The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Reality of Jacobin Terror and the Subsequent Rise and Fall of the Directory

Often “The Terror” is treated by historians as the product of the deranged Jacobins, who, aspiring to dictatorial achievement hoped to purge themselves of all political enemies. Rather than appropriately considered within the context of France in the summer of 1973, the events of the Terror are abstracted from the existing material conditions. The Terror, however, is much better understood when analyzed within the matrix of the devastating famine hitting Paris that year, bread hoarders hoping to increase profits on the black market (Steel 199), massive coalition of hostile enemies along France’s borders, and counter-revolutionary royalists plotting to reinstitute the monarchy at home. The subsequent rise and fall of the more reactionary Directory are inextricably linked to the Terror and, indeed, grew out of it.

The Terror, more than anything, while manifesting itself in a rather disorganized and decentralized manner, was a general reflection of the atmosphere of Paris in 1973. In a relatively short amount of time, the government passed the “Law of Suspects” which essentially removed civil liberties in France while the new “Revolutionary Tribunal” was established and granted powers to allow rapid application of the guillotine (which, it must be mentioned, was a rather new and humane form of death in comparison to the old methods). It was intended, rather explicitly, to deal with all counter-revolutionary activity in hopes of suppressing Royalist plots to restore the monarchy. It quickly became utilized to target particular political personalities as well who were more or less radical than the Jacobin dominated government approved of.

This Terror, however, occurred within the context of France’s most tumultuous moments. Bread rations were extremely low and hoarders exacerbated the problem by hoarding grain in hopes of turning over a larger profit by keeping it off the market. On all sides France was surrounded by foreign armies: a British fleet was just off the coast of Marseilles, coalition forces were present along the Pyrenees and had already set foot in Flanders, and counter-revolutionary priests and nobles plotted rebellions in various provinces (Doyle 256). As the government had witnessed in September of 1792, the Parisian masses were not content with allowing Royalist plotters to go unpunished. For instance, when Montmarin, who had been plotting to help reestablish the monarchy, was caught and put on trial, the reactionary judge allowed to go free; such a reactionary court rulings stirred up tremendous anger amongst the common people who wished to preserve the society they fought so hard to rebuild. As E. Belfort Bax explains, “Moderatist and Girondist Assembly hesitated at making a few examples of even the most notorious of these plotters” and thus, Parisians took it upon themselves to administer ad hoc justice to those accused nobles and Royalists sitting in prison. When Danton began organizing soldiers to go to the front to meet the foreign armies, many exclaimed they would not go fight foreign enemies while living enemies right in Paris; thus, to effectively organize resistance to the European coalition, the Jacobin government had to reassure the people of France that they were not leaving plotters safe to rise up against a defenseless homeland when the men had gone off to fight (Bax).

Therefore, the Terror was intended not only to do away with counter-revolutionaries and grain-hoarders at home, it was also facilitated the ability to raise soldiers to fight off foreign invasion. Thousands were killed, and many were targeted not for counter-revolution or for hoarding, but for political reasons under rather tenuous claims propped up by the Law of Suspects. And although this fact alone provides no defense, it should be noted that the Terror claimed relatively few victims in comparison to other contemporary massacres enforced by more conservative heads of state in other nations (Doyle 259). The Jacobins, more concerned perhaps with this than with other domestic affairs, ultimately failed to address the social concerns much needed in 1973-4. While Doyle maintains that “by the spring of 1974 France was obviously making substantial progress towards a controlled economy,” (Doyle 265), they had not, and would not, implement the constitution of 1793 restoring civil liberties and rights to French citizens. Instead, the Terror would continue even after successful military victories and the elimination, in large part, of counter-revolutionaries at home. While the Jacobins helped assure bread rations to the people with the laws of maximum, they also eventually implemented the same laws against rises in wages, alienating themselves from the burgeoning proletariat. Similarly, they attacked political targets both to the right and the left, creating for themselves enemies on multiple fronts and, in short, laying the foundations for their own downfall.

Thus, the Jacobins isolated themselves from their social base, the sans-culottes, through reactionary economic policies and political terror. They also instituted a leveé en masse, essentially a draft, which further increased hostility among the peasant masses forced to leave their homes to fight. Moderates, not missing a step, quickly latched on to their chance to impose reactionary measures against the radical Jacobins; under the promulgation of “stability,” they drafted a new constitution which reflected the class interests of the prosperous bourgeoisie. It, like the constitution of 1791, rested on an relatively nominal social, but prodigious economic, basis and effectively meant that the government would function to perpetuate the rule of the new wealthy class. As Doyle notes, “Until the fall of Robespierre the poor had made considerable progress in the struggle” (Doyle 324), this was shattered by the reactionary economic policies begun by the Jacobins but instituted even more profoundly by the moderates. Coupled with the State’s bankruptcy and increased power, through new laws, to heavily tax the citizens, the Directory even managed to augment unpopularity among propertied groups it represented (Doyle 334).

However, after attempting to circumvent democratic institutions with laws such as the two-thirds law which would dictate that at least two-thirds of the writers of the new constitution to take seats in the legislature (Doyle 320) and ensuring that only a relatively small electorate could participate, the Directory still found themselves still showing poorly in elections. Their response was to simply trample over the electoral process, alienating themselves further from the democratic and republican sympathies of the majority. “Blatant steps were therefore taken to rig the outcome at every stage” as radical Jacobin influence shone through the electoral process (Doyle 336). They utilized the military to play a balancing act between conservative royalist forces and radical Jacobins, acting rather whimsically in their vacillation of repression towards one or the other and isolating both. Likewise, their lax economic policies and commitment to laissez-faire capitalism inspired serious disillusionment with the new government among the masses. The Directory effectively isolated themselves from the vast majority of the people while, at the same time, not garnering a large enough social base upon which they could fend off attack; thus, the doors were opened for Napoleon to enter the scene and skillfully manipulate the political situation.
Works Cited

Bax, E. Belfort, Jean-Paul Marat: The People’s Friend. (1900) Available from:; Internet.
Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. (Oxford University Press, 2002).
Steel, Mark. Vive La Revolucion: A Stand-Up History of the French Revolution. (Haymarket Books, 2003).

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