The great French revolution, 1789-1793


60. The End of the Communist Movement

Montagnards and communists — Attitude of Hébert — Of Billaud-Varenne — Obstacles to communism — Assemblies and land — Communal land given to well-to-do peasants — Jacques Roux and Robespierre — Roux prosecuted — Reply to communism of Committee of Public Welfare — Resolutions passed by communists — Convention defends middle class and suppresses communism

PREVIOUS to May 31, when the Montagnards saw the Revolution brought to a standstill by the opposition of the Girondins, they sought the support of the communists, and of the Enragés in general. In those days, Robespierre, in the proposed Declaration of Rights which he read before the Convention on April 21, 1793, expressed himself in favour of a limitation of the rights of property, and Jeanbon Saint-André, Collot d'Herbois, Billaud-Varenne, and several others tried to make terms with the communists. If Brissot, in his savage attacks on the Montagnards, described all of them as “anarchists” and “destroyers of property,” it was only because at that time the Montagnards had not yet tried to separate themselves definitely from the Enragés and the communists.

However, immediately after the disturbances in February 1793, the Convention assumed a threatening attitude to the communists. Acting on a report by Barère, in which he already represented the communist agitation as the work of clergy and the émigrés, the Convention, notwithstanding the opposition of Marat, enthusiastically voted, on March 18, 1793, “the penalty of death for whomsoever should propose an agrarian law, or any subversion whatsoever of landed property, whether communal or individual.”

Still, they were forced to conciliate the Enragés, since they needed the support of the people of Paris against the Girondins, and in the most active sections of Paris the Enragés were very popular. But once the Girondins had been overthrown, the Montagnards turned against those who wished for “the Revolution in deeds, after it had been accomplished in thought,” and crushed them in their turn.

It is much to be regretted that there was no one among the educated men of the time who could formulate the communist ideas in a complete and comprehensive form, and make himself heard. Marat might have done so, had he been allowed to live; but he had been assassinated on July 13. As to Hébert, he was too easy-going a man to take upon himself a task of this nature: he belonged too much to the society of the gay middle classes of Holbach's school ever to become a champion of the anarchist communism which was springing up among the masses. He could adopt the language of the sans-culottes, as the Girondins had adopted the red woollen cap of the poor, and their familiar “thee” and “thou” in speech, but, like them, Hébert was too little in sympathy with the people to understand and to express the popular aspirations. In fact, he allied himself with the “Mountain” to crush Jacques Roux and the Enragés together.

Billaud-Varenne seemed to understand, better than the Montagnards, the need of profound changes in a communisitic direction. He understood at one time that a social revolution ought to have been going abreast with the political revolution. But he, too, had not the courage to enter the ranks for this cause. He took a place in the Government and ended by doing as all the other Montagnards did, when they said: “The Republic first, social measures will come later.” But there they got stranded, and there the Republic was stranded as well.

The fact is, that the Revolution, by its first measures, had too many interests and too much cupidity to make it possible for communism to develop. The communist ideas about landed property were running counter to all the wide-spread interests of the middle classes, who had bought national estates, or were wildly speculating in them.

The legislators of the Constituent and the Legislative Assemblies, as we have already mentioned, had seen in sales a means of enriching the middle classes at the cost of clergy and the nobility. As to the masses of the people, did not think much about them. Ready money being badly needed in the Exchequer, the national estates were sold recklessly, avec fureur, as Avenel says, in 1790 and 1791, to the middle class, or to the rich peasants — even to English and Dutch companies, which bought with an eye to speculation. And when the purchasers, who paid only 20 or even 12 per cent. of the whole price at the moment of purchase, had to pay the next instalment, they did all they could to avoid paying anything more, and very often they succeeded.

However, as the peasants who had been unable to obtain any of these lands were complaining bitterly, the Legislative Assembly, in August 1790, and later on, by the decree of June 11, 1793,[301] the communal lands — the only hope for the poorer peasant — were flung by the Convention to the better-off peasants as their prey.[302] The Convention promised also that the confiscated land of the émigrés should be divided into lots of one to four acres, to be sold to the poor for a perpetual which was to be paid in money, and could be redeemed at any time. It was even decreed, towards the end of 1792, that national lands to the amount of a thousand million livres worth, should be reserved for the sans-culotte volunteers who had enlisted in the armies, and be sold to them under favourable conditions. But nothing of the kind was done. This decree remained a dead lettet, just as hundreds of other decrees of those times.

And when Jacques Roux spoke before the Convention, on June 25, 1793 — less than four weeks after the rising of May 31 — denouncing stock-jobbing and demanding laws against the speculators, his speech was received with angry howls, and Roux himself was hooted out of the Convention.[303] Besides, as he attacked the “Mountain” in his speeches, and enjoyed a great influence in his own section, Les Gravilliers, as well as in the Cordeliers' Club, Robespierre, who never went near this club, visited it on the night of June 30, after the riots of the 25th and 27th directed against the soap merchants, in company with Hébert, Collot d'Herbols, and several others, as a delegation from the Jacobin Club, and they got Roux and his friend Varlet struck off the list of the Cordeliers.

From that day Robespierre never ceased slandering Jacques Roux. As this Cordelier-communist severely criticised the Revolution for having done nothing so far for the people, and would say occasionally in his criticisms — just as the socialists of our own day often do — that the people suffered more under he Republic than under monarchy, Robespierre, whenever he spoke of Roux, never failed to describe him as a “base priest” who had sold himself to the foreigners, a “scoundrel” who “endeavoured to excite baneful disturbances to injure the Republic.”

From June 1793, Jacques Roux might have considered himelf doomed. He was first accused of being the instigator of the riots against the soap merchants. Later on, in August, when he was publishing with Leclerc a paper, L'Ombre de Marat, Marat's widow was persuaded to prosecute him for using this title; and finally he was accused of having embezzled a small cheque which he had received for the Cordeliers' Club, while it is quite certain, as Michelet has said, that “disinterestedness was the special characteristic of these fanatics,” and that among all the well-known revolutionists, “Roux, Varlet, and Leclerc were distinguished as models of probity.” Roux' section of the Gravilliers vainly demanded from the Commune the abandonment of these prosecutions, offering that its members should give securities for him. The women revolutionists did likewise — and their club was suppressed by the Commune. Finally, he was released, but the prosecution was not stopped.

Full of indignation at the persistent persecutions, Roux and his friends went on the evening of August 19 to the Gravilliers section to which they belonged, and deprived the president and the secretaries of their offices. Roux was nominated president. Upon this, Hébert denounced Roux before the Jacobin Club, on the 21st, and when the matter was brought before the Council of the Commune, Chaumette accused him of “an attempt against the sovereignty of the people,” and spoke of capital punishment. Roux was prosecuted, but his section obtained from the Commune his release on August 25. The inquiry, however, was continued, and the charge of theft brought forward; so that on January 14, 1794 (23rd Nivôse), Roux was sent before a common police court.

This court declared itself incompetent to pronounce upon such serious indictments as those brought against Roux — meaning the affair of the Gravilliers section — and ordered him to be sent before the revolutionary tribunal. Knowing what that meant, Roux stabbed himself in court thrice with a knife. The president of the court hastened to his assistance and displayed much friendliness towards him, even giving him the kiss of civic brotherhood, before he was removed to the Bicêtre prison. In the prison infirmary Roux “tried to exhaust his strength,” as it was reported to the procurator of the Revolutionary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, by opening his wounds; and finally he succeeded in stabbing himself once more, this time mortally, through the lung. The record of the post-mortem is dated “1st Ventôse,” i.e., February 19, 1794.[304]

The people of Paris, especially in the sections of the centre of the city, understood now that their hopes of “practical equality” were over. Gaillard, a friend of Chalier, who had been kept by the Girondins in prison, at Lyons, during the siege, and who had come to Paris after Lyons had been taken by the Montagnards, also killed himself three weeks later, when he learned that Leclerc had been arrested together with Chaumette and the Hébertists.

In reply to all these demands of communism, and seeing that masses were abandoning the Revolution, as they found that little attention was paid to their demands, the Committee of Public Welfare issued on the 21st Ventôse (March 11, 1794), a circular, written in a pompous style and addressed to the comssioners of the Convention in the provinces. But the conclusions of both this high-flown circular and the famous speech pronounced two days later (23rd Ventôse) by Saint-Just, were very poor. The Convention offered nothing but charity — scanty charity — to be provided for the destitute by the State.

“A great blow was necessary to overthrow the aristocracy,” so the circular ran.” The Convention has struck it. Virtuous poverty must recover the property which criminals had taken away from it. . . . It is necessary that terror and justice should strike in all directions at the same time. The Revolution is the work of the people. It is time the people should enjoy its fruits” . . . and so on. But in reality the Convention did nothing in this direction. The decree of the 13th Ventôse Year II. (February 3, 1794), of which Saint-Just spoke in high-flown terms, amounted to this: Each commune was to make a list of its destitute “patriots” — and later on the Committee of Public Welfare would make a report to the Convention about the means of giving them certain compensation out of the esates of the enemies of the Revolution. They would be given full ownership of about one acre each.[305] As to the old people and the infirm, the Convention decided on the 22nd Floréal (May 11), to open for them a Book of National Charity, which both the old and the infirm peasants were to be registered for a yearly allowance of 160 livres (francs), the old or infirm artisans for 120 livres, and the old mothers and widows for 80 and 60 livres respectively.

It is hardly needful to say that this promised acre of land looked like mockery to the peasants. Moreover, apart from a few localities, the decree was never applied. Those who had seized nothing for themselves got nothing.

It must be added, however, that some of the Commisioners of the Convention, namely, Albitte, Collot d'Herbois, and Fouché at Lyons, Jeanbon Saint-Andre at Brest and Toulon, Romme in the Charente, had shown in 1793 a certain tendency towards socialising various commodities. And when the Convention decreed, on the 16th Nivôse, Year II. (January 5, 1794), that in towns besieged, blockaded or surrounded by the enemy, all materials, goods, and means of subsistence of all sorts, must be shared in common — “there was a tendency,” as M. Aulard says, “to apply this law to towns which were neither besieged nor blockaded, nor surrounded.”[306]

The Convention, or, to be more correct, its Committees of Public Welfare and Public Safety, certainly succeeded in suppressing in 1794 the communist manifestations. But the spirit of the revolution impelled the French nation towards such measures, and under the pressure of events a great work of levelling and an unmistakable display of the communist spirit took place, more or less, all over France, during Year II. of the Republic.[307]

Thus, on the 24th Brumaire, Year II. (November 14,1793), the representatives of the Convention at Lyons, Albitte, Collot d'Herbois and Fouché, passed a resolution, which even began to take effect, whereby all the infirm, the old, the orphans, and the destitute citizens had to be “lodged, clothed, and fed at the cost of the rich in their respective cantons.” Moreover, “labour, as well as the implements needful in their trades, had to be provided for the citizens capable of work.” The commodties placed at the disposal of the various citizens — wrote these commissioners in their circulars — must be in proportion to their labour, their diligence and the ardour they display in the service of the mother country. Many commissioners of the Convention passed similar resolutions. Thus Fouché levied heavy taxes on the rich to feed the poor. It is also certain — as M. Aulard says — that many commissioners had begun to practise collectivism, or, we should say, municipal communism.[308]

The idea that the State ought to take over the factories abandoned by their owners, and work them, was expressed more than once. Chaumette developed it in October 1793, when he demonstrated the bad effects of the law of the “maximum” upon certain industries; and Jeanbon Saint-André had taken into the hands of the Government a certain mine of Carhaix, in Brittany, in order to secure a living for the workers.

However, if certain of the representatives of the Convention in the provinces really took, in 1793 and 1794, equalitarian measures, and were inspired with the idea of “limitation of incomes,” the Convention itself remained a defender of the interests of the middle classes, and there must be some truth in the remark of Buonarotti, who wrote in 1842, that the fear of the Convention, lest Robespierre and his group should begin taking measures that would favour the equalitarian instincts of the people, contributed to the downfall of this group on the 9th Thermidor.


[301]^ See chap. xlviii.

[302]^ Most historians have described this measure as a favourable one to the peasants. In reality, it meant depriving the poorest of the sole inheritance which was left them. This is why the measure met with so much opposition when it came to its application.

[303]^ “It is the rich,” said Jacques Roux, “who have reaped for the last four years the advantages of the Revolutions; it is the merchant aristocracy, more terrible than the noble aristocracy, which oppresses us, and we do not see any limit to their extortions, for the price of goods is growing to an alarming extent. It is time that the death struggle between the selfish and the hard-working classes should come an end. . . . Are the possessions of knaves to be held more sacred than human life? The necessities of life must be at the disposition of administrative bodies, just as the armed forces are at their disposition.” Roux reproached the Convention with not having confiscated the fortunes acquired since the Revolution by the bankers and monopolists, and he said that the Convention having decreed “a forced loan of a thousand million livres to be levied upon the rich, the capitalist and the merchant will the next day raise this sum from the sans-culottes, thanks to the monopolies and the powers of extortion they will retain if the monopolies of commerce and forestalling are not destroyed.” He very clearly saw the danger of such conditions for the Revolution, when he said: “The stock-jobbers get possession of the factories, of the seaports, of every branch of commerce, of all produce of the land, and they cause the friends of justice to die of hunger, thirst and exposure, or else force them into the arms of despotism.” (I quote from the text of Roux' speech, found by Bernard Lazare, and communicated to Jaurès.)

[304]^ Jaurès, Histoire socialiste, La Convention, pp. 1698 and 1699.

[305]^ One arpent — a measure the size of which varied in different parts of France from one acre to one acre and a quarter.

[306]^ Histoire politique, chap. viii. ii.

[307]^ “This is why,” Aulard wrote, “one looks vainly for the appearance of socialist theories at this moment of severe repression. But the sum total of partial and empiric measures which are taken, of laws which are passed under the pressure of the moment, and of provisory institutions introduced by the revolutionary government, is bringing about a state of things which prepares men's minds, even though the voice of the socialists is not heard, for a social revolution, and begins a partial accomplishment of it.”

[308]^ Observations sur Maximilien Robespierre, in La Fraternité, journal mensuel exposant la doctrine de la communauté, No. 17, September 1842.

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