Wednesday, 17 September 2014

THE GREAT FRENCH REVOLUTION*

THE GREAT FRENCH REVOLUTION*

PETER KROPOTKIN'S BOOK,
——o——
AN APPRECIATION AND A VALUATION.

Gustave Le Bon has insisted that psychologically the essential distinction between the English and the French is that the English seek liberty and the French seek equality. Peter Kropotkin's book may be presented as strengthening the view. It is Equality's epic — the record of Equality's grandest experiment. It is unlike any previous history of the Great Revolution, though, indeed, Belfort Bax's vigorous monograph may be claimed to be its legitimate forerunner, and Carlyle's cinematographic masterpiece its relentless ballast. It would probably be safe to add that Kropotkin's book must hereafter rank as the indispensable companion of all other histories upon the subject. For this work is as new in its treatment as it is unique in its position. It is the economic side of the Revolution. Its 600 pages, divided into 68 chapters, are chiefly utilised in establishing the fundamental difference between the Commonplace and the Dramatic. This again marks a significant departure from the beaten track, for the average historian passes in silence or with sneer the stomachic struggles and aspirations of the poor. Bread-and-butter, like sex, is considered too indelicate a thing to parade. Kropotkin has no such scruple. Without this economic study, he tells us, "the history of the Revolution remains incomplete and in many points wholly incomprehensible." His book comes clamantly clarifying in its revelation of the true inwardness of peasant rising and Sansculottic emergence. It is epitome of the drudgery of the Revolution — pourtrayer and defender of autonomous control as exhibited in the sections, communes and municipalities. Administration of, by, and for the crowd— this is the soil of which the terrifyingly fascinating upheavals and their consequences are the outgrowth; Terror— Red and White — merely the manifestations of soil-thirst, the phenomena of starvation. "The Great French Revolution" may be classified as the Bible of Direct Action, the text-book of Communism, the philosophy of Revolution, the apotheosis of Insurrection. Such a book is indubitably great. 
 To Kropotkin the "great dates" of the Revolution are July II, August 4, October 5, 1789; June 21, 1791; August 10, 1792; May 31, 1793. They represent the taking of the Bastille, the renunciation by the clergy and nobility in the Assembly of their feudal rights— called somewhere " A St. Bartholomew of Property" — the women's march to Versailles, the capture of the King, the imprisonment of the King, and the third rising of the people of Paris. These dates are the clue to the book— its chapters their paean and their dissection. Some captions will firm the impression already given and sufficingly indicate the author's orbit : The Idea, Action, Declaration of the Rights of Man, Feudal Legislation, The Anarchists, Social Demands, The Communist Movement, Schemes for the Socialisation of Land, Education.
 As for the Revolution itself; "two great currents prepared and made it. One of them, the current of ideas, concerning the political reorganization of States, came from the middle classes; the other, the current of action, came from the people, both peasants and workers in towns, who wanted to obtain immediate and definite improvements in their economic condition. And when these two currents met and joined in the endeavor to realise an aim which for some time was common to both, when they had helped each other for a certain time, the result was the Revolution." It had many causes. While the eighteenth-century philosophers did much to prepare the way, "revolutionary action coming from the people must coincide with a movement of revolutionary thought coming from the educated classes." The genius of the Revolution was this Action. It bridged the abyss separating theory and practice : its creator, Hunger. Risings and insurrections there had been for years, but "a revolution is infinitely more." What is it? Hear a pregnant definition, likely to prove polemical fuel: "A revolution is a swift overthrow, in a few years, of institutions which have taken centuries to root in the soil, and seem so fixed and immovable that even the most ardent reformers hardly dare to attack them in their writings. It is the fall, the crumbling away in a brief period, of all that up to the time composed the essence of social, religious, political and economic life in a nation. It means the subversion of acquired ideas and of accepted notions concerning each of the complex institutions and relations of the human herd. In short, it is the birth of completely new ideas concerning the manifold links of citizen ship." The requisite union of thought and action could only take place when the Middle Class had become conscious of its rights and conceived a new scheme of political organization. Marvellous convergement brings forth means and men — and lo, the Great French Revolution.
 Kropotkin is careful to remind us that France was not a nation of heroes on the eve of 1789. The cahiers — list of grievances — of the third estate were not readily forthcoming, and dumbness reigned everywhere until rapid as the lightning, rebellion became, personified in the States General. As the Revolution proceeds our author makes instructive deductions. In 1790, he tells us, "armed Reaction was uppermost." In 1791 and 1792 "the whole work of the Revolution was suspended." Even 1793 was "not born of the fiery enthusiasm of the Revolution, but of the dialectical methods of the encyclopaedists." His "true picture of the Revolution" is its combats with Feudalism, which he methodises. Many will be especially interested in his scholarly comparison of the English and the French Revolutions. As in France, the English middle classes broke down the power of Royalty and the Court privileges and gained religious liberty, but in England also— unlike in France — the feudal powers of the lord was not destroyed and the middle classes secured political power only by sharing it with the aristocracy, which, adds Kropotkin, "persists to this day." As far as it marked the triumph of the third estate (middle class) against the second and fourth estates the French Revolution was signally successful. The middle class sought a Constitution modelled upon that of England, with freedom of industry and commerce and liberty to exploit the lower orders. In the gaining of this end it encouraged rioting and massacre, in turn to betray the Revolution. Without the risings and arms of the people " the middle classes would certainly not have achieved anything." Though remarkable in what it accomplished the Revolution failed, says Kropotkin, " because a force was found which was able to say 'Further thou shalt not go' when the most essential demands of the people were seeking expression."
 The greatest difficulty for the Revolution was that it had to make its way in the midst of frightful financial circumstances. It had to be realised in 36,000 communes; the time it took gave the Counter Revolution its chance. And again, "the revolutionary tribunal and the guillotine could not make up for the lack of a constructive theory." The real end came with the suppression of the popular societies and the sections. "The State had swallowed them and their death was the death of the Revolution."
 All this, from a scientist and sociologist, will doubtless be found absorbingly, new and suggestive by the numerous students of the Great French Revolution. In the course of much more arrestively said, Kropotkin emphasies that there were too many theorists amongst the leaders, too many Voltaireans, and too many politicians. Mably much more than Rousseau inspired the Revolution. Its true fountain and origin was the people's readiness to take up arms — though a revolution is much more than bullets and barricades. Still, as Louis Blanc stated, "the wind that blows from the street" was necessary, and will be again. Progress is impossible without revolution. Humanity advances by stages, and these stages have been marked for several hundred years by great revolutions— witness England, Netherlands, America, France. The next? "One may have thought for a time that it would be Russia. But if she should push her revolution further than the mere limitation of the imperial power; if she touches the land question in a revolutionary spirit how far will she go? Will she know how to avoid the mistakes made by the French Assemblies, and will she socialise the land and give it only to those who want to cultivate it with their own hands? We know not : any answer to this question would belong to the domain of prophecy."
   Tabloid estimates of figures of the Revolution are abundant in this work. It would seem as if our judgments of idols or demons must be bountifully recast. Marat bulks as Kropotkinian hero. He pleaded the cause of the people with his head upon the block. Had he lived the Terror had been less ferocious. "The distinctive feature of his mind was that at each given moment he understood what had to be done for the triumph of the people's cause." Danton is powerfullest personage of the Revolution. He made hearts thrill and throb. Yet— ironic deposition !—he came to the symbol of Counter-Revolution! "In political circles it was known that Danton was the rallying-point of the counter-revolutionists." Concerning Robespierre our author blows neither hot nor cold. "Seagreen Incorruptible " is depicted as "always careful never to go beyond the opinion of those who represented the dominant power at a given moment." Yet little as he is worthy of sympathy, "it must be admitted that he developed with the Revolution." Hebert was beloved of the people for his frank Republicanism. Saint Just was simply mouth of Robespierre. Brissot, rival of Robespierre, was antagonist of anarchism, and therefore anathema. Mirabeau, exposed by Kropotkin, sits no longer on a Carlylean throne. He was mercenary and traitor. King Louis XVI. always took exactly the step which was to lead him to the catastrophe. King Charles I. was sort of hypnotist of him. He dreamed of repeating Charles in himself and waging war against Parliament. He constantly read the history of the ill-fated English king only to see wherein Charles had failed by not doing this or that: he saw no beheadment possible or potential — learnt no lesson indeed. Marie-Antoinette was corrupt, depraved to the heart. He called Drouet, who effected the capture of the king in his flight, as type of the people who take the lead in upheaval and dominate the politician. Of others — some widely known and some personal forces unknown — a plenitude of insight.
    If, naturally, Peter Kropotkin delineates the Giroudins as protectors of property and enemies of the people, he is perhaps inordinately censorious of the Jacobins. This club "had none of the power and revolutionary initiative with which modern political writers endow it. The very persons composing the mother society in Paris were chiefly well-to-do middle-class men. How could they guide the Revolution?" They were never a centre of action, were "pretended leaders" who thought as little as other politicians of instituting the Republic. The Cordeliers Club was the most advanced. The conflict between the Giroudins and Montagnards is graphically sketched. The Montagnards were divided into two groups — " Enrages" or extremists, and moderates. Robespierre belonged to the latter. In the hour of their victory the Montagnards, somewhat like our own Labor parties, cold-shouldered the extremists, who attached themselves to the "anarchists." These were the revolutionists, scattered all over France, who surrendered everything to the movement.
 A subject meriting a treatise is the Socialism of this book— one might aptly call it, compendium. Though the word Socialism was not used Kropotkin shows that the writers of the period were imbued with ideas the very essence of Modern Socialism, which has added nothing to the said ideas. He castigates " learned Socialists" for their " soporific theorising," and says that Socialism as a term came into use from the cowardice which bent before the blast of hatreds to Communism. He maintains that the popular Communism of the first two years of the Republic saw clearer and went much deeper in its analyses than modern Socialism, and finally he presents one L'Ange as precursor of Karl Marx and discoverer of Surplus Value! Classical Socialism is already pricking its ears— Kropotkin will have his answer.
  Rich to repletion is this volume in critical observations. "The Directory was a terrible orgy of the middle classes, in which the fortunes acquired during the Revolution especially during the Thermidorean reaction, were squandered in unbridled luxury." The White Terror is shown to be crueller than its red predecessor; why Terror had ceased to terrorise is profound mystery. The "new " military tactics of swift marches, detached attacks and so forth— afterwards attributed to Napoleon, and stepping stones to the 18th Brumaire— originated, we are told, with the people's generals. Civil war and war of invasion are skilfully diagnosed. Incidentally picturesque comments regarding England's part in the gigantesque proceedings obtrude in the recital. Parliament is consistently pilloried.
 Sociologists and economists will own to a debt of gratitude to Peter Kropotkin for his tireless research into popular deeds, designs and desires. His book is distinctively the people's story of the Revolution, and in it the people's strivings and starvings are sympathetically treated even if ruthlessly probed. "Their chief motive was the desire to get possession of the land and the desire to get rid of the feudal dues and the tithes." The very essence, the very foundation of the Revolution, reiterates Kropotkin, was the insurrection of the peasants for the abolition of feudal rights and the recovery of communal lands. It was a fever of land-hunger. The middle class and the peasantry each knew what it wanted, but the ideas of the masses were expressed chiefly by simple negations. Triumphant Revolutions come of knowing what you want and how to get what you want. What the sections and communes did in food cultivation, in supervising the supply and sale of bread and pricing of objects of prime necessity, and in application of the law of maximum (the genesis of New Proection) — and how their efforts gave to the world as never before the ideas of nationalising the soil and socialising commerce—this is probably the most significant story in a really big book, inadequately reviewed. Certain it is that the erroneous view commonly held, and noted by Belfort Bax— the view that the Great French Revolution was merely the fall of one institution called the Bastille and the rise of another institution called the Guillotine — certain it is that this view is given a formidable thrust, perhaps the death-thrust, by Peter Kropotkin's titanic history.
R. S. ROSS. 

[*' The Great French Revolution, 1789 1793.' By P. A. Kropotkin. Translated from the French by N. F. Dryhurst. London: W. Heinemann; 6d. net]

The Worker 28 July 1910, 

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