Chapter 65: Fall of the Hebertists — Danton Executed

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Struggle between revolutionists and counter-revolutionists continues — Robespierre and commissioners of Convention — Triumph of Hébertists — Great speech of Saint-Just — He advocates Terrorism — His attack on Dantonists — Action of Cordeliers — Arrest of Hébertist leaders — Further arrests of Chaumette, Pache, Clootz and Leclerc — Success of the Government — Execution of Hébertists and others — Royalist rejoicing — End of struggle between committees and Commune — Committees arrest Danton, Desmoulins, Phélippeaux and Lacroix — They are executed — Effect of executions on Paris — End of Revolution in sight

The winter thus passed in veiled struggles between the revolutionists and the counter-revolutionists, who every day lifted their heads higher and more boldly.

In the beginning of February, Robespierre made himself the mouthpiece of a movement against certain commissioners, of the Convention who had acted, as Carrier did at Nantes and Fouché at Lyons, with appalling fury against the revolted towns, and who had not discriminated between the instigators of the revolts and the men of the people who had been dragged into them.[339] He demanded that these commissioners should be recalled, and he threatened them with prosecution, but this movement came to nothing. On the 5th Ventôse (February 23) Carrier was amnestied by the Convention — and Carrie being the greatest sinner, this meant, of course, that the faults of all the other commissioners, whatever they might have been, were pardoned. The Hébertists triumphed. Robespierre and Couthon were both ill, and did not appear for a few weeks.

In the meantime Saint-Just, returned from visiting the armies, delivered before the Convention, on the 8th Ventôse (February 26), a great speech which produced a strong impression and still more embroiled matters. Far from advocating clemency, Saint-Just adopted the Terrorist programme of the Hébertists. He, too, menaced the foes of the Republic — even more vigorously than the Hébertists had ever done. He promised to direct the attack on the “worn-out party,” and singled out, as the next victims of the guillotine, the Dantonists — “the political party which always speaks of moving with slow steps, deceives all parties, and prepares the return of reaction; the party which speaks of clemency because its members know that they are not virtuous enough to be terrible.” Once he stood on this ground of republican probity Saint-Just could speak of course with authority, while the Hébertists who — in their words at least — scoffed at probity, gave their enemies the possibility of confounding them with the crowd of “profitmongers” (profiteurs) who only saw in the Revolution their personal enfichment. As to the economic questions, the tactics adopted by Saint-Just in his report of the 8th Ventôse was to accept, though very vaguely, some of the ideas of the Enragés. He confessed that until then he had not thought of these questions. “The force of circumstances,” he said, “leads us perhaps to conclusions of which we had not thought.” But now that he thinks of them, he still does not wish to injure great fortunes: he objects to them only because they are in the hands of the enemies of the Revolution. “The estates of the patriots are sacred,” he says, “but the lands of the conspirators are there for the poor.” Still he expresses some ideas upon landed property. His intention is that the land should belong to those who cultivate it: let the land be taken away from those who for twenty or fifty years have not cultivated it. He would like to see a democracy of virtuous small landowners living in modest ease; and he asks that the landed estates of the conspirators be seized and given to the poor. There can be no liberty so long as there are beggars and paupers, and so long as the civil (he means the economic) relations in society produce desires that are contrary to the established form of government, “I defy you,” he says, “to establish liberty, so long as the poor can he roused against the new order of things, and I defy you to do away with poverty, so long as we have not made it possible for every one to be able to own land. . . . Mendicity must be abolished by distributing the national estates to the poor.” He spoke also of a sort of national insurance: of a “national public domain established for repairing the misfortunes that may happen to the social body.” This domain would be used to reward virtue, to repair individual misfortunes, and for education.

And with all this was mingled a great deal of Terrorism. It was Hébertist Terrorism, slightly tinged with socialism. But his socialism had no backbone in it. It consisted rather of maxims than of legislative schemes. It is obvious, moreover, that Saint-Just's aim was chiefly to prove, as he himself said, “that the `Mountain' still remains the summit of the Revolution.” It will not allow others to surpass it. It will execute the Enragés and the Hébertists, but it may borrow something from them.

Through this report, Saint-Just obtained two decrees from the Convention. One was in reply to those who called for clemency: the Committee of Public Safety was invested with the power of liberating “the detained patriots.” The other decree was meant apparently to go even further than the Hébertists ever intended to go, and at the same time to tranquillise the purchasers of national estates. The estates of the patriots were to be sacred; but those of the enemies of the Revolution were to be confiscated for the benefit of the Republic. As to the enemies themselves, they were to be detained until peace was concluded, and then they would be banished. Those who wished the Revolution to advance further in a social direction were thus befooled. Nothing came of this discourse but the words.

Thereupon the Cordeliers decided to act. On the 14th, Ventôse (March 4) they covered with a black veil the board inscribed with the Rights of Man which was hung up in their club. Vincent spoke of the guillotine, and Hébert spoke, against Amar, one of the Committee of Public Safety, who was hesitating to send sixty-one Girondins before the revolutionarytribunal. In ambiguous phrases he even alluded to Robespierre — not as an obstacle to serious change, but as a defender of Desmoulins. It thus meant applying to all evils no remedy but Terrorism. Carrier let slip the word “insurrection.”

But the people of Paris did not move and the Commune refused to listen to the appeal of the Hébertist Cordeliers. Then during the night of the 23rd Ventôse (March 13) the Hébertist leaders — Hébert, Momoro, Vincent, Ronsin, Ducroquet and Laumur — were arrested, and the Committee of Public Welfare spread by the agency of Billaud-Varenne all kinds of fables and calumnies about them. They had meant, said Billaud, to massacre all the royalists in the prisons; they were going to plunder the Mint; they had buried food-supplies in the ground in order to starve Paris!

On the 28th Ventôse (March 18) Chaumette, the procurator of the Commune, whom the Committee of Public Welfare had dismissed on the previous day and replaced by Cellier, was also arrested. The mayor Pache was deprived of office by the same committee. Anacharsis Cloots had already been arrested on the 8th Nivôse (December 28) — the accusation being that he had sought information as to whether a certain lady was on the list of suspects. Leclerc, a friend of Chalier, who had come from Lyons and had worked with Jacques Roux, was implicated in the same charge.

The Government triumphed.

The true reasons of these arrests among the advanced party we do not yet know. Had they made a plot with the intention of seizing the power by the help of the “revolutionary army” of Ronsin? It was possible, but up to now we know nothing definite of this affair.

The Hébertists were sent before the revolutionary tribunal, and the committees had the baseness to make up what was known then as an “amalgam.” In the same batch were included bankers and German agents, together with Momoro, who since 1790 had become known for his Communist ideas, and who had given absolutely everything he possessed to the Revolution; with Leclerc, the friend of Chalier, and Anacharsis Cloots, “the orator of mankind” (orateur du genre humain), who in 1793 had already foreseen the Republic of Mankind and had dared to speak of it.

On the 4th Germinal (March 24) after a purely formal trial which lasted three days, they were all executed.

It is easy to imagine what rejoicings took place on that day among the royalists, with whom Paris was crowded. The streets were overflowing with “muscadins” attired in the most impayable fashion; who insulted the condemned victims while they were being dragged in dust-carts to the Place de la Révolution. The rich paid absurd prices to have seats close to the guillotine, so that they might enjoy fully the death of the editor of the Père Duchesne. “The square was turned into a theatre,” says Michelet, “and round about there was a kind of fair, in the Champs-Elysées, where gaily dressed crowds circulated among the improvised shops and tents.” The people did not appear on that day; gloomy and heavy-hearted, the poor remained in their slums. They knew that it was their friends who were being murdered.

Chaumette was guillotined a few days later, on the 24th Germinal (April 13) with Gobel, the bishop of Paris, who had resigned his bishopric. They had both been accused of impiety. The widow of Desmoulins and the widow of Hébert were included in the same batch. Pache was spared, but he was replaced as mayor by Fleuriot-Lescaut, an insignificant man, and the procureur Chaumette, first by Cellier, and then by Claude Payan, a man devoted to Robespierre and more interested in the Supreme Being than in the people of Paris.[340]

The two committees — of Public Safety and of Public Welfare — had thus got the better of their rival, the Commune of Paris. The long struggle which this centre of revolutionary initiative had sustained since August 9, 1792, against the official representatives of the Revolution, had come to an end. The Commune, which for nineteen months had been as a beacon to revolutionary France, was about to become a mere particle of the State machinery. After this, the end was already in sight.[341]

However, the royalists were so triumphant after these executions that the committee felt themselves outdone by the counter-revolutionists. Now, it was they who were asked to ascend the “Tarpeian Rock” — so dear to Brissot. Desmoulins, whose behaviour on the day of Hébert's execution was abominable (he himself has told all about it), issued a seventh number of his Vieux Cordelier, directed entirely against the revolutionary régime. The royalists indulged in foolish manifestations of joy, and urged Danton to attack the committees. The crowd of Girondins who had covered themselves with the mantle of Danton were going to take advantage of the absence of the Hébertists to make a coup d'état — and this would have meant the guillotine for Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just, Billaud-Varenne, Collot d'Herbois and all the leading Montagnards. The counter-revolution might have been already victorious by the spring of 1794, but the committees decided to deal a blow to the Right, and to sacrifice Danton.

During the night of March 30 (the 9th Germinal) Paris was stupefied to learn that Danton, Desmoulins, Phélippeaux and Lacroix were arrested. Acting on a report laid before the Convention by Saint-Just (drawn up after a rough draft given him by Robespierre which has been preserved till now), the Assembly immediately gave the order for the prosecution ofDanton and his arrest. The “Marsh” obediently voted as it was told to vote.

The Committees again made an “amalgam” — or “batch” — in order to bewilder public opinion, and sent before the revolutionary tribunal, Danton, together with Desmoulins, Bazire (whose name we saw as a visitor of the Baron de Batz), Fabre, accused of forgery, Lacroix, accused of robbery, Chabot, who acknowledged that he had received (without having spent them) a hundred thousand francs from the royalists for some unknown affair, the forger Delaunay, and the go-between of de Batz's conspiracy, Julien (of Toulouse).

The pleadings before the tribunal were suppressed. When the vigorous defence of Danton threatened to provoke a popular rising, the judges would not permit him or the others to speak, and pronounced the death sentences.

On the 16th Germinal (April 5) they were all executed.

One can well understand the effect produced on the population of Paris and the revolutionists in general by the fall of the revolutionary Commune of Paris, and the execution of men such as Leclerc, Momoro, Hébert, and Cloots, followed by that of Danton and Camille Desmoulins, and finally that of Chaumette. These executions were considered in Paris and in the provinces as the end of the Revolution. In political circles it was known that Danton was the rallying-point of the counter-revolutionists. But for France in general he remained the revolutionist who had always been in the vanguard of all popular movements. “If these men are traitors, whom then shall we trust?” the people asked themselves. “But are they traitors?” others questioned. “Is this not a sure sign that the Revolution is nearing its end?”

Certainly it was such a sign. Once the upward movement of the Revolution was arrested; once a force could be found that was able to say: “Further thou shalt not go,” and that at a moment when the most essential demands of the people were seeking expression — once this force had succeeded in crushing those who tried to formulate the claims of the masses, the true revolutionists knew well that this was indeed the death-agony of the Revolution. They were not deceived by Saint-Just, who told them that he, too, was coming to think like those whom he sent to the scaffold. They understood that it was the beginning of the end.

In fact, the triumph of the committees over the Commune of Paris was the triumph of order, and during a revolution the triumph of order is the termination of the revolutionary period. There might still be a few more convulsions, but the Revolution was at an end.

And the people who had made the Revolution finally lost all interest in it. They stood aside to make way for the side to make way for the “muscadins.”