The French Revolution

anonymous - prise de la bastille

On the 225th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille we publish here an article by Alan Woods which was originally written in 1989 to commemorate 200 years of the Great French Revolution, with a new introduction by the author. Alan Woods explains the internal dynamics of the revolution and above all the role played by the masses.

anonymous - prise de la bastille1999 Introduction

The articles reproduced below were written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Great French Revolution. The events here described are just as relevant and inspirational now as they were then. The French revolution is an endless source of lessons for modern socialists and working class activists. The present republication therefore requires no particular justification. However, as the articles in question were written ten years ago, they contain several references to the contemporary scene which are perhaps not so relevant as they were then. In particular, the references to Gorbachev and his reforms (known as “Perestroika’ and “glasnost”) now seem like ancient history. I merely point out here that, at a time when everyone was hailing Gorbachev’s great reforms, we explained that Perestroika would inevitably fail. That prediction was shown to be correct. But instead of leading to a political revolution which would have carried the USSR forward to genuine socialism, the utter rottenness of the Stalinist regime has led to a capitalist counterrevolution with the most catastrophic results for all the peoples of the former Soviet Union. That, however, is not the subject of the present essay.

At first, I considered re-writing the articles. But this would have been too time consuming. I therefore decided to republish them as they stand, but with an introductory essay in which I could take advantage of the occasion to underline and develop some of the main themes under consideration. Of course, the interest in the French revolution is not confined to France. Like the Russian revolution, it belongs to that category of truly great historical events which are universal in content. The modern socialist who wishes to understand what revolution is would be well advised to study the events of 1789-93 in depth. Likewise, if one wishes to understand the mechanics of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian revolution, a careful study of the rise of Bonapartism in France provides some very valuable clues and insights.

Today, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bourgeoisie has launched an unprecedented ideological counteroffensive against the idea of revolution and socialism. The essence of this counter-offensive is this: that the only possible system is capitalism. It is the first duty of Marxists to answer this lie and show that capitalism is just as doomed as was the regime of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Today as then, revolutionary theory played a key role. The road to revolution was prepared by a remarkable generation of thinkers and philosophers who subjected the established order to a radical criticism. The role of revolutionary theory is just as great today—in fact, more so. The institutions, morality, religion, politics and prejudices of a given society are powerful barriers barring the road to change. They must be challenged and exposed as a prior condition for a fundamental change in society.

Role of the masses

A careful study of the French revolution (and the Russian) provide a complete antidote to the slander that revolutions are the work of tiny handfuls of conspirators and demagogues. The role of the masses is fundamental in driving the revolution forward at every stage. And when this active participation of the masses ebbs, the revolution comes to a full stop and goes into reverse. That was the case both in France and Russia, and led directly to reaction, firstly of the Thermidorian and later of the Bonapartist variety. It is impossible to read the inspiring history of the French revolution in the period of its ascent without a profound feeling of pride in the achievements of a revolutionary people. Here is the answer to all the cowards and sceptics who doubt the tremendous potential that is present everywhere in the masses.

Trotsky defines a revolution as the moment when the masses, that is to say, the millions of ordinary men and women, begin to participate in politics, to take their lives and destinies into their own hands. Revolution stirs up society to the bottom, and mobilises layers that were previously inert and “non-political”. The role of women in the French revolution is a graphic illustration of this fact. Among the most decisive moments in the revolution was the fifth of October 1789, when six or seven thousand women of Paris marched in the pouring rain to Versailles to demand bread and force the king to move to Paris. The men were shamed into joining this strange procession of “the baker, the baker’s wife and the baker’s boy” which turned the king of France into a virtual prisoner of the revolutionary people.

The leaders of the French revolution were great men. Mirabeau was a great orator and able statesman. Danton was a figure larger than life, the rallying point of the Revolution at a moment of terrible danger. And Robespierre, despite all his defects, was a courageous representative of that wing of the Jacobins who leaned on the masses of the Paris poor and semi-proletarians to carry the Revolution forward. As could be expected, the latter-day bourgeois critics of the Revolution have reserved all their most venomous spite for the most consistently revolutionary figures. Robespierre, after being vilified for generations, is now afforded a grudging acceptance. But Marat, that wonderfully courageous man, is still treated as a dead dog, whereas men like Hébert, the most consistent leader of the masses, is hardly mentioned at all.

But the greatest protagonist of the Revolution has no name. It is the revolutionary people itself, those countless unknown and unsung heroes and heroines who were the mainspring of the entire process. Where the masses are allowed any role at all, it has traditionally been as a kind of dumb herd of animals involved in a blind revolt against suffering. This version also does not do justice to the truth. The spontaneous movement of the masses, it is true, played a most important role. But even here the movement was not entirely spontaneous. It had its local leaders, although most of their names have not been preserved. They were organised in the equivalent of political parties.

The basic cell of the Revolution, especially in Paris but also in the provinces, was the club and the secret society. It is impossible to understate the importance of organisations like the revolutionary clubs, whose model was the Jacobin Club (“The Society of the Friends of the Constitution”) in Paris. Here the masses came to debate the burning issues of the day, to listen to the most popular leaders, to cheer and hiss, to argue—to decide. Through the medium of their clubs, the masses put pressure on the elected deputies in the National Assembly; they mobilised public opinion; they acted as a focal point to channel discontent. In many ways they played a similar role to that of the soviets in the Russian revolution. And in the same way as in the soviets, the progress of the revolution was measured by the rise and fall of political tendencies in the clubs, in which the more extreme tendency always succeeded the more moderate one—until the Revolution had finally run its course and exhausted itself. A similar process can be observed in the English Revolution of the mid-17th century, where Cromwell’s Model Army played an analogous role to both the clubs and the soviets.

By the end of 1790 the Jacobin Club in Paris had 1,100 members—almost all members of the radical middle class. By the time the monarchy fell, it had more than a thousand local societies affiliated to it, and the membership included a growing number of artisans and other proletarian and semi-proletarian elements, although the leadership remained firmly in the hands of middle-class professionals like Robespierre. More important still was the Paris Commune and the numerous local communes that imitated it in the provinces. In June 1789 the 407 elected delegates of the Etats-généraux established themselves in the Hôtel de Ville in Paris as a kind of unofficial municipal government. By December 1789 local uprisings had established similar bodies in towns and villages all over France. These bodies tended to come together to form the focal point and organisational centre of the revolutionary movement. This was particularly the case in Paris, but also applies to other areas.

In August 1792 the working class districts of Paris provided the focal point for an insurrection against the Legislative Assembly, storming the Tuileries and arresting the King. They demanded universal male suffrage and the election of a new National Convention. They also set up a revolutionary government or “Commune” in Paris. Robespierre was elected onto it. The Commune was dominated by the extreme wing of the Paris Jacobins. In effect, it gave rise to a situation analogous to Dual Power in the Russian Revolution after the February Revolution. It sat along the National Assembly and exercised constant pressure on it. It provided a base for Robespierre and the left wing Jacobins. Under the pressure of the Commune, a single-chamber assembly of the National Convention was finally elected on universal male suffrage in late 1792. This was the motor-force that impelled the Revolution forward.

The question of violence

The enemies of revolution always try to tarnish its image with the accusation of violence and bloodshed. As a matter of fact the violence of the masses is inevitably a reaction against the violence of the old ruling class. The origins of the Terror must be sought in the reaction of the revolution to the threat of violent overthrow from both internal and external enemies. The revolutionary government offered “fraternity and assistance” to all peoples that were prepared to follow the French example and fight for their freedom. The internationalist spirit of the Revolution was expressed in the December Resolution of the National Assembly that declared that in any territory occupied by the armies of the Revolution, feudal obligations would be abolished and the property of the Church and aristocrats confiscated. War in Europe now meant revolution. This was the reason for the spectacular successes of the French revolutionary armies that triumphed all along the line against monarchist-feudal reaction.

The revolutionary dictatorship rested on revolutionary war. The active support of the masses was guaranteed by combining the war against foreign enemies with the class war at home. Under Robespierre the National Assembly took energetic measures against the rich, especially the nouveaux riches speculators. There were also measures in favour of the poor. Taxation and confiscation were aimed at the redistribution of wealth. The Law of the Maximum tried to control inflation by setting a ceiling for price rises. In the period of its ascent the Terror was a weapon in the hands of the masses directed against the enemies of the Revolution—aristocrats, landowners, treacherous bourgeois and recalcitrant priests. It is true that many others fell victim, especially in the districts where civil war raged, but the intention was to eradicate and cow the reactionaries. This is admitted by a serious historian who is generally critical of Robespierre and the Terror. “Atrocious though it was,” writes David Thomson, “by the test of atrocities committed by modern dictatorships, the Terror was mild and relatively discriminating.” (D. Thomson, Europe Since Napoleon, p. 41, my emphasis.)

But in the period of its decline, the victims of the Terror were revolutionaries. The difference is fundamental. In the White Terror that followed the fall of Robespierre, apart from the 90 Jacobin leaders who were immediately executed, a countless number of revolutionaries were murdered in secret. The reforms of the Jacobins were replaced with counter-reforms. The Maximum was abolished. Reactionary émigrés were allowed to return, while revolutionaries were killed or imprisoned. David Thomson gives a vivid picture of the class nature of the new Directory and its backers:

“The new ruling class which backed the measures of the Directory, as of the latter-day Convention, included businessmen and financial speculators, army contractors and landowning peasants—all those middle-class elements that had profited most from the revolution and the war. These new rich, vulgar in taste and unscrupulous in habits, they wanted above all to consolidate and increase their gains.” (ibid., p. 44.)

France and Russia

With the exception of a single word, the above description would apply exactly to the upstart caste of bureaucrats who usurped power in Russia after the death of Lenin and who persecuted the real Bolsheviks with the same zeal as the Thermidorian reactionaries in France hunted and oppressed the Jacobins. In both cases, we are dealing with a petit bourgeois reaction against revolution, at the point where the masses, worn out by years of exertion and sacrifice, have begun to fall into passivity and indifference. This is the reason for the defeat of the Jacobins in France and the followers of Trotsky in Russia by men who were in every respect their moral and intellectual inferiors.

Of course, the class content of the French Revolution was different to the October Revolution. Every historical analogy holds good only within certain limits. The Thermidoreans were the representatives of the rising bourgeoisie which was the real beneficiary of the French Revolution. The Stalinist bureaucracy was not a class, in the sense of the word used by Marxists. It did not own the means of production, but was only a parasitic growth on the body of the workers’ state. Its power and privileges depended on the nationalised property forms established by the October Revolution. In order to defend these new property forms against the bourgeois elements in Russia, the Stalinists were prepared to lean on the working class to strike blows against the kulaks and nepmen. But it did so, not to return to the democratic soviet regime established by Lenin and Trotsky, but to erect a monstrous totalitarian caricature of a workers’ state. Whereas in France, the crystallisation of a bourgeois revolution under Napoleon led to bourgeois Bonapartism, in Russia, the degeneration of a proletarian revolution under Stalin led to proletarian Bonapartism.

Given the bourgeois character of the French Revolution, no other outcome was possible. True, the Revolution was so successful because of the involvement of the plebeian masses. Because of this it went further than was really possible on a bourgeois basis. The masses had to be put in their place and taught a lesson! This was shown in the bloody repression of a series of revolts in the course of 1795 and in particular in the October uprising in Paris which was put down in blood by general Barras and his young subordinate Napoleon Bonaparte.

The last gasp of the Revolution was the episode known to history as the Conspiracy of the Equals led by François-Noël (“Gracchus”) Babeuf in 1796. In a last desperate attempt to halt the slide towards reaction and as a protest against the power and privileges of the rich, a new club was launched in Paris—the Society of the Panthéon. The old dreams of the Revolution were re-awakened. Old Jacobins became active in the club, which met in a crypt by torch light and issued its own newspaper, Le Tribun. Sensing that this club was a potential rallying-point for revolt, the Directory sent General Bonaparte himself to close it down in February 1796.

The extreme left wing of the club, led by Babeuf, established an insurrectionary committee of six (“The Secret Directory”) and prepared an uprising. But these were only the empty forms of a movement the substance of which had already dissolved. Babeuf’s movement was both too early and too late. It was too late to breathe new life into a movement that had already run its course and reached its historical limits, and too early to inscribe upon its banner the slogan of the socialist revolution, whose time had not yet come. From the very beginning, the conspiracy of Babeuf was doomed. Its aims were utopian: a return to the Constitution of 1793 and a revival of the original idealism and sincerity of the Revolution. To put the clock back was impossible. But in one way Babeuf’s movement pointed the way, not back to 1793 but forward to the future, to the struggle of the working class for socialism. He inscribed on his banner the idea of a “Republic of Equals” in which communism would abolish the differences between rich and poor.

It is said, with some reason, that the Church was built on the blood of martyrs. The same is true of the revolutionary movement and the movement of the working class in general. The revolt of the Equals was a courageous act of defiance and a rallying-call for future generations that has echoed powerfully down the ages. Its organisers cannot be blamed for not understanding that the material conditions for a classless society had yet to evolve under capitalism. That great discovery was only made by Marx and Engels half a century later. What is important is that they kept faith with their people and never surrendered, preferring death to ignominious capitulation. They were defeated—and were bound to be defeated—but they left behind a banner and a tradition for the future generations. In the same way, the Trotskyist Left Opposition which led the fight against the Stalinist political counterrevolution in Russia created a tradition upon which future generations could base themselves. They sacrificed themselves so that the spotless banner and traditions of the Revolution might be preserved.

Babeuf was by no means a hopeless utopian dreamer. He was a practical revolutionary and took every practical step to ensure the success of the uprising. Preparations were thorough. Arms were stored; ammunition stockpiled; plans were elaborated to act on a designated signal to seize the key public buildings and bakeries. But the fatal weakness of the whole enterprise was shown by the emphasis laid by the conspirators on penetrating the army, police and administration. This was a tacit admission of the changed nature of the situation. The masses were exhausted and passive. Their discontent was expressed in murmurs and silent curses against the Directory, but the old fighting spirit was no longer present. That is why Babeuf placed exaggerated hopes on infiltrating the army and state with his revolutionary agents. Under these circumstances, the movement necessarily assumed the form of a conspiracy—a movement that unfolded, so to speak, behind the backs of the masses.

Such a movement was easily infiltrated by agents of the regime. Just as Stalin. the ex-Bolshevik, was well aware of the danger of a small revolutionary organisation, so the ex-Jacobins of the Directory were no strangers to revolutionary tactics, and were able to install their spies inside the ranks of the conspirators from the very outset. On the eve of the insurrection, they pounced. The leaders were arrested and put on trial. This early ancestor of Stalin’s Show Trials was designed to strike terror into the masses and all those who would challenge the new aristocracy. It was held before a special court (i.e. one that would be sure to return the required verdict) and lasted for three months. But here the analogy with the Moscow Trials ends. Whereas Stalin’s victims were deprived of any possibility of defending themselves or expounding their views, Babeuf was at least permitted to use the court to assail the regime and propagate his communist and revolutionary ideas. Having honourably defended his cause, Babeuf attempted to cheat the Guillotine of its victim through suicide, but failed. The execution of Babeuf was the last act of the infamous White Terror that closes the history of the French Revolution. Thereafter, the course was always on a declining tangent.

After the rotten and corrupt Directory comes the equally rotten and corrupt personal dictatorship of Bonaparte, which restored all the outward trappings of the old aristocratic order, while preserving the main socio-economic gain of the Revolution: the handing over of land to the peasantry. Hence the French peasantry’s fanatical loyalty to Bonaparte and his successors. Bonapartism is, in essence, rule by the sword—the personal dictatorship of a military strong man. But it also has another peculiarity. The Bonapartist dictator tends to balance between the classes, presenting himself as the embodiment of the Nation, standing above all classes, above good and evil. By attacking the Left, the Directory tilted the balance far to the right. The royalists in the Convention scented blood and became increasingly bold. In September 1797, the Directory was compelled to appeal for Bonaparte’s help to expel the newly-elected royalists from the Convention. By this fateful step, Bonaparte became transformed into the supreme arbiter of power in France. A series of political crises created the conditions for the inevitable dénouement. On 9 November (18 Brumaire, according to the revolutionary calendar), Bonaparte seized power in a coup, with the support of Barras and Sieyes. The formula for the new Constitution accurately conveys the nature of the Bonapartist regime: “Confidence from below; power from above.”

Just as Stalin included former tsarist officials in his regime, so Napoleon’s entourage included many former royalists. Many of the old trappings of the former regime were revived. The law was reformed in a counterrevolutionary spirit. The position of women was degraded by the emphasis of the authority of the father over his wife and children and the property of the family. Wives were subjected to their husbands, divorce was made more difficult. Above all, the new Code stressed the sanctity of private property. But it also firmly upheld the property rights of those who had acquired the former lands of the aristocracy and the Church. This is what secured the new regime the blind allegiance of the peasants who saw in it the guarantee of the social and economic gains that they had obtained through the Revolution. This and this alone explains the fanatical devotion of the French peasant (and thus the French army) to Napoleon Bonaparte.

These few reflections on the French Revolution do scant justice to the subject. But if these articles serve to whet the reader’s appetite to delve more deeply into the history of the Revolution, and to draw the necessary conclusions, the effort will not have been in vain.

London, 22nd December 1999.

Part One: 1789, Fall of the Bastille

The 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille is the occasion of national celebrations in France, a flood of books, articles and TV programs, presenting opinions for all tastes.

Yet beneath all the ballyhoo, the ghosts of 1789-93 are beginning to stir uneasily. The modern descendants of that very bourgeoisie which was the principal benefactor of the revolution are experiencing a crisis of identity in their attitude to their own past. As one journalist expressed it, “although all serious politicians in France are republicans, only the left are entirely happy with the founding event.”

The suggestion by the Communist mayor of Thionville that a bust of Robespierre be erected in the town square lead to a vitriolic argument in which one right wing councillor described the Jacobin leader as “the Ayotallah Khomeini of his day.”

While formally “celebrating” the Revolution with lavish parties and speeches, the ruling class and its spokesmen make sure that the real significance of this great event is carefully buried. The most ignorant pundits proclaim that the French Revolution “proves” that revolution always ends in tears. The most refined falsifiers of history re-take the Bastille in the comfort of their studies, demonstrating irrefutably that the Revolution never really occurred and that, even if it did, everything was just the same after it as before.

The French Revolution was, however, one of the greatest events in human history. It is an inexhaustible source of lessons for the labour movement even today. Yet here the first note of caution must be sounded. The French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, and it would be entirely mistaken to attempt to draw exact parallels between the processes involved and the movement of the modern proletariat. To attempt to do so would end up in all kinds of anachronistic and unscientific conclusions.

In the period with which we are dealing, the proletariat, in the modern sense of the word, hardly existed in France. True, there were already a few large enterprises, like the Van Robais textile mills at Abbeville which employed 12,000 workers or the Mines d’Anzin near the Belgian border with 4,000. But the general picture of industry was one of extreme underdevelopment when compared, for example, to Britain.

In 1789, for example, there were 900 “Spinning Jennies” in France compared to 20,000 in Britain. In the whole of Paris there were only 50 factories employing between 100 and 800 workers. As a rule, industry in France had not yet got beyond the stage of handicraft and cottage-industry, often conducted on semi-feudal lines under the distant supervision of merchant-manufacturers.

Large scale industry, insofar as it existed, was largely due to the role of the state. But the normal development of capitalism was hampered by state interference and feudal restrictions.

In 1789 only 15 per cent of the population lived in towns. Paris, with a population of about half a million, was by far the biggest, permitting it to play a decisive role in the events which were to unfold.

The bulk of the population consisted of peasants, and the agrarian question was central, as always, to the bourgeois revolution. Historians like Alfred Cobban inThe Myth of the French Revolution, have attempted to show that the French revolution was not a bourgeois revolution, among other reasons, because feudalism had been abolished before 1789.

It is true that serfdom had been abolished for most of the peasants before 1789, although pockets of serfdom still existed in parts of France – Comte and Nivernais. Cobban asserts that “not only had the feudal aristocracy ceased to govern the country, it had even ceased to own a large part of the land.” But this presents a very one-sided picture of the real state of the French countryside before 1789.

Despite the abolition of serfdom, only about one quarter of the peasants owned the land. (See George Rude, Revolutionary Europe, p. 23) More than half were poor share-croppers (“metayers”) who owned no capital and shared their product fifty-fifty with the landlord, while about a quarter were landless labourers or rented tiny plots.

As in tsarist Russia, where serfdom was abolished in 1861, this measure in no way alleviated the plight of the peasantry but on the contrary increased the misery and wretchedness of the vast majority while creating favoured conditions for the “Kulak” minority.

In France too the abolition of serfdom created a class of wealthy peasants, the “Laboureux”, which did not alter the miserable conditions of the great majority of even the peasant proprietors, let alone the landless peasants. The parcelling of land created a large number of uneconomical units from which only a bare living could be scratched. The resulting “rural over-population” meant that by 1777 over one million people were officially classed as beggars.

This rural semi-proletariat flocked to the towns, where industry, still in its most primitive stage, could not absorb them. Those who remained in the village existed by begging or doing seasonal work for the landlords or “Laboureux”. In bad seasons they provided plenty of combustible material for riots and banditry.

The abolition of serfdom, moreover, did not mean the abolition of other feudal “rights”, which still existed: the corvee (statutory labour obligation), toll charges for roads, bridges, etc, other duties on fairs, markets and the like, “lods et ventres” (impost on transfers of land within an estate), quit rents, ground rent and dues in money or in kind, hunting rights, rights to keep rabbits, pigeons, and a further bewildering array of direct and indirect taxes.

Apart from the landowners, the Churches and monasteries had the right to levy similar impositions. In some areas, they even held serfs. The fact, as Alex de Tocqueville explains, that some of these rights had fallen into disuse and they were levied unevenly in certain regions, merely helped to highlight the anachronistic nature of feudal rights and render their existence still more intolerable.

To make matters worse, the state imposed heavy taxes, including a poll tax (the “taille”), the “vingtieme” (from which the nobles, clergy and officials were usually exempt) plus a whole battery of indirect taxes. No less than 10 per cent of royal revenue was raised through the salt tax (the “gabelle”). There were troth internal and external customs duties (“traites”) plus purchase tax (“aides”) and other indirect taxes which weighed heavily on the poor.

The need to raise taxes in turn reflected the crisis of the absolutist state. A series of disastrous wars, culminating in the French intervention in the American War of Independence (1778-83) emptied the treasury. The royal debt increased from £93 million in 1774 to £300 million in 1789. The Queen became known as “Madame Deficit”. The regime faced bankruptcy in the most literal sense of the word.

The fall in real wages caused by inflation, plus the increased pressure of taxation, gave rise to a spate of peasant uprisings or “Jacqueries”, which became almost a permanent phenomenon from 1782 right up to the revolution. One province after another was affected – Poitiers, Vizille, the Cervennes, Vivorais, Gevaudan. In 1786, the strike of the silk weavers at Lyons served notice on society that the working class was already beginning to flex its muscles.

It is a dialectical contradiction that revolution always starts at the top. The ruling class, no longer able to push society forward, begins to sense that it has become an obstacle in the path of progress. Fissures and splits begin to appear in the upper layers, as they seek to find a way out of the impasse.

Already in the preceding decades, the wind of change had began to blow in the ranks of the intelligentsia, that most sensitive barometer of the mood of society. In the writings of Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, D’Alembert and Rousseau, the ideological basis of the Ancien Regime was subjected to a thoroughgoing criticism. Religion, absolute monarchy, inequality, were all required to give account of themselves before the judgement seat of “Reason”, long before they stood condemned before the revolutionary tribunals.

The revolution in ideas anticipated the real political and social revolution which was silently maturing in the womb of the old society. It provided the rising bourgeoisie with the philosophical premises for its attack on the old order.

By contrast, the impasse of the Ancien Regime was reflected in the spectacle of moral and intellectual decay of the ruling clique. The court of Louis XV resembled nothing so much as a high-class brothel, dominated by the King’s favourite mistresses, the Pompadours and Du Barrys. The all-pervading whiff of corruption hung around the court of his successor, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, the hated “Austrian woman”, herself involved in a scandal, the “diamond necklace affair”, shortly before the outbreak of revolution.

Feeling the earth move under his feet, Louis desperately attempted a reform of the financial system, now teetering on the brink of collapse. Like Gorbachev today, his intention was to effect a partial reform from the top to prevent a revolution from below. A whole series of financial “reformers” were appointed: Maupeau under Louis XV; Turgot, Necker and Calonne under his successor. But every one of them stumbled over the principal obstacle: the flat refusal of the aristocracy to accept that they should pay tax.

Here, too, Louis’ dilemma resembles that of Gorbachev and a whole series of “reforming” tsars and Chinese emperors: how to get the ruling aristocracy or bureaucracy to agree to part with some of their privileges in order to save the system as a whole? In other words, how to square the circle.

For a time Necker performed financial “miracles” which consisted entirely of raising new loans, which made things worse. When he was replaced by Calonne in 1786, the loans had finally run out. There was nothing for it but for Louis to grit his teeth and confront the aristocracy with the facts of life (as seen by the treasury).

However, the nobles replied by pointing out the facts of life (as seen by them). Their resistance was organised through the “parliaments”, not parliaments in the modern sense, but law courts, remnants of the Middle Ages, dominated by the aristocracy which used them to defend its vested interests against both King and Church.

With the conflict between the King and the parliaments over taxation, the split within the ruling class became open. It is ironical that the reactionary parliament of Paris for a time became a most unlikely focal point of popular resentment against the Monarchy.

The tax collecting system was beginning to break down, and the loyalty of the army, even the officers, was in doubt. The arrest of key “parliamentaries” and the suspension of the parliament on 8 May 1788 merely raised the agitation to a new level.

The masses began to sit up and take notice, aroused by the open warfare between the Monarchy and the parliaments. There were riots in Bordeaux, Dijon, Paris and Toulouse and more serious uprisings in Brittany and Dauphine.

Faced with the prospect of a nation-wide revolt, the King backed down. The parliament of Paris was first recalled, then dismissed, then recalled. An “Assembly of Notables” was convened in an unsuccessful bid to persuade the nobles to accept taxation, but it merely encouraged the latter to demand further concessions, in the form of the convening of the “States General”, a body representing the Nobility, Clergy end “Third Estate” (the “Commons”), which had not met since 1614.

These vacillations and splits revealed the weakness of the Monarchy, which finally agreed to call the “States General” for 1 May 1789. The breakdown of authority undermined the censorship. Paris was inundated with a flood of pamphlets. Suddenly the whole of society was caught up in a fever of political ferment.

This in turn reflected a growing mood of discontent in the deepest recesses of society. The early months of 1789 are characterized by a wave of peasant disturbances, directed against taxes and feudal dues. Two bad harvests had caused the price of bread to soar, provoking riots and attacks on grain convoys. The unrest spread to the towns. In April a mob attacked the factory of a manufacturer accused of starving the poor. It was not the only case of its kind. From March on, there were food riots in Paris.

In this context, the “States General” was convened, and at once revealed itself as a gigantic fraud. There was not a single peasant among the delegates. Worse still, the non-aristocratic component, the “educated classes” – bourgeois lawyers, manufacturers and teachers, representing “the people” – were out-voted two-to-one by the nobility and clergy.

The behavior of these representatives was decisively affected by the mood of the masses. It is impossible to understand the history of the French revolution in parliamentary terms without reference to the movement of the masses, particularly in Paris, which completely determined the evolution of events at every decisive stage.

Anticipating “glasnost” by two hundred years, all sections of society were encouraged to present their grievances in writing, through the famous “cahiers de plaintes et doleances” (notebooks of grievances). The “cahiers” of the “Third Estate”, if taken together, represented a complete programme for the transformation of society. “When I had finished my labours,” wrote de Tocqueville, “and made a list of these various proposals I realised with something like consternation that what was being asked for was nothing short of the systematic, simultaneous abolition of all existing French laws and customs.

“There was no avoiding the fact that what the authors of these cahiers jointly sponsored was one of the vastest, most catastrophic revolutions the world had ever known. Yet the men who were to be its victims had not the least presentiment of this: they nursed the foolish hope that a sudden, radical transformation of a very ancient, highly intricate social system could be effected almost painlessly, under the auspices of reason and by its efficacy alone. Theirs was a rude awakening!” (The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, p. l65)

The electoral assemblies which met to discuss the “cahiers” were packed and agitated meetings. In Paris, in particular, the mood of the masses was raised to fever pitch, with attacks on individual “aristos” as well as strikes, riots and clashes with troops. Kropotkin, in his book on the revolution, describes a typical scene where the Keeper of the Seals and the Archbishop of Paris were “hosted, abused and scoffed at. They were so overwhelmed with shame and rage that apparently the King’s secretary Passeret, who was with them, died of shock the next day.” (The Great Revolution, p. 56)

The scandalous situation where a tiny minority of wealthy nobles and bishops had more votes than the rest of the French nation put together caused tremendous indignation. Under pressure of the masses, the bourgeois representatives of the Third Estate plucked up enough courage to demand extra representation to cancel out the advantage of the nobility and clergy, and also the right to vote separately.

While the “States General” debated, Louis, having realized too late the dangers inherent in the situation, was preparing an armed coup to disperse them. The dismissal of Necker, widely seen as a reformist minister, served to bring the Paris masses onto the streets on 12 July. The following day the working people of Paris seized guns and powder and set about arming themselves. The workshops of Paris produced 50,000 pikes in 36 hours. Thus, as Marx explained, the counter-revolution acted as a whip to the revolution itself.

The army now found itself caught up in the general social ferment. Troops disobeyed orders and refused to fire on the people. The generals found their armies melting away. Determined to find arms, the people raided the Hotel des Invalides which surrendered without a fight, yielding 28,000 muskets.

This situation was absolutely characteristic of the French revolution in all its decisive stages: the people’s parliamentary “representatives” talk, debate, move resolutions, while the real issues are decided by the revolutionary direct action of the masses.

Historians have evolved a whole mythology, vaunting the alleged achievements of the parliamentary “leaders” of the Third Estate, who on 17 June took the title of the National Assembly and three days later, in the famous “tennis court oath”, swore not to disband until a constitution was granted. But the role of the masses was decisive even in this. The galleries of the Assembly hall were constantly packed by thousands of cheering and booing people urging the politicians on. This was a decisive factor in stiffening the resolve of the most radical elements and cowering the forces of reaction.

More decisive still was the spontaneous mass insurrection in Paris which smashed Louis’ attempted coup. The workers, artisans and journeymen of the Fauborg St. Antvine joined forces with the bourgeois militia to storm the Bastille held by mercenary Swiss guards on 14 July. This action dealt a death blow to Louis’ plans and was the signal for a nation-wide insurrection. Nevertheless, the “official version” which tries to reduce the French revolution to this one event is very far from the truth.

14 July 1789 was not the end but only the beginning of the revolution. This distortion is not at all accidental. The first phase of the revolution placed power in the hands of the most conservative wing of the big bourgeoisie in alliance with the so-called “reformist” wing of the nobility, much the same as the February revolution in 1917 in Russia initially placed power in the hands of the Cadets and Milyukov.

From a Marxist viewpoint it is quite amusing to read the attempts of “revisionist” historians like Cobban to “prove” that the French revolution was not really a bourgeois revolution because the Constituent Assembly which emerged from the July overturn was extremely reluctant even to approve the abolition of the feudal payments and services which weighed heavily on the peasantry.

The bourgeoisie was, as Cobban says, as terrified as the nobility at the peasant uprising which spread like wildfire after July. In the summer of 1789, the chateaux blazed from one end of France to the other. Yet the Assembly dragged its feet with hair-splitting arguments as to which payments were really “feudal” and which were not, a distinction not really appreciated by peasants who cared little about legal niceties when life and death questions were at stake.

The bourgeois in the Assembly clung like grim death to the landowners who had no difficulty in convincing them that the peasant movement represented a challenge to property and order. Armand duc d’Aiguillon, a big landowner, argued that “the rights in question are a form of property and all property is sacred.” (AW – emphasis)

However, the sheer size of the rebellion made it impossible to put it down by force, especially given the unreliable state of the troops. In the words of Lefebvre: “They liberated themselves and successive Assemblies only sanctioned what they had accomplished.” (The Coming of the French revolution, p. 213)

Feudal rights were thus abolished from below by mass action and in spite of the “revolutionary bourgeoisie”. In fact, as soon as it could, the Assembly reintroduced them in a disguised form. A law of 3 May 1790 established that the peasant would have to pay for the privilege of abolition, setting redemption rates at a very high amount (20 times the annual fee for dues in money and 25 times for dues in kind) which imposed a crushing burden on the majority of the peasants. This sell-out to the aristocracy represented “a bitter deception”, in the words of Lefebvre, and led to the continuation of the civil war in the countryside.

On 27 August, the Assembly adopted the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” which today is trumpeted as a great achievement. But to the mass of the people, deprived of bread and land, such declarations of abstract “freedom” were worse than useless.

The new constitution established only a limited franchise based on property and laid down a difference between the so-called “active” and “passive” citizens. The latter, the poorest classes, were denied the vote.

In reality, the “freedom” of the bourgeois consisted basically in the freedom to pursue their business unhindered by feudal restrictions or the action of the workers. Thus, the guilds were abolished, and at the same time, both strikes and trade unions were banned. The confiscation of church property, which was allegedly “put at the disposal of the nation”, was also a measure in the interest of the bourgeois who bought up the lion’s share of the church land. The peasants gained nothing by this measure. There was not even an attempt to set up a republic. The monarchy, now supposedly reconciled to the changed order, was left well alone.

However, despite all the ingratiating flattery, the King remained implacably hostile. The court circle became a hotbed of reaction and conspiracy. A section of the nobility had already gone into foreign exile to organise the counter-revolution from Coblentz. The remainder bided their time and awaited an opportunity.

If matters had been left in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the plans of the reactionaries might have succeeded. But once again the masses intervened. The shortage of bread caused increasing discontent, finding an echo in the numerous “Clubs” which sprang up like mushrooms after a thunderstorm, and which were the 18th century equivalent of modern political parties. There were strikes, petitions and protests and a rain of pamphlets.

The center of discontent was the royal veto and the justified fear that the King and Queen might leave the country and join the counter-revolutionaries massing on the borders of France.

On 5 October there was a second insurrection. The women of Paris who bore the brunt of rising inflation and food shortages, and who were awakened to political life, led a march on Versailles, shaming their menfolk into following. This dealt a decisive blow to the counter-revolution. The King and Queen were “invited” to Paris where the people could keep an eye on them. For a second time the masses had saved the revolution.

In reality, following the victory of 1789, there were two years of reaction within the revolution itself. This, however, merely prepared the next stage of revolutionary upswing which once again came as a consequence of the threat of counter-revolution.

In June 1791, the King and Queen attempted to flee abroad but were detained by the vigilance of the revolutionaries and sent back to Paris. Even then, the cowardly and treacherous Assembly tried to cover up the tracks, claiming incredibly that Louis had been “kidnapped”.

The increasing polarization in society had found its reflection inside the National Convention which split into “left” and “right”, these terms originally describing the seating arrangements of the revolutionary and reactionary parties. On the right were the members of the Feuillants Club, a collection of reactionary nobles, clergy and monarchists. On the left were the members of the Jacobin Club and particularly the radical Parisian Cordeliers Club, dominated by the larger-than-life figure of Danton.

But the main party in the Assembly at this stage was the “center” party of Brissot and Vergriand, popularly known as the “Girondins”, because many of them came from the Gironde in Western France. The Girondin deputies were drawn from the well-to-do classes and professional people: teachers, doctors, but above all, lawyers. Brilliant orators, they represented the backwardness of the provinces which always tended to lag behind revolutionary Paris. They stood first and foremost for the interests of the big mercantile bourgeoisie of towns like Bordeaux.

They stood for the defense of the revolution but were terrified of the independent movement of the masses. They were the party of order, of property, the restoration of the currency and the rights of the provinces against Paris. They were also the party of war.

For war, at this point, was rapidly becoming the central issue. Austria and Prussia, egged on by royalist exiles and in cahorts with Louis and Marie Antoinette, were clearly seeking a pretext to invade.

On 20 April 1792, the Assembly declared war on Austria. A series of disastrous defeats ensued. The army which had been taken over virtually unchanged from the old regime and hurled into combat without preparation under the leadership of corrupt and treacherous officers, many of whom were only looking for a suitable opportunity to defect, was soon routed.

By Summer 1792, the fall of Paris looked inevitable. The darkest hour for the revolution was the surrender of Verdun which General Dumouriez treacherously handed over to the enemy. The Girondin leaders, despairing of victory, entered into secret negotiations with Louis.

Had it depended on the Assembly and the Girondins all would have been lost. But fortunately, once again the Paris masses took matters into their own hands. On 10 August, about a week before the fall of Verdun, the masses of Paris, together with the revolutionary volunteers or “federes” from Marseilles and Brittany staged an insurrection which effectively overthrew the monarchy.

This is the way in which the French bourgeois revolution unfolded: at every stage the big bourgeoisie attempted to manoeuvre and compromise with the monarchy, dragging their feet and attempting to preserve as much as possible of the old regime. Only the revolutionary intervention of the plebeian and semi-proletarian masses, above all in Paris, succeeded in clearing aside all the obstacles and pushing the revolution forward. To do so it was obliged to struggle against the very bourgeoisie which would inevitably be the heir to the revolutionary conquests paid for with the blood and sacrifice of the masses. Such was the dialectic of the French revolution.

Part Two: 1793, Rise and Fall of the Jacobins

The dialectic of revolution is a book sealed with seven seals for modern-day bourgeois historians who seek to distort the real processes by which their class came to power.

The counter-revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie in the bourgeois democratic revolution was already analysed by Marx and Engels after the revolutions of 1848-9. In the 20th century nowhere has the bourgeoisie in the colonial and ex-colonial countries played anything but a reactionary role. In Russia, tsarism was overthrown not by the so-called bourgeois liberals but by the working-class in the February revolution and then decisively in October.

But even in the classical period of the bourgeois revolution. the overthrow of the feudal-absolutist regimes was accomplished, not directly by the bourgeoisie, but by the most revolutionary sections of the petit-bourgeoisie which temporarily succeeded in mobilizing behind them the most oppressed layers of society, the semi-proletarian masses of town and countryside. That was as true in 17th century England as in France over 100 years later.

From the outset, the French bourgeoisie and its political representatives strove for a deal with reaction. They feared that the masses would not stop at the abolition of the aristocracy’s feudal privileges but mount an assault on property itself

Brissot, leader of the Girondins, railed against “disorganizers” who would “level everything – properties, wealth, the price of stables, the various services owed to society.” He reflected the panic of his wealthy patrons. However, in the moment of supreme danger the revolution’s salvation depended upon the mobilization of the most oppressed masses of society.

The Jacobins and Girondins originally belonged to the same party. But whereas the latter recoiled at stirring up the “lower depths” of society, the Jacobins saw that this was the only alternative if the revolution was to be secured.

In reply to Brissot, Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, attacked the “false patriots…who want to set up the Republic only for themselves, who need to govern only for the advantage of the rich.”

While the Assembly delayed, the masses were again galvanized into action by the threat of counter-revolution. The Duke of Brunswick, heading the invading armies, issued a manifesto threatening “signal vengeance” if any harm was done to the King and Queen.

This was no idle threat. All over France royalist groups, well supplied with money and arms, were awaiting the signal to wreak havoc in the rear. Already in 1791 and 1792 there had been royalist uprisings in Perpignan, Arles, Lozere, the Vivarias, Yssingeaux and the Vendee.

Confident of success, the King finally staged what amounted to a parliamentary coup d’etat, dismissing the Girondin Ministry on 13 June 1792. All the conditions for a monarchist coup were prepared. With the Austrians and Prussians at the door, Lafayette was only concerned with “the enemy within”, offering the King his troops “to crush the Jacobins.”

Undoubtedly the entry of the Austrian and Prussian armies into Paris, accompanied by royalist emigres, would have presaged butchery on a scale to make the subsequent revolutionary “Terror” look like a vicarage tea party.

But again the “sans culottes” saved the day. Danton, Marat, Chaumette and Hebert formed a new revolutionary Commune, providing an organised expression for the masses who elected delegates from their “sections”. They carried out yet another insurrection on 10 August 1792. The Tuileries Palace was stormed and Louis forced to flee for protection to the very Assembly against which he was conspiring!

Under the masses’ pressure, the Assembly suspended the King and carried out a series of progressive laws. Universal manhood suffrage was finally conquered. Emigres’ lands were confiscated to be sold in small lots though in practice most were sold in large estates to the wealthy.

Nevertheless, the August insurrection was a major turning point. By their action the masses showed they would tolerate nothing less than a root and branch transformation of society. The old basis for compromise was destroyed. The moderate Girondins were forced to break off secret negotiations with the King. All forms of government, parties and institutions were thrown into the melting pot.

The political centre of gravity shifted within the Assembly with the growth of the Jacobin left at the expense of the Girondin center. More importantly, the axis of power passed from the debating chamber to the street, from the National Assembly to the revolutionary organs of local power and the clubs which inspired them and armed them with ideas and slogans.

The revolutionary communes began to occupy center stage, particularly the Paris Commune dominated by the “men of 10 August” – Danton, Marat, Hebert and Chaumette.

The Jacobins, the radical wing of the petit-bourgeois democracy, succeeded because they, unlike the Girondins, were prepared to lean upon the masses to deal with reaction. They did not hold up their hands in horror at the “September massacres” when the Paris sans culottes broke into the prisons to stage a plebeian settling of accounts with aristocratic counter-revolution.

Grim as these events were, they can only be understood in the light of the terrible danger which hung over revolutionary Paris. The later experience of counter-revolutionary Thermidor in 1794 and the White Terror which followed the defeated revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 shows what kind of bloodbath could have been expected had reaction triumphed.

Unlike the countless victims of the Thermidorian Terror, murdered without the slightest pretence at a trial, at least the sans culottes improvised tribunals before which the imprisoned aristocrats were given a chance to defend themselves. Nor was this a complete formality, as has been alleged. While 1,465 prisoners were killed, 1,335 were acquitted – a fact hardly mentioned by writers anxious to portray the Paris “mob” as bloodthirsty monsters.

The September massacres represented a desperate act of self-defense by revolutionary Paris, a spontaneous action meant to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy.

On 20 September 1792 the newly elected Convention which replaced the Assembly met in the Tuileries. The Girondins now represented the right wing. The left, sat on the highest benches, were known as the “Mountain”.

Under the impact of the August insurrection and the September massacres, the Girondins, who in any case were formal republicans, voted with the Jacobins for the abolition of the monarchy. From this moment on, the revolution was characterized by the struggle between the Mountain and the Gironde within the Convention and the growing hostility of the Paris Commune to the Convention as a whole.

The trial of the King, or Louis Capet (his family name) as he was then called, brought out the tensions between those who wished a halt to the revolution and those under the pressure of the masses who were prepared to go to the end. It was impossible to seriously struggle against reaction without dealing with the “first link in the chain of counter-revolution”. But the Girondins balked at executing Louis which they rightly understood would mark the point of no return for the revolution.

Overruling the Girondins’ delaying tactics, the Convention voted by a small majority for execution. The revolution had burnt its bridges. In the words of Danton: “The coalized Kings threaten us; so we hurl at their feet as a gauge of battle, the head of a King.”

The defeat of the aristocracy and the overthrow of the monarchy by the second French revolution, the August insurrection of 1792, crystallized the class contradictions within the revolutionary camp. As the revolution advanced, the more vacillating element in the Convention moved sharply to the right while the Jacobins, under pressure of the masses, moved left. An open split became inevitable.

This reflected the intensification of the class war. The big bourgeoisie had made fortunes out of military contracts, financial speculation and the purchase of church lands. The mass of the people suffered from shortages, soaring prices and the rapid depreciation of the currency. The washerwomen of Paris demonstrated with the slogan: “Du pain et du savon” (bread and soap). Grocers’ shops were sacked in food riots.

The horrified Girondins slandered the rioters as “agents of Pitt” – the British Prime Minister. Under the guise of “federalism”, the Girondists reflected the panic of the wealthy merchants of Bordeaux, Nantes, Lyons and Toulon at the events in Paris. In reply, the semi-proletarian masses demanded more centralism, increased powers for the Convention, revolutionary terror to crush reaction and the purging of the Convention of the right

The movement reached its peak with the “Journees” of 31 May to 2 June 1793. The Convention’s debating hall was invaded by a mass of sans culottes demanding the expulsion of the Girondin deputies. This insurrection marked the decisive victory of the revolution: the triumph of the most revolutionary wing based on the plebeian masses in Paris against the reactionary bourgeoisie and its Girondin agents.

The eruption of the masses onto the scene was caused by the desperate situation for the revolution which can only be likened to the darkest years of the civil war in Russia after 1917 when the Soviet government was attacked by 21 foreign armies and when at one stage the Bolsheviks controlled only an area around Petrograd and Moscow.

A Spanish army had crossed the Pyrenees. The Prussians had invaded from the East. Toulon was treacherously surrendered to the English. In the Vendee region a bloody revolt began, threatening Nantes. The Girondists staged uprisings in the provinces on the side of counter-revolution. Paris was shaken as the news came in of the defection of Marseilles and Lyon.

The French revolution, particularly at its high point of 1793-4, was a great war of social liberation waged by the French people against incredible odds. They confronted powerful and numerous enemies both within and without. Against them were ranged the great powers of Europe. Yet, against all odds, they succeeded.

Such a victory would have been inconceivable except for the concentration of power into the hands of the most determined and audacious elements of the revolutionary democracy. The Committee of Public Safety set up by the Convention acted as the cutting edge of the war against internal reaction, while the “levee en masse” provided the mass forces needed to smash external intervention.

So long as it was directed against the agents of the old regime and enemies of the revolution, the Terror played a necessary and progressive role in the context of the extremely dangerous situation on the internal front. In any case, the scope of the Terror has been exaggerated, especially in Paris. Only 15 per cent of the death sentences were pronounced in Paris: 19 per cent in the South East and 52 per cent in the West where the civil war was raging.

Without doubt excesses were committed, for example in Nantes and in Lyons, under the notorious Joseph Fouche who later became an agent of Thermidorian, Bonapartist and even royalist reaction and ended up a millionaire with the title of the Duke of Otranto. But excesses occur in every war, particularly a civil war. Not even the fiercest critic of the Terror has explained how the revolution could have survived without it in this hour of mortal peril.

In any event, the Terror was only one feature of the implacable war waged by the revolution. Far more important was the incredible and unprecedented mobilization of the entire nation which was the secret of a success which seemed impossible.

To persuade the people to fight, the Jacobins made concessions to the demands of the masses. The constitution of 1793 was the first truly democratic constitution – a direct conquest of the masses in struggle. No matter that this constitution under prevailing conditions was never really put into effect. In practice, the masses had already imposed their own direct revolutionary democracy through their “sections” where mass meetings of the poorest citizens were in almost permanent touch with their trusted representatives.

The Paris sans culottes kept control over the Convention by continuous vigilance. The public galleries were always crowded, cheering the most radical wing of the Mountain and keeping the vacillating elements in line.

The common tendency to characterize the Jacobins as a kind of “socialist” party is however entirely out of place. Despite the ceaseless rise and fall of parties and programs which invariably brought the radical trend to the fore, the class content of the French revolution never ceased to be bourgeois in character. Robespierre’s faction was merely the most consistently revolutionary of the petit-bourgeois trends that dominated the Convention.

Pressurized by the masses, the Jacobins carried the bourgeois revolution to its limits and, to some extent, beyond, making inroads into private property. This in no sense represented a socialist tendency in Jacobinism which stood firmly on the ground of bourgeois property, but only the desire to conciliate the semi-proletarian sans culottes, a section of which undoubtedly wished to go further.

In September 1793 new mass demonstrations forced a reluctant Jacobin dominated Convention to grant the law of the “general maximum” or ceiling on prices. The new war effort required a strict control of the economy which imposed restrictions on capitalism. The Committee of Public Safety waged a ruthless war against speculation and profiteering. The property of exiles and rebels was seized. There was even an element of nationalization, for example of the arms industry and army supplies. Limits were placed on wealth and inheritance. The confiscated wealth of the aristocrats and counter-revolutionaries financed relief for the old, sick, widows and orphans.

These measures received the enthusiastic endorsement of the masses, providing the key to military victory. And what a victory! The world had never before witnessed the spectacle of a people risen in arms. Apprentices, ploughboys, blacksmiths, laborers rushed to answer the appeal and an astonished Europe looked on as this ragged army of untrained volunteers proceeded to inflict defeat after defeat on the well-drilled regiments of England, Prussia, Austria and Spain.

What turned the scales, apart from skillful generalship, was above all the morale of the revolutionary soldier and the ability to pour in a mass of men and material by levies and requisitions.

By the end of 1793, the enemy had been virtually driven from French territory. The revolution was triumphant on all fronts. Feudal dues were finally abolished without compensation. In June 1793 the Convention passed a vital law which effected a genuine agrarian revolution, handing back to the peasants all the land taken from the village communes. The triumph of the peasant was complete. The power of the aristocracy was broken.

But precisely as the revolution reached its flood tide it began to ebb. With the revolutionary dictatorship of the Jacobins, the bourgeois revolution had reached and gone beyond its limits. To proceed further would threaten bourgeois property. This was not the agenda of Robespierre and the other Jacobin leaders.

The bourgeois revolution differs from the socialist revolution just as the capitalist system differs from socialism. The laws of motion governing capitalism do not depend upon the conscious will of the ruling class. Capitalism “regulates itself” through the blind play of the market. Consequently, it does not require a conscious and scientific program to bring it into being.

On the contrary the fierce passions and revolutionary energy required to overthrow the old regime could never have been called forth by an appeal to the values of the market place, the morals of the money grabber and the sordid reality of wage slavery for the many.

The socialist revolution can only be brought about by the conscious activity of the masses fighting for their self-emancipation. By contrast, the bourgeois revolution, essentially the transfer of power from one privileged minority to another, must always be based upon illusions. The 17th century English bourgeois regarded themselves as the elect of God, fighting to establish the rule of the saints upon earth. Their French equivalents, nearly 150 years later, appealed to “Reason” end spoke of “liberty, equality and fraternity”. But given the concrete development of the productive forces, these ideal forms could only be filled, in the last analysis, with a capitalist content.

The victory of Jacobinism, the most consistent and revolutionary wing of the petit-bourgeoisie, brought the revolution’s leaders before the contradictions between the aspirations of the aroused urban masses and the objective limits of the bourgeois revolution. Jacobinism itself was destroyed by this contradiction.

A section of Jacobins around Danton and Desmoulins wanted to call a halt, concentrating their fire on the continuing terror.

Another faction grouped around Hebert and Roux represented the extreme plebeian left wing of Jacobinism, based on the Paris Commune and the Paris sans culottes. This so-called “faction d’enrages” had the upper hand in the “sections” and supported the terror and the requisitions which they saw as a weapon against the rich. The growing power of the enrages since the fall of the Girondins began to frighten the Jacobin leaders, pushing Robespierre and Danton into a temporary and unstable alliance.

At the other extreme, with the threat of counter-revolution removed, the propertied classes, including now a big section of the peasantry, reacted against the years of “storm and stress”. The wealthy demanded “order” and protection against the Paris sans culottes. The middle class longed for peace and quiet, to get on with the job of enriching themselves. Inside the Convention, the “crapuds du Marais” (frogs of the Marsh), former Girondin sympathizers, the vacillating center, cowed and silent in the previous period, became restive.

Robespierre attempted to balance between the factions and classes. But inevitably he came down in favor of the propertied classes against the “excesses” of the sans culottes.

By the beginning of 1794 the masses were worn out by four long years of fighting. The continuing collapse of the paper currency, long queues, bread shortages and general poverty contrasted sharply with corruption in high places. True, Robespierre still lived in a joiner’s house in the Rue St. Honore and Saint Just would dine off a hunk of bread and a few slices of sausages still seated at his desk. But the Convention was riddled with speculators and swindlers who had made their fortune out of the public purse.

Discontent was rife among the Paris poor and the rank and file Jacobins. The Hebertists now controlled the Cordeliers Club, Danton’s old base, and talked openly about the “sacred right of insurrection”. But the class balance of forces had already decisively shifted against them.

The Jacobins had leaned on the popular masses to strike blows against the Girondins. Once these had been eliminated, Robespierre’s first priority was to direct his fire against the left. The Jacobin Jeanbon Saint Andre gave the game away: “Our greatest enemies are not without; we see them; they are among us; they wish to carry the revolutionary measures further than we do.”

With power concentrated in the hands of the Committee of Public Safety, the independently functioning sections represented a potential threat to Jacobin power. Therefore they took steps to subordinate the 40,000 revolutionary committees to the Committee of Public Safety which began a purge against the left, so undermining the Hebertists’ base of support.

In March 1794, Hebert and 19 followers were suddenly arrested and executed. The masses, exhausted and disoriented, for once failed to react. This event was generally seen as the end of the revolution. Though Robespierre attempted to balance this with a blow against the right wing Jacobins, executing Danton and his supporters, the pendulum began to swing irreversibly to the right.

Once the fear of the sans culottes had been removed, the balance of forces within the Convention was swiftly transformed. A section of the Jacobins moved over to the Marsh, leaving Robespierre and his group isolated. The split was reflected in the Committee of Public Safety itself

The coup d’etat of the 9th Thermidor (27 July) 1794 was the inevitable result. Feeling the groundswell of discontent which now affected all classes, a faction of disaffected Jacobins revolted against Robespierre.

They were immediately joined by the “frogs of the Marsh” who had previously fawned on Robespierre. They now turned like a pack of baying hounds. A year earlier such a parliamentary coup would have stood no chance of success. The masses would have rushed to arms and the reaction would have been instantly crushed.

In fact, on the night of the 10th Thermidor, the issue was in the balance. Robespierre was rescued and taken to the Paris Commune. But this time the masses did not respond and the relatively small forces commanded by the Convention were able to retake Robespierre and the others who were immediately executed without even the pretext of a trial.

The victory of the Thermidorian reaction allegedly ended the “terror”. But those historians who dwell upon and exaggerate the revolutionary terror draw a discreet veil of silence over the bloody White Terror which followed.

The exact number of victims will never be known because most were murdered by night with no trial, no defense and no records. In the following three days alone there were 103 executions of prominent Jacobins. Revolutionaries were hunted down and butchered, especially in the South. In the prisons of Lyons, Aix and Marseilles, reactionary gangs like the “compagnies du Jesus” killed all who had taken part in the previous government.

Meanwhile, most of the social conquests of the urban poor were liquidated. The Law of the Maximum was the first to go. The cost of living rocketed. The winter of Year III (1794-5) was a period of extreme poverty and wretchedness With 1790 as a base of 100, price inflation reached 580 by January 1795, 720 by March and 900 by April. In May there was an uprising in the working class suburbs of Paris, St. Antoine and St. Marcel, demanding “bread and the constitution of 1793.” But with no clear program, perspective or leadership, the revolt collapsed, a pathetic after-echo of the great “journees” of 1789-93.

The new constitution of the Thermidor was the banner of inequality. The right to property, not present in the 1789 constitution and first included as a safeguard by the Jacobins in 1793, was now clearly spelt out: “Property is the right to enjoy and dispose of one’s possessions, one’s revenues and the fruit of one’s labor and industry…the maintenance of property is the foundation upon which the cultivation of the soil, all production and every means of labor and the whole social order rests.” Once more the suffrage was restricted to exclude both the aristocrats and the poorer citizens.

In a few years France had passed from absolute monarchy through a constitutional monarchy to a bourgeois republic. After July 1794 it swung back to a directory, bonapartism, and finally, after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, to an absolute monarchy. On the basis of this, the revisionist school of historians ask: was it all worthwhile? “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same), as the French saying goes.

But the French revolution marked a decisive social and political transformation: the smashing of the power of the aristocracy; the radical clearing out of the Augean stables of feudalism; and the distribution of land to millions of small peasant proprietors. Despite all the vicissitudes of the political superstructure, the fundamental social conquests of the revolution remained.

This constituted the fundamental power of the revolution, even in the period of Bonapartist reaction, enabling the regime to take on the combined forces of reactionary Europe and carry Napoleon’s victorious army to the gates of Moscow. Even the restoration of the Bourbons after 1815 did not touch the peasants’ lands. The “ancien regime” could not be re-established, even on the bayonets of Wellington and Blucher.

The repercussions of the revolution cannot be overstated, giving a powerful impulse to the revolutionary-democratic movements in Spain, Germany, Italy, to the national liberation movements in Poland and Ireland, and even kindling the spark of the colonial revolution in the Caribbean.

The earliest manifestation of the Russian Revolution, the Decembrist uprising of 1825, was directly inspired by the example of the French revolution. As late as 1905, the workers of Moscow and St. Petersburg sang the workers “Marseillaise” on their demonstrations. Not least in France itself every revolutionary movement right up to the Paris Commune of 1870-71 took as its starting point the revolution of 1793.


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