The great French revolution, 1789-1793


58. The Communist Movement

Egalité de fait — Socialistic problems — Proposition of Billaud-Varenne — Communalist movement — Means of subsistence and land question — Leading apostles of communism — Jacques Roux — Leclerc — Varlet — Boissel — Babeuf

In the cahiers of 1789, ideas were already to be found which, as Chassin has pointed out, would to-day be classed as socialistic. Rousseau, Helvetius, Mably, Diderot and others had already dealt with the inequalities of fortunes and the accumulation of superfluous wealth in the hands of the few, as the great obstacle to the establishment of democratic liberty. These ideas came once more to the front during the first hours of the Revolution.

Turgot, Sieyès and Condorcet asserted that the equality of political rights meant nothing without real equality in fact (égalité de fait)! This, said Condorcet, was the “final aim of social art, since inequality in riches, inequality of state, and inequality of education are the main cause of all evils.”[283] And the same ideas found an echo in several cahiers of the electors in 1789, who demanded the right of all to the possession of the land, or “the equalisation of wealth.”

It may even be said that the Parisian proletariat had already formed a conception of its class interests and had found men to express them well. The idea of separate classes, having opposing interests, is clearly stated in the cahiers des pauvres of the district of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, by a certain Lambert, “a friend of those who have nothing.” Productive work, adequate salaries (the living wage of the modern English Socialists), the struggle against the laisser faire of the middle-class economists, and a plain distinction traced between the social question and the political one — all these are to be found in this cahier des pauvres.[284]

But it was chiefly after the taking of the Tuileries, and still more after the execution of the King — in February and in March 1793 — that these ideas began to be openly propagated. It would even seem — so at least it is said by Baudot — that if the Girondins appeared as such passionate defenders of property, it was because they feared the influence which the propaganda of equality and communism was acquiring in Paris.[285]

A few Girondins, especially Rabaut de Saint-Etienne and Condorcet, fell under the influence of this movement. Condorcet, on his death-bed, was working out the scheme of a “mutuality” (mutualité), i.e., of a mutual insurance league amongst all citizens, against eventualities which might throw the relatively well-off worker into conditions under which he would be forced to sell his work at no matter what price. As to Rabaut, he demanded that the great fortunes be taken from the rich, either by means of a progressive tax or by a law which would cause the natural flow of the rich man's superfluous wealth “into establishments of public utility.” “Great riches are a drawback to liberty,” he wrote, repeating a saying very much in vogue at that time. Even Brissot at one time tried to come to some sort of agreement with this popular theory — which soon after he attacked with ferocity.[286]

A few Montagnards went further. Thus Billaud-Varenne, in a tract published in 1793, spoke openly against great wealth. He protested against Voltaire's idea that the worker should be spurred to work by hunger, and he demanded that it be declared that no citizen should henceforth be permitted to possess more than a fixed amount of land, and that no one be allowed to inherit more than from 20,000 to 25,000 livres.[287] He understood that the primal cause of social ills lay in the fact that there were men who existed “in a direct but not mutual dependency upon some other human being. For this is the first link in the chain of slavery.” He derided small peasant proprietorship which some wished to introduce for the poor, “whose existence in such conditions would never be anything but precarious and miserable.” A cry was making itself heard, he said later on (p. 129): “War to the châteaux, peace to the huts! Let us add to this the consecration of this fundamental rule: Let there be no citizen who can dispense with employment, and let there be no citizen unable to learn a trade and practise it.”

Billaud-Varenne's proposition concerning inheritances was taken up, as is known, by the International Working Men's Association at its Congress at Bâle in 1869. But it must be said that Billaud-Varenne was one of the most advanced among the Montagnards. Some, as for instance, Lepelletier, limited themselves to asking what the International asked under the name of “integral education” — that is to say, the teaching of a handicraft to each young man; whilst others limited themselves to asking for “the revolutionary restitution of properties,” or the limitation of the right of property.

It is, however, chiefly outside the Convention — amongst the people, in some sections, such as that of Gravilliers, and in the Cordeliers' Club — certainly not among the Jacobins — that one must look for the champions of the communalist and communist movements of 1793 and 1794. There was even an attempt at free organisation among those who were known at that time as the Enragés — that is to say, the extremists — those who aimed at a revolution that would tend towards equality. After August 10, 1792, there was founded — apparently at the suggestion of the federates who had come to Paris — a sort of league between the delegates of the forty-eight sections of Paris, the General Council of the Commune and the “United Defenders of the eighty-four departments.” And when in February 1793 the movements against stock-jobbers began, of which we have already spoken,[288] the delegates of this league demanded from the Convention, on February 3, energetic measures against stock-jobbing. In their address can already be seen a germ of the idea which later on was the base of Proudhon's Mutualism and his Bank of the People: the idea that all profit resulting from exchange in the banks, if there be any profit, should return to the whole nation — not to separate individuals — since they are produced by public confidence of all in all.

Our knowledge about the different movements which were going on among the people of Paris and of the large towns in 1793 and 1794 still remains imperfect. It is only now that they are being studied. But what is indisputable is, that the communist movement represented in Jacques Roux, Varlet, Dolivier, Chalier, Leclerc, L'Ange (or Lange), Rose Lacombe, Boissel, and some others, was of a depth which passed unperceived at first, but which Michelet had already surmised.[289]

It is obvious that communism in 1793 did not appear with that completeness of doctrine which is found with the French followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon, and especially with Considérant, or even Vidal. In 1793, communist ideas were not worked out in the quiet of a private study; they were born from the needs of the moment. This is why the social problem showed itself during the Great Revolution especially in the form of a question about the means of subsistence, and of a land question. But in this also lies what makes the communism of the Great Revolution superior to the socialism of 1848 and of its later forms. It went straight to the root in attacking the distribution of produce.

This communism certainly appears fragmentary to us, especially as stress was laid by its exponents upon its different separate aspects; and there always remained in it what we might call partial communism. It admitted individual possession side by side with common property, and while proclaiming the right of all to the entire sum of the fruits of production, it yet recognised an individual right to the “superfluous,” by the side of the right of all to the products of “first and second necessity.” Nevertheless the three principal aspects of communism are already to be found in the teachings of 1793: Land communism, industrial communism, and communism in commerce and in credit. And in this, the conception of 1793 was broader than the one of 1848. For, if each one of the agitators of 1793 usually laid more stress on one of these aspects than on the others, these three aspects do not exclude one another. On the contrary, being born from the same conception of equality, they complete each other. At the same time the agitators of the Great Revolution endeavoured to attain the practical carrying out of their idea by the action of local forces, by immediate practical realisation, while at the same time they tried to start some sort of a direct union of the 40,000 communes. In Sylvain Maréchal one finds even a vague aspiration towards what we describe now as anarchist communism — expressed, of course, with much caution, for one risked paying with one's head for the use of too frank language.

The idea of reaching communism by means of a conspiracy through a secret society which should grasp the reins of government — the idea of which Babeuf became the apostle — was formulated later on, in 1794. and 1795, when the Thermidor reaction had crushed the ascending movement of the Great Revolution. This was the result of a loss of force — not an effect of the growing power of the years from 1789 to 1793.

Of course there was plenty of declamatory effect in the preachings of the popular communists. It was a fashion of the times — one to which our modern orators also pay a tribute. But everything that is known about the communists of the Great Revolution tends to show them as men profoundly devoted to their ideas.

Jacques Roux had been a priest. He was extremely poor and lived with his sole companion, a dog, almost entirely on his income of two hundred livres (francs) in a gloomy house in the centre of Paris,[290] and preached communism in the working-men's quarters. He was very popular in the Gravilliers section to which he belonged, and had great influence on the Cordeliers' Club — until the end of June 1793, when his influence was destroyed by the intervention of Robespierre. As to Chalier, we have already seen the power which he had in Lyons, and we know through Michelet that this mystic-communist was a remarkable man — even more a “friend of the people “than Marat. He was simply adored by his pupils. After his death, his friend Leclerc came to Paris and continued the propaganda of communism with Roux, Varlet, a young Parisian working man, and Rose Lacombe, a leader of the women revolutionists. About Varlet practically nothing is known, except that he was popular among the poor of Paris. His pamphlet, Déclaration solennelle des droits de l'homme dans l'état social, published in 1793, was very moderate in tone.[291] But it must be remembered that with the decree of March 10, 1793, hanging over their heads, the revolutionists did not dare to say in print everything they thought.

The communists also had their theorists, such as Boissel, who published his Catéchisme du genre humain in the early days of the Revolution, and a second edition of the same work in 1791; the anonymous author of a work published also in 1791 and entitled De la proprieté, ou la cause du pauvre plaidée au tribunal de la Raison, de la Justice et de la Vérité; and Pierre Dolivier, curé of Mauchamp, whose remarkable work, Essai sur la justice primitive pour servir de principe générateur au seul ordre social qui peut assurer a l'homme tous ses droits et tous ses moyens de bonheur, was published at the end of July 1793 by the citizens of the Commune of Anvers, a district of Etampes.[292]

There was also L'Ange (or Lange), who was, as Michelet had already pointed out, a real precursor of Fourier. Babeuf was also in Paris in 1793. He was employed under the protection of Sylvain Maréchal in the administration of the means of subsistence, and made a secret communist propaganda. Forced to stay in hiding, since he had been prosecuted for a supposed forgery — wrongly prosecuted by the middle classes, as has been proved by Deville, who has found the original minutes of the trial[293] — he was compelled to be very discreet. [294]

Later on communism was connected with Babeuf's conspiracy. But Babeuf, so far as one may judge from his writings and letters, was only an opportunist of the communism of 1793. His conceptions, as well as the means of action which he advocated, belittled the idea. While it was well understood by many that a movement having a communist tendency would be the only means to assure the victories of the democracy, Babeuf, as one of his recent apologists — quite correctly — put it, sought to shuffle communism into democracy (glisser le communisme dans le démocratie). While it had become evident that democracy would lose its victories if the people did not enter the arena with its demands and ideals, Babeuf wanted democracy first, and then to introduce communism into it, little by little.[295]

Altogether Babeuf's conception of communism was so narrow, so unreal, that he thought it possible to reach communism by the action of a few individuals who were to get the Government into their hands by means of the conspiracy of a secret society. He went so far as to be ready to put his faith in one single person, provided this person had a will strong enough to introduce communism, and thus save the world! A sad illusion, which paved the way for Bonaparte and, continuing to be cherished by a great number of socailists during the whole of the nineteenth century, gave us Cæsarism — the faith in a Napoleon or a Disraeli — the faith in a saviour which still persists even to this day.


[283]^ Already Cabet, in his Appendix to Voyage en Icarie, edition of 1842, had pointed out, with quotations in support, this characteristic of the eighteenth-century thinkers; of recent works see Andre Lichtenberger, Le Socialisme et la Révolution française, Paris, 1899.

[284]^ “There has never been and there win never be any but two really distinct classes of citizens, the property-owners and those who have no property — of whom the former have everything and the latter nothing,” so it was said in the cahier des pauvres. “Of what use will a wise constitution be to a nation reduced by hunger to the state of skeletons?” queried the author of the Quatre cris d'un patriote. (Chassin, Le Génie de la Révolution, Paris, 1863, vol. i. pp. 287, 289.)

[285]^ We find in the Notes historiques sur la Convention nationale, le Directoire, l'Empire et l'exil des votants, by M.A. Baudot, edited by Mme. Edgar Quinet (Paris, 1893), a very interesting note where it is said that Ingrand's, opinion that the system “of common property” (communism), developed by Buonarroti, “was brought forward some time before the events of June 20; and that these events owed their origin to this spirit of association” (pp. 10-11). Pétion is said to have warned a great number of deputies about it. “It seems,” continues Baudot, “that the Girondins put so much acrimony and bitterness into their policy from fear of seeing the doctrine of the communists predominate.” Later on certain members of the Convention took up these ideas, as is known, and joined the conspiracy of Babeuf.

[286]^ The better to fight “the division of lands proposed by anarchists or the Coblentzians” (Robespierre afterwards took up this insinuation of Brissot's against the communists and made it his own), Brissot declared, in December 1792, that the equality of the rights of citizens would be a fiction if the laws did not abolish and prevent the too great real inequalities among the citizens. But such institutions, favourable to “equality,” added Brissot, “must be introduced without commotion, without violence, without showing disrespect to the first of all social rights, the right of property.”

[287]^ Speaking of property, he represented it in this interesting guise. “Property,” said he, “is the pivot of civil associations. It is well known that, especially in a great empire, the balance of fortunes cannot be quite exact and immovable, and that the impulse of an immense commerce, aided by a vast industry and by riches produced by agriculture necessarily keep it continually oscillating; but the balance should never fall on either side too decidedly.” (Les éléments de républicanisme, Paris, 1793, p. 57. Pamphlets of the British Museum, vol. F. 1097.)

[288]^ Chap. xliii.

[289]^ It is probable that besides the advocating of communism in the sections and Popular Societies, there were also, from August 10, 1792, attempts to constitute secret communist societies, which were extended afterwards, in 1795, by Buonarroti and Babeuf, and which, after the revolution of July 1830, gave birth to the secret societies of the Blanquists.

[290]^ Jaurès, La Convention, p. 1069 (notes of Bernard Lazare).

[291]^ He limited himself to asking in this declaration that the right of possession of land be limited; that the enormous inequality of fortunes be abolished “by fair means,” so that the poor could protect themselves from oppression by the rich, and that “the possessions amassed at the cost of the public, by theft, stock-jobbing, monopoly, &c., should become national property, the instant society obtained conclusive and reliable proofs of peculation.” (Pamphlets in the British Museum, F. 499.) In another pamphlet, Væux formés par des français libres, &c., he also asked for severe laws against monopolists (same collection F. 65.)

[292]^ In his Discours sur les moyens de sauver la France et la liberté, delivered at the time of the elections for the Convention (this pamphlet may be found at the Bibliothèque Nationale), Jacques Roux maintained that a prolonged dictatorship means the death of liberty, and he wished (pp. 42 and 43) that it should be made obligatory for the great landowners to be allowed to sell their harvest only in those markets indicated to them in their respective districts; “establish,” he said, “in all the cities and large market towns public stores where the price of goods will be established by public auction (au concours).” Michelet, who had already mentioned this Discours (Book XV. ch. vi.), added that this doctrine of Roux was very popular in the Gravilliers, Arcis, and other sections of the Centre de Paris.

[293]^ Thermidor et Directoire, 1794-1799 (Histoire socialiste, vol. v. pp. 14 and following).

[294]^ In his Catéchisme, Boissel already expounded the ideas which became current among socialists towards 1848. Thus, to the question “Which are the principal institutions of this mercenary, homicidal, anti-social State?” he answers, “Property, marriage, and religions are what men have invented, established, and consecrated to legitimate their impostures.” In specifying the things over which men have extended their property rights, he said: “It is those things of which they have thought it necessary to become possessed, or to make others believe that they were possessed, such as lands, women, even men, the sea, the rivers, and mountains, the sky, the nether regions, the gods themselves, out of whom they have always made and still make capital.” He was not tender either to the laws, of which he said: “They are the obligations which the strong, the more shrewd, the more cunning have imposed on the weaker, in order to maintain their disastrous institutions, or even to prevent the bad effects of these institutions, so far as it was possible.” His definitions of authority and justice might be accepted by modern anarchists. See Le Catéchisme du genre humain pour l'établissement essentiel et indispensable du véritable ordre moral et de l'éduacation sociale des hommes. (Paris 1789), p. 132. Pamphlets of the British Museum, F. 513 (3).)

[295]^ Thus, for instance, the people, armed with a democratic Constitution would veto all the laws, until the maintenance of all citizens should be assured by law!

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