The great French revolution, 1789-1793


42. Causes of the Rising on May 31

Struggle between “Mountain” and “Gironde” — Momentous questions — Inactivity of Convention — Montagnards — Robespierre Counter-revolution gains ground — Directories of departments and districts — New Commune — Growth of Popular Societies, Fraternal Societies and Revolutionary Committees — Federalism — Centralisation — Gironde and “Mountain”

During the early part of 1793, the struggle between the “Mountain” and the “Gironde” grew daily more envenomed according as these three great questions presented themselves to France.

First: Were all the feudal dues to be abolished without redemption, or were these survivals of feudalism to continue:to starve the farmer and paralyse agriculture? This was the burning question which meant so much to an agricultural population of nearly twenty millions, including those who had bought the greater part of the national lands taken from the clergy and the emigrant nobles.

Secondly: Were the villages to retain possession of the communal lands which they had retaken from the lords? Would the right of resuming possession be recognised for those Communes that had not already done so Would the right of every citizen to the land be admitted?

And thirdly: Was the maximum going to be introduced, which meant the fixing of the price of bread and other commodities of prime necessity?

These three great questions were exciting the whole of France and had divided it into two hostile camps. On one side were those who possessed property; on the other, those who possessed nothingthe rich and the poor; those who were enriching themselves in spite of misery, scarcity and war, an those who were supporting the whole burden of the war and 7 had to stand for hours, and sometimes for entire nights at the, baker's door, without being able in the end to carry home a morsel of food.

And yet months — five to eight months — passed without the Convention having done anything to change the situation or to solve the great social problems evolved by the development of the Revolution itself. Time was spent in endless discussions in the Convention and hatred was increasing between the two parties, of which one stood for the rich, and the other defended the poor, while no agreement, no compromise was possible between those who defended property and those who wished to attack it.

It is true that the “Montagnards” themselves had no very divided into clear ideas about economic questions, and were divided into two groups — the one known as the “Enragés” being the much more advanced of the two. The other group, to which Robespierre belonged, was inclined to take views almost as much in defence of property as were those of the Girondins concerning the three great questions just mentioned. But little as we may sympathise with Robespierre, it must be admitted that he developed with the Revolution and he always felt deeply for the sufferings of the people. In the National Assembly, ever since 1791, he had spoken in favour of restoring the communal lands to the Communes. The more he saw of the property-owning and commercial selfishness of the middle classes the more openly he sided with the people and the revolutionary Commune of Paris — with those who were then called the “anarchists.”

“The food necessary for the people,” he declared in the Convention, “is as sacred as life itself.. All that is necessary to preserve life is property common to the whole of society. It is only what is in excess of this that may become private property, and may be given up to the industrial activities of the traders.”

What a pity that this frankly communistic idea did not prevail, among the nineteenth-century socialists instead of the “collectivism” of Pecqueur and Vidal, which was preached in 1848 and is now being dished up again under the name of “scientific socialism.” What might not the trend of the Communist movement in 1871 have been, had it recognised as its principle that “all things necessary for life are as sacred as life itself and represent the common property of the whole nation” — if it had taken as its watchword The Commune organising consumption and guaranteeing well-being for all.”

Everywhere and always a revolution is made by minorities. Even among those deeply interested in the Revolution it is only a minority that devotes itself entirely to it. This was also the case in France in 1793.

As soon as royalty was overthrown a gigantic movement was set on foot throughout the provinces against the revolutionists who had dared to fling down the head of a King as a defiance to all the reactionaries of Europe. In the manor-house, the drawing-room, the confessional, the cry was: “What scoundrels to have dared to do that! Now they will stop at nothing they are going to rob us of our wealth, or else guillotine us! And so the plots of the counter-revolutionists redoubled in vigour.

The Church, every Court of Europe, the English middle classes, all took part in the work of intrigue, propaganda and corruption for organising the counter-revolution.

The maritime towns, especially such as Nantes, Bordeaux and Marseilles, where there were many rich merchants, Lyons, the manufacturer of luxury, Rouen, the centre of trade and industry, became powerful centres of reaction. Whole regions were influenced by priests and emigres who had returned under false names, and also by English and Orléanist gold, as well as by emissaries from Italy, Spain, and Russia.

The party of the “Gironde” served as the rallying-point for this mass of reaction, for the royalists knew perfectly well that the Girondins, in spite of their apparent republicansim, were really their allies, and that they were compelled to be so by the logic of their party, which is always much more powerful than the party label. And the people, on its side, understood the situation perfectly. It knew that so long as the Girondins remained in the Convention no real revolutionary measure would be possible, and that the war carried on so feebly by these sybarites of the Revolution would be prolonged indefinitely to the utter exhaustion of France. Accordingly, therefore, as the necessity for “purifying the Convention” by the elimination of the Girondins became more and more evident) the people on its side tried to organise itself for the local struggles which were imminent in every large city and every small town and village.

We have already remarked that the Directories of the departments were mostly counterrevolutionary. The Directories of the districts were equally so. But the municipalities, established by the law of 1789, were much more democratic. It is true that when they were first constituted in the summer Of 1789, they mercilessly repressed the peasant revolts. But, as the Revolution developed, the municipalities, elected by the people often in the midst of insurrectionary disturbances and under the supervision of the Popular Societies, gradually became more revolutionary.

In Paris, previous to August 10, the council of the Commune had been composed of middle-class democrats. But during the night of August 10, a new revolutionary Commune was elected by the forty-eight sections, and although the Convention, at the instance of the Girondins, had dissolved this Commune, the new Commune elected on December 2, 1792, with its procurator, Chaumette, its deputy-procurator, Hébert, and its mayor, Pache (who was appointed somewhat later), was a frankly revolutionary body.

An elected body of officials invested with powers so extensive and so diverse as those entrusted to the council of the Paris Commune would have certainly inclined by degrees towards a moderate policy. But the people of Paris had, in the sections, centres for revolutionary action. — These sections, however, according as they arrogated to `themselves various political powers, such as the right of distributing cards of citizenship to show that the recipient was not a royalist conspirator, the appointing of volunteers to fight in La Vendée, and so onthese very sections, whose Committee of Public Welfare and the Committee of General Safety were working to make them political organs, in their turn soon inclined to officialism and conservatism. In 1795, they became, in fact, the rallying points for the middle-class reaction.

This is why a network of Popular Societies and Fraternal Societies, as well as Revolutionary Committees, was constituted side by side with the Commune and the sections to become, after the expulsion of the Girondins in the Year II. of the Republic, a real power for action. All these groups federated with each other, either for momentary purposes or for continuous action, and they endeavoured to put themselves in touch with the thirty-six thousand communes of France. For this purpose they organised a special correspondence bureau.

A new, freely constituted Organisation thus came into existence. And when we study these groupings — these “free understandings,” we should say now — we see before us the realisation of what the modern anarchist groups in France are advocating without even knowing that their grandfathers had already put it into practice during so tragic a moment of the Revolution as was the early part of 1793.[207]

The majority of historians in sympathy with the Revolution, when they come to the tragic struggle which was fought out between the “Mountain” and the “Gironde” in 1793, dwell too much, it seems to me, on the secondary aspects of this struggle. They attach too much importance to the so-called federalism of the Girondins.

It is true that after May 31, when the Girondist and royalist insurrections broke out in several departments, the word “federalism” embodied in contemporary documents the chief article of accusation used by the “Mountain” party against the Girondins. But this word had become a mere catch-word, a party badge, and was in reality only a battle-cry good enough to use against one's adversaries, and as such it served its purpose well. In reality, as Louis Blanc has remarked, the “federalism of the Girondins consisted chiefly in their hatred of Paris and their desire to oppose the reactionary provinces to the revotionary capital. They were afraid of Paris, and this was all their federalism meant.”[208]

They detested and feared the ascendency gained in the Revolution by the Commune of Paris, the Paris revolutionary committees and the people of Paris. When they talked of transferring the seat of the Legislative Assembly, and later of the Convention itself, to some provincial town, it was not for love of provincial autonomy. It was merely to place the legislative body and the executive authority in the midst of a less revolutionary population than that of Paris-among people less active in the public cause. This was how royalty acted in the Middle Ages when it preferred a growing town, a “royal town,” to the older cities accustomed to the forum. Thiers wanted to do the same in 1871.[209]

Instead of federalising, everything done by the Girondins showed them to be as centralising and authoritarian as the Montagnards, perhaps more so; for the latter relied at least upon the Popular Societies when they went on commission into the provinces and not upon organs of bureaucracythe councils of the departments and the districts. When the Girondins appealed to the provinces against Paris, it was to incite the counter-revolutionary forces of the middle classes in the manufacturing towns and the fanaticism of the peasants in Normandy and Brittany against the revolutionists of Paris. When the reactionaries were victorious and the Girondins returned to power after the 9th Thermidor, they proved, as befits a party of order, that they were centralisers much more than the Montagnards.

M. Aulard, who wrote at some length about the federalism of the Girondins, aptly remarks that before the establishment of the Republic none of the Girondins expressed federalist tendencies. Barbaroux, for example, was an unmistakable centraliser, and declared before the Bouches-du-Rhône Assembly that a Federative Government is not suitable for a great people, because of the slowness of its working and the multiplicity and complexity of its machinery.[210] We do not, in fact, find any serious attempt at federative organisation in the scheme for a Constitution that the Girondins brought forward in 1793. They show themselves by it to have been thorough centralists.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Louis Blanc lays too much stress on the “fiery impetuosity” of the Girondins, Brissot's ambition clashing with Robespierre's, and the wounding of Robespierre's self-esteem by the reckless Girondins — for which Robespierre never pardoned them. Jaurès expresses similar ideas, at least in the first part of his volume on the Convention,[211] which, however, does not prevent him, later on, from indicating other causes — when he begins to explain the struggle — between the people of Paris and the bourgeoisie — causes much more serious than wounded self-esteem, and “the egoism of power.”

Of course the “fiery impetuosity” of the Girondins, so well described by Louis Blanc, and the conflict of ambition were present, and they certainly helped to envenom the strife, but in the struggle between the “Gironde” and the “Mountain,” there was, as we have already said, one general cause of strife infinitely more serious than all the personal conflicts put together. This cause Louis Blanc had already clearly indicated by quoting from Garat the language used by the “Gironde” to the “Mountain” and the reply of the “Mountain” to the “Gironde”:

“It is not for you,” said the Gironde, to govern France, you, who are covered with the blood of September. he legislators of a rich and industrial empire must regard property as one of the most sacred bases of social order, and the mission of legislating for France cannot be fulfilled by you who preach anarchy, protect plunder and terrify the owners of property. . . . You summon against us all the hired assassins of Paris; we summon against you all the honest folk of Paris.”

It is the language of the propertied party — le parti des honnêtes gens — those who massacred the people of Paris in June 1848 and in 1871, supported the coup d'état of Napoleon III., and Who are now ready to do it all over again.

To it the “Mountain” replied: “We accuse you of wanting to use your talents for your own advancement only, and not in the interests of Equality. So long is the King permitted you to govern through the ministers you gave him, so long did, he seem honest enough for you. . . . Your secret desire has never been to raise France to the glorious destiny of a Republic,; but to keep her under a King whose Mayors of the Palace you would yourselves have been.”

We shall see how just this accusation was when we find Barbaroux in the South and Louvet in Brittany both of them hand in glove with the royalists, and when so many of the Girondins entered into an agreement with les blancs, after they came back to power through the reaction of Thermidor. But let as continue the quotation.

“You want liberty without equality,” said the “Mountain,” “and we desire equality because we cannot conceive liberty without it. You who call yourselves statesmen, you want to organise the Republic for the rich; but we, not pretending to be statesmen, are striving for laws which will lift the poor out of their misery and turn all men, under a state of universal wellbeing, into happy citizens and ardent defenders of a universally adored republic.”

Here we see two absolutely different conceptions of society; and it was so that the struggle was understood by its contemporaries.[212]

The Revolution had hitherto confined itself to overthrowing the King, without even trying to secure its work by a complete change of the ideas of the nation in a republican direction — it had to stop after its first victory, and leave France to struggle, as best she could, against German, English, Spanish, Italian, and Savoyard invaders, supported from within by the partisans of royalty. Or else, the Revolution, after getting rid of the King, had to make at once, without delay, an effort towards “Equality,” as they then called it — towards “Communism,” as we should say now. It must complete the work of abolishing the feudal rights, the work of restoring the land to the communes, the work of nationalising the soil, while it would recognise the right of all to the land. It must consolidate the work already so far carried out by the revolted peasantry during those four years, and it would try, with the people's help, “to ,raise the poor out of their wretchedness.” It must try to create, if possible, not absolute equality of riches, but a condition of well-being for all, — “universal welfare.” And it would do this by forcibly taking the power of Government from the rich, and transferring it to the Communes and the Popular Societies.

These alternatives suffice to explain the sanguinary struggle which rent asunder the Convention, and with it the whole of France after the downfall of royalty. Everything else is of secondary importance.


[207]^ Mortimer-Ternaux, a rabid reactionary, has pointed out this double organisation in his Histoire de la Terreur, vol. vii. Jaurès (La Convention, Vol. ii. P. 1254) has also a very well written page on this subject; and Aulard refers to it at some length in his Histoire politique de la Révolution, part ii. ch. v.

[208]^ Louis Blanc, 4to, vol. ii. P. 42.

[209]^ When the Girondins talked of assembling the commissioners of the departments at Bourges “they would not have stopped at this transference,” says Thibaudeau in his Mémoires It was their intention to form a second Convention.”

[210]^ Aulard, Histoire politique, p. 264. “I do not know that any one should have claimed the honour of it,” Thibaudeau wrote, when speaking of the federalism of the Girondins, in his Mémoires sur la Convention et la Directoire, vol. i. P. 38 (Paris, 1824). As to Marat, he was very explicit on this point in his paper, under the date of May 24, 1793. “They have for a long time been accusing the leaders of this infernal faction with federalism; I confess that I have never held this opinion of them, although I also have sometimes reiterated the charge.”

[211]^ La Convention, pp. 388, 394, 396, and 1458.

[212]^ Numerous quotations could be given to prove this. The two following may serve as examples: “The Girondins wanted the Revolution to stop short of the middle classes,” says Baudot. They wanted “quietly to establish a middle-class aristocracy, which should take the place of the nobility and clergy,” said Bourdon de l'Oise at the Jacobin Club, On May 31. (La Société des Jacobins, Aulard edition, vol. v. p. 220.)

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.