But what of the people? What was their idea?
The people, too, had felt to a certain extent the influence of the current philosophy. By a thousand indirect channels the great principles of liberty and enfranchisement had filtered down to the villages and the suburbs of the large towns. Respect for royalty and aristocracy was passing away. Ideas of equality were penetrating to the very lowest ranks. Gleams of revolt flashed through many minds. The hope of an approaching change throbbed in the hearts of the humblest. "Something was to be done by some great folk for such poor ones"; she did not know who, nor how; "but God send us better," said an old woman, in 1789, to Arthur Young,1 who travelled through France on the eve of the Revolution. That "something" was bound to bring an alleviation of the people's misery.
The question whether the movement which preceded the Revolution, and the Revolution itself, contained any element of Socialism has been recently discussed. The word "Socialism" was certainly not in either, because it dates only from the middle of the nineteenth century. The idea of the State as Capitalist, to which the Social-Democratic fraction of the great Socialist party is now trying to reduce Socialism, was certainly not so much in evidence as it is to-day, because the founders of Social-Democratic "Collectivism," Vidal and Pecqueur, did not write until the period between 1840 and 1849. But it is impossible to read the works of the pre-Revolutionary writers without being struck by the fact that they are imbued with ideas which are the very essence of modern Socialism.
Two fundamental ideas the equal rights of all citizens to, the land, and what we know to-day under the name of communism found devoted adherents among the more popular writers of that time, Mably, d'Argenson, and others of less importance. Manufacturing production on a large scale was in its infancy, so that land was at that time the main form of capital and the chief instrument for exploiting human labour, while the factory was hardly developed at all. It was natural, therefore, that the thoughts of the philosophers, and later on the thoughts of the revolutionists, should turn towards communal possession of the land. Did not Mably, who much more than Rousseau inspired the men of the Revolution, declare about 1768, in his Doutes sur l'ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés, that there should be equal rights to the land for all, and communist possession of it? The rights of the nation to all landed property, and to all natural wealth--forests, rivers, waterfalls, &c.--was not this the dominant idea of the pre-Revolutionary writers, as well as of the left wing of the revolutionary masses during the period of upheaval?
Unfortunately, these communistic aspirations were not formulated clearly and concretely in the minds of those who desired the people's happiness. While among the educated middle classes the ideas of emancipation had taken the form of a complete programme for political and economic organisation, these ideas were presented to the people only in the form of vague aspirations. Often they were mere negations. Those who addressed the people did not try to embody the concrete form in which their desiderata could be realised. It is even probable that they avoided being precise. Consciously or not, they seemed to say: "What good is there in speaking to the people of the way in which they will be organised later on? It would only chill their revolutionary ardour. All they want is the strength to attack and to march to the assault of the old institutions. Later on we shall see what can be done for them."
Are there not many Socialists and Anarchists who act still in the same way? In their hurry to push on to the day of revolt they treat as soporific theorising every attempt to throw some light on what ought to be the aim of the Revolution.
It must be said, also, that the ignorance of the writers--city men and bookmen for the most part--counted for much in this. Thus, in the whole of that gathering of learned or experienced business men who composed the National Assembly--lawyers, journalists, tradesmen, and so forth--there were only two or three legal members who had studied the feudal laws, and we know there were among them but very few representatives of the peasants who were familiar by personal experience with the needs of village life.
For these reasons the ideas of the masses were expressed chiefly by simple negations. "Let us burn the registers in which the feudal dues are recorded! Down with the tithes! Down with 'Madame Veto'! Hang the aristocrats!" But to whom was the freed land to go? Who were to be the heirs of the guillotined nobles? Who was to grasp the political power when it should fall from the hands of "Monsieur Veto," the power which became in the hands of the middle classes a much more formidable weapon than it had been under the old régime?
This want of clearness in the mind of the people as to what they should hope from the Revolution left its imprint on the whole movement. While the middle classes were marching with firm and decided steps towards the establishment of their political power in a State which they were trying to mould, according to their preconceived ideas, the people were hesitating. In the towns, especially, they did not seem to know how to turn to their own advantage the power they had conquered. And later, when ideas concerning agrarian laws and the equalising of incomes began to take definite form, they ran foul of a mass of property prejudices, with which even those sincerely devoted to the cause of the people were imbued.
A similar conflict was evoked by the conceptions of the political organisation of the State. We see it chiefly in theantagonism which arose between the governmental prejudices of the democrats of that time and the ideas that dawned in the hearts of the people as to political decentralisation, and the prominent place which the people wished their municipalities to take both in the division of the large towns and in the village assemblies. This was the starting-point of the whole series of fierce contests which broke out in the Convention. Thence, too, arose the indefiniteness of the results obtained by the Revolution for the great mass of the people in all directions, except in the recovery of part of the land from the lords, lay and clerical, and the freeing of all land from the feudal taxes it formerly had to pay.
But if the people's ideas were confused on constructive lines, they were, on the other hand, extremely clear on certain points in their negations.
First of all, the hatred felt by the poor for the whole of the idle, lazy, perverted aristocracy who ruled them, while black misery reigned in the villages and in the dark lanes of the great towns. Next, hatred towards the clergy, who by sympathy belonged more to the aristocracy than to the people who fed them. Then, hatred of all the institutions under the old régime, which made poverty still harder to bear because they denied the rights of humanity to the poor. Hatred for the feudal system and its exactions, which kept the labourer in a state of servitude to the landowners long after personal serfdom had ceased to exist. Lastly, the despair of the peasant who in those years of scarcity saw land lying uncultivated in the hands of the lord, or serving merely as a pleasure-ground for the nobility while famine pressed hard on the villages.
It was all this hatred, coming to a head after long years as the selfishness of the rich became more and more apparent in the course of the eighteenth century. And it was this need of land --this land hunger, the cry of the starving in revolt against the lord who refused them access to it--that awoke the spirit of revolt ever since 1788. And it was the same hatred, and the same need, mingled with the hope of success, which stimulated the incessant revolts of the peasants in the years 1789-1793, revolts which enabled the middle classes to overthrow the oldrégime and to organise its own power under the new one, that representative government.
Without those risings, without that disorganisation of authority in the provinces which resulted in never-ceasing jacqueries, shout that promptitude of the people of Paris and other towns in taking up arms, and in marching against the strongholds of royalty whenever an appeal to the people was made by the revolutionaries, the middle classes would certainly not have accomplished anything. But it is to this true fount and origin of the Revolution--the people's readiness to take up arms--that the historians of the Revolution have not yet done justice--the justice owed to it by the history of civilisation.
1 Arthur Young, Travels in France. p. 167 (London, 1892).
Return to Contents
Return to Anarchy Archives
This online addition of The Great French Revolution was
Kropotkin, P. (1927). The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793 (N. F. Dryhurst, Trans.) New York: Vanguard Printings. (Original work published 1909)
by Brooks Davis <firstname.lastname@example.org>