PARIS IN THE TERROR, JUNE 1793-JULY 1794, STANLEY LOOMIS, J.B. LIPPINCOTT, NEW YORK, 1964
This year marks the 223rd anniversary of the beginning of the Great French Revolution with storming of the Bastille. An old Chinese Communist leader, Zhou Enlai, was asked by a reporter to sum up the important lessons of the French Revolution. In reply he answered that it was too early to tell what those lessons might be. Whether that particular story is true or not it does contain one important truth. Militants today at the beginning of the 21st century can still profit from reading the history of that revolution.
The French Revolution, like its predecessor the American Revolution, is covered with so much banal ceremony, flag- waving, unthinking sunshine patriotism and hubris it is hard to see the forest for the trees. The Bastille action while symbolically interesting is not where the real action took place nor was it politically the most significant event. For militants that comes much later with the rise of the revolutionary tribunals and the Committee of Public Safety under the leadership of the left Jacobins Robespierre and Saint Just. Although the revolution began in 1789 its decisive phases did not take place until the period under discussion in this review, that is from June 1793 with the expulsion of the (for that time moderate) Gironde deputies from the National Convention. That event ushered in the rule of extreme Jacobins under Robespierre and Saint Just through the vehicle of the Committee of Public Safety. That regime, the Republic of Virtue, as it is known to militants since that time and known as the Great Terror to the author of the book under review and countless others, lasted until July 1794. It was in turn ousted by a more moderate Jacobin regime (known historically as the Themidorian Reaction, a subject of fascination and discussion by militants, especially the Bolsheviks, ever since).
Robespierre’s and Saint Just’s overthrow in 1794 stopped the forward progression of the revolution although it did not return it back to the old feudal society. The forces unleashed by the revolution, especially among the land hungry peasantry, made that virtually impossible. In short, as has happened before in revolutionary history, the people and programs which supported the forward advancement of the revolution ran out of steam. The careerists, opportunists and those previously standing on the sidelines took control until they too ran out of steam. Then, not for the first or last time, the precarious balance of the different forces in society clashed and called out for a strongman. Napoleon Bonaparte was more than willing to be obliging when that time came.
Mr. Loomis takes great pains to disassociate himself not just from the excesses of the period (the executions) but seemingly the whole notion of democratic revolution at that time. He essentially favors a constitutional monarchy, and let the revolution stop there. In short, a regime run by a Lafayette-type- but with brains. Great revolutions, however, do not go halfway, despite the best laid plans of humankind. That said, why would militants read this book which paints everyone to the left of the most moderate Girondists as some kind of monster or at least an accomplice? If militants only read pro-revolutionary tracts then they are missing an important part of their education- the fight against patented bourgeois mystification of events. The terror in Paris is a question that needs to be dealt with critically by us while we defend the members of the Committee of Public Safety in their efforts to defend France against internal hostile elements of the old regime and the counterrevolutionary Europe powers. And at the same time defend the Committee’s program of social democracy initiated in order to maintain their base among the sans-culottes.
That said, every place Mr. Loomis places a minus we do not necessarily place a plus. We need to do our own sifting out of revolutionaries from the pretenders. Mlle. Corday by all accounts was a royalist at heart before she murdered Marat. Marat was by all accounts a fanatic. You cannot, however, make a revolution without theses types. A combat-type revolutionary party, if such a party existed in Paris at the time which this writer does not believe did exist, would rein a Marat in. Danton is still an equivocal character who wanted to stop the revolution at his threshold. A Danton-Robespierre political bloc could have carried the revolution over some tough spots. That was not to be. The fault lies in the personality of Robespierre.
Moreover, the execution of the leading Hebertists was a serious mistake, as it weakened the Committee’s base of support among the sans-culottes.Robespierre and Saint Just are portrayed here as little more than monsters. But without those two figures the contours of the revolution would have been different, if it had survived the Coalition military forces arrayed against it at all. The question of the military defense of the revolution and its requirements domestically takes short shrift in Mr. Loomis’s account. That is the book’s abiding error. Robespierre headed the key administrative component of that defense. Saint Just was instrumental in the military aspect of that defense. One can rightly ask, with the possible exception of Carnot, who else could have organized that defense? One should moreover note that a revolution brings the fore all kinds of personalities, not all of them as well- adjusted as modern humankind (sic) - it however, can never be reduced solely to that factor. Thus, militants should look for other sources elsewhere in order to find ammunition in defense of Robespierre and Saint Just. Apparently, according to Mr. Loomis and others, they are in need of defending. Nevertheless, they are worthy of honor in any militant’s pantheon. Enough said.
Labels: french revolution