisations of such rights as the nomination of the judges and the administration of relief work, as well as of all other administrative functions, and its subjecting them to its bureaucracy in police matters, meant the death of the sections and of the revolutionary councils.
After these changes had been made, the sections of Paris and the popular societies in the provinces were really dead. The State had swallowed them. And their death was the death of the Revolution. Since January 1794, public life in Paris had been destroyed, says Michelet. “The general assemblies of the sections were dead, and all their power had passed to their revolutionary committees, which, themselves being no longer elected bodies, but simply groups of officials nominated by the authorities, had not much life in them either.”
Now, whenever it might please the Government to crush the Commune of Paris, it could do so without fear of being itself overthrown. And this it really did in March 1794 (Ventôse of the Year II.).