William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up – Chapter 8 – The French Revolution: The Proletarian Stage

The insurrection of the 10th August, which culminated in the final downfall of the monarchy and the imprisonment of the king and royal family in the Temple, was headed and organized by a new body definitely revolutionary, intended to be the expression of the power of the proletariat, the new Commune of Paris, the moving spirit of which was Marat, who even had a seat of honour assigned to him in the Council. Already, before the king had been sent to the Temple, the Girondin Vergniaud, as president, had moved the suspension of the 'hereditary representative' and the summoning of a national convention. Danton was made minister of justice; Robespierre was on the Council of the Commune. A new Court of Criminal Justice was established for the trial of the crimes of August 10th. The members of the Convention were chosen by double election, but the property qualification of 'active and passive citizens' was done away with.

While all this was going on, the movement of the reactionary armies on France was still afoot; and the furious flame of French national enthusiasm, which was afterwards used by the mere self-seeking conqueror Napoleon, was lighted by the necessity of the moment – not to be extinguished in days long after his. We mention this here because, in order to appreciate what follows, it must be remembered that an armed coalition of the absolutist countries was gathering together, threatening to drown the Revolution in the blood of the French people, and especially of the people of Paris; and that one of its armies, commanded by the Duke of Brunswick, a famous general of Frederick the Great, was already within a few days' march of the city; and that nothing was between Paris and destruction but undisciplined levies and the rags of the neglected army formed under the old régime; while at the same time the famous royalist insurrection had broken out in La Vendée. Every republican in Paris, therefore, had good reason to feel that both his own life and the future of his country were in immediate danger at the hands of those who did not care what became of France and her people so long as the monarchy could be restored.

Danton now demanded a search for arms, which was carried out on August 29th; and the prisons were filled with prisoners suspected of royalist plotting, and many of them surely guilty of it.

Verdun fell on the 2nd September, and the Duke of Brunswick boasted that he would presently dine in Paris; and on the same night insurrectionary courts of justice – Lynch-law, as we should call it now – were established at the prisons, and the prisoners were brought before them and judged. If found guilty they were turned out into the street with the words, 'Let the prisoner be enlarged', or, 'Let him be conducted to La Force' or 'the Abbaye', according to whether he was at one or the other. He was then immediately cut down and slain by a body of men waiting for him. If he was acquitted, the word went, 'Let him be enlarged', with the cry of 'Vive la nation!' and he went free. It should be noted, in order to show the hysterical excitement amidst which all this was done, that the acquittals were greeted with cries of joy, tears, and embraces on the part of the court and its sympathizers. It may be further noted that the watches, rings, etc., of the slain were brought to the town-hall by the slayers, who claimed each a louis (20s.) for their night's work. The number of the slain was one thousand and eighty-nine.

The next day a circular was issued by the Committee of Public Safety approving of the massacre, signed by Sergent, Panis (Danton's friend), and Marat, with seven others.

The Girondins in the Assembly and elsewhere kept quiet for the time, though they afterwards used the event against the Jacobins.

Meanwhile the French army, under Dumouriez, had seized on the woodland hills of the Argonne, checked Brunswick, defeated him at Valmy, and Paris was saved.

The Convention now met – on the 20th September – and the parties of the Girondins and the Mountain, or extreme revolutionists, were at once formed in it. It is noteworthy that while it declared as its foundation the sovereignty of the people and the abolition of royalty, it also decreed that landed and other property was sacred for ever. Apropos of which, it may here be mentioned that the bookseller Memoro, having hinted at something like agrarian law, and some faint shadow of Socialism, had to go into hiding to avoid hanging.

So far, therefore, we have got no further than the complete triumph of bourgeois republicanism; though, indeed, the possibility of its retaining its position depended, as the event showed, on the support of the proletariat, which was only given on the terms that the material condition of the workers should be altered for the better by the new régime. And those terms, in the long-run, bourgeois republicanism could not keep, and therefore it fell.

The Girondins or moderate party in the Convention, began their attack on the Jacobins on the subject of the September massacres, and also by attacking Marat personally (on the 21st September) – which attack, however, failed egregiously. The Girondins, as their name implies, leaned on the support of the provinces, where respectability was stronger than in Paris, and tried to levy a body-guard for the defence of the Convention against the Paris populace; but though they got the decree for it passed, they could not carry it out. In their character of political economists, also, they resisted the imposing a maximum price on grain, a measure which the scarcity caused by the general disturbance made imperative, if the proletariat were to have any share in the advantages of the Revolution. In short, the Girondins were obviously out of sympathy with the mass of the people – the only power that can support revolutionists; therefore, though they were posing as supporters of the rights of the people, they were bound to fall.

The trial of the king now came on, and tested the Girondins in a fresh way; they mostly voted his death, but as if driven to do so from a feeling that opinion was against them, and that they might as well have some credit for this. The king was beheaded on January 21st, 1793, and as an immediate consequence, England and Spain declared war. But this business of the king made a kind of truce between the parties, which, however, soon came to an end. Marat was the great object of attack, and on the 25th February, 1793, he was decreed accused on account of some passages in his journal approving of the bread riots which had taken place, and suggesting the hanging of a forestaller or two. On the other hand, on the 10th of March, the section Bonconseil demanded the arrest of the prominent Girondins. Meantime, Danton had been trying all along to keep the peace between the two parties, but on April 1st, the Girondins accused him of complicity with Dumouriez, who had now fled over the frontier, and so forced him into becoming one of their most energetic enemies. The position of the Girondins was now desperate. On the 24th March, Marat was acquitted and brought back in triumph to the Convention.

The Girondins got appointed a packed committee of twelve in the interest of the Convention as against the Paris sections. As an answer to this a central committee of the sections was formed, which on May 31st dominated the Municipality (not loth to be so dealt with) and surrounded the Convention with troops. After an attempt on the part of the Girondins to assert their freedom of action, the Convention decreed them accused and they were put under arrest. They died afterwards, some by the guillotine, some even more miserably, within a few months; but their party is at an end from this date. All that happened in the Convention from this time to the fall of Robespierre in 'Thermidor' was the work of a few revolutionists, each trying to keep level with the proletarian instinct, and each failing in turn. They had not the key to the great secret; they were still bourgeois, and still supposed that there must necessarily be a propertyless proletariat led by [the] bourgeois, or at least served by them; they had not conceived the idea of the extinction of classes, and the organization of the people itself for its own ends.

Marat's death at the hand of Charlotte Corday, on July 14th, removed the only real rival to Robespierre, the only man who might, perhaps, have made Napoleonism unnecessary.

The law of maximum was now passed, however, and a cumulative income tax, so that, as Carlyle remarks, the workman was at least better off under the Terror than he had ever been before; but without a direct attack on the root of exploitation there can be no true equality, and nothing that can be laid hold of as a principle of Society; the people cannot understand, and therefore cannot themselves organize themselves. Until labour is free, it has to be organized by those who are the masters of the labourers, and the revolutionists of this period were at once too good and too bad to be their masters; therefore, as above said, they could only drift on the current of events.

Robespierre, Danton, and the Herbertists were now what of force was left in the Convention, and doubtless the first of these had made up his mind to get the reins of power into his own hands. Meantime, a new calendar, in which the months were distinguished by names taken from the march of the natural drama of the year, was published, and an attempt was made to establish a new worship founded on Materialism; but, like all such artificial attempts to establish what is naturally the long growth of time, it failed. Chaumette, Hebert and their followers were the leaders in this business, which Robespierre disapproved of, and Danton growled at.

The Extraordinary Tribunal under Fouquier Tinville was now the Executive in Paris, and backed by the law of suspects, speedily got rid of all obstacles to the Revolution, and of many also who had worked according to their lights for its furtherance. Robespierre, it is hard to say how or why, became at last practical dictator.

The Herbertists under the name of the 'Enragés' (rabids) were accused at Robespierre's instance, found guilty and executed. Danton, giving way it would seem to some impulse towards laziness inherent in his nature, let himself be crushed, and died along with Camille Desmoulins on 31st of March, 1794, and at last Robespierre was both in reality and appearance supreme. On the 8th of June he inaugurated his new worship by his feast of the Supreme Being, but did not follow it up by any diminution in the number of batches for the guillotine; and ominous grumblings began to be heard. According to a story current, Carnot got by accident at a list of 40 to be arrested, among whom he read his own name. On the 26th July, Robespierre was met by unexpected opposition in the Convention. The next day he was decreed accused at the Convention, and Henriot deposed from the commandership of the National Guard; but there was a respite which a more ready man, a man of military instinct at least, might have used [but] Robespierre lacked that instinct; [and] Henriot failed miserably in his attempt to crush the Convention. The insurrectionary troops on being appealed to by the Convention, wavered and gave way, and Robespierre was arrested. In fact, Robespierre seems to have worn out the patience of the people by his continued executions. Had he proclaimed an amnesty after his Feast of the Supreme Being, he would have had a much longer lease of power; as it was he and his tail died on the 28th July(1).

There was nothing left to carry on the Revolution after this but a knot of self-seeking politicians of the usual type; they had only to keep matters going till they were ready for the dictator who could organize for his own purposes people and army, and who came in the shape of Napoleon. The proletarians were no longer needed as allies, and disunited, ignorant of principles, and used to trust to leaders, they could make no head against the Society which they had shaken indeed, owing to its internal dissensions, but which they were not yet able to destroy.

One event only there remains to be mentioned; the attempt of Baboeuf and his followers to get a proletarian republic recognized; it has been called an insurrection, but it never came to that, being crushed while it was yet only the beginning of a propaganda. Baboeuf and his followers were brought to trial in April, 1796. He and Darthes were condemned to death, but killed themselves before the sentence could be carried out. Ten others were condemned to prison and exile; and so ended the first Socialist propaganda.

It is commonly said that Napoleon crushed the Revolution, but what he really did was to put on it the final seal of law and order. The Revolution was set on foot by the middle-classes in their own interests; the sentence which Napoleon accepted as the expression of his aims, 'la carrière ouverte aux talens' – 'the career thrown open to talent' – is the motto of middle-class supremacy. It implies the overthrow of aristocratic privilege and the setting up in its place of the money-aristocracy, founded on the privilege of exploitation, amidst a world of so-called 'free competitions. The Middle-class, the first beginnings of which we saw formed in the Middle Ages, after a long and violent struggle has conquered and is supreme from henceforth.

1 A curious exemplification of the change in the speed of the transmission of news, is given by the fact that The Times published the first news of this fall of Robespierre three weeks after the event.back

Commonweal, Volume 2, Number 29, 31 July 1886, pp. 138-139