In his third chapter on the French Revolution, Neil Faulkner discusses the contradictions of bourgeois revolution – but celebrates the gains it won.

execution of Robespierre

The Jacobin dictatorship of Year II (1793-1794) took radical measures to mobilise the masses in the struggle against counter-revolution. By the summer of 1794, internal revolt had been suppressed, and the French army had occupied Brussels. The immediate threat was dissolved.

The bourgeoisie represented in the National Convention had been cajoled or coerced into supporting the Jacobin-dominated Committee of Public Safety as long as the emergency lasted. The Jacobins’ democratic radicalism and links with the popular movement had been an inescapable and necessary evil.

When the emergency ended, class interest reasserted itself, and bourgeois support for the government drained away. Gratitude is not a political attitude.

Robespierre had many enemies. To maintain its balance, suspended between the bourgeoisie and the sansculottes, the dictatorship had struck down enemies to the right and to the left. These forces now combined to overthrow the regime.

Sensing that power was slipping away, Robespierre called for another mass purge. On 27 July 1794, his enemies in the Convention howled him down and then issued an arrest warrant against him and his political allies.

The Jacobins retreated to the City Hall and called for a revolutionary journée (insurrection). But support was patchy. The regime had attacked its own supporters, executing left activists, lifting a ban on food speculation, and imposing wage cuts. Only 16 of the 48 Paris sections (wards) sent armed men to City Hall. These dispersed after several hours standing around without leadership.

The Jacobin leaders were then arrested, tried, and executed. Robespierre, St Just, Couthon, and 18 others were guillotined on 28 July. Another 71 Jacobins followed the next day.

Some left-wingers had participated in the coup of ‘Thermidor’ (the name of the month when it occurred according to the revolutionary calendar). This was a mistake. Their mass base had crumbled. It soon became clear that Thermidor had been a reactionary coup: it had shifted power to the right.

The streets filled with gangs of rich young thugs (jeunesse dorée: gilded youth). A mob of them shut down the Jacobin Club. A property qualification for voting was introduced. A ‘white terror’ raged. Desperate risings of the sansculottes were crushed in April and May 1795 (the revolts of ‘Germinal’ and ‘Prairial’).

The balance tipped further to the right, and resurgent royalists attempted a coup in October 1795 (the revolt of ‘Vendémiaire’). This was crushed – by a young artillery officer called Napoleon Bonaparte with ‘a whiff of grapeshot’ – but it revealed the instability of the Thermidorian regime.

Thermidor had not been a counter-revolution. It had been a bourgeois reaction against radical democracy within the revolution. But by demoralising and demobilising the mass movement, the bourgeoisie had made royalist counter-revolution more possible.

The Thermidorians therefore concentrated power in the hands of a five-man ‘Directory’ – a strong-arm executive that would deal equally firmly with popular uprisings and royalist counter-revolution.

The Haitian slave revolution - the most radical expression of the world revolution unleashed by events in France in 1789

But the Directory was unable to secure an electoral mandate for its rule. In 1797, it was transformed into an effective dictatorship dependent on the support of the Army. This anomaly was resolved in November 1799, at the coup of ‘Brumaire’, when Napoleon, the Army’s greatest general, seized power. The new ‘First Consul’ had himself crowned ‘Emperor’ in 1804.

The coup of Brumaire ended the French Revolution, but it did not reverse it; on the contrary, it consolidated and defended its essential gains. Napoleon, like Cromwell, was the soldier of the revolution, not its nemesis.

Feudal dues had gone for good. The peasants kept their land. The economy remained free of internal customs. A national system of administration had been established, there was equality under the law, and the Church had been separated from the state. Even in 1815, when a king was reimposed by foreign bayonets, the ancien regime could not be restored.

The armies of the Directory, the Consulate, and the Empire, moreover, carried the revolutionary tradition abroad, abolishing serfdom, nationalising Church land, and removing internal customs. And some of these changes – in parts of Germany, Austria, Italy, and elsewhere – proved irreversible.

Not only that. The example of the Revolution was infectious. Intellectuals and activists across Europe were inspired by its ideals and victories. Some welcomed the armies of Napoleon. Others mounted their own copycat revolutions.

A young Protestant lawyer called Wolfe Tone founded a radical organisation, the United Irishmen, to fight for independence from British rule. The movement began in Belfast among the Protestant middle class and then spread to many of the Catholic peasants across the rest of the country.

But a premature rising in 1798 – prior to the arrival of French troops – was crushed. Some 30,000 were killed in the reprisals that followed – a number that dwarfs those executed in the French revolutionary terror of 1793-1794.

The outcome was different on the Caribbean island of Haiti, where 500,000 black slaves laboured to enrich a few thousand plantation-owners on the island and the merchant-capitalists of French ports like Bordeaux and Nantes.

When squabbles broke out between different groups of whites and ‘mulattos’ (free people of mixed race), the slaves took the opportunity to rise in revolt on their own account.

Forged into an army under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the slaves first overthrew the plantation-owners, then defeated an invading British army, and finally crushed a French army sent against them by Napoleon. Through 15 years of war, they won their freedom.

In February 1794, the Jacobins passed a decree abolishing slavery. In 1801, Napoleon dispatched an army to Haiti to reimpose it. The contrast encapsulates the contradictory character of the bourgeois revolution: the empowerment of the masses necessary to drive the revolution forwards is a threat to a social order based on private property.

The contradiction was writ large in Napoleon’s empire and eventually brought it down.

The French Revolution created a new military system based on mass mobilisation, popular enthusiasm, and promotion from the ranks. Mobility, aggression, and mass were used to overwhelm the ponderous armies of ancien régime Europe. At the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, the combined armies of Austria and Russia were smashed in a victory that made Napoleon master of Central Europe.

But Napoleon’s huge armies were forced to live off the land through which they marched, and they milked the territories they conquered to provide the substance of war. The French posed as liberators, but were experienced as oppressors. Robespierre had predicted that few would welcome ‘armed missionaries’, but only bitter experience proved the lesson.

By overturning the balance of power in Europe, Napoleon made implacable enemies of the Continent’s ruling classes. By imposing taxation, conscription, and requisitioning, he also made enemies of ordinary people.

AusterlitzA French invasion of Spain in 1808 turned into an intractable war against British regulars and Spanish guerrillas which drained away French military strength over the following six years. The 1812 invasion of Russia became a disaster when Napoleon’s capture of Moscow failed to end the war and he was forced into a long winter retreat in which most of his army perished.

The Battle of Leipzig in 1813 – against a combined Russian, Austrian, and Prussian army – reversed the result of Austerlitz. The following year, France was invaded and Napoleon forced to abdicate. His ‘Hundred Days’ comeback in 1815 was ended by defeat at Waterloo and a second, this time permanent exile.

But Waterloo could not return the world to 1789. The restored regimes were reactionary and repressive – regimes of ‘throne and altar’. But conservative form obscured dynamic content. The French Revolution had cleared away the clutter of ages and unleashed the dynamism of a new capitalist economic order. The genie could not be put back in the bottle.


Neil Faulkner

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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