What's the importance of the French revolution?

Dublin branch meeting, January 1994

Aileen O'Carroll

This is the text of a talk given to a Workers Solidarity Movement meeting. As such it represents the authors opinion alone and may be deliberately provocative in order to encourage discussion. Also it may be in note form. Still we hope you find it useful. Other talks are here: http://www.struggle.ws/wsm/talks.html

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"Liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice:[French Revolution]

Socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality."[Russian Revolution]



The revolutionary movement was not a homogenises block. a wide variety of interests vied for control. Bakunin divided the Bourgeoisie into two camps. There were the Jacobins, lawyers and journalists who organised in the Jacobin clubs These were the revolutionary bourgeoisie who supported the ideas of Justice, freedom and equality, the radical democrats. They understood the political but not the economic and social prerequisites necessary. . He also identifies a smaller group of Socialist Jacobeans, identified with Babeuf whose saw socialism in terms of complete state control, equality to be enforced by the state.

Another section were the Girondins, middle-class and involved mainly in commerce. Their basic motivation was to enrich themselves, and as such the feared the power of the people as much as they needed it

The years leading up to 1793 saw constant urban and rural unrest, riot and rebellion. It is these people that forced the revolution through. Right up to the storming of the Bastille the middle class were attempting to negotiate some agreement with the king. Ideally they wanted a situation similar tot that in England, where the king is still in place, as a rubber stamp, with greatly diminished powers. It was the power of the people on the streets that gave the middle class their bargaining hand with the royalty. And it was the power of the people on the streets and the stubbornness of Louis 14 that made agreement impossible. In the early stages of the revolution the middle-class had little impute, the masses taking the initiative on the streets.

Louis XXIV called the States General - a meeting of the three estates (the nobility, the clergy and the middle class ) to meet in Versailles. The taking of the Bastille lead to its dissolution and a situation of dual power existed between the king and the Assembly composed of the middle class and property owners. There were risings in the towns and countryside and it was these that gave the Assembly it s authority over the king. The assembly tinkered around with feudalism , removing a few of the feudal laws but leaving the place dues which the peasants were forced to pay. It drew up the "Declaration of the Rights of man" but the King (obviously) refused to sanction it. There was famine in Paris and persistent rumour of a royalist coup attempt.

Parisian women marched to the Hotel de Ville demanding bread and guns and continued marching to Versaille where the court was sitting. The middle class guard and the men of Paris joined them, until Versailles was crammed with people. The assembly used the opportunity to obtain the kings sanction for the Declaration. At 5 or 6 in the morning, some people found a opened door and the masses invaded the palace. The middle class guard arrived just in time to rescue the King and Queen who were taken to Paris, as prisoners but also under the protection of the Assembly who was now in complete control. communes were set up in the towns and villages of Paris. The court was attempting counter revolution while the assembly was attempting to simple stop the revolution.

Louis tried to escape from Paris (many of the assembly knew this and turned a blind eye, as it would remove the problem of what to do with the king ) However he was caught by the people and brought back to Paris their prisoner. The felt that by his attempted flight he and abdicated control. Statues of Louis were smashed throughout Paris. The assembly first supported the people in their demand for the removal of Louis as the head of state, then after 20 days they changed their mind and declared that to demand a republic was a crime. They rather a traitor king or a German invasion than the threat of a risen people and were desperate to end republican agitation. Danton and Marat had to go into hiding.

War was declared against Austria. The Girondins (middle class, commerce) who controlled the Assembly wanted the war because they saw in it the means of combating royal power. Marat said "You want the war because you do not want to appeal to the people for giving a deceive blow against the royalty" The girding and the mass of the Jacobeans preferred a foreign invasion, which would lead to the down fall of the royalty without any popular rising.. So the court and the were in agreement. This war was to last 23 years.


Feudalism still stood erect. merchants and monopolists were making huge fortunes as government contractors and speculating in the bonds on the sale of church property. Kings power was limited but in a very modest way.

Move in Paris among people to have insurrection in order to dethrone the king. A peaceful march on Tuilliers turned into a huge mass demonstration . The palace was broken into and Louis was made to wear a woolly hat and drink a glass of wine to the nation and promise for two hours that he would abide by the wishes of the people. King complained to assembly. Those writers blamed for the incursion were prosecuted and sent to prison. the invasion provoked new uprising sin the countryside, and new attempts to repress republicanism.

People of Paris attempt more uprisings (one on anniversary of fall of Bastille) . they marched again on Tuilliers (August 10th) They burst into the chamber where he assembly was sitting threatening to kill the king and any member of the assembly who did support his dethronement. Even still it wasn't until two or three days later that the assembly transferred the king to the tower and agreed to hold him there as prisoner.

Three years after the fall of the Bastille royalty was finally overthrown.. a new assembly , the convention, was convoked, election was held by universal suffrage, but still in two parts. the modernist element dominated it however could not ignore the people and abolished the royalty in its first sitting. The Jacobins pronounced themselves republican on August the 27 the land of emigrant priests and nobles was put up for sale. the question of what was to be done to the traitor king and the question of feudal rights was still unresolved. However by the side of the legislative assembly a new power had arisen since August 10th, the commune of Paris which took the revolutionary initiative and managed to retain it for nearly two years.

War began. Paris armed itself on orders of the commune.. Assembly ordered the commune to dissolve. They refused. News came of the fall of Verdun, leaving the way open for the Germans to march on Paris. Paris understood that the assembly would either quit Paris leaving it to the enemy or attempt to restore the king. The cry went up to "rush the prisons and kill the conspirators there who were waiting for the Germans to destroy Paris so that they may come to power again. In what is known as the September days , the prisons were attacked and more than 1,000 prisoners were massacred.

On Nov. 3rd the king was finally put on trial and in Jan. 21 was executed.


A Power struggle was now in place between the Girondins in the convection, the commune in Paris with the Jacobeans supporting the commune, and with the anarchists and the people, The Jacobeans, Robespiere, Saint just Marat and Danton were to become the the 'Mountain' party. The Girondins represented the middle class the supported Liberty but opposed Equality. Opposed to the development of the revolution the Girondins soon found themselves in the same camp as the royalists on the side of counter revolution. The connection sittings became furious battles between the two parties. Also in April the Convention voted in the Committee of Public Safety which was to be the supreme executive power in the country. The commune in Paris was more respected by the people. The Girodinists who opposed the commune, set up a committee to examine the decisions made by it, if necessary to prosecute sections of it. The Girondinists threatened that it Paris made any attack on the national representation it would be destroyed. On May the 27th the people of Paris rose again this time to defeat the Girondins. After 3 days resistance the Convention was forced to vote to exclude the Girondinists., and only in July did it outlaw them as rebels, as counter revolutionaries. With the expulsion of right opposition the convention set about re structuring French society. Land was returned to the communed feudal rings were finally abolished, feudal laws wee abolished en mass.

However famine griped France. In was surrounded by unfriendly nations. Royalist and Girondinist attempts at counter revolution continued. Marat was assassinated. There were risings in Brittany and in Lyons. And they were at war with Germany. the revolution came to a standstill. the mass of people were willing to go further but those at the head of it dared not progress. The best revolutionaries had left Paris to enlist in the army and the royalists began to return the sections of the commune began to be over run by the Girdondinists and royalists. The Jacobeans always opposed the power of the sections and made use of this opportunity to paralyse them On the pretext that the sections were invaded by counter revolutionaries reduced the number of general meetings held to one a week and introduced an arsenal of of repressive laws, including a "law of suspects" making possible arrest on suspicion of being counter-revolutionary.

The war was going badly and fearful of Marie Antoinette's position as a rallying point for monarchists when she was tried and executed in Oct. The Girondinists soon followed her. The terror had begun. The sections of the commune which to begin with were organs of democratic revolution became gradually absorbed by the police functions of their committees, bit by bit they transformed them into machinery of the state (p551). The death of the sections of Paris and the popular societies of the provinces signalled the death of the revolution.

The winter of 1994 passed in struggles between the revolutionarists and the counter revolutionists. The committees moved to consolidate power, to eliminate all opposition, the Herbests were arrested and guillotined, then Danton too went the way of the guillotine. In the 14 months of revolutionary terror the tribunal sent 2750 people to the guillotine, of who only 650 belonged to the well-to -do class.

Finally Robespierre himself was overthrown when on the November 9th 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte carried out his coup d'etat supported by the army, and national representation was completely repressed.


The French Revolution of 1789 marked the demise of feudal power in France and its replacement by bourgeoisie democracy. It made way for the transformation in France from Feudalism to Capitalism. Afterwards French society was no longer controlled by king and his court, instead the middle classes and their parliament held the reigns of state. Indeed the idea of the modern state was consolidated and put in place. The revolution can be examined from a number of different angles.

We can look at the economics dynamics that made revolution necessary. The structure of feudalism was preventing the French economy from growing. The court consumed a huge amount of wealth in the forms of taxes and tithes. Much of the country side lay as unproductive park land. Complex laws prevented peasants from selling produce and kept them in at subsistence level poverty at best. Tolls, taxes, trade regulation prevent free transport of goods. All big cities had their own different taxes and toll gates, making it near impossible for industry to grow and to compete with other countries such as Britain. Despite this the structure of French society was changing. In the villages, a new class of richer peasant was emerging. In the cities the middle-class though they had no political power were beginning to get more economic clout. These classes of people could not progress under feudalism, what they required was freedom of industry and commerce. Something had to give.

We can also examine the French revolution as a prototype of how revolutions occur and progress. Kropotkin defined it as the "mother of us all ". The ideas and methods of the French Revolution were and still have relevance to us today. Its often said the the "origins of authoritarianism of Marxism-Leninism can be traced to the Jacobean Tendency in the French revolution". Lenin's idea of Revolutionary terror, practised in 1917 and defended today by the SWM had their beginnings in the French revolution. To the firsts socialists, Marx, Bakunin, to Lenin, the French revolution was the first great revolution and a role model for what could be expected in the future. Many of the lessons we learn from the French revolution were superseded by the similar lessons following Russian Revolution. Furthermore, the revolution occurring so long ago, and with records freely available has been extensively studied, minutely detailed in a way that the Bolshevik revolution has yet to be.

In the future on the left I feel that there will be an attempt to blame the failure of Russia on Stalin as an individual rather than on the failure of "dictatorship of the proletariat" as an ideology. To us the usefulness of the French revolution is that it provides yet one more example that the revolution can never be controlled in the interests of the many by the few.

The revolution was made by two groups. On one hand you had the emerging middle-class and richer peasant in the countryside. They provided the ideology of the revolution, ideas of justice, freedom and equality under a free market system. One major difference between France then and the modern world today is the level of illiteracy among the masses. The middle classes had been reading and debating influenced by the English and American revolution, and were forming an idea of the type of society they were among towards at the time. As Kropotkin puts it, "Long before the Revolution broke out, the idea of a state, centralised and well ordered, governed by the classes holding property in lands or in factories, or by members of the learned professions was already forecast and described in a great number of books and pamphlets from which the men of action during the revolution afterwards drew their inspiration and their logical force."

Their idea was to give France a constitution modelled upon the English constitution with the kings main role to be a symbol of national unity. the real authority was to be vested in parliament, in which an educated middle class, which should represent the active and thinking part of the nation should predominate.

On the other side of the coin were the oppressed masses, in the city and the countryside. The principles of liberty and enfranchisement had filtered down. Respect for the royalty and aristocracy was passing away. They did not however have a clear vision of what sort of society they which to live in. They wanted things to be better. They knew what they were against. The ideas of the people were expressed chiefly by simple negations. "let us burn down the registers in which feudal dues are recorded:" "Down with tithes" "hang the aristocrats". They knew where they stood on these questions. But to whom was the free land to go to? who was to be the heirs of the guillotined nobles.

"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 own preconceived ideas, the people were hesitating. In the towards, especially, they did not seem to know how to turn to their own advantage the power they conquered"

The Italian anarchist Alfredo M Bonanno concluded that "as happened again later during the Russian revolution, lack of collective maturity concerning objectives gave a free hand to the more prepared and conscious minorities".

This aspect to the revolution led later socialists to understand the necessity of working class people to form there own organisations. Organisations with a clear vision of a socialist future and an understanding of the methods required to get their.

It also left some socialists to doubt the ability of the working class to achieve this. Lenin held that most workers were only capable of "trade union consciousness". He accepted that most revolutionary theorists would come from the middle class and encouraged the removal of the best workers from the working class and immediate immersion into the party.

Though the marxists recognise the fact that the Jacobins were bourgeoisie and that there ideal was exactly that of the bourgeoisie, they admired and emulated there methods, because they were useful to the immediate aims of the revolution.

In conclusion then as Kropotkin the revolution was made by the Revolutionary action of the middle classes and the revolutionary thought of the education classes. It brought about the modern dated; a centralised state governed by the middle classes, controlling the army, law. parliament, the civil-service, schools, the mines and science. Such a state was an essential prerequisite for the development of capitalism. As Alfredo M Bonanno said " the Great Revolution was not only the cradle of bourgeois parliamentary democracy but also the cradle of proletarian direct democracy......

The truth is that in all the decisive moments of the French Revolution it was always popular initiative that created the conditions necessary for victory and then in the end , bourgeois oppression with it s structure and techniques, with its needs and bureaucracy took over killing and spontaneity and creativity and rebuilding the state"

Just as we can popular democracy and workers control are the lifeblood of the revolution. Its supression leads to the death of the revolution.