Sister M took over the lead off reins last night to present a short talk on the lessons of the French revolution. Considering none of the massed ranks of Stoke Socialist Party knew anything about this pivotal moment in world history, we did well to have a half hour discussion! She began with Marx's observation that revolution starts at the top. This may seem counter-intuitive from a socialist perspective. After all, aren't revolutions the forcible intrusion of the masses onto the stage of history? Yes, but ruling classes are not immune to pressure welling up from below. Before a revolution comes along they can feel the ground trembling beneath their feet, and it is these tremors that start to focus the minds of the ruling class. One section supports modest reform to protect their privileges and the other favours repression, of keeping the masses under the cosh.
And so it was with France in the 1780s. That decade found a country the peasantry made up 80% of the population and its division between three so-called estates; the nobility, the clergy (who between them owned the majority of land) and the famous 3rd estate, comprising everyone else. To demonstrate their relative sizes, Paris at this time had a population between 500,000 - 600,000. This comprised of 10,000 clerics, 5,000 aristocrats and then the rest (of whom 40,000 were 'bourgeois'). So we have a numerically small ruling class sitting on a population through the church and the musket. But unfortunately for them, this was a class structure perched on a knife edge. The revolution drew deep from the well of many discontents, combining and condensing a constellation of grievances that kept piling upon one another. Here, M dwelled on Louis XVI's lavish spending on the military and military adventures. This she argued produced a budget crisis. As has been the case with subsequent crises under capitalism, the first instinct of the rulers is to get the ruled to bear its cost. But it was not possible here. Previous years of bad weather had exacerbated poverty in the lower orders and rumblings of discontent stayed the King's hand. Instead he caused a split in the ruling class by trying to introduce property taxes on the clergy and nobility.
It was at this point the more reform-minded elements struck. To deliberate over the tax, an Assembly of Notables was formed out of the clergy, nobility, bourgeois and bureaucrats. This grouping rejected the plan and demanded the King convene the Estates-General, a legislative assembly divided into three equal portions representing each of the estates. However, to reflect the great size of the 3rd Estate (comprising some 25 million people) its numbers of votes were doubled but owing to gerrymandering were stripped of weight to keep parity with the status quo. The Estates-General fell into farce and the Third Estate began meeting independently through a number of communes (commons) bodies. They verified their own powers and declared themselves to be a National Assembly of the people. Despite resistance to it on the part of the royalty, the first estate of the clergy came over to it followed 47 nobles. Thus achieving hegemony, the Third Estate, or rather its leading bourgeois representatives declared a Constituent Assembly in July, 1789. Two days later the King sacked his finance minister and began reconstructing the treasury, an event that provoked the famous storming of the Bastille. And as soldiers began arriving back, summoned to shut down the Assembly, the Parisian masses arose in an anarchic outpouring of looting and rioting. But nevertheless they won over the French Guard, the household troops of the Royal Palace and the King was forced to quit the capital. These events found their echo in the countryside as there was a generalised agrarian insurrection against the legalised bondage many peasants had been held in. Title deeds and châteaux went up in smoke.
In the 'August Decrees' the Assembly formally abolished what was left of feudalism and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. But by the end of the year the breaks has started to be applied to the revolution. 21st October saw the first hanging - of a working class man - by the new regime for the crime of sedition. In short order the "excesses" of the countryside were stamped on. The National Guard militia set up to protect the new constitution was staffed almost exclusively by bourgeois elements, and slowly but surely the revolution was beginning to assume a definite class character. The attitude of many Assembly members can be summed up by the quote of one participant that "one must work for the good of the people so they do nothing for themselves".
Very quickly factions in the Assembly began to form. Those who sat on the right were supportive of the royalty and were in favour of a constitutional monarchy on the British model. Those who sat on the left were republicans and favoured more extreme and thorough-going measures against the ancien regime. As a result of the intrigues and arguments a monarchical settlement was hammered out and the Assembly dissolved in favour of its legislative successor in September 1791. It was however to prove unworkable. The King was not subordinate to the Assembly, he was, constitutionally speaking, its partner. He possessed a veto over its decisions and retained the power to appoint ministers. This led to constitutional crisis again and a new phase of the revolution began.
In August 1792 power in Paris was seized by the city's commune. The government was forced to rely on it to remain in power, the King and Queen arrested and the monarchy was abolished. What remained of the Legislative Assembly also convened a National Convention - a body that wielded executive and constitution-making powers and was elected on the basis of universal adult male suffrage. As France was being assailed from foreign armies pledged to restoring the monarchy the Convention was a revolutionary government, and one which was forced to abrogate more powers to itself to beat off the dangers facing the revolution. For example, military reverses stimulated counter-revolutionary uprisings, which in turn invited the wrath of the Convention. This was the period of the Reign of Terror, where Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety arrested and executed anyone suspected of aiding reaction. The Convention also introduced conscription, pressing the general populace into either the army, suppliers for the army or gangs used against recalcitrant peasants to seize their grain. Though brutal this dictatorship defeated the armies of the Spanish, British, Austrians and Prussians. But it quickly began turning on itself. First the moderates to its right were denounced as counterrevolutionaries and guillotined followed swiftly by the radicals to its left. This was too much for many from all sides of the Convention and Robespierre and his supporters swiftly met the same fate as thousands of others. This was the period of Thermidor, of reaction within the revolution.
In 1795 after a period of terror directed toward the left, the Convention announced a new constitution. It created a 'Directory' in which executive power was held by five 'Directors'. This new body was not held in high confidence by the populace at large thanks to its arbitrary style of governing (the Directors routinely ignored the constitution). Furthermore this was a warmongering government. Revolution and war had so depleted France's wealth that government could not function without plunder and tribute seized from other countries. By keeping the army in the field, a certain Napoleon Bonaparte was able to build up a base of power, enabling him to easily lead a coup in 1799 and to the years of dictatorship and war that followed.
Opening for discussion F noted how the revolution was an advance for democratic principles, despite the Terror and its culmination in Napoleon's dictatorship. It was a revolution that only liberated the people up to a point and succeeded in speeding up the development of capitalism in France. Another legacy of the revolution lies in the spirit of the French working class, who show time and again their willingness to fight. P noted two things about the French revolution. First, though taking place in a period when the bourgeoisie were the rising class and the working class as we understand it were a variegated embryonic mass, even then they were afraid of letting the revolution go too far. This was typified by the way many among the bourgeoisie were satisfied with the constitutional settlement of the first phase of the revolution and their attacks on workers and peasants who went beyond their comfort limits. His second point was on the class character of the revolution. Marxists do not term the French revolution a 'bourgeois revolution' because the Richard Bransons and Alan Sugars of the day were taking to the streets. It is so-called because of the effects of the revolution. Its lasting achievements were the sweeping away of institutional arrangements that hindered the development of capitalism, and what it did was to raise the bourgeoisie to the position of the ruling class.
A compared the French with the Russian revolution. Leaving aside the national peculiarities of each country, the key difference between the two is that in Russia, the bourgeoisie had emerged relatively late on the scene of history. Though a bourgeois revolution was in their objective interests they faced a small, growing and politically confident Russian working class. The bourgeoisie was not strong enough and nor was it able to articulate their grievances, because they were aimed as much at them as they were at Tsarism. When push came to revolutionary shove, the capitalist class had a million and one ties to the bureaucracy and imperial family. They were not ideal, but the Tsar did at least defend bourgeois property relations. As was borne out in 1917, the regime brought about by the October revolution was forced to make inroads into these relations to retain power. From the standpoint of the Russian bourgeoisie, their stand with the Romanovs was entirely understandable.
Finally, P noted the impact of the French revolution is difficult to overestimate. All modern political ideas have those events imprinted in their DNA to greater or lesser extents. Conservatism is representative of the ideological reaction to it. Liberalism bases itself on the principles of political liberty the revolution popularised, but strives to limit that liberty to the public rather than the private realm. It is socialism that is the true heir to the revolution. The slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity point toward a society beyond capitalism, toward a society where the economy is taken from private hands and becomes the property of us all.