In his latest instalment, Neil Faulkner explores the rise of the Jacobin dictatorship and the ever-present threat of counter-revolution in 18th Century France.
In the summer of 1792, the constitutional monarchy created by the urban insurrection three years before collapsed. On 10 August, tens of thousands of sansculottes and fédérés surrounded and attacked the Tuileries, the Paris residence of the King.
The sansculottes – ‘those without breeches’ – were the trousered working people of Paris. They were organised in 48 sections. These were local assemblies which functioned as electoral wards for the city council or commune. The sections had become organs of participatory democracy for the artisans, small traders, and general labourers of Paris.
The fédérés – ‘federals’ – were volunteer soldiers from the provinces on their way to the front. They represented the cream of the revolutionary activists from the rest of France.
The National Guard, instead of defending the King, joined the insurrection. But the Swiss Guard – foreign mercenaries – stayed loyal, and some 600 royalists and 370 revolutionaries were killed in the fighting. But the palace was taken and the King arrested.
The insurrection of 10 August 1792 was as decisive as that of 14 July 1789. The 1791 constitution, with its tight property qualification, was overturned. The Legislative Assembly elected on this franchise, the successor to the National Assembly of 1789, was dissolved, and a National Convention was elected by adult male suffrage to frame a new constitution.
The Convention was dominated by republicans. They abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. The King was tried and executed in January 1793.
Three insoluble contradictions had destroyed the constitutional monarchy. First, a majority of the nobility and clergy remained deeply hostile to the Revolution and intent on reversing it. The royal court was a centre of intrigue. Emigré armies were forming. The counter-revolution was a real and present danger.
Second, popular expectations, aroused by the events of 1789, had been disappointed. Hopes of political empowerment and social reform had been dashed. Instead, there were food shortages, price rises, and unemployment. The result was rioting in Paris and elsewhere.
Third, in a desperate attempt to paper over growing splits within the regime, an unholy alliance of political forces had agreed to launch a war against the Revolution’s foreign enemies.
The King and his supporters hoped the counter-revolution would be victorious. Lafayette and the constitutional-monarchists hoped to lead a crusade that would unite the nation. The Girondins – moderate republicans – hoped to be lifted to power on a wave of national enthusiasm.
All were wrong. The war backfired. Conservative generals defected to the enemy. The French suffered serious defeats. The enemy Duke of Brunswick announced that he would impose ‘exemplary vengeance’ and ‘hand over the city of Paris to soldiers and punish the rebels as they deserved’.
These tensions produced the insurrection of 10 August. The wave of popular enthusiasm that made it possible than flowed into the new volunteer army being formed. ‘Audacity, audacity, and still more audacity,’ proclaimed Danton, the Cordeliers Club radical, now a member of the government.
On 20 September 1792, at Valmy, the French revolutionary army halted the advance of the invaders. It was on the following day that the Convention abolished the monarchy.
But the new Girondin government was now as eager to halt the Revolution as its predecessor had been. The central contradiction of the bourgeois revolution reasserted itself. Once elevated to power by mass mobilisation, the moderate republicans prioritised the defence of property against the popular movement.
‘Your property is threatened,’ warned one of the Girondin leaders. A ‘hydra of anarchy’ is at large, proclaimed another. Unless ‘recurrent insurrections’ were stopped, announced a third, ‘Paris would be destroyed’.
But the counter-revolutionary threat had not been expunged. On the contrary, by spring 1793, Britain had joined the war against France, there were royalist risings in the Vendée region of western France, foreign armies were again advancing towards Paris from the north-east, and the Girondin general Dumouriez had deserted to the enemy.
On 26 May 1793, the Jacobin leader Robespierre called on the people to revolt again. On 29 May, the Paris sections met and elected a new commune. On 31 May and 2 June, mass demonstrations surrounded the Convention and compelled it to arrest 29 Girondin leaders. Henceforward, the purged assembly was dominated by the Jacobins.
The Committee of Public Safety – a body of 12 men elected by the Convention – became the effective government of France. The Committee reported to the Convention once a week and was subject to re-election once a month. Three prominent Jacobins – Robespierre, St Just, and Couthon – became its guiding figures.
The Committee established a total-war economy, with mass conscription, nationalised war-industries, and progressive taxation. Forced loans were imposed on the rich. The land of émigrés and the Church was confiscated, divided into small plots, and distributed to the peasantry. Price controls were imposed, and speculation became a capital crime.
A policy of ‘terror’ was employed to deter counter-revolution. The guillotine in the centre of Paris became a symbol of revolutionary justice. Jacobin authorities, in the capital and elsewhere, executed several thousand between September 1793 and July 1794.
Why was this necessary? The Terror was a product of two factors. First, the threat from the counter-revolution was extreme and ever-present. In towns and villages they captured, counter-revolutionaries frequently carried out wholesale massacres of republicans; they almost certainly killed far more than the Jacobins. Had they been victorious, they would have drowned the revolution in blood.
The death penalty was necessary to discourage counter-revolutionary activism. Imprisonment is not an effective deterrent for political opponents who anticipate eventual release when their own side is victorious.
The second factor is peculiar to the highly contradictory character of the Jacobin regime. The regime wobbled on a narrow and unstable base, because the Jacobins did not so much represent a specific class as a specific historical moment when opposing class forces were finely balanced.
Most of the bourgeoisie – former royalists, constitutional-monarchists, and moderate republicans – had now gone over to the counter-revolution. Only the most radical minority supported the Jacobin dictatorship. Its leaders were mainly professional men of modest means. Their rule rested largely on the support of the sansculotte popular movement.
The revolutionary emergency demanded radical measures which most of the property-owning classes feared and resented. This strengthened the counter-revolution.
At the same time, the Committee of Public Safety was an elected body of the Convention, and the Jacobin leaders were staunch defenders of private property. This strained their relations with the popular movement.
In the politico-military emergency of the republic’s ‘Year II’ (1793-1794), with the survival of the revolutionary regime at stake, the guillotine became the arbiter of these contradictions.
As well as outright counter-revolutionaries, the Terror ‘devoured its own children’, striking down revolutionaries hostile to the dictatorship. In March 1794, the left-wing ‘Hébertists’ were executed. The following month, the right-wing ‘Indulgents’ were struck down. In this way, the ‘centrist’ Committee of Public Safety sought to maintain its increasingly precarious political balance.
The effect was to paralyse resistance for a few months, but only by shrinking the regime’s mass base. The social-democratic promise of the regime was disappointed, and the popular movement declined. ‘The Revolution has frozen over,’ declared St Just.
Meantime, on the frontiers, the reformed French revolutionary armies had driven back the invaders. The emergency that had given rise to the Jacobin dictatorship was coming to an end. Those sections of the bourgeoisie that had supported it out of necessity now drew back. The Convention was turning against the Committee. The Revolution was about to go into reverse. The crisis broke in July 1794.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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