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Gareth Jenkins

The birth of revolution

(July 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review 121, July/August 1989, pp. 12–17.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution occurs this month. It had an impact on the whole world, Gareth Jenkins explains its significance, why it developed in the way that it did and how it opened up a period of revolution which is still continuing

THE FRENCH Revolution demonstrated the necessity of revolution. Most bourgeois commentators from that day to this see in revolution something accidental. Change, if there has to be change, can come about peacefully, through reform. Revolutions, as far as they are concerned, are the products of mistakes. Rulers are too weak or obstinate and opponents triumph through diabolical cunning.

The truth is, however, that there could not have been a peaceful transition from the old feudal regime in France to the new bourgeois order. Although there had been attempts to reform the state, which was bankrupt, the bourgeoisie found its path blocked. The nobles would not abandon the bulk of their privileges.

In May 1789 Louis XVI summoned the Estates General, representing the clergy, nobility and the Third Estate (the “commoners”), each being separate bodies, for the first time in more than a 150 years.

The Third Estate, dominated by the bourgeoisie, wanted voting in common. That way its numerical size would have overwhelmed the clergy and nobility. But the King refused.

Denied a “legal” way out, the Third Estate was compelled to challenge the power of the monarch. It decided to turn itself into the National Assembly, representative of the nation as a whole.

In the space of two months the elements of the new bourgeois France began to emerge. At the beginning of August the old feudal order was abolished – in principle (it wasn’t until 1794 that the last remnants of feudalism were swept away). The peasants were freed of many of their obligations to their lords and office holding ceased to be the almost exclusive preserve of the nobility.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man (26 August) proclaimed liberty, equality and fraternity. This was an enormous step forward in a society dominated by divisions of rank, unequal treatment before the law, censorship and arbitrary powers of coercion.

In practice, though, what it came to mean was emancipation for bourgeois forms of property: freedom to trade without restrictions, equality based on money rather than title, fraternity of “respectable” people rather than the multitude.

But none of this would have been possible without what is common to all genuine revolutions – the intervention of the masses from below.

Even at this early stage of the French Revolution the National Assembly’s work would have got nowhere without mass pressure. The King was not going to give up without a struggle. Royal troop concentrations in the suburbs of Paris, designed to frighten the Assembly, provoked an urban uprising which led to the fall of the Bastille.

This, together with peasant uprisings all over France, cowed the old ruling order into sullen submission. Not that the bourgeoisie was terribly keen on “disorder”. The creation of the National Guard (staffed by “respectable” citizens) in this period was as much an attempt to ensure popular disorder did not get out of hand as to create a counterbalance to royalist troops.

Hence the history of the rest of the French Revolution is the history of vacillation by sections of the bourgeoisie as they first leant on popular activity to secure their position (with the danger of being outflanked by the lower orders) and then tried to control it (with the danger of compromise with the old order and consequent loss of power).

This is evident in the events from late 1789 to 1794. Leading bourgeois representatives in the Assembly tried to do a deal with the King. In exchange for the King’s recognition of the August decrees abolishing feudalism, he would be allowed to keep considerable, if reduced, powers, including a right of veto over legislation.

But the King refused this settlement. He again summoned military force, and once again this led the Parisian masses to march on Versailles, where the King was. They forced him to improve supplies to the capital, agree the August decrees and to go with them to Paris, where he would be under the watchful eye of the populace.

This not only strengthened further the revolution, it discredited that section of the bourgeoisie which wished to compromise with the old order. Power now switched to a less moderate section of the bourgeoisie. But stability could not last for long. Again it was the King, who continued his intrigues with exiled émigrés and fellow monarchs, who upset the delicate balance.

In June 1791 he attempted to escape from Paris for the border. The plan was bungled and die King was brought back under heavy military and civilian escort to Paris. Once again the revolution was pushed leftwards. Now the call for a republic gained ground. This was at the expense of the moderate bourgeois representatives in the Assembly, who were loath to give way to demonstrations for the King’s abdication and so pretended that he had been abducted!

These moderates (later called the Girondins) were further discredited when war broke out in April 1792. They had been in favour of war in the hope that it would force the King to appoint their supporters as ministers. But the setbacks suffered by die army, plus further deterioration in die living standards of the masses, fuelled suspicions that treachery was at work designed to restore the old order.

The Girondins had no option but to go along with popular agitation in order to avoid accusations of treachery being levelled at them. Furthermore, they had no wish to be beaten in the war, since defeat would have spelt the end of the revolution and the loss of the gains made since 1789.

In early August a violent insurrection in Paris overthrew the monarchy. The Girondins were forced to proclaim the Republic. A new Assembly was elected, for the first time by near total male adult suffrage, itself a reflection of the pressure of the petty bourgeoisie and the “common people”. So the balance of power began to shift away from the Girondins, who represented the big bourgeoisie, to the most extreme section of the bourgeoisie, the Jacobins.

ALTHOUGH still in a minority the Jacobins, led by Robespierre, eventually forced a majority of deputies to pass the death penalty on the King. Louis XVI was guillotined in January 1793.

However this was not the culminating point of the revolution. While there were internal and external enemies looking for an opportunity to restore the old order, any hope of stabilising the revolution by compromise could only end in defeat. It was all or nothing.

The outcome of the war was still undecided and the economy, with runaway inflation, was sliding into chaos. The rising cost of basic foodstuffs hit the urban poor hardest. The Jacobins decided to force the issue.

On 2 June 1793, a revolutionary force of many thousand National Guards and sans culottes (as the most determined group of the urban labouring classes were called) surrounded the Assembly. The Assembly had no option but to surrender to the insurgents’ demands. Twenty nine Girondin deputies and two ministers were put under house arrest. Power was soon to pass to the Jacobins.

The Jacobins – or rather their most eminent leaders Robespierre and Saint-Just – were first and foremost radical democrats. That is to say, they believed in absolute popular sovereignty.

This is reflected in the proclamation in June 1793 of the constitution of the National Convention, which approved of plebiscites for every law and did away with the separation between legislative and executive. However, the constitution was suspended for the duration of the emergency facing the country.

It is also reflected in the way in which, quite self-consciously, the Jacobins sought to build up and use popular power. Other bourgeois tendencies were often compelled to rely on it, but they did so reluctantly and with a suspiciousness that was repaid in kind.

This was the Jacobins’ strength. They responded to popular discontent by imposing a maximum price on essential goods and services and by introducing the Terror, which despite bourgeois myth was not an arbitrary weapon for bloody revenge on opponents but a highly effective instrument against hoarders and speculators.

This in turn enabled them to mobilise the necessary manpower to defeat the counter-revolutionary foreign armies that had invaded France.

The Jacobins went well beyond bourgeois norms. Indeed, there was no other choice. They had to violate property rights (as in the Maximum and the measures against speculation) in order to gather the urban masses under their leadership. Without these violations the bourgeois revolution would have been lost.

At the same time, their class interests were bourgeois. Their social and political ideal was not communism, but the republic of small producers. They believed in property – neither too large (thereby creating a handful of powerful oppressors) nor too small (thereby creating poverty and dependence).

So, although they used popular power, they always attempted to control it. They incorporated sans culottes into organisations under their command and later were happy to see the Maximum applied as much to wages as to prices.

It is this contradiction which explains their downfall. They pushed the revolution to its necessary extreme but perished in the process. The cause was twofold.

On the one hand, once it was clear that the war was being won, the bourgeoisie was less and less willing to put up with the sacrifices it had endured. On the other hand, as theJacobins relaxed measures that favoured the urban poor or stifled their self-activity, the masses were progressively alienated.

As the Jacobins dealt blows first to the left and then to the right, their base narrowed dangerously. The right wing deputies eventually refused Robespierre’s demand for a fresh purging of “impure” men and arrested him. The Jacobins could no longer mobilise forces outside the Assembly. On 28 July (the tenth day of Thermidor, according to the revolutionary calendar), along with 22 other victims, Robespierre was guillotined.

Looking back from the early 1850s, Marx called this process the “ascending path” of the revolution:

“the rule of the Constitutionalists was followed by the rule of the Girondins, and the rule of the Girondins by the rule of the Jacobins. Each of these parties leaned on the more progressive party. As soon as it had brought the revolution to the point where it was unable to follow it any further, let alone advance ahead of it, it was pushed aside by the bolder ally standing behind it and sent to the guillotine.”

Trotsky dubbed this same process successive phases of “dual power”. His model was the evolution of the Russian Revolution between February and October 1917.

FEBRUARY 1917 saw the overthrow of the Tsar. But in reality, despite the advent of a “democratic” republic, the old exploiting classes (landlords and capitalists) still retained power, and the apparatus of the old state had not been destroyed.

However, a rival form of state power, in the shape of the Soviets, was being shaped – only half consciously – by the exploited classes (workers and peasants).

Necessarily, as Trotsky points out, this division was inherently unstable. Power cannot be divided forever between hostile classes. Either there is a fresh revolution or there is counter-revolution.

The February revolution had raised hopes among the masses that the horrors of war would soon be ended, that the land would be distributed among the peasants and that workers’ conditions would improve. The moderate socialists, who had emerged as the leaders of the majority in the Soviets, promised to satisfy these hopes.

Yet these Mensheviks believed, like their predecessors in the French Revolution, that the revolution was now over. They therefore tried to balance between the contradictory elements of dual power, and in the process vacillated between compromising with reaction and, when reaction threatened them, appealing for working class support.

Thus they refused to let the Soviets take power, instead subordinating them to the bourgeois ministers of the Provisional Government. This could only mean deferring the question of ending the war, of solving the land question and improving the lot of the working class.

It was the Mensheviks who egged on persecution in order to keep their bourgeois allies sweet. But when persecution threatened in the person of General Kornilov to sweep away not simply the most militant layers of the working class but the Mensheviks themselves, there was no alternative but to turn to the masses for support.

It was resistance of the workers to the Kornilov coup in August that saved the revolution. But it also took things further. With the Mensheviks discredited, the Bolsheviks became the majority party in the Soviets. Thus by October the insurrection was able to hand real power to the Soviets and destroy the bourgeois government.

So far we have looked at the “ascending path” of revolution. But there is also its opposite. This can take different forms. After Thermidor in 1794, when the Jacobins fell, the steps of dual power began, in Trotsky’s words, to descend. And the French Revolution of 1848, according to Marx, was the reverse of the French Revolution between 1789 and 1794 when each party had leaned on the more progressive party.

We are, therefore, talking of revolutions that decline after having done their work or that are quite simply failures.

EVENTS between 1794 and Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup in 1799 are an instance of the first type. With the fall of Robespierre “Thermidorian reaction” set in. Radical and political activity was curtailed, the Terror relaxed and suspects released from prison.

The jeunesse dorée, or gilded youth, made up of scummy middle class elements, went round Paris beating up Jacobin workmen. In the south of France an unofficial and indiscriminate White Terror was unleashed, with victims “hunted down like partridges”.

With controls dismantled, the economy once more began to decline. In May 1795 there was one last popular uprising in Paris, which was easily put down by government forces. In effect, the role of the masses in the revolution had been exhausted with the fall of the Jacobins. Marx explained why:

“The proletariat, and the other sections of the town population which did not form a part of the bourgeoisie, either had as yet no interests separate from those of the bourgeoisie, or they did not yet form independently developed classes or groups.”

So although the masses had antagonistic interests to those of the bourgeoisie, ironically their struggle could only bring about the victory of their enemy. The revolution was safe. Thermidorian reaction soon degenerated into royalist reaction, and in October 1795 royalists attempted a coup. (Napoleon, an up and coming young general, quickly suppressed it with “a whiff of grapeshot”.)

Once again the pendulum swung to the left. The collapse of the currency and rocketing prices accentuated the gap between rich and poor. This time the attempt to overthrow the government had a radically different purpose. Babeuf s “Conspiracy of the Equals” aimed not at purifying the revolution but at replacing bourgeois society by communism.

The conspiracy never got beyond the planning stage because Babeuf and his co-conspirators were betrayed by a police spy. Even if it had done, it would not have succeeded, the balance of forces being what it was. But what it did show was chat the lessons of revolution were being learned by class conscious opponents of the bourgeoisie.

The major theoretical weakness lay in Babeuf s view of the proletariat. The working class was to attain communism via a revolution carried out on its behalf by an elite group. The focus of revolutionary activity was on the technique of insurrection rather than the consciousness and combativity of the masses. For this reason, the conspiracies were bound to fail.

It was against this view of revolution that Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto and the rules for the First International in 1864, which start by declaring that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.

Marx’s view of revolution was confirmed by the Paris Commune of 1871. In his passionate defence of the Commune he stressed how the people

“have taken the actual management of their revolution into their own hands and found at the same time ... the means to hold it in the hands of the people itself, displacing the state machinery, the governmental machinery of the ruling classes by a governmental machinery of their own.”

This lesson was repeated in the Soviets in 1917 and was central to the practice of the Bolsheviks. Like Marx before him, Lenin stressed the self-activity of the masses. The role of the revolutionary party was not to substitute for that but to organise the most advanced elements of the working class and so give the revolutionary process its cutting edge.

On the other hand, without a carefully planned and executed insurrection by a party which had earned itself leadership within the working class, the revolution would have dissipated itself and been lost.

So, as Trotsky pointed out, when the revolutionary party heads the Soviets, it also prepares (in response to objective and subjective factors)

“the military bases of the insurrection, unites the shock troops upon a single scheme of action, works out a plan for the offensive and for the final assault. And this means bringing organised conspiracy into mass insurrection.”

Such a view of insurrection reflects the growth of the modern industrial proletariat over more than 100 years. That Babeuf had a conspiratorial view of communist revolution was a product of his period. The working class barely existed at the time of the French Revolution and his model was essentially that of the most advanced revolutionaries of his day, the Jacobins.

COME the year 1797 the French Revolution had lurched so far to the right that in the elections to the Assembly constitutional monarchists were now the majority. The revolution had retraced its steps almost to its starting point, with the distinct possibility of the monarchy being restored without a struggle.

This threatened to undo the entire work of the revolution – a prospect the bourgeoisie disliked. Those who had benefited from the confiscation of émigré lands or the sale of church property might find themselves dispossessed, and much worse would happen if the White Terror were visited not just on Jacobin workmen but on all republicans who had voted for the King’s execution, including the respectable ones.

The problem was, what force could save the bourgeoisie? During the ascending path of the revolution the masses had done so. But in the descending path the masses had become too weakened. Increasingly, it was the army that came to the rescue. In theory, the army was not a force independent of the people. The “mass levy” of 1793 was the revolution defending itself against internal and external reaction. But that now changed. The army had conquered large chunks of neighbouring territory and demanded booty both to support itself and to solve the mounting indebtedness of France itself.

In practice, therefore, the army had raised itself into an independent force. The servant was now the master. As such it, and not the elected representatives sitting in the Assembly, was the incarnation of bourgeois interests.

Pressure from both right and left (the Jacobins had a modest revival of support) continued to weaken both the Assembly and the government. It was only a matter of time before a military coup d’etat in 1799, led by the Republic’s most effective and popular general, abolished both. Napoleon was now dictator.

Though democracy was at an end (and the Republic itself was soon to be dissolved in favour of a new hereditary Empire), this did not mean a return to the old order. Feudalism was not re-established. Bourgeois property rights were preserved and strengthened, even if the social and political ideals that had inspired the revolution largely disappeared.

The bourgeoisie had been compelled to yield to a saviour that stood above society, a force that acted independently of it (and sometimes against it), in order to safeguard its essential interests.

This Bonapartist solution to acute social tension was to recur in later revolutionary situations. It also marked the end of the 1848 revolution in France.

The year 1848 was one of revolutions throughout Europe. Starting in February in Paris, with a revolt that dethroned Louis-Philippe and declared the Republic, the wave of revolution spread rapidly to different parts of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy. Within weeks governments toppled like ninepins. It seemed to many, including Marx and Engels, that 1848 was going to be a second version of 1789 in which die bourgeoisie would put paid to feudal reaction across Europe.

This was not to be, despite initial concessions. Within 18 months the revolutions had all been defeated. The defeat had less to do with the strength of reaction than with the weaknesses of the opposition.

Take Germany, which was a patchwork of states and statelets each at different stages of economic, social and political development. There hopes for change ranged from moderate demands for liberal concessions from the King of Prussia (the most powerful of the German states) to radical demands for the unification of the country into a single democratic republic.

Assemblies, like the timid Berlin Assembly which was looking for agreement with the crown, and the more radical National Assembly at Frankfurt, came into existence.

But these assemblies achieved nothing. Where the French National Assembly of 1789 had had to call on the masses to protect itself from reaction, the German liberal bourgeoisie was extremely reluctant to do so. It feared “disorder” more than it did “order”.

It preferred, therefore, to while away its time devising constitutional changes which it fondly imagined would be acceptable to the existing rulers. It was only a matter of time before reaction triumphed in 1849, but not without having to smother the last flare ups of revolt in different parts of Germany.

In France too the revolution did nothing but retreat – the opposite of what had occurred in 1789. Each of the three phases of the revolution was a move backwards.

The first phase had been won by mass action, but the provisional republic that came into being was interpreted in different ways by different classes. The working class expected it to be a social republic, ie one that would reflect their economic interests. Although this was incompatible with the expectations of the other classes that had rallied to the revolution, which were looking to protect bourgeois interests, the illusion persisted that this was not so.

But in the second phase the illusion was destroyed. The National Assembly that met in May 1848 was clearly designed to further bourgeois interests and when Paris rose in June was united in the need to smash the working class. But this only served to open up the divisions in the bourgeoisie, between the petty bourgeoisie and the big battalions of the financial and industrial bourgeoisie. This betrayed itself in struggles between different shades of republicans and supporters of the two rival pretenders to the French throne.

With the working class smashed after June 1848, the democratic petty bourgeoisie, though it too was hostile to the proletariat, was in no position to defend itself against the big bourgeoisie.

It is clear, then, why Marx contrasted this “descending path” with what had happened in 1789. And the reason why 1848 had no “ascending path” is obvious. The working class, though defeated early on, was now historically a powerful and independent contender. The bourgeoisie was more scared of “disorder” than of “order”. So the Jacobin option was closed off from the outset. Therefore there remained only its polar opposite, the Bonapartist solution.

NAPOLEON’S nephew had been elected President of the Assembly in December 1848. He appeared to be the servant of the revolution. But by manoeuvring between the different social forces (appealing to the peasantry’s mistrust of the towns, posing as the constitutionalist, calling for an end to anarchy) he contrived to become its master. He also strengthened his position by getting control of the state bureaucracy and army.

With the exhaustion of the contending rival classes he was, like his uncle before him, able to pose as the saviour of society and in the coup d’etat of December 1851 he brought the revolution to an ignominious end. A year later he replaced the Republic with the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III.

Marx thought this Napoleon a grotesque parody of the first. The reason has to do with changed social relations. The first Napoleon had at least preserved the progressive content of the French Revolution, even if by thoroughly reactionary means.

The nephew’s regime had nothing progressive about it. It served to protect the now reactionary bourgeoisie against threats from the new progressive class in society, the working class. It may have done so by depriving the bourgeoisie of its political rule. But it guaranteed its economic rule (exploitation) all the more effectively.

It also perfected the modern state, which appears to stand above society as the arbiter between the classes, while in fact ensuring the domination of the bourgeoisie. As such, Marx saw Napoleon III’s coup as the culmination of the 19th century revolution of the old type. Future revolutions would be of a different order. Their task would be to destroy the despotism of the state and the only force that could do that was the working class.

In 1870 Napoleon fell as a result of defeat by the Prussian army. When revolution broke out the following year, Marx’s prediction was proved correct. The first proletarian uprising of modern times created the Paris Commune. As Marx wrote at the time, the working class could not “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. It had to smash it (which it did) and set up its own state, unfortunately short lived.

OCTOBER 1917 is a long way from 1789. But it is possible to summarise what remained valid and what did not. The revolution of 1789 showed that force was required to overthrow the old order once and for all. The most daring representatives of the bourgeoisie, the Jacobins, knew that and were prepared to mobilise the masses to that end.

By 1848 the bourgeoisie had become cowardly. Unlike the-Jacobins it was not prepared to mobilise the working class for fear that it had more to lose than gain. It preferred either compromise with the old order or the Bonapartist option that had sealed the revolution of 1789.

The working class inherited the revolutionary heroism of the Jacobins. But it went further than that. It learnt about the need to smash the state that had been perfected by its class enemy.

It also learnt that the way to do this is not by conspiracy but by mass struggle leading to the creation of democratic workers’ organisations that can reshape society. Even more importantly, it learnt the need for a revolutionary party, not of the old conspiratorial type, but one immersed in the struggle and disciplined enough to bring matters to a head by an insurrection.

This was a long, painful process culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution. The year 1917 is the worthy inheritor of all that was best about the French Revolution of 1789.

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