SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today issue 94, September 2005

‘Terror’ in the French revolution

The Terror: civil war in the French revolution

By David Andress

Little, Brown 2005, £20

Reviewed by

Peter Taaffe

THE TITLE of this book, The Terror, means that it would not be advisable to read it openly, perhaps, on the London Underground, in the prevailing atmosphere following the London bombings and the shoot-to-kill policy of the Metropolitan Police. However, the author, David Andress, deals not with modern terror or terrorists, be they ‘Moslem extremists’ or others, but with the events of the French Revolution, more than 200 years ago.

In fact, the term ‘terror’ then did not have the same meaning as today, where it describes small groups using indiscriminate violence against mostly innocent people. In the French Revolution, ‘terror’ meant the use of mass force by the contending forces of revolution and counter-revolution. The ‘terror’ of the revolutionaries was, in the main, reactive to that of the feudal and royalist counter-revolutionary terror.

Although it took place more than 200 years ago, this revolution and the great figures who participated in it are still the subject of great controversy between left and right, concepts that grew out of the French Revolution itself. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the orgy of right-wing pro-capitalist propaganda – extending inevitably into all spheres of knowledge including history itself – there was a sustained assault on the French Revolution. A major target was the alleged heartless violence and bloodthirsty terror unleashed by the revolution and particularly pursued by the Jacobins and the sans culottes, the motive force in the heroic period of the revolution.

In the post-1989 atmosphere books such as Citizens, by the British historian Simon Schama, held sway. Schama claimed to stand on the European ‘left’ but nevertheless wrote: "I am very bleak about 1789". He ‘deplored’ the violence of the revolution: "In some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was the revolution itself". It is gratifying, therefore, to read David Andress’s rejection of Schama’s statements in his introduction: "But this is simply not good enough". We were of the same opinion in 1989 and that is why we produced the book The Masses Arise – The Great French Revolution 1789-1815 (which will be reprinted in the next period).

Some of the new material contained in Andress’s book is a vindication of the socialist and Marxist analysis of the great events of the revolution. In fact, Andress claims to redress the balance in his treatment of the revolution compared to Schama’s and particularly on the numbers of those killed, especially through the measures of the revolutionaries.

To some extent, he succeeds in this task. He points out, for instance: "France’s decade of revolutionary strife was easily matched by the years of warfare in North America between the mid-1770s and mid-1780s. Of the colonies’ 2.5 million inhabitants, one in every twenty-five fled abroad, far exceeding the proportion that left France during her Revolution". He further states: "The crude numbers of dead in the wars and repression of the French Revolution – a half-million or more – are more horrific in their scale, but, in proportion to a population more than ten times greater, little worse than the American example". Moreover, in contrast to the revolt of the colonials in America, the French revolutionaries set their sights to "overturn… an entire social order, and to do so with virtually all of Europe in arms against them. What is astonishing is not so much that they tried but that, in a very real sense, they succeeded. When the French Revolution was over, the world was a very different place". He correctly states that "the French Revolution’s impact was so deep-seated that simply turning the clock back had become impossible".

In a refreshing aside, he comments: "Socialism, too, was a child of the French Revolution. Intellectually, Karl Marx derived his entire picture of historical progress from liberal writers who saw in the revolution the inevitable rise of the bourgeoisie". Less acceptable, however, is Andress’s failure to deal with Gracchus Babeuf, the father of ‘communism’. Babeuf’s ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ developed in the downswing of the revolution, in the last act, so to speak, when the proletariat of Paris had been exhausted by the preceding struggles. (See Gracchus Babeuf: Communist Pioneer, in Socialism Today No.18). It was doomed to inevitable defeat but, nevertheless, this vital episode in the revolution is a bridge from the plebeian sans-culottes to the modern socialist and Marxist movement. Andress does not even touch on Babeuf and the struggles of his comrades such as Darthé and Buonarotti, who stood for a communist organisation of society.

This book is nevertheless useful, drawing on the latest historical research and providing some new facts and insights into the processes of the revolution and the main actors in this drama, such as Robespierre and Danton, as well as the leaders of the sans-culottes such as Hébert and many others. Unlike some other historians, who previously questioned France’s need for a revolution in 1789, Andress conclusively demonstrates that it was vital in order to clear the ground of the remnants of feudalism, which were a huge obstacle to the further development of French society. He also provides a graphic description of Paris on the eve of the revolution and the social composition of the different faubourgs (suburbs).

The information on the Jacobins – in effect, the political party of the most determined capitalists or bourgeois – on the background of the leading Jacobin figures such as Robespierre – who were lawyers in the main – and Danton is very clear. Also, the description of the role of the sans culottes, the ‘popular societies’ and their decisive intervention at each stage in the upswing of the revolution, while not new, is welcome. This is particularly so when set against the background of the denunciation of the plebeian masses of Paris and France by royalist calumniators of the time and bourgeois writers since, despite the fact that the actions of the sans-culottes were decisive in clearing the ground of the feudal rubbish, which in turn allowed the development of French capitalism.

On the issue of the terror – the central theme of the book – as opposed to authors like Schama, Andress states: "The descent into terror was not brought about by ruthless leaders striking out at helpless victims, but by men who feared their own immolation driven… by the real threat of aristocratic vengeance". He further states: "In resorting to Terror, the revolutionaries preserved their country from the consequences of that disintegration, and went on to forge a military power that was to dominate Europe for twenty years". As opposed to Schama, who laments the ‘bloodthirsty’ character of the storming of the Bastille, Andress points out that while the governor of the Bastille was executed, a hundred Parisians had been shot down by the troops of this very governor. Further episodes of violence by the revolutionary forces arose from the ganging up of old Europe, led by William Pitt’s Britain, against the Revolution. Friedrich Engels later commented: "The whole French Revolution was dominated by the War of the Coalition, all its pulsations depended upon it".

The rise and fall of different trends – called factions by Robespierre – was also conditioned by the attempt to mollify the counter-revolution, both internally and externally. First of all the Feuillants – who stood for a constitutional monarchy – then the Girondins representing the big bourgeois and Danton, the representative of the so-called ‘Indulgents’, those who wished to come to a compromise with the king and the counter-revolution, all fell because of the determination of the revolutionary forces to extirpate, internally and externally, the threat from these sources. Although this process has been described many times by historians like Georges Lefebvre, Andress spells out the essence of each stage of the revolution. He does not always draw the necessary general conclusions, however, largely being a representative of the English historical school of empiricism.

But he is very clear on the so-called ‘September massacres’ of 1792. As he points out, "The story of the massacres is inseparable from the consequences of the earlier 10 August insurrection. This rising had cost the lives of some six hundred troops loyal to the king… But in return, some three hundred Parisians, from forty-four of the forty-eight Sections of the city, had been killed or wounded, along with nearly ninety of their fédéré comrades from other regions". Those who executed the imprisoned royalist prisoners did so because "disposing of the baleful influence of the court… still left Paris balanced on a knife-edge… Paris faced the need to send its own men out to meet [the counter-revolutionary invasion], while leaving behind a counter-revolutionary prison population that rumour elevated to many thousands". These ‘massacres’, as with other examples of the ‘Terror’ of the revolution, were more than matched by royalist and counter-revolutionary terror. Andress points out: "Since 1789, the ordinary people had shown that they had learned the lessons of the public display of death well from their erstwhile masters".

While this book gives examples of the influence of the sans culottes, their role as the driving force of the revolution is not emphasised sufficiently, particularly their demands for ‘direct democracy’, economic demands including the imposition of the so-called ‘maximum’, a limiting of prices but also of wages, and attacks on the ‘selfish rich’. On the other hand, the relationship between Robespierre and the sans-culottes is explained, including his turning on his plebeian base with the execution of Hébert and others, which disillusioned the masses and laid the basis for Robespierre’s overthrow. In fact, the very day before Robespierre’s fall from power, workers had gathered to protest at the ‘maximum on wages’.

The key factor, however, in Robespierre’s downfall was the military victory in June 1794 at Fleurus. Engels later pointed out, "Once the frontiers had been safeguarded, thanks to military victories, and after the destruction of the ‘frenzied Commune’ (the execution of the Hébertists, etc)… Terror outlived itself as a weapon of the revolution". Robespierre was at the height of his powers but, says Engels, "henceforth terror became a means of self-preservation for him and thus it was reduced to an absurdity". In this situation, the ‘Plain’, the majority of uncommitted delegates in the National Convention, united with the right to topple Robespierre.

While Andress tries to give a fairly objective defence of the revolution’s repression of counter-revolution, he is inconsistent. He writes: "The problem of the Terror was that its unrelenting quest to preserve and protect the fragile flower of personal liberty was also the engine of destruction of that very thing. What use is liberty, after all, unless one can dissent?" The problem is that during a revolution – a civil war – the forces of counter-revolution never ‘dissent’ in a ‘peaceful’ fashion as is shown by the experiences of all revolutions, both bourgeois – the English and French revolutions – as well as the October socialist revolution in Russia. Having lost power through a popular uprising, it is the counter-revolution that invariably resorts to ‘terror’ in order to restore the status quo. Forceful measures by the revolutionary state are sometimes required during a civil war. However, the revolutionaries, as in the Russian Revolution, always considered them as temporary. Once the counter-revolution is defeated then liberty and democracy should be restored. That this did not happen immediately in France once the revolution was secured arose from the continuing ganging up of Europe against it and the inevitable economic dislocation, as well as the unstable relationship of class forces.

The author is incapable of really describing all the different stages of the revolution because he remains within a bourgeois frame of reference. He argues: "This focus on the ‘Frenchness’ of the terrorists can, ironically for us, obscure their wider significance, just as the later insistence by twentieth-century Marxist scholars that the Revolution was all about class struggle can make it seem irrelevant in a post-Soviet world". On the contrary, only through the analytical tools of Marxism, above all through making a class analysis, is it possible to make sense of the seemingly chaotic processes of revolution, particularly of the French Revolution itself. Marx and Engels, as well as Lenin and Trotsky, prepared for the socialist revolution with an assiduous study of the events of the Great French Revolution. The modern generation should do likewise. Taken together with other Marxist works, this book can provide a useful basis for stimulating an interest in understanding the French Revolution, in order to prepare for the struggle for the socialist transformation of Britain and the world in the twenty-first century.

When the descendants of the working class in France moved in their millions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they returned to the inspiration of the giants of the French revolution. Only through the mighty labours of the Parisian sans-culottes was the ground cleared for the development of industry and capitalist society, the working class and the mighty modern labour movement. The sans-culottes were not working class in the modern senses of the term. But in every sense, the working-class movement today stands on their sturdy shoulders. They yearned and struggled mightily for a society in which privation would be abolished. The material means were not at hand 200 years ago. But the development of the productive forces since then makes it possible to abolish poverty, environmental destruction and misery from the whole planet. In forging the political weapons to create such a world, the working class today, and not just in France but throughout the world, could enormously benefit from studying the French Revolution and the role of the masses in this mighty event.


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