[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 25, Summer 1998]


France (1789-94):
The Mother of Revolutions

Thomas Harrison


THE BICENTENNIAL OF 1789 OCCASIONED CONSIDERABLE HOOPLA in France and a great deal of attention on this side of the Atlantic too. The anniversary dates marking the fall of the monarchy and the foundation of the First Republic, however, seem to have gone largely unnoticed. The reasons are not hard to find. Perhaps never in the two centuries since the fall of the Bastille has the Revolution's reputation sunk as low as it stands today. The work of an influential school of "revisionist" historians in France, led by the late François Furet, as well as the best-selling Citizens by the American historian Simon Schama, have lent intellectual respectability to the longstanding popular image of the Revolution, especially in the English-speaking world (one thinks of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities), as predominantly a blood-spattered orgy of mindless violence. And in the current political climate, revolutionary activity of any kind possesses little romance or credibility. The three books under review, each in different ways, remind us that the Mother of Revolutions was a gigantic leap forward for human dignity. The poor were defeated in the end, but not before they had demonstrated a capacity to act in behalf of their own liberation such as history had never seen before.

From 1789 on, the French Revolution contained two currents: the bourgeois leadership, consisting mostly of lawyers, journalists and office-holders, and the popular movement of the poor -- wage-earners, artisans, shop-keepers, the so-called sans-culottes. For a time, they marched together, but their objectives were always essentially different. Furet insisted that the emergence of the popular movement as a semi-independent force in 1792-93 brought about a dérapage (a sliding or skidding off course) of the Revolution itself, regrettable and unnecessary after the great achievements of 1789 and the moderate compromise of the constitutional monarchy.

But the liberal revolution of 1789 was a failure. The famous night of August 4, 1789, in which aristocratic and clerical members of the Constituent Assembly vied with each other to renounce their ancient "rights" to exploit the peasantry, did not free the peasants from feudal exactions; they were saddled with redemption payments until 1793, when, during Furet's "aberrant" phase of the Revolution, the Convention eliminated them. Under the Constitution of 1791, the King's passive resistance, use of the veto and inept but persistent plotting made government unworkable; after Louis's flight to Varennes, the monarchists in the Legislative Assembly tried to cover up his obvious treason and shield him from popular anger. And finally, in 1792, the Assembly launched France into a war that it did not know how to win.

On August 10, 1792, those designated as "passive" citizens and denied the vote by the Constitution of 1791, most of them illiterate, many seldom sober, took matters into their own hands by storming the Tuileries palace and literally driving Louis from his throne. That night, the Legislative Assembly reluctantly suspended the monarchy, after which half its members fled Paris. The Assembly's rump dissolved itself and called new elections, by universal male suffrage, to a National Convention. This was no dérapage, but the final break with the Old Regime, after three years of delay and compromise. In the process, France briefly achieved the closest thing to a democracy that the world had seen since Periclean Athens -- that is, until it was throttled by the dictatorship of Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety.

But if the popular movement was the motor that pulled the Revolution out of the ditch and put it back on course, that road was fraught with danger for the bourgeoisie. While the sans-culottes had only a vague class consciousness, their instincts were anti-bourgeois and their methods and program were antithetical to bourgeois rule. As the crisis of subsistence worsened, their anger focused on the hoarders and speculators who enriched themselves at the expense of the poor, and at the politicians who preached the dogmas of free trade and the inviolability of private property. Their demands for government regulation of the economic system -- price controls, for example, and the repression of hoarding -- pointed toward nationalization of the trade in grain and other necessities. Moreover, sans-culotte activists, functioning through the sectional assemblies, political clubs and popular societies of Paris, tended to reject representative government and parliamentary sovereignty in favor of the direct rule of a permanently mobilized citizenry.

THE BULK OF MORRIS SLAVIN'S BOOK1 IS DEVOTED to a very loosely associated group of sans-culotte spokespersons: the Enragés and the Society of Revolutionary and Republican Women. Slavin has read widely in the French archives, and he has dug especially deeply in the records of the Section Droits de l'Homme in Paris' Marais district. Until the eve of the August 10 insurrection, Droits de l'Homme (then still named Roi de Sicile) seems to have been evenly divided over the question of the monarchy. The section quickly came under radical control, however, after the Duke of Brunswick's threatening manifesto intensified the growing agitation for a republic. The attack on the Tuileries was organized by an extraordinary commission created by the sections, bypassing and eventually replacing the Commune (Paris' municipal government), and once the Convention was elected the leaders of the "popular" sections continued to regard it with suspicion.

For almost a year after the fall of the monarchy, Slavin shows, the Enragés played a critical role in articulating and shaping the demands of the popular movement. Unlike the Jacobins, they were highly critical of parliamentarism and rejected laissez-faire economics. Unlike the Hébertistes, a gang of venal demagogues holding offices in the Commune, whose mouthpiece was Jacques-René Hébert's scurrilous paper, the Père Duchesne, they were not careerists.

Slavin's book contains chapters on each of the Enragé leaders. Jacques Roux, perhaps the most well known, was a "constitutional" priest (he had defied the Church hierarchy by taking the oath required by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy) whose parish was one of the poorest in Paris and a leader of the Gravilliers section. Roux was an outspoken advocate of terror against the bourgeois who speculated in the assignats, France's debased currency, and hoarded foodstuffs while they held out for famine prices. He regularly blasted not only the King and Lafayette and the Girondin leaders Brissot and Roland, but Robespierre too.

Jean Varlet was a street-corner agitator who quit the Jacobin club in 1792, saying it had turned into a debating society, and became active in the sections. He called for a republic based on the mandat impératif (specific instructions by electors for their deputies), the right to recall, and direct election of all public functionaries. The central committee of the sections, which began to meet at the Evêché, the former palace of the Archbishop, in October 1792, became almost a rival authority to the Convention and, for Varlet, a prototype of direct democracy. When in March and April 1793 the treason of General Dumouriez prompted widespread demands for a new insurrection, he played a prominent role in the events that eventually culminated on May 31-June 2, when crowds of sans-culottes invaded the Convention and forced the arrest of the Girondins.

Afterward, Varlet insisted that the real program of the Evêché was the dispersal of the Convention as a whole; Slavin is skeptical, however, and believes the claim reflects Varlet's later disillusionment during the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety. Certainly, though, the leaders of the Mountain -- the radical wing of the Convention -- and Robespierre especially, feared precisely this outcome, and they maneuvered frantically to divert the sans-culottes from an attack on the Convention itself toward the demand for a "purge" instead. Convening a rival assembly of the sections at their club, the leaders of the Mountain stacked the insurrectionary committee and took the leadership out of the hands of Varlet and the other sectional activists.

From the Jacobins' point of view, the insurrection of May 31 had been a close call. Almost immediately afterward, they began a campaign to domesticate the sections and crush the Enragés. Roux, in particular, was subjected to a torrent of vilification. He was a leader in the call for a General Maximum, which the Jacobins reluctantly accepted, but he also denounced the Law of Suspects and the Revolutionary Tribunal, which made a mockery of due process. Varlet called the Committee of Public Safety a "Capet of nine heads in place of the one who is no more." In return, Roux was labeled an agent of William Pitt (the British prime minister) and an inciter to pillage and class warfare, not only by Robespierre but also by Marat, which seems to have wounded and bewildered him deeply. After a series of imprisonments and humiliations, he committed suicide. Varlet and the other Enragés, likewise accused of being in the pay of England or Austria, were repeatedly menaced, imprisoned, and systematically driven out of political life. By September, the sections as a whole had been taken in hand -- their meetings restricted to five hours, twice a week, they lost the ability to respond quickly to emergencies; a new 40 sous indemnity enabled the Jacobin machine to fill them with paid hand-raisers.

When Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe founded the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women in May, 1793, they were already well known as fighters for full citizenship rights for women, including the right to bear arms. The Society actively participated in the uprising of May 31-June 2. Once the Maximum became law, its members policed the markets, looking for violations of the price controls. To the Jacobins and Hébertistes, who were, if anything, even more misogynist than the Girondins and moderates, the women's politics of confrontation and surveillance was intolerable. Their opportunity to strike back came in October, when the Society became embroiled in clashes with the market women of Les Halles. When Léon and Lacombe appealed to the Convention, Fabre d'Eglantine denounced them as "emancipated prostitutes" and "amazon she-animals." André Amar declared definitively that women could not exercise political rights or take part in the affairs of government: "Women are disposed by their constitutions to an over-excitation which would be deadly in public affairs" and "are ill-suited for elevated thoughts and serious meditations." The Convention decreed a ban on women's clubs and societies.

FRANÇOIS-NOËL BABEUF (he later changed his first name to Gracchus) was before the Revolution a feudiste, a keeper of manorial rolls, in Picardy. Babeuf embraced the Revolution whole-heartedly and moved to Paris, but his response to unfolding events was always critical and often uncertain. Ian Birchall shows2 how Babeuf developed an increasingly radical definition of democracy as the continuous supervision and accountability of elected officials. He did not join the Jacobins, finding their membership too bourgeois, but nor, curiously, in view of their similar conceptions of democracy, does he seem to have had anything to do with the Enragés -- perhaps because he was already moving beyond their advocacy of controlled private enterprise toward an understanding that democracy can be meaningful only in a society based on collectivized property. With the advent of the Terror, Babeuf became extremely critical of Jacobin authoritarianism and violence; so much so that he initially welcomed Thermidor for ridding France of the tyrant Robespierre.

Babeuf soon went into opposition against the new regime, however. With his most important collaborators, Filippo Buonarroti and Sylvain Maréchal, he set up the Panthéon Club, an organizing center for the overthrow of the Directory and the implementation of the democratic Constitution of 1793 (suspended by the Convention shortly after it was ratified). Driven underground, they formed the Conspiracy of the Equals, a secret group advocating the common ownership of property, and continued to plan a coup d'ètat.

Babeuf and his co-conspirators were arrested in May 1796. Their show trial lasted 14 weeks, and was considerably fairer and more lenient than one they would have received under Louis XVI or Robespierre -- the defendants were even allowed to sing revolutionary songs in court. Babeuf denied the fact of conspiracy -- Birchall claims that he wanted to ensure the survival of as many of the Equals as possible -- but in a moving speech that extended over five days he defended the right to revolt against tyranny. Insisting that not only he and his comrades but also the Revolution was on trial, he argued that the true purpose of the Revolution was to abolish inequality and assure "common happiness" (a phrase from the Constitution of 1793). The Revolution had not been completed; the wealthy had diverted it to their own use, while poverty deepened.

Most of the defendants were acquitted, and even Buonarroti escaped the death penalty. But on May 27, 1797, Babeuf went to the guillotine. For all the power of his defense, Babeuf's speech was permeated with pessimism, the realization that the masses were not with him and had even turned to royalism. The idea of revolutionary socialism, of socialism brought about by organized political action, can be said to have been introduced by Babeuf, but it went underground for another 30 years. It was not until Marx and Engels, however, that the socialist idea was linked to the possibility of democratic agency.

IN A VERY INTERESTING AND USEFUL SECTION OF HIS BOOK, Birchall traces the historical interpretations of Babeuf over the past two centuries. The most influential interpreter was undoubtedly Buonarroti, who published his own account in 1828. Having by this time become a fanatical admirer of Robespierre, Buonarroti tried to blur Babeuf's differences with the Jacobin leader, a fact duly noted by Birchall who argues further that Buonarroti gave the conspiracy an overly authoritarian cast, in retrospect. Birchall wants to situate Babeuf firmly within the tradition of "socialism from below," and he takes issue with Hal Draper, who, in "The Two Souls of Socialism" and his multi-volume study of Marxism, assigns Babeuf, rather, to the tradition of Auguste Blanqui and Mikhail Bakunin -- a tradition that has eschewed mass democratic struggle in favor of putschist action by dedicated bands of revolutionaries.

How democratic was Babeuf? The Equals promised to convoke the "primary assemblies" called for by the 1793 Constitution, but only after a "transitional period" during which they would be in control and the masses would be "prepared" to exercise their rights. The people were judged, reasonably enough, to be too demoralized, but also too ideologically corrupted, to make their own revolution -- not just then, but for the indefinite future. Buonarroti was explicit:

[A] people whose opinions were formed in a regime of inequality and despotism is quite unsuitable, at the beginning of a regenerative revolution, to indicate by its votes the men who have the responsibility of guiding it and carrying it through. This difficult task can belong only to wise and courageous citizens who...have freed themselves from prejudices and common vices...Perhaps it is necessary, at the birth of a political revolution,...[to make] supreme authority fall into wise and strongly revolutionary hands in a manner that is as little arbitrary as possible.

This was written long after the event, but it seems a fair summary of the Babouvistes' approach. Birchall's efforts to minimize its rather obvious authoritarian content, on the other hand, seem strained. Despite his insistence that the conspirators widely publicized their intentions, and that they counted on the participation of several thousand supporters once the insurrection was launched, it is clear that the Equals expected the masses to play a passive role. It is also clear that most of them were convinced of their right to wield authority: significantly, the "secret directory" rejected a draft manifesto by Màrechal because of a sentence that called for the erasure of the distinction "between ruler and ruled."

AFTER YEARS OF TREMENDOUS EFFORTS AND HIGH HOPES, followed by betrayal and repression under the Jacobins, Thermidoreans and the Directory, the sans-culottes were politically prostrate; it would take decades for the masses to recover their nerve and for a new popular movement to emerge. Babeuf cannot be blamed for failing to see that he stood at the beginning of an epoch in which bourgeois society would generate ever greater crises and forces of opposition, that there was no reason for despair. At the same time, he had seen at first hand the creative possibilities of upheaval from below. No more than any sans-culotte was he immune to the "ideologically corrupting" effects of pessimism and political frustration.

By conceiving of a communal society based on abundance, Babeuf had brilliantly surpassed the Enragés, who could only imagine an equality of consumers brought about by price controls and other economic restrictions. Politically, however, the Enragés were closer to authentic democracy: in their vision, popular assemblies would decide everything; officials, leaders, were to be their subordinates, subject to permanent supervision and recall; all discussions and debates would be public, with participation and speaking ones mind a civic duty.

CITY OF DARKNESS, CITY OF LIGHT3 IS A NOVEL, but it is also an excellent guide to the politics of the Revolution. Piercy presents the life stories of six historical figures, organized in 3-4-page chronologically overlapping chapters: Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, Manon Roland (née Philipon), Nicolas de Condorcet, Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe. Basing herself mostly on the historical record, she has also had to fill in her characters' lives by imagining -- quite convincingly, I think -- what we don't know about them. The narrative often seems too hurried, the dialogue flat and anachronistic, and the characters psychologically sketchy. Still, Piercy has superb political instincts and a deft feel for what really mattered in the Revolution's various complicated and often murky turns and permutations. Moreover, she is obviously determined to see the Revolution "from below," including from the point of view of women, and to make these perspectives central to her novel, despite the paucity of documentary evidence that would enable us to know in any detail what people like Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe were thinking, feeling and doing. In this, I believe she has largely succeeded; her novel is an impressive feat of political imagination.

Léon and Lacombe, the only ones to survive the Revolution, are clearly the closest to Piercy's heart. The novel opens in Lacombe's wretched village in southwest France with Claire's grandmother praising her for fighting back against an abusive brother: "Always fight hard when you fight. Don't be afraid of hurting the man. He isn't afraid of hurting you." It ends in 1812 with Claire and Pauline, sitting with Claire's lover Victoire, in the courtyard of a farmhouse in Beaujolais, reminiscing: "Still," Pauline says, "I remember and I make sure my daughters know, it was old biddies like we are now and young women who brought the King down. We were the Revolution, ladies, and we carry it in our blood to the future." In between, Piercy not only traces the careers of these two extraordinary women but also highlights the truly decisive role played by many thousands of women in the Revolution, both in the streets and in the salons.

CLAIRE BECOMES AN ACTRESS, A PROFESSION IN WHICH "women got to talk as much as the men." She lives a hardscrabble but free life, choosing her sexual partners and refusing to marry. Pauline runs a chocolate shop in one of Paris' poorest neighborhoods. As a child, she knows hunger, takes part in bread riots and witnesses horrific public executions. (Piercy's graphic descriptions of people tortured, hanged and broken on the wheel serve to remind us of the fantastic cruelty that was official policy and routine occurrence under the Old Regime; they help us understand the retaliatory aspect -- and relative mildness -- of popular violence during the Revolution, and also why the guillotine could reasonably be seen as a humane reform.) Both women are thoroughly immersed in the sans-culottes world, organizers and leaders, public figures in every sense, supported by networks of friends and comrades -- mostly women.

Manon, by contrast, the convent-educated daughter of a master engraver, learns "manners" from her grandmother, a former governess to the children of a boorish aristocrat, whose rudeness when the grandmother takes Manon to meet her is one of the most sharply etched scenes in the novel. Ambitious and suspicious of other women, her goal is to be the wife of an important man and wield power through him. Eventually she marries a dull but talented bureaucrat, Jean Roland; writing his papers and speeches, she is at first content to be a "Rousseau woman," nurturing and modest, but the Revolution enables her to climb, carefully and with discretion, over the walls of her marriage, to make connections with influential politicians, and ultimately to play a leading role in the Girondin inner circle.

The men are no less vividly rendered. Danton, sensual and unprincipled, hungry for money and success, tries to make it as a lawyer in Paris without connections or background; for him the Revolution is an opportunity to make his mark and enrich himself in the process. Condorcet, a marquis and mathematician, one of the last of the philosophes, works in the reforming ministry of Turgot, whose failure in the face of the Court's blind conservatism leads him to welcome the Revolution. Robespierre, eldest child of a provincial lawyer who abandoned his family and of a mother who dies in childbirth, grows up with a painful sense of responsibility and marginality. As a young barrister in Arras, he learns: "There was one law for the nobles and the rich and another for the poor. When the poor came into court, punishment was automatic. They would die or go the galleys, for the crime of being accused. It was a matter of making an example of someone who did not count."

MAX, NICOLAS, GEORGES, MANON ALL SYMPATHIZE WITH THE POOR, but from varying degrees of distance. Claire and Pauline are the poor. Pauline is with the crowd that attacks the Bastille. Like all the other journées depicted in the novel, the event is seen from the crowd's point of view; in this Piercy can be read as a sort of anti-Schama, since Citizens consistently treats the same events with unbridled hostility toward the poor, invariably portrayed as bestial louts. For Piercy, the violence of the people is always a response to the violence of the authorities: the Swiss guards at the Bastille shoot down 100 demonstrators trapped in an inner courtyard; they are in turn killed and mutilated by the enraged friends and families of the victims; Schama, characteristically, emphasizes the mutilations but not what provoked them.

Claire and Pauline both take part in the demonstration of June 20, 1792, when crowds of sans-culottes march through the Legislative Assembly and break into the Tuileries palace. Carrying banners, flowers, ears of corn and the boughs of trees, as well as weapons,

they swept through the streets like a summer wind...People who had spent their whole lives limping from crisis to crisis, just trying to get through another day, to save a sick child or a starving mother, now saw a way forward. For the first time, they were experiencing imagination in their own lives, that all need not continue as it had been. The future had been something only the religious contemplated, death and reward beyond that opaque barrier. The idea of a future that could be shaped was a new intoxication.

For Schama, though, the whole thing was simply anarchic, perverse and grotesque; it ended with the humiliation of the King, who was forced to stand in front of the crowd, don the red cap and drink wine from a goatskin; it is only the monarch's "courage" and "dignity" under these circumstances that Schama finds appealing.

For Piercy, it is the women's experience of community, hope and trust in each other that matters. She does not romanticize political activism or the lives of the poor. Pauline, Claire and the others must endure the tedium of endless meetings, suffer the terrors of repression and the heartbreak of betrayal by political allies, shadowed always by hunger and cold, the sheer physical torments of poverty. But they are the only ones whose personal experience enables them to glimpse the democratic possibilities of ordinary people.

With all its ambiguity, the insurrection of May 31, 1793 -- not the official Terror a few months later -- marked the high tide of Parisian radicalism, especially for the militant women of the sans-culottes. Thousands of Claire's and Pauline's followers converged on the Convention and forced the delegates to vote the expulsion of 22 Girondins. Within a very short time, however, it became clear, at least to the leaders of the women and the Enragés, that they had been used by the Jacobins, who managed to divert the popular movement toward a mere purge of the Convention. "Giving the people price controls with one hand and taking their power away with the other," says Piercy, Robespierre cut the ground from under the radicals.

WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF THE SANS-CULOTTES had dispersed the entire Convention? The question is impossible to answer, of course. The radical republicanism of the Mountain was probably as far as the Revolution could go, given the existing balance of social forces and, fundamentally, the impossibility of eradicating poverty at the end of the 18th century. Perhaps there needn't have been such a shattering break in the development of organization and consciousness. If the Enragés had maintained themselves as a group, if Babeuf had concentrated on creating a center for theoretical and educational work instead of forming a conspiracy to seize state power...

In any case, the popular movement seems to have had a clearer sense of politics as "the art of the possible," that tired old shibboleth, than their opponents. Its leaders were able to gauge the mood of the masses, to rally them for finite gains like the abolition of the monarchy, the vote (for men) and lower bread prices. Some of these gains proved ephemeral, but examples and precedents were set. If Piercy is right, Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe never tried to preempt the revolutionary process; they knew when they were beaten and tried to make the best of it.

By contrast, the monumentally incompetent Girondins, with their bloody threats against Paris, agitation in the provinces, and furious attempts to undermine the trial and punishment of the King, made government impossible. And while the Mountain understood better than they that compromise with the sans-culottes was unavoidable for a time, under the Terror their leaders too became more and more detached from reality. By the time of their fall, Robespierre and St. Just were living in a fantasy world filled with images from ancient Sparta and the Roman Republic. The French, they believed, could be forced to be "virtuous." Not only active resistance but also passivity and non-cooperation were to be punished. Eventually the state, they hoped, would take all children over six away from their parents to be turned into proper citizens. This proto-totalitarianism is no legacy for a democratic and revolutionary left today.


  1. Morris Slavin, The Left and the French Revolution, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1995. return

  2. Ian H. Birchall, The Spectre of Babeuf, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997. return

  3. Marge Piercy, City of Darkness, City of Light, New York, Fawcett Columbine, 1996 return.


THOMAS HARRISON is a member of the New Politics editorial board.


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