The guillotine, knitting and terror…

So you think you know about the French Revolution?

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Subjects: History (Theory & Practice), Republicanism, Revolution & Rebellion
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The last few years I have been playing word association games; asking people at work and at the pub to say the first thing that comes into their head about a particular historical event or figure. So typically the English Civil War carries mental images of ‘laughing cavaliers’, ‘miserable roundheads’ and blood-thirsty executions of kings, World War I produces ‘mud, blood and barbed wire’ and recently, PC Blakelock elicits ‘brutal mob violence’. Of course some people and events produce absolutely nothing; Cherry Groce, Cynthia Jarrett or Croke Park anyone?[1]

This crude examination of popular memory is useful in that it exposes to us the dominant representations of historical events that are imprinted in our consciousness. If, for example, we were fully ensconced in a state of post-modernity (as some might claim) then we would expect to see a dizzying array of narratives or representations. Instead with British history, in my experience at least, the word associations rarely demonstrate the existence of more than one dominant narrative, often closely linked to bourgeois nationalist mythology.

Of course silences and omissions tell us something as well; what is taboo or has to be ‘forgotten’. As we often say in Bristol Radical History Group, the first important question about popular memory is ‘What don’t you know?’ … but the second ‘Why don’t you know it?’ is even more crucial. This leads us onto researching the historiography of the distortion and abolition of history by the British ruling class and their government, education and media lackeys [2]; a critical and political approach which is severely lacking in the ivory towers of academia.

The French Revolution

One of the most interesting word associations I have played with is the French Revolution. Most people come up with images associated with the ‘reign of terror’; guillotines flashing down, aristocratic heads rolling past cackling old women furiously knitting away[3] as psychopathic crowds roar in the background. The (subconscious) obsession with terror that we have planted in our minds should be of significant worry to us, as it is a symptom of successful historical brainwashing and ‘grooming’ more successful than either the Moonies or Al Qaeda.

I recently read an excellent summary by Florence Gauthier of the phases and historical gains of the French Revolution of 1789-95 which both informed and excited my historical radar. I highly recommend reading it and a large part of what follows in this essay is a shameless popularisation of her work[4].

The thrust of Gauthier’s article is that both bourgeois and classical Marxist assessments of the French revolution have passed over (for different reasons) the incredible progressive content of both the social movements and legislative changes that were enacted by the peasant and urban revolutionaries and their (global) anti-colonial allies. Establishment (bourgeois) histories have the problem of dealing with the fact that as a class they came to power on the back of events such as the English and French Revolutions. As one historian commented in the same volume as Gauthier:

Bourgeois revolutions wrote Marx, quickly achieve their goals, but in order to come to terms with the turmoil of its revolutionary upheavals and achievements, bourgeois society ‘has to undergo a long period of regret’ so that its legacy may be assimilated in a sober fashion[5]

I would go further than Marx; to my mind there is a simple reason for this ‘regret’ and cautiousness in establishment histories about (violent) bourgeois revolutions in established Western European powers which is somewhat different to the glorification of the production of ‘republics’ in anti-colonial revolutions[6]. Class war and revolution internal to an already formed nation-state breaks taboos; effectively producing the realisation that ‘it has been done once, so it can be done again’, which of course if you are the new ruling-class is not an ideal scenario. The popular legitimation of the (violent) overthrow of power by design (and crucially in practice) requires the new ruling class to be cautious about its revolutionary history, effectively to play it down and in time carefully delegitimise it. This seems to have been the French experience[7].

The impact of the French Revolution in Britain

In Britain, the situation was and is different both in a historical and contemporary sense. The French revolution of 1789-95 was a frightening experience for the British ruling class, which was essentially an anti-democratic elite comprised of the aristocracy, land-owning gentry and an increasingly powerful bourgeoisie. This mob of inbred land-robbers, mercantile slave-owners[8], colonial drug-dealers and domestic exploiters had formed an uneasy alliance in 1688-9 averting splits which may have led to a second popular Republic. This coalition and consequent shoring up of the state probably saved the monarchy and aristocracy from a systematic bloody end at the hands of revolutionary democrats, who desperately needed to finish a job they had started back in the 1640s. Then in a sleight of hand worthy of an expert illusionist, the events of 1688-9 were offered back to the populace as ‘The Glorious Revolution’; rather than the actuality of a grubby ‘coup d’état’ at best or an embarrassingly successful Dutch invasion at worst. Either way, the whole affair did not significantly involve the mass of the populace in any meaningful political manner, unlike the 1640s. This fact is reflected in the content of the so-called Bill of Rights[9] of 1689 which essentially asserts the right to govern for the major property owners and rising bourgeois class against the claims of a weakened monarchy. Consequently, despite its democratic pretensions, the ‘people’ do not feature in this Bill of Rights in any meaningful way.

The first Republic (1649-60) created by the victories of the insurgents in the English Revolution was quietly forgotten and new neutral names created to hide the problematic revolutionary conflict (which had literally ‘turned the world upside down’); The English Civil War or The Great Rebellion. This effectively usurped and contextually reduced the English Revolution to the level of a squabble between sections of the ruling class or a failed rising. Goebbels would have been proud.

So a century later, to the horror of the British ruling classes, when the Bastille fell in 1789, the problems of democracy, republicanism and popular power all bubbled to the surface again. It is hard to understand nowadays the impact of the French Revolution in Britain in the 1790s. As disenfranchised workers, rural labourers, artisans and the ‘dangerous classes’ read or heard about the seizure of power by the oppressed French populace, the regicide and the crushing of the aristocracy and church by public execution they were often excited and energised with class anger. Even more worrying for the alliance of the elite was the publication of home-grown revolutionary Tom Paine’s Rights of Man in 1791. This text was originally a riposte to Edmund Burke’s critique of the revolution[10], but effectively became a justification of the events in France as well as a detailed theoretical manual for republican revolution and democratic reform. The text sold 50,000 copies in the first two months and 200,000 by the end of the year, eclipsing by orders of magnitude any other popular book in the period[11].

Counter-revolutionary repression and propaganda

Consequently, the British ruling-class were forced to unleash a parallel campaign of repression aimed at the agitators for democracy and universal ‘rights of man’ and propaganda to win back the ‘hearts and minds’ of a wavering public. It was a delicate balance, going in to hard and too wide against the masses could spark the feared revolution, too soft and support for the reformist path to citizenship and democracy might generalise.

The targeted repression involved suppressing and ‘gagging’ publications, arresting for ‘sedition’ printers, publishers, writers and speakers[12], transporting some activists to the colonies, banning public meetings and political organisations whilst simultaneously infiltrating them with spies. Ominously, Habeas Corpus [13] was suspended twice in the 1790s for significant periods (between May 1794-July 1795 and April 1798-March 1801) allowing the government to imprison members of the democratic movement without trial. Loyalist groups were also initiated, funded and encouraged to violently attack the radicals and their property. Military units were deployed across the country such that:

the industrial areas were treated almost as a conquered country in the hands of an army of occupation. Troops were freely used to suppress disorder, but even so were often found to be unreliable because of their sympathy with the crowds they were ordered to attack

The fear of fraternisation and potential revolutionary mutiny led to significant structural and organisational changes to the internal security (sic) forces:

The whole country was covered with a network of barracks, built so as to prevent contact between the people and the soldiers, who had formally been billeted in houses and inns….a new body, the yeomanry, a mounted force drawn from the upper and middle classes, was created….[which, although] quite useless from a military point of view…was intended to be a class body with the suppression of ‘Jacobinism’ as its main object[14]

As usual the tactical caution of the British ruling-class on the mainland was not matched in its colonies. Inspired by the French Revolution, a republican insurrection in Ireland in 1798 was savagely repressed by the British with tens of thousands of casualties and systematic rape, torture and executions of combatants and civilians by half-hanging[15] and burning alive.

The propaganda campaign on the mainland (which we can still see the echoes of today) was aimed at uniting the majority of the nation against the domestic democratic agitators through a ‘great fear’ (sic) of the so-called ‘terror’ unfolding in France. Propaganda in the major newspapers often took the form of garish cartoons intended to create revulsion and fear amongst their readers of revolutionary chaos, starvation and execution[16]. Some examples follow:

Promis'd horrors of the French invasion, - or - forcible reasons for negotiating a regicide peace
Figure 1: James Gillray, The Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion (1796): Gillray exposes his viewers to the consequences of a French invasion. Here the scene is St. James’ Street in London. A French army marches through the city, bearing various dismembered bodies (including that of Lord Grenville on the right) and flags supporting a republic. On the left, French soldiers clear out White’s Club (a pro-government social club) and begin hurling aristocrats from the balcony. They have also thrown out playing cards and part of a gambling table. Meanwhile, on the balcony of the Brookes’s club, British radicals (including an Anglican minister and some dissenters) burn the Magna Carta, introduce new laws, and guillotine a variety of authority figures (including a judge as indicated by the white, flowing wig). A note beneath a plate of heads says: ‘Killed off for the Public Good’ On the ground floor, a man walks in the main entrance bearing a sack on his head (‘Remnants of the Treasury’) and under his arm (‘Requisitions from the Bank of England’). In the right foreground, a bundle including the Bill of Rights, various statutes, and several acts of Parliament bears a tag: ‘Waste Paper’. In the centre of the composition, William Pitt, the Prime Minister, finds himself tied to a liberty pole while Charles Fox scourges him. In the background, a church is on fire.


French Liberty British slavery
Figure 2: French Liberty, British Slavery, James Gillray’s 1792 ironic cartoon depicting a starving ‘free’ French revolutionary and a well fed ‘enslaved’ British man.
The Radical’s Arms
Figure 3: English caricaturist George Cruickshank, The Radical’s Arms (1819); the guillotine became central to the images of terror and bloody chaos

One of the key loyalist organisations which helped supress the republican upsurge was the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers founded on 20 November 1792 by Judge, conservative activist and monarchist John Reeves. The Association soon boasted of over 2,000 branches and with the blessing of the British state had within a year by threats and violence forced the nascent movement for republican democracy underground. An example of propaganda of the Association is given below:

The Contrast 1792
Figure 4: Thomas Rowlandson, The Contrast 1792, Rowlandson, a prominent caricaturist, published this etching on behalf of the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers.

The success of the various forms of state repression and propaganda in forcing the democratic movement off the streets by the end of 1793 and fixing the notion of symbolic ‘terror’ into the nation’s psyche necessarily drove the radicals into semi-clandestine organisation. The consequence was a shift in the counter-revolutionary propaganda towards the fear of plots, traitors and secret plans to help the French invade Britain. The radicals, now somewhat invisible, were portrayed as sub-human troglodytes gathering in cellars to plan subversion.

London Corresponding Society alarm'd
Figure 4: James Gillray, London Corresponding Society alarm’d (1798). The man with his back to the viewer has a comb in his hair and a pair of scissors lying on his hat; he is a barber. The man to the left has a butcher’s steel hanging from his pants. The society’s membership appears in the book resting on the chair to the right. It includes names like “Forging Sam,” “Barber Joe,” “Dick Butcher,” “Filching Ned,” “Dissenting Nick,” and “Sheepshead Will.” Two posters appear on the wall on the background. The one on the right is entitled “Tom Payne.”


The power of these representations of the French Revolution and its advocates were enhanced by nationalism during the Napoleonic Wars, sustained by popular fiction during the 19th Century (such as A Tale of Two Cities one of the best-selling books in history[18]) and nurtured by politicians and journalists alike. However, despite this attempt to airbrush revolutionary history by fear of the ‘terror’, movements and groups inspired by French democratic republicanism appeared at Peterloo (1819), during the Captain Swing uprising (1830-31) and as part of the enfranchisement struggles of the 1830s. The ‘republican mole of democracy’ continued to burrow to the surface in Britain and Ireland despite the repression and counter-revolutionary propaganda[19].

So what was really going on in France during the Revolution?

Having briefly surveyed the mainstream representation (the form) of the French Revolution in Britain, we now need to explore the actual content of the events which exploded in 1789. Gauthier’s essay[20] presents a brilliant analysis of the phases of the revolution, stripping away the historical mush, anecdote and cult of the celebrity which plagues recent popular post-modern histories[21]. For Gauthier, the revolutionary period can be broken into two distinct phases:

  • 1789-1794: This was a popular democratic struggle waged from the bottom up in both urban and rural environments in France and its colonies against both internal and external enemies of the revolution, to assert the “natural rights of man and the citizen”. That is ‘rights’ collectively agreed in a constitutional form, imposed on any constituent authority by the populace (if necessary by force) and crucially attached to people per se, not to property or wealth.
  • Post 1794: Represented the victory of a bourgeois counter-revolution which asserted the concept of ‘rights of man in society’, a quite distinct concept from the above declaration, whereby ‘rights’ were granted by undemocratic public authorities on the basis of wealth and property. This effectively divided the population into two groups “active citizens, who enjoyed all civil and political rights, and passive citizens who were deprived of the exercise of political rights and excluded from political society”[22]

The rest of this essay will concentrate on the former period which effectively determined the political terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ marking a struggle between popular revolutionary demands from the base and counter-revolutionary bourgeois power respectively. Effectively this phase consisted of three revolutions from below (July 1789, August 1792 and May/June 1793) and the counter-revolution of July 1794.

July 1789: Popular power, ‘natural rights’ and the end of feudalism

After the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, the King’s parliament, the Estates General, was dissolved to create a new body, the Constituent National Assembly (CNA), which “installed a new authority, deriving from elections, which had just overthrown the monarchy established by divine right…and transferred the king’s sovereignty to the people”[23]. The CNA was the initial battleground where the base forced through its revolutionary demands. A huge peasant uprising known as The Great Fear exploded in the French countryside in July 1789:

The peasant revolts combined food riots with armed insurrections which were anti-monarchical, in opposition to the administrators, tax-collection and the legal system, anti-ecclesiastical in the refusal to pay tithes and above all anti-feudal. In this respect the village communities directly attacked the landlords’ property titles – whether they were nobles, commoners or clergy – either to burn them or force the landlord to sign a declaration that he would waive his rights in future. They also re-appropriated common property that had been taken over by the landlords, and used it immediately by sending their cattle to graze there, and by re-establishing customary rights[24]

This attack on late-feudalism was also a reversal of a century or so of enclosure and rationalisation of land, symptomatic of the erosion of subsistence for the peasants and consequent proletarianisation; effectively creating the conditions for the rise of capitalist social relations. As a result, on August 4th 1789, the CNA symbolically abolished feudalism. Following this, on 26th August 1789, the CNA instituted the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’. This ‘proclaimed the natural rights of man and the citizen with the modern philosophy of natural right and its principles of sovereignty as the common property of a people, and of reciprocal rights”[25], effectively granting universal rights to the inhabitants of France regardless of their access to or ownership of land and property. This moment heralded the beginning of a long campaign by the left-hand of the CNA to defend ‘natural right’ and the right-hand to destroy it.

Symbolically abolishing feudalism was certainly not enough for the peasants, who wanted to physically destroy the actual social relation. Attempts by the right-wing of the CNA to withdraw from the revolutionary acts passed in 1789, defend the monarchy and also to allow free-trade in corn[26] were hit by mass demonstrations, food riots and five massive peasant uprisings in 1789-92 which expanded the elimination of property deeds and expropriation of land from the feudal classes. These revolts were countered by various declarations of martial law by the right-wing of the CNA in 1790-91 and attempts to roll back the concept of ‘natural rights’ within the new constitution[27].

In reaction the revolutionary populace formed numerous democratic societies to debate and discuss the way forward for the revolution and, in order to assert power over the governing body, activated primary assemblies of the people. These urban communes and rural councils included participation on a mass scale of both ‘passive’ and ‘active’ citizens, men and crucially women. These combined forces from the base began to push the CNA to the left. It was at this moment that revolting slaves in St Domingue (modern day Haiti) literally ‘turned the world upside down’.

August 1791: The Black Jacobins enter stage left….

The first point to make about St. Domingue is that it was one of the most important colonial economic projects of the 18th Century. Over 500,000 West-African and American slaves inhabited the island, which through their labour was producing 60% of the world’s sugar and 40% of its coffee. It was the single richest and most productive colony on the planet, out producing both the Americas and the British Caribbean and providing France with a major boost to its economy. The massive slave uprising which broke out in August 1791[28] shook the existing world powers and eventually forced the practical definition of ‘universality’ in the French revolutionary project.

A new governing body, the Legislative Assembly (LA) which had taken over from the CNA in October 1791 retrospectively responded to the slave revolt “by recognising the civil and political rights of people of colour and created, from the name of its decree, the ‘citizens of 4 April 1792”[29].  Despite this positive step, most of the LA still supported the idea of a constitutional monarchy and many on the right were conspiring to redirect the revolutionary project towards a war of conquest in Europe. This would “enable France to enrich itself, to find allies and to deflect the popular democratic movement from its political and economic objectives”[30] .This move was opposed by the left on the grounds that revolutions could not be imposed from above, especially in other countries, and they speculated that the results would be the loss of popular support in Europe for their revolutionary ideas[31]. The king and queen, acting as proto-constitutional monarchs for the LA, declared war on Austria (and by default Prussia) on 20th April 1792, whilst actively encouraging their general staff to lose the war on the basis that they could then repress the revolutionary movement. Their (predictable) treachery would cause a second revolution and eventually cost them their lives.

The Revolution of 10th August 1792: The end of monarchy and rise of ‘The Mountain’

On the night of 10th August revolutionary insurgents and popular militias supported by the Paris Commune (effectively the city council, which was dominated by the republicans) stormed the Tuileries Palace, overwhelmed the royalist guards and took the royal family as prisoners. The fraction of the bourgeoisie who had taken power from the monarchy on the back of the first revolution in 1789 was deposed as the Legislative Assembly was wound up. A new revolutionary body, the Convention was formed, which was elected by universal suffrage[32]. At its first meeting on 21st September the Convention abolished the monarchy and attempted to shore up agrarian legislation passed in late August which asserted the communes as overseers of common land, dismantled the feudal rent system without reparation and supported the expropriation of the landowners by the peasants. Although the laws had been nominally passed the ‘new’ right-wing of the Convention (the Girondins, who controlled the majority of votes in the first few months) refused to apply the legislation and forced through proposals in December 1792 to allow unlimited free trade in grain and martial law in order to impose them.

In reaction to this refusal and backward step the mass democratic movement in the winter of 1792-3 began to devolve power away from the Convention and towards the communes, taking “control of policy with regard to supplies, the fixing of prices of essential goods, supplies to markets and assistance to paupers”. Gauthier marks this important moment by stating:

It should be stressed that this was how the separation of powers was established in France at this time, and this was how true communal democracy was built in practice, where citizens’ meetings in village assemblies or urban commune electoral divisions elected their municipal councils, police officials and justices of the peace. These same general assemblies controlled their elected representatives who had the responsibility of applying the laws, but also food policy as well as social assistance. It should be made clear here there was no such thing as what is described as administrative centralisation, with state apparatuses separated from society[33]

In order to defend the democratic movement, its revolutionary principles and what Gauthier calls “a programme of popular political economy” the republican masses and their left-wing representatives in the Convention adopted the name The Mountain[34]which:

did not indicate an organised party of the sort we understand today, but rather a general project, a set of principles laid out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which acted as a compass to guide thought and action[35].

The combination of popular pressure from below and the left in the Convention gave The Mountain significant political clout in opposition to the counter-revolutionary machinations of the right-wing Girondin faction. Their disastrous ‘war of conquest’ in Europe had followed the path predicted by Robespierre and his left-wing allies in dividing Europe, alienating potential supporters of the revolution and shoring up nationalist support for respective monarchies. As a result by the spring of 1793, the revolution was under greater threat than ever with a large Austrian army occupying the northern department intent on re-establishing the monarchy and feudal social relations.

However, the Girondins’ attempts to halt the widespread pressure for the traitorous king to be dealt with failed dismally against the dynamism and popular force of The Mountain. On 17th January 1793 Louis was unanimously found guilty by the Convention and condemned to death by a majority for “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety”. It is interesting to note that Robespierre, Saint-Just and much of the popular movement opposed a formal trial on the basis that it was a paradox. For Robespierre this contradiction was crucial to the understanding of the revolution as not just a change in rulers or laws, but a fundamental transformation in the structure of class power, sovereignty and governance:

There is not trial to be held. Louis is not a defendant. You are not judges. You are not, you cannot be anything but statesmen and representatives of the nation…A dethroned king, in the Republic, is good for only two uses: either to trouble the peace of the state and threaten liberty, or to affirm both of these at the same time…Proposing to put Louis on trial…would be to regress towards royal and constitutional despotism; it is a counter-revolutionary idea, for it means putting the revolution itself in contention. In fact, if Louis can still be put on trial, then he can be acquitted; he may be innocent; what am I saying!…But if Louis is acquitted, if Louis can be presumed innocent, what becomes of the revolution? If Louis is innocent, then all defenders of liberty become slanderers; the rebels were the friends of truth and defenders of oppressed innocence; all the manifestos of foreign courts are just legitimate complaints against a dominant faction…the people of Paris, all the patriots of the French empire are guilty; and, pending nature’s tribunal, this great trial between crime and virtue, between liberty and tyranny is decided in favour of crime and tyranny[36]

Or as Saint-Just put it more succinctly; by default: “Every king is a rebel and a usurper”[37]

Execution of Louis XVI in what is now the Place de la Concorde
Figure 6: Execution of Louis XVI in what is now the Place de la Concorde (at the time La Place de la Révolution), facing the empty pedestal where the statue of his grandfather, Louis XV, had stood.

On 21st January 1793 the former Louis XVI, now simply named Citizen Louis Capet, was led to the guillotine on the Place de la Révolution and, in front of a huge crowd, decapitated. The executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, recounted “One of the assistants of Sanson showed the head of Louis XVI to the people, whereupon a huge cry of ‘Vive la Nation! Vive la République!arose and an artillery salute rang out which reached the ears of the imprisoned Royal family”[38]. Job done.

And in St Domingue….?

The Girondin majority in the Convention followed a similar counter-revolutionary path with regard to the colonies, but once again were thwarted by popular armed power. The right-wing certainly did not support the on-going slave uprising in St Domingue (Haiti) and sided instead with the slave-owning settlers who were themselves brokering a deal with the British to crush the insurgents and re-establish slavery. Gauthier notes:

From late 1791 onwards, many settlers emigrated to London and sought the support of Prime Minister Pitt. The leaders of the colonial counter-revolution…negotiated the British occupation of the French colonies in order to preserve slavery there, and promised to supply French officers and men to the British navy[39]

As their first step in February 1793 the Girondin government actively tried to remove the revolutionary Civil Commissioners, Polverel and Sonthonax, who were preparing to abolish slavery in St Domingue. The Girondins’ plan to crush the concentration of pro-revolutionary forces in the colonies main port Le Cap would probably have succeeded but for a brilliant move by Sonthonax in offering freedom and the rights of French citizenship to 15,000 slaves, part of the slave army encamped just outside the city, if they would fight for France and the commissioners[40]. The bargain was agreed in June 1793 and shifted the course of history as the unholy alliance of slave-owners, counter-revolutionaries and royalists was comprehensively defeated and driven from the island. Consequently, on August 29th 1793, in perhaps the most revolutionary act of the whole period, Sonthonax:

took the initiative of establishing universal freedom throughout the island and for the first time proclaimed in St Domingue the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. He then proposed to organise the election by the new citizens of a delegation from St Domingue, which would carry the news to the Convention and would ask, with maximum publicity, for the French Revolution to give its support[41]

This was effectively the end of slavery and white rule in the colony, though it also marked the beginning of a long struggle for independence against foreign intervention[42].

Meanwhile back at the ranch…

The practical and legal universalization of the contested heart of the French Revolution in St Domingue confirmed the intractable dilemma between the right and The Mountain. Earlier that year, in May 1793, whilst many radical deputies were away organising the defence of the Republic:

the Convention voted without debate for a version of the Declaration of Rights that replaced the notion of natural right with that of rights of man in society. This was a new political theory, which abandoned the reference to the modern philosophy of natural right, which underlay the Declaration of 1789. The aim of society was no longer to establish the natural rights of man by imposing respect for these rights on the public authorities but, on the contrary, the public authorities were to allocate rights without reference to a shared and agreed ethic. The theory of the Revolution was overturned in favour of a new political theory in the interests of the possessing classes[43]

This duplicitous retreat from the universal principles of the revolution combined with the disastrous war of conquest unleashed by the right-wing and their unpopular domestic free-market policies sealed the fate of the counter-revolutionary Girondin faction in the Convention. Once again The Mountain rose.

The Third Revolution May/June 1793: The Mountain and ‘natural rights’

On June 2nd 1793, spurred on by popular radical factions to the left of Robespierre and the Jacobins (such as the Enragés and the Hébertists[44]), 80,000 armed sans-culottes[45] surrounded the meeting halls of the National Convention. They demanded the immediate arrest of the counter-revolutionary Girondin faction, a low fixed price for bread and a limitation of the electoral franchise to sans-culottes alone. The Convention yielded to the armed masses and a number of Girondin deputies were taken into custody[46].

From this point until July 1794 the policies of the Convention were driven by the supporters of The Mountain both within the assembly and without. Gauthier systematically lists these important initiatives[47] (they are reproduced from the original here):

June-October 1793: Agrarian reform

The first initiative taken by the Mountain was to give, at last, a favourable response to the peasant movement by immediately applying the abolition without redemption of the rights weighing on the dues-payers as a result of the law of 17 July 1793. Common land was made over to the communes by the law of 10 June 1793 and common lands taken over by the landlords over the previous forty years were restored to the communes, together with all partitions carried out since 1669. The sale in small portions of national property (property of the Church and of émigrés) was made easier by the law of 3 June and some of this property was distributed free of charge to paupers by the law of 13 September. The destruction of fortified castles and the burning of the property titles of the landlords over the dues-payers were legalized by the law of 6 August. Finally, the equal division of inheritances between heirs of either sex, including illegitimate children who had been recognized, was instituted by the law of 26 October 1793.

June 1793: Re-establishment of ‘natural rights’ and universal citizenship

The second initiative of the Montagnard Convention was to settle down immediately to work on the Constitution. On 23 and 24 June, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen re-established natural rights in continuity with that of 1789, and the Constitution installed a social and democratic republic. It should be made clear that the martial law was formally abolished on 23 June, with all its component parts, including the Le Chapelier law. Universal male suffrage was open to all men aged over twenty-one born in France or who had been living in the republic’s territory for at least a year[48]. Citizenship was attached to the fact of living there, and represented an interesting experiment in citizenship attached to the person and not to what we nowadays call nationality. It should be noted that this open definition of citizenship derived from, common law, especially the Parisian, which granted rights of citizenship to anyone who had lived in Paris for a year.

July-August 1793: Prices, profits and control of the market[49]

The third problem the Montagnard Convention had to resolve was that of provisions. A programme known as the Maximum for prices of essential foodstuffs was organized during the summer of 1793 and complemented the agrarian legislation which, as we have seen, facilitated access to the land and distributed plots of land to poor peasants in order to increase the direct production of food. In September 1793 the list of essential foodstuff’s was drawn up, prices and commercial profits were fixed in relation to urban and rural wages which were increased, and markets were controlled by the creation of public granaries in each commune. The producers had to declare to the communes the total amount of their production and markets were supplied by requisition. Thus the unrestricted freedom of the grain trade was abolished, as was the means of applying it – martial law. For as long as the Maximum was applied – that is, until autumn 1794 – the population was supplied with urgently needed products (food and the basic raw materials required by artisans).

February 1794: The abolition of slavery and decolonisation

The abolition of slavery supported by the Montagnard Convention was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable advances in the rights of humanity. It will be recalled that the deputation from St Domingue arrived in France in January 1794, despite all the efforts to prevent it by the colonial party. On 16 Pluviose Year II (4 February 1794) the deputation based on equality of skin colour presented to the Convention the mandate it had received from the revolution in St Domingue. It proposed an alliance between the two revolutions, a common policy against the French settlers and their Spanish and British allies involved on both sides of the Atlantic. The Convention accepted this offer and extended universal freedom to all the French colonies. In April 1794 it sent an expedition of seven ships to the Caribbean with arms for St Domingue and troops to back up the decree abolishing slavery in the other French colonies. Slavery was abolished in Guyana and Guadeloupe in June 1794. In Saint Lucia abolition was carried through, but the British reconquest re-established slavery in 1796. A common policy calling into question the whole colonial, slave-owning and segregationist system, and a process of decolonization, was then embarked upon.

Unlike the experience of the previous legislative bodies (the Constituent National Assembly, Legislative Assembly and the pre-June 1793 Convention), where revolutionary acts had been passed in name and then hindered or overturned by the right-wing, this time the base exercised instant recall over the executive:

This revolution within government consisted of imposing a heavy responsibility on the elected agents of the executive, which remained decentralized, by obliging them to give accounts of their administration every ten days to the superior authority (commune, canton, department) which communicated these to the ministry by correspondence. Agents of the executive who did not make the laws public, or who obstructed their implementation, were removed from office and replaced by new elected representatives[50]

Gauthier expressly criticises (using empirical evidence) the representation of the June 1793 revolution as a Jacobin coup d’état and centralisation of power. Instead she makes it clear that the revolutionary government of 1793 was the first administration of the period to actually practice the constitution, by placing the central executive under the power of decentralised democratic bodies of the citizens. So this was truly a revolutionary phase that united popular power with extraordinary (and historic) radical policy.

The radical political and organisational measures listed above have been systematically obscured and distorted by historians using the concepts of ‘dictatorship’, ‘terror’ and even ‘genocide’ as a convenient distraction from the actual activities of the revolutionary government in this period. Gauthier notes:

The Thermidorians accused Robespierre, isolating him as a scapegoat, of aspiring to dictatorship and spread the extraordinary slander that he wanted to marry Louis XVI’s daughter and re-establish the monarchy! But it was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that ‘aspiring to dictatorship’ changed, in historical writing, into a ‘fully established dictatorship’. In this same period political theories originated which favoured the establishment of dictatorships of left or of right. Then the label ‘dictatorship’ was stuck on to the ‘revolutionary government’, with Leninist, then Stalinist and Trotskyist Marxisms all evaluating it positively. In the period 1950-60 non-Marxist historians kept the term ‘dictatorship’ and evaluated it negatively. In the 1970s, there were even philosophers — or those who claimed to be – who asserted that the French Revolution had been the womb of the totalitarianisms (in the plural) of the twentieth century! They needed a genocide, so they invented one: the Vendee[51], a regional civil war between revolution and counter-revolution, became a Franco-French genocide! Confusion had reached its high point…[52]

Counter-revolution July 1794: The end is near….Thermidor…

On 26th June 1794 the French revolutionary army under the command of Saint-Just won a famous battle against combined Austrian and Dutch forces at Fleurus in modern day Belgium. The invading royalist armies were driven back over the Rhine to the considerable relief of the beleaguered French revolutionaries. The military victory provided both time and space in order to consolidate the new Republic against its internal and external enemies and an opportunity to bring peace to revolutionary France, at least for the time being.

However, a month after the victory, opponents of the Jacobins and the left in the Convention launched their own coup d’état, arresting Robespierre and many of his associates. Despite attempts by the Paris Commune to send troops to their aid, on 28th July 1794 (the ‘month’ of Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar), Robespierre and twenty-one others were executed without trial. On the same day seventy members of the Commune were condemned to death and the popular assembly was brought under the control of the Convention, reversing the progress towards popular democracy. The remaining delegates who supported The Mountain were excluded from the Convention, leftists were imprisoned and the Jacobin clubs were closed down.  As Robespierre had foreseen this was only the tip of the iceberg of repression. In 1794-95 a ‘white-terror’[53] was unleashed against the Mountain and the left. This was organised by royalist death-squads supported by moderate bourgeois judges and led to the massacre of hundreds if not thousands of supposed ‘Jacobins’ and their allies throughout France.

It is important here to not be distracted by ‘white’ violence and instead to look in detail what the counter-revolution actually comprised in terms of governance, politics and economics. Gauthier isolates the following policy changes as a result of the coup[54]:

  • In direct contravention of the Mountain’s warnings about the dangers of imposing ‘revolution’ by  military force and despite the experience of 1791-93 the “Thermidorian Convention transformed Fleurus’ victory into a new war of conquest; five months later, in December 1794, the Rhineland and Holland were occupied”
  • The apparatus of popular power was suppressed: “democratic institutions were dismantled, the Commune of Paris abolished and the democratic representatives were purged”.
  • The restrictions on the ‘free market’ were lifted: “The policy of the Maximum was rescinded, the unlimited freedom of trade was re-established and the food weapon again became lethal”
  • Repression of the people was reasserted (again): “Martial law was re-established on 21st  March 1795″
  • Exclusive bourgeois power was formalised with the removal of universal ‘Natural Rights’ from the statute: “The Constitution of 1793 was replaced by that of 1795. Boissy d’Anglas, who drafted it, expressed the spirit of the new political theory which was a revival of the aristocracy of the rich: ‘We must be governed by the best, the best are the most educated, and you will only find such men among those who own property, are attached to the country which contains it and to the laws which protect it (23 June 1795)” Within a year of the coup ‘revolutionary’ France was ruled by a five-man Directory with full executive power[55].
  • The colonial project of conquest and slavery was reasserted against the universal rights of man: “Boissy d’Anglas justified a form of inequality between human societies by a theory that deserves to be remembered. Against the idea of the freedom of the human being as a natural universal right he asserted that only the northern climate, which moreover he restricted to Europe and the United States, was suitable for political liberty, and that the rest of the world was condemned to suffer the domination of these countries! He thus invented an extraordinary theory of the rights of northern men to dominate the world‘. As a result of this racist policy, in ‘1802 Bonaparte finished off the defeat of the rights of man by re-establishing slavery in the colonies. The measure provoked a new revolution in St Domingue which led to the independence of the Republic of Haiti on 1 January 1804. However, slavery was re-established in Guadeloupe, despite a bitter resistance to such an abomination, and in Guyana”

Gauthier is clear that the Themidorian reaction of 1794 was a counter-revolution which brought the bourgeoisie from a contested situation of dual-power with the masses that made up the The Mountain, to absolute political, economic and military domination. She forcefully states:

No, 1795 and its consequences do not reconnect with the principles of natural right declared in 1789, and then in 1793, but illustrate the failure of the rights of man and the citizen and the triumph of the specific interest of the possessing classes, of the politics of money, of the despotism of economic power. No, Napoleon Bonaparte was not an heir of the Enlightenment, nor of the revolution of the rights of man. Let us be clear, the possessing classes, conquerors in Europe and colonialists outside Europe, carried through a counter-revolution. The revolution of the rights of man and the citizen was not a bourgeois revolution, but a revolution of natural humanist right which attempted to liberate humanity from the doctrinal despotism of the churches, from the despotism of the state separate from society, from the despotism of conquering economic power which was colonialist and segregationist, from the despotism of sexual difference erected into a means of domination of one sex over the other

Gauthier’s point here is that both classical Marxist and liberal interpretations of the French Revolution have obscured the fundamental fact that it contained a bourgeois counter-revolution in 1794-5, which hinged around suppressing universal ‘natural rights’. By painting the whole period (1789-99) as being purely a bourgeois seizure of power against the aristocracy (as many classical Marxists have done) the truly revolutionary aspects of the incredible events of 1789-94 have been obscured or lost. It should also be noted that a ‘bourgeois’ class should not be necessarily conflated with a ‘capitalist’ class, and neither should a bourgeois ‘revolution’ denote a capitalist one. As Ellen Meiksins Wood forcefully pointed out in her seminal work The Origin of Capitalism:

It is surely misleading to treat popular struggles as the major force in advancing the development of capitalism, emphasizing them at the expense of more subversive and democratic popular struggles that challenged property forms conducive to capitalist development. These popular forces may have lost the battle against capitalist landlords, but they left a tremendous legacy of radical ideas quite distinct from the ‘progressive’ impulses of capitalism, a legacy that is still alive today in various democratic and anti-capitalist movements[56]

So, as we have seen, the real French revolution of 1789-94 cannot be easily dismissed as merely a bourgeois seizure of power inevitably (and teleologically[57]) leading to capitalism. Although it was closely associated with the end of monarchy and feudalism it also contained the seeds of universalism of rights, internationalism, expropriation of the aristocracy, redistribution of land and property and early socialist, anarchist and even communist ideas. The revolutionaries were against primitive accumulation, colonialism, racism and the free-market, all of which marked the rise of capitalism under the English model[58].

So, what about the ‘reign of terror’?

This essay commenced with an analysis of the popular memory of the French Revolution filled with guillotines and rolling heads. In Gauthier’s style I have so-far purposefully ignored the content of the ‘revolutionary terror’ of 1793-4 in order to concentrate on the lesser-known but more far more crucial radical political, economic and organisational changes introduced by popular power. Several contemporary writers have provided spirited defences of the ‘terror’[59] in opposition to the more common apologies or denunciations, whilst the weight of recent historiography points us towards either chaotic psychopathy or authoritarian barbarity[60].

The violence of the reign of terror has to be deconstructed and contextualised rather than vilified (or justified). The question of context in the historical debate typically revolves around the issue of immediate internal and external military dangers to the revolution in the 1790s[61]. Despite the importance of these ‘pragmatic’ factors there were more fundamental matters at stake which are difficult to understand retrospectively from the position of the contemporary observer under liberal representative democracy. What was happening in France in the revolutionary period was literally ‘world-changing’; it was a political, economic and social assault on the core values of feudalism and emerging capitalism. It was not merely a series of coup d’état’s or factional struggles with a lot of violence. Instead the all-out revolutionary attack on the ‘old-world’ created numerous (and well-armed) internal and external class enemies driven by the need to protect their structurally derived wealth and power but also by ideology. This truly was a ‘life and death’ situation for the emerging universal democracy where negotiation with its enemies was out of the question. This was a fight to the death, which Robespierre clearly anticipated when he coined the term ‘Virtue and Terror’. Robespierre understood (as many others did) that true revolutionary war is not the same as conventional war between states or even ruling class fractions. It is instead, historic on a world scale, far more profound, menacingly exemplary and consequently far more dangerous for the respective warring classes.

The French revolutionaries were fully aware of the outcome of the English revolutionary wars of the 1640s, where the fight to preserve ‘divine right’ led the monarchy to literally decimate the adult male population of England[62]. A fanatical defence of the emerging universal democracy was required in order to pacify its ‘losers’, both from the Ancien Régime and the bourgeois pretenders to power. For Robespierre the failure of the revolution was unthinkable as the ‘terror’ that would be unleashed on the population by the victorious ‘losers’ was literally…unthinkable. Compare for example the following crude statistics:

Reign of Terror’: September 1793-July 1794 (~1 year): Estimated executions across France 16,000-40,000[63]

Aftermath of Paris Commune: 21-28 May 1871 (1 week): Estimated executions in Paris 6,000 to 50,000[64]

We do have the benefit of hindsight here, and Robespierre’s analysis appears to hold water when he stated:

To punish the oppressors of humanity: that is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity. The rigour of tyrants has that rigour as its sole principle: that of republican government is based on beneficence

Or as Saint-Just (once again) put more succinctly:

That which produces the general good is always terrible[65]

This uncomfortable ‘truth’ led one recent commentator to sarcastically state:

Nowhere is the dictum ‘every history is the history of the present’ more true than in the case of the French Revolution; its historiographical reception always closely mirrored the twists and turns of political struggles. The identifying mark of all kinds of conservatives is its flat rejection: the French Revolution was a catastrophe from its very beginning, the product of the godless modern mind; it is to be interpreted as God’s punishment for the humanity’s wicked ways, so its traces should be undone as thoroughly as possible. The typical liberal attitude is a differentiated one: its formula is ‘1789 without 1793’. In short, what the sensitive liberals want is a decaffeinated revolution, a revolution that does not smell of revolution[66].

The ‘reign of terror’ unmasked….

The shallow hegemonic[67] representations of the ‘reign of terror’ that litter our collective memories are of little use in understanding its causes, content or effect. Instead, systematic historical analysis allows a deconstruction of its content which immediately dispels certain popular myths.

First, the ‘reign of terror’ of 1793-94, often characterised as a needless psychopathic policy, was in fact a specific reaction by the National Convention to two key issues:

  • the counter-revolutionary rebellions taking place in Lyon, Brittany, Vendée, Nantes, and Marseille, the continuing war with foreign military powers[68] and internal insurrectionary conspiracies organised and supported by the nobility and clergy
  • the potential reaction of the revolutionary masses to these threats in the light of the ‘September massacres’ of late summer 1792

The assassination of the venerated revolutionary Marat in July 1793 brought popular fears for the defeat of the revolution to breaking point[69]. A similar critical politico-military situation in the previous summer had led to revolutionary ‘mobs’ to breaking into the prisons and murdering 1,200-1,400 political prisoners[70]. Concern about the possibility of another series of September Massacres drove the Convention to take ‘control’ over the situation or as Danton put it: “Let us be terrible so the people will not have to be”[71]. Effectively the state attempted to enact the ‘terror’ as a weapon against its internal enemies, in order to head off the expected autonomous actions of the revolutionary masses in the absence of action by the Convention. The following was stated in the assembly in early September 1793:

It is time that equality waved its scythe over all heads. It is time to terrify all conspirators. Very well, then, legislators put terror on the agenda. Let us be in revolution, since our enemies hatch counter-revolution everywhere. Let the sword of the law hover over all the guilty. We demand the establishment of a revolutionary army divided into several sections, each followed by a fearsome tribunal and the terrible instrument of the vengeance of the laws[72]

However, the ‘internal enemies’ were not only those taking part in counter-revolutionary insurrections and plots but also political enemies within the Convention on the right and eventually the far left.

Second, as Wahnich is at pains to point out[73], war measures such as the ‘terror’ were not an open ended policy, but contingent upon the political and military conditions. By early 1794, six months after the start of the ‘terror’, the internal counter-revolutionary insurrections were on the wane and the war against the First Coalition was beginning to stabilise. It was in this environment that Saint-Just began to draft decrees aiming to bring the extraordinary phase of violence to an end[74].

Unfortunately, the bourgeois counter-revolution of July which effectively finished off the revolution (and Saint Just) claimed the historical mantle for ending the ‘reign of terror’, despite the conveniently forgotten fact that it then initiated the ‘White terror’ of 1794-95.

Third, the perception is that the violence of the ‘terror’ was irrational and chaotic. Rarely do revisionist accounts of the ‘terror’ speak of those acquitted, as Gauthier points out:

There was violence and repression, but for all that there was no dictatorship. Constraint was in fact considered as necessary in order to establish right and justice and to combat counter-revolution. There too, if we keep a sense of proportion, legal repression was moderate. The Revolutionary Tribunal created on 10 March 1793 and abolished on 31 May 1795, passed judgement on 5215 cases, pronounced 2791 death sentences and 2424 acquittals. Such moderation does not imply justification, but it should be recognized that bloodbaths were not a reality of the period.[75]

Neither was the violence random and/or generalised as pointed out by another study:

The different regions of France were unequally affected by the Terror; 89 percent of the death sentences were handed out in districts which were in rebellion….there were no death sentences in six departments and less than ten in thirty-one departments[76]

Fourth, the revolutionaries did not aim to exterminate a pre-existing ruling-class as is sometimes assumed:

Its aim [the terror] was fundamentally political and repressive; it did not at all seek the extinction of a social class, as has sometimes been claimed. It was essentially an instrument of national and revolutionary defence[77]

Finally, in terms of deaths the French Revolutionary terror was similar in size to any of the civil wars of the 16th Century, less severe than the English ‘Civil War’ and it certainly ranks far below the actual bloodbaths of the 20th Century in colonial Africa, Spain, Russia and Germany.

Did the ‘reign of terror’ succeed?

This is a taboo question which was and is typically smothered under a mush of conservative rage and liberal hand-wringing. According to Wahnich[78] the aim of the ‘reign of terror’ was transform the dread instilled in the revolutionary masses by their enemies in 1793 into fear in the hearts and minds of the internal and external counter-revolutionaries. In this respect it seems to have worked a treat. As we have seen the internal insurrections which as many as two-thirds of the departments had waged against Paris at one time or another receded rapidly. Most of the departments then rallied to the Convention[79]. This freed up the Republican leaders and their armies to go onto the offensive in repelling the invading forces of the First Coalition, which they had succeeded in doing by the battle of Fleurus in June 1794.

As for plots and conspiracies against the Republic from within, the picture is less clear; though the very fact that the ‘reign of terror’ is still a significant folk-devil today suggests anyone who was up to no good was probably on the run or in hiding. Either way, the conspirators seem to have largely failed. The irony of course is that a successful plot against the content of the revolution actually came from within the Convention itself, with the Themidorian reaction of 1794. So, the ‘reign of terror’ probably saved the Republic but not the Revolution.


It is certainly uncomfortable for modern democracies to trace their roots to so-called ‘bloodbaths’ and, as was pointed out at the start of this essay, this is part of the reason an event such as the French Revolution has to be quietly ‘put to bed’ or discredited by bourgeois apologists. However a simple statistic remains, as Gauthier notes:

We should stress a remarkable fact, which is too often neglected – from 1795 onwards the break with the political theory of the Revolution took the form of the disappearance of a declaration of the natural rights of man and the citizen in the constitutions of France. It is true that the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1871 proposed to re-establish a declaration of the rights of man and the citizen, but none of them had the time to do so. The long eclipse of the declarations of natural rights lasted until…1946. So it was only after the victory against Nazism that the Declaration of Rights of 1789 reappeared in French constitutional law[80].

So for 150 years after the bloody revolutions of the 1790s the central concept of democracy, the universalization of rights, was not realised. In response to this disturbing fact Robespierre would have challenged Schama, Furet and other naïve historical denouncers of the French Revolution with the following epithet:

A sensibility that wails almost exclusively over the enemies of liberty seems suspect to me. Stop shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe in my face or I will believe that you wish to put [or keep] Rome in chains[81]

Epilogue: A word on the irony of the guillotine…

This essay began with the historical symbolism of the guillotine and it seems fitting to end with some uncomfortable facts (or comfortable depending on your point of view) about this infamous device. Over the last few years of undertaking historical research into the 17th and 18th Centuries I have begun to find the representational connection between the guillotine and ‘terror’ in my own mind as laughable. This is for a simple reason; feudal monarchies were renowned for their use of public torture as method for punishment and repression. In Britain, it seems our (ex?) ‘master-race’ preferred extended torture to a quick death for its victims and this was for a very good reason, they wanted to terrorise us. In our fair nation (and elsewhere), these monarchical rituals of terror, were, unsurprisingly, public spectacles often involving hanging drawing and quartering (that is slow strangulation, followed by castration, disembowelment, beheading and chopping into four pieces). This was a potential punishment in Britain until the law was repealed in 1870![82] If you thought that being female might save you from such brutality…then think again; the British monarchy preferred burning women alive.

Another aspect of execution was its class hierarchy. In France before the revolution of 1789, only nobles were executed by relatively benign decapitation; lower-class capital criminals were subjected to burning, drowning and maiming. In fact, the revolution itself forced the king to ban the ‘breaking wheel’ (a particularly nasty torture and slow death where the condemned were lashed to a wheel and their limbs were systematically broken with a club or iron cudgel).

A demonstration of the ‘humane’ guillotine
Figure 7: A demonstration of the ‘humane’ guillotine.

So with the advent of revolution, democracy and reason along came Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who endeavoured to commission a device that would deliver a “swift and honourable death to people of all classes”. Guillotin stood before the Constituent National Assembly in October 1789 and proposed the following six articles in favour of the reformation of capital punishment:

Article 1: All offences of the same kind will be punished by the same type of punishment irrespective of the rank or status of the guilty party.

Article 2: Whenever the Law imposes the death penalty, irrespective of the nature of the offence, the punishment shall be the same: decapitation, effected by means of a simple mechanism.

Article 3: The punishment of the guilty party shall not bring discredit upon or discrimination against his family.

Article 4: No one shall reproach a citizen with any punishment imposed on one of his relatives. Such offenders shall be publicly reprimanded by a judge.

Article 5: The condemned person’s property shall not be confiscated.

Article 6: At the request of the family, the corpse of the condemned man shall be returned to them for burial and no reference to the nature of death shall be registered.[83]

And Guillotin just happened to have perfected the ‘simple mechanism’ for humanely killing the condemned. His device and proposals were accepted.

So the fact that the relatively benign guillotine has since become so closely associated with ‘terror’ certainly carries some serious irony in the context of the actuality of feudal terror for which the device was specifically designed to supplant.

  1. [1]

    The shooting and crippling of an innocent (and unarmed) woman Cherry Groce in her bed by police in Brixton, south London on the morning of 28th September 1985 led to a demonstration outside Brixton Police Station later that evening. This rapidly developed into serious collective violence aimed at the police. A week later on October 5th 1985, the death of another mother, Cynthia Jarrett, in her home during an illegal police raid on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, North London, precipitated the following day one of the most serious riots in London in the 20th Century. This led to the death of PC Blakelock. The indiscriminate massacre of Gaelic football fans and players at the Croke Park stadium in Dublin in 1920 by the British state is etched into the collective memory in the Irish Republic though is almost unknown in the U.K. It only briefly reached the news in 2007 when the English rugby team were ‘allowed’ for the first time in over 120 years to play at Croke Park by the Gaelic Athletic Association, mainly due to the progress of the Northern Ireland peace process. See Bloody Sunday – Wikipedia and Rugby match with historic backdrop – BBC


  2. [2]

    See for example the recent struggles over ‘British history’ generated by Michael Gove’s new proposals for the educational curriculum, ‘Old school and old-fashioned’: historians turn their fire on Gove – The Guardian.


  3. [3]

    For an interesting piece on these early ‘feminist revolutionaries’ see Tricoteuse – Wikipedia


  4. [4]

    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007. [Back...]

  5. [5]

    Twilight Revolution: Francois Furet and the Manufacturing of Consent, Jim Wolfreys in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.70.


  6. [6]

    For example compare how anti-colonial nationalist revolutions in the U.S. (1776), Mexico (1821) and Bolivia (1825), and many other contemporary struggles in the 20th Century are popularly understood and celebrated. It is much safer for a new ruling-class to champion these events as they have expelled an ‘other’ (an external oppressor) rather than been the victors in an internal class-struggle which may still have to be contested. In addition these anti-colonial ‘revolutions’ can be couched as uniting the nation rather than dividing it on class lines.


  7. [7]

    See Twilight Revolution: Francois Furet and the Manufacturing of Consent, Jim Wolfreys in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007.


  8. [8]

    Of course, in the 17th Century, the majority of British ‘slaves’ were White forced labourers, as the African slave trade was only just taking off.


  9. [9]

    The so-called Bill of Rights can be viewed  at Bill of Rights [1688]


  10. [10]

    Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was published in 1790.


  11. [11]

    Rights of Man Thomas Paine, Edt. Claire Grogan, Broadview editions 2011 p.32.


  12. [12]

    Tom Paine for example was sentenced to death by the British state and radical reformers in the London Corresponding Society such as Hardy and Thelwall were indicted for High Treason.


  13. [13] A writ of Habeas Corpus is an order to bring a jailed person before a judge or court to find out if that person should really be in jail. Originating in the Magna Carta, this legal principle aims to protect the citizen from being arbitrarily incarcerated or even disappeared by the state without formal trial. [Back...]
  14. [14]

    A People’s History of England A. L. Morton Lawrence & Wishart 1999 p.299.


  15. [15]

    Half-hanging involved systematically strangling victims until they were unconscious and then reviving them in order to repeat the process over and over again, somewhat akin to modern-day waterboarding, but always with fatal consequences.


  16. [16]

    James Gillray, the most influential political caricaturist in the period, was bought off by the Tory Party and consequently “thenceforward caricatures of the King and Queen diminish. A torrent of vitriolic prints assail the Whigs, who are represented as bloody-handed traitors in league with the French, dressed as sans-culottes, red bonneted, scampering behind the arch fiend Charles James Fox as he strives and schemes to bring down Britannia and reduce the nation to a vassal state of France”. James Gillray: the Art of Caricature Richard Godfrey Tate Publishing 2001 p.19.


  17. [17]Britain Since 1760, Prof. Hugh Dubrulle [Back...]
  18. [18]

    A Tale of Two Cities has sold over 200 million copies since 1859, making one of the most popular books of all time. A Tale Of Two Cities – Wikipedia


  19. [19]

    An excellent account of the influence of Republicanism in the period is given in Insurrection: The British Experience 1795-1803, Roger Wells, Breviary Stuff Publications 2013.


  20. [20]

    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007.


  21. [21]For example Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Penguin 1989) which was thusly described by one commentator: “In his hands the event [French Revolution] becomes a frenzy of gratuitous violence generated by the ‘chaotic people’. The Revolution itself becomes inexplicable.” History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.15. [Back...]
  22. [22]‘The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’ Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.77. Also “under the 1791 constitution, ‘passive’ citizens were those who paid less than three livres in tax, along with women and children’ from ‘In defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution” S. Wahnich Verso 2012 p.32 Note 24 [Back...]
  23. [23]

    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.73.


  24. [24]

    Ibid. p.73.


  25. [25]Ibid. p.76. [Back...]
  26. [26]

    The introduction of a free-market in corn was disastrous for peasants and proletarians who soon realised that hording and exporting in the interest of producers and merchants were depleting markets and driving prices up. They acted accordingly by going to ‘producers to get grain or stopped corn convoys travelling by road or canal in order to establish popular granaries’ Ibid. p.77.


  27. [27]

    Gauthier points out that (ironically) the Right-wing of the CNA and the Caribbean colonists’ faction considered the concept of natural rights contained within the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen as ‘terror’. Interestingly this appears to be the first popularisation of the term! Ibid. p.80.


  28. [28]

    The seminal work of history on the Haitian revolution is The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James.


  29. [29]

    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.81.


  30. [30]

    Ibid. p.82.


  31. [31]

    See for example ‘On the War’ in Virtue and Terror M. Robespierre Verso 2007.


  32. [32]

    Despite the fact that many histories claim that this was universal male suffrage, in fact many women participated in the voting. The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.82.


  33. [33]Ibid. p.83. [Back...]
  34. [34]The name was derived from the high up seats Robespierre and his left-wing allies took in the Convention to symbolically place themselves as far away from the right-wing as possible. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution S. Schama Penguin 1989 p.648. [Back...]
  35. [35]The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.82. [Back...]
  36. [36]

    On the Trial of the King: 3 December 1792 in Virtue and Terror M. Robespierre Verso 2007 p.57-8.


  37. [37]



  38. [38]Execution of Louis XVI – Wikipedia [Back...]
  39. [39]The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.84. [Back...]
  40. [40]

    The Haitian Revolution, Part II


  41. [41]

    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.85.


  42. [42]For detailed accounts of the succeeding invasions by British and latterly Napoleonic French forces to re-establish slavery (which were all defeated by the insurgent slave armies) see The Black Jacobins C.L.R. James Penguin 2001 and Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves A. Hochschild Mariner Books 2006.


  43. [43]
    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.85.


  44. [44]

    See Enrag – Wikipedia and Hébertists – Wikipedia


  45. [45]

    “The sans-culottes were the radical left-wing partisans of the lower classes; typically urban labourers, which dominated France… Among the political ideals held by the sans-culottes were popular democracy, social and economic equality, affordable food, rejection of the free-market economy, and vigilance against counter-revolutionaries”, Sans Culottes – Wikipedia.


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    Put under house arrest but not imprisoned, several of the [Girondin deputies] fled and decided to join up with the royalist counter-revolution which was combining civil war with the war on the frontiers“. The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.86.


  47. [47]

    Ibid. p.86-88.


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    Gauthier makes the following point with regard to the demands of women “We have already seen that women took part and voted in the primary assemblies and general assemblies of the village communes and of urban assemblies made up of the common people…The question to be examined here is that of the consciousness of women themselves, for we have no example of a woman elected to a post of responsibility, even as chair of a session in the general assembly of an electoral division. Only women’s societies tried out such functions among themselves. But it is important to note that the Revolutionary Republican Women did not demand the right of women to be elected to functions of responsibility, but first of all demanded the right of women to bear arms like citizens, as a first expression of their participation in the sovereignty of the people, and they took part in military training exercises”. Ibid. p.87.


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    Gauthier points out “It was this rich experience of economic, social and political democracy that inspired the project which Babeuf and the Equals put forward in 1795-96”. Ibid. p.88. The Conspiracy of the Equals (COTE) was a revolutionary organisation formed in 1795 and led by François-Noël Babeuf. COTE is generally considered to be one of the first formal organisations providing a ‘communist’ political and economic critique. Babeuf’s influence on later socialist and communist ideas is discussed in ‘Meandering on the semantical historical paths of communism and commons’ P. Linebaugh in The Commoner December 2010. Meandering on the Semantical-Historical Paths of Communism and Commons


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    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.89.


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    The war in the Vendée, a coastal region, located immediately south of the Loire River in western France, was initiated by a royalist uprising against the revolution in the spring of 1793. The counter-revolutionary Royal and Catholic Army supported by British and émigré expeditionary forces was opposed by Republican armies in a brutal campaign marked by massacres of prisoners and civilians on both sides.


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    Ibid. p.88-9.


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    This first use of the term ‘white-terror’ in the French Revolution to represent the forces of counter-revolution relates to the traditional use of the colour white as a symbol of the Bourbon monarchy.


  54. [54]

    Ibid. p.90-91.


  55. [55] The Directory was eventually overthrown by a coup d’état organised by Napoleon Bonaparte in November 1799. Needless to say, this was his final step to becoming a fully-fledged dictator. [Back...]
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    The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view E. Meiksins Wood Verso 2002 p.120. [Back...]

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    A teleology is any philosophical account that holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that, analogous to purposes found in human actions, nature inherently tends toward definite ends. Classical Marxist, Hegelian and Whig historical analyses are all examples of teleological interpretations of history.


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    See in particular The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view E. Meiksins Wood Verso 2002. [Back...]

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    See for example Žižek’s introductions to ‘Virtue and Terror’ M. Robespierre Verso 2007 and In defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution S. Wahnich Verso 2012.


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    See respectively Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, S. Schama, New York, 1989 and The French Revolution, F. Furet 1770-1814, Oxford, 1996.


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    A similar debate concerns the necessity of ‘Red Terror’ during the Russian revolution of 1917-21.


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    3.7% of the total English population died during the civil wars (approximately 190,000 dead out of a population of 5 million). This equates to about 10% of the adult male population of England. English Civil War – Wikipedia


  63. [63]Use Of The Guillotine In Paris – Wikipedia [Back...]
  64. [64]Paris Commune – Wikipedia [Back...]
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    Virtue and Terror M. Robespierre Verso 2007 p. ix.


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    Slavoj Zizek in Virtue and Terror M. Robespierre Verso 2007 p. vii. Zizek discusses Robespierre and these issues in an interview here: Was the Terror necessary to defend the French Revolution?- Democratic underground


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    The ruling or dominant ideas in a political or social context.


  68. [68]1793 marked the formation of the ‘First Coalition’ which united the European states and factions in a war against the French Republic. These included the Habsburg Monarchy, Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal,  Sardinia,  Naples and Sicily, Ottoman Empire, Dutch Republic and of course the ‘White’ armies of the French Royalists. France was fighting on an increasing number of fronts to repel these invaders, whilst the British Navy blockaded French ports from May 1793 onwards [Back...]
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    Wahnich cites the death of Marat as the symbolic tipping point into the ‘reign of terror’: “In the summer of 1793, the death of Marat aroused a feeling of dread in the people of Paris. This dread was initially sublimated in the form taken by Marat’s funeral ceremony, before being turned into a popular demand for vengeance and terror. Around Marat’s corpse, which represented the injured people and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, feelings of affliction and grief were transformed into enthusiasm. Spectators of the event moved from a palpable sense of discouragement to a feeling of enthusiasm towards ‘the spirit of Marat’. His burial was accompanied by the declaration that ‘Marat is not dead’. This proclaimed that the Revolution had not been destroyed and would not be so. It then became possible to demand vengeance and put terror on the agenda”. This author’s emphasis in In defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution S. Wahnich Verso 2012 p.21.


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    The Prussian invasion of France in August 1792 generated a great deal of anger and fear and then rage in the revolutionary masses across the country. Of particular dread was the manifesto of the commander of the invading force, the Duke of Brunswick, which “threatened the French population with instant punishment should it resist the Imperial and Prussian armies, or the reinstatement of the monarchy”. As the Duke’s army approached Paris in early September rumours spread that when they attacked the city “prisoners would revolt and massacre the people”. Consequently and partly spurred on by revolutionaries such as Marat, the sans-culottes and others acted autonomously. September Massacres – Wikipedia


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    Virtue and Terror M. Robespierre Verso 2007 p. xxix.


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    In defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution S. Wahnich Verso 2012 p.27.


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    Ibid. pp.68-72.


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    Several hundred thousand people had been imprisoned during the ‘reign of terror’; Saint-Just “envisaged sorting suspects into two categories: ‘unjustly arrested patriots’ and ‘enemies of the revolution detained in prison’. For the latter, the penalty was to be detention until the onset of peace, and then banishment. Saint-Just thus proposed an end to suspicion and vengeance without inflicting the death penalty…he was preparing for peace” Ibid. pp.69-70 [Back...]

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    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.89-90.


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    France and the Atlantic Revolution of the Eighteenth Century, 1770-1799 J. Godechot Collier-Macmillan 1971 p.169.


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    Ibid. p.170. Despite this assertion this did not mean that the violence was equally spread across social classes.  The proportion of aristocrats and clergy that were executed was very high in comparison to the size of their respective populations.


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    In defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution’ S. Wahnich Verso 2012 p.36.


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    France and the Atlantic Revolution of the Eighteenth Century, 1770-1799 J. Godechot Collier-Macmillan 1971 p.168.


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    The French Revolution: Revolution of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Florence Gauthier in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism Eds. M. Haynes & J. Wolfreys Verso 2007 p.92.


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    This authors addition in parentheses to Virtue and Terror M. Robespierre Verso 2007 p. xii.


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    Although the full brutality of ‘hanging, drawing and quartering’ was reduced to merely slow hanging and subsequent beheading in the latter part of the 18th Century, the last people to be dealt this punishment were revolutionary democrats involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820!


  83. [83]Guillutine – Wikipedia [Back...]


  1. Interesting article and I agree with many of your conclusions and remarks. However, we should not play down or make excuses for such events as the Vendee massacres – indiscriminate killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children can never be justified.

  2. History for the mentally challenged. Louis XVI broke the bank backing the colonists for 8 years in the American Revolution (which was an actual revolution, not an urban coup like the so-called French Revolution). The French won the American Revolution but as with all wars, it was credit financed and France’s loans were twice the interest rate of those of rival Britain. The French spent 1.3 billion livres on war costs equivalent to 100 million pounds sterling (at 13 livres to the pound). France had a colossal postwar debt of 3,2 billion livres, they were essentially broke. Their tax collection system was highly inefficient. and corrupt. In 1780 tax revenue was 585 million livres (43 million pounds) and the deficit was 25 million (3.3 million). Debt service was 43% of the budget (251 million livres = 18.8 million pounds). This grew to more than 50 million and eventually led to the Financial Crisis of 1786 and Louis XVI – a liberalizing monarch – calling the Estates-General 3 years later.

    There was a coup in Paris while the military was away, and when the National Guard mutinied, the coup had its firepower, rather like Lenin and the Latvian Rifles who would later become the Red Guard.

  3. Your limited response falls into the standard structural understandings for revolutions (which although valid) do not mean revolution is inevitable. And your attempt to reduce the French Revolution to a coup is not supported by the evidence. Without the support of urban workers and peasants who believed in the republic it would never have survived, and the leaders (and many more) would have been butchered by the monarchists. The fact that revolutionary armies in the early stages (1789-1795) were able to halt the advance of the European monarchist alliance shows the intensity of this support. This article demonstrates the progressive project of the ‘left’ of the assembly and the push towards radical achievements such as the abolition of slavery. Sadly, the American Revolution was far from this and has been recently deconstructed in Gerald Horne’s book The Counter-Revolution of 1776 – Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. I suggest you read this to understand the nature of your so-called “actual revolution”. At best it was the removal of a colonial power, at worst the opportunity to continue slavery and the destruction of indigenous peoples.

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