Kropotkin on the French Revolution

Kropotkin’s work on the French Revolution, just issued in its English edition, professes to be written from the point of view of the “common people”. The author says: “The Parliamentary history of the Revolution, its wars, its policy and its diplomacy, has been studied and set forth in all its details. But the popular history of the Revolution remains still to be told. The part played by the people of the country places and towns in the Revolution has never been . . . narrated in its entirety.” (Page 4.) Kropotkin claims that his work, to a certain extent, fills the gap which previously existed. “the people,” he says, “long before the Assembly, were making the Revolution on the spot; they gave themselves, by revolutionary means, a new municipal administration.” (Page 108). Further: “The Assembly only sanctioned in principle and extended to France altogether what the people had accomplished themselves in certain localities. It went no further.” (Page 125.) Again, the middle-class Brissot said: “It is the galleries of the Convention, the people of Paris, and the Commune, who dominate the position and force the hand of the Convention every time some revolutionary measure is taken.” (Page 357.)

We know to-day that the French Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, that from the assembling of the States General to the days of the Directory there was a succession of bourgeois assemblies, and that, above all, fear drove the Royalist party to cede first one point and then another, and further, that the bourgeoisie, once in unstable control of the State, was compelled, in order to keep the allegiance of its own lower ranks and the help of the incipient proletariat, to grant measures of relief, of political and legal reform. And, of course, a plentiful crop of promises. As Meredith puts it: “The rich will not move without a goad – I have and hold – you shall hunger and covet – until you are strong enough to force by hand.”

The French revolution was, then, a bourgeois revolution, made by a wealthy class, a class which, having gradually attained a position of economic advantage, determined on the grasping of political power as the proper safeguard of its interests. There can be little doubt that the English Revolution of 1640 and the great French Revolution were enacted by such.

But Kropotkin does not adopt the Marxian view that the root of historic change is to be found chiefly in economic development. He says that “It is always ideas that govern the world”, and he contends that two currents made the French Revolution. “One of them, the current of ideas, concerning the political reorganisation of States, came from the middle classes; the other, the current of action, came from the people,  . . . who wanted to obtain immediate and definite improvements in their economic condition.” (Page 1.)

There have been many attempts to explain the French Revolution in other than economic terms. Kropotkin thus largely attributes it to the work of the philosophers and teachers who preceded the Revolution, but after all his concept differs but little from that of Louis the Sixteenth, who, when he encountered the works of Voltaire and Rousseau in the library of the Order of Malta, referred to them as the source of all his misfortunes. Other historians have spoken of the whimsical and unbalanced character of the French people as the cause of the great Revolution, and this is surely as plausible as an explanation as the “idea” hypothesis of Kropotkin. Frederic Harrison, in his essays on the Meaning of History, gives a long and remarkable list of economic changes which the Revolution made, and Kropotkin himself recognises this when he says: “Before all this (i.e., the Revolution)could be realised they (the bourgeoisie) knew the ties that bound the peasant to his village must be broken. It was necessary that he should be free to leave his hut, and even that he should be forced to leave it, so that he might be impelled towards the towns in search of work.” (Page 8.) “As to the real authority, that was to be vested in a Parliament, in which an educated middle class, which would represent the active and thinking part of the nation, should predominate.” (Page 7.)

I remember once seeing an advertisement in an American magazine puffing up a well-known brand of revolvers. It was illustrated with a picture full of meaning. A paymaster stood behind a wire screen doling out wages. A few dozen piles of coins were laid in a row, and behind the screen were a few dozen rough looking men waiting for their wages. Within easy reach of the paymasters’ hand lay a revolver; one, as the advertisement grimly said, reputed for quick, accurate work at short notice. The revolver was emblematic of force, but here is the rub – what was there to prevent the men themselves likewise possessing these weapons celebrated for quick and accurate work? I think we can safely say that in the majority of cases it was the “idea” deeply imprinted on the minds of the men that the paymaster had a right to his piles of gold. Not that the illustration stops here, or we should be idealists; but this servile idea that property is sacred, a test of virtue and ability, had been sedulously instilled into the minds of those men by the paid orators and quibblers of the capitalist class. It is our work, we who are conscious of the working of class society, to combat that idea, and in this work we are aided by economic conditions; whilst the economic environment existing at the time of the great French Revolution was not adapted to the social ownership of the means of production and distribution. We Socialists, just as much as the hired hacks of the capitalist class, are products of our time. We move along the line of the law of things; to-day insecurity of existence for the many, production concentrating into monopoly, our vigorous propaganda, these are the elements which make for Socialism.

Kropotkin, however, gives us some acute criticism. He deals with the Communistic conception of Babeuf in a manner which is capable of application to our would-be sociologists of the I.L.P. Altogether Babeuf’s conception was so narrow, so unreal, that he thought it possible to reach Communism by the action of a few individuals who were to get the Government into their hands by means of a conspiracy of a secret society. He went so far as to put his faith in one single person, provided this person had a will strong enough to introduce Communism and thus save the world! (Page 491.) And so to the “Socialists” previously named it seems possible to reach Socialism by anticipating the workers’ class-consciousness, by “giving” the proletariat something; promising them amelioration with their enemies in power, and being so near sighted as to imagine that the crux of the problem lies in getting the suffix M.P. at the end of their leaders’ names, whilst the Socialist democracy is still in the making.

Kropotkin, on page 391 says: “Either there will be in the revolution (of the future) a day when the proletarians will separate themselves from the middle-class  . . . or this separation will not take place, and then there will be no revolution.” Now Kropotkin gives a detailed account of the position of Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre was the tool of the third estate, the instrument of the newly wealthy, who were satisfied with the position they had obtained. He was not their hypocritical, conscious tool, for he was noted for his rectitude and sincerity. But he was doing their work, nevertheless, when he was annihilating the Herbertists and Montagnards; for during the Terror, Louis Blanc tells us, out of 2,759 executions only 650 were wealthy people. Robespierre guillotined his “more advanced” co-workers. Then the “more conservative” of the bourgeoisie soon despatched Robespierre.

Liebknecht, in his short treatise No Compromise, says that the German Social Democrats have used opponents against opponents, but have never allowed their opponents to use them. Whether that be true or not, Kropotkin shows how during the French Revolution the proletariat were used by the bourgeoisie. At critical moments the poor were brought into the streets to fight and terrify the royalists. But when the terrifying was done they were sent back to their hovels to be patient and starve, and when the royalists had been beaten, the bourgeoisie did all that was possible to destroy the proletarian organisation in the sections. When the armies returned from the frontiers the men of the Faubourgs were surrounded and disarmed.

Kropotkin also brings out beautifully the work of the unknown toilers in the Revolution, the unknown organisers in the sections, of the type of the Communard of eighty years later, who died fighting at the barricades shouting, “For the solidarity of Humanity”. The Positivists set aside a day for the worship of “All the Dead”, of all those heroes by whose efforts and sacrifices, hopes and ideals, a better world has been made possible. Is it too sentimental to suggest that we also, amidst times of hoper and gloom, should give more than a stray thought to all those unknown comrades whose individual minute but collectively massive efforts have made Socialism something more than a Utopian dream?

(Socialist Standard, March 1910)

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