Saturday, July 14, 2012

Storm our Bastilles

"The goal of society is the common happiness...The goal of the French Revolution is also the common happiness" - Gracchus Babeuf

July 14 has traditionally been regarded as the date that the French Revolution when the Bastille was stormed and power in Paris passed into the hands of the armed, revolutionary bourgeoisie.

It was never the intention of those who carried out the French Revolution to abolish the private ownership of land or to break up the big estates of the rich and divide them among the peasants. That would have been a flagrant violation of the "rights of property" which the revolution proclaimed and in fact made an offence punishable by death. As far as the land question was concerned, the aim was to abolish the burden of feudal dues on agricultural property. The peasants, however, would have none of this and, through keeping up the pressure, eventually obtained the abolition of feudal dues in a revolutionary way by their pure and simple abolition without compensation and the public burning of the title deeds which had granted them. The anarchist Kropotkin in his book on The Great French Revolution regarded this as the revolution’s main achievement. This was a real social revolution which emancipated the peasants from feudal exactions and which freed industry from the shackles of the guild system and created a national market for its goods by removing all internal customs posts and establishing a uniform system of weights and measures. And it opened careers in the government, army and civil servants to new men, of non-noble origin.

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 that the bourgeoisie, 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. The French revolution was 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. At critical moments the poor were brought into the streets to fight and terrify the royalists. But when the terrifying was done and when the royalists had been beaten, the bourgeoisie did all that was possible to destroy the proletarian organisation in the newly discovered expressions of the public will - the sections. The proletariat of France were used unsparingly by the French bourgeoisie to help overthrow the remnants of feudalism and then, when that object was attained, were themselves thrown contemptuously aside by the bourgeoisie. Although the French Revolution was the classic bourgeois revolution it does not mean that it was a clean cut affair. It is easy enoiugh for any rising class to agree upon getting rid of a previous ruling class but it is a different matter to agree on the new rules of the game in the world they are trying to create.

The achievement of the French Revolution was to abolish aristocratic privilege but it maintained and consolidated plutocratic privilege. The freedom of property-owners from arbitrary dispossession by the state was what the French Revolution established in France. After the revolution it was wealth as such and no longer noble status that constituted privilege. In short, it established a capitalist state in which the only distinction between people was the purely economic class distinction between those who owned property and those who did not. It paved the way for the last class struggle in history, which can only be ended by the victory of the propertyless class and the establishment of a classless, socialist society based on the common ownership of the means of production.

Two key documents were adopted within two years of each other: the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the National Assembly of France in 1789 and the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America, known as the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791. The “rights” in the two documents are basically the same (which was no accident of course since there was a cross-fertilisation of ideas between both sides of the Atlantic): the individual has the right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom for arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and a fair trial before an impartial jury. Talk of the government emanating from the “nation” and governing with the consent of the governed might lead to the conclusion that the right to vote, i.e. to say who makes up the government, would also be regarded as a “human right”. But in both documents such a “right” is conspicuously absent - and this is very revealing. What it demonstrates is that both the American and the French Revolutions were revolutions carried out largely by and in the interest of property-owners, large and small, who wanted to remove the obstacles to their accumulation of more property. But there were conflicts between the larger and the smaller property-owners, between what in France were called the “bourgeoisie” and the “petty bourgeoisie”.

One of the disputes between them was precisely over the right to vote. The richer property owners were afraid that, as they were not themselves in the majority, the less well-off would vote to take away their property. In both America and France, they got their way and arrangements (restricted franchise and/or indirect election) were made to keep power out of the hands of the majority. Which is one of the reasons why we call these revolutions “bourgeois” revolutions.

The coming-to-power of the bourgeoisie aggravated still further the suffering and the exploitation of the poor peasants and artisans, without substantially changing the position of the workers in the first modern factories. In the parish records we find protests against urban bourgeois joining the rural community (capitalists trying to buy the commons, speculate on grain and merge the farms). These protests were largely expressed by the country priests. One of them expressed very directly the solutions proposed by the poor peasants: “Goods should be commonly owned, and there should be no granary or cellar from which anyone takes more than they need” The aspirations of these poor peasants had to be joined with the aspirations of the exploited in the towns if they were to take a more developed form. Jacques Roux one of the  the Enragés demonstrated the struggle between classes, referring to “the hardest-working class in society” and wrote that “laws have been cruel to the poor because they were only written by the rich, for the rich” and that “for four years only the rich have benefited from the gains of the revolution”. He argued about the need for a second revolution.

All history is the record of a series of class struggles thinly veiled. In glancing through history books we can see that even in the capitalist uprising against feudalism there were independent outbursts of the fore-runners of the modern working class, still then in the process of development. We had, for instance at the German Reformation and the Peasant’s War, the Anabaptists and Thomas Münzer; in the great English Cromwellian revolt, the Levellers; in the French Revolution, Babeuf and his followers - all of which shows how the various countries develop along similar lines and how industrial conditions fashion the thoughts of men and drive their energies into the same channels irrespective of difference of nationality.

Gracchus Babeuf and the "Conspiracy of Equals" were a proto-communist organisation which emerged during the course of the French Revolution. Babeuf was perhaps the first example of a militant formulating a coherent doctrine and struggling for a “plebeian” revolution. He declared “The first man who enclosed a piece of land and saw fit to say – this is mine – and found people stupid enough to believe him, was the true founder of civilised society. But beware of believing this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and the earth belongs to no man”..."No one can, without committing a crime, exclusively expropriate the goods of the earth or of industry. If we can demonstrate that inequality has no other cause than this exclusive expropriation, we will have demonstrated the crime of those who introduce the distinction of mine and yours."  Babeuf was a peasant agitator and published numerous pamphlets, gradually abandoned his belief in God, becoming avowedly atheist by 1793. It is clear that Babeuf and his comrades desired to herald a new revolution and they left posterity a magnificent document, written by Sylvain Maréchal, that makes the Rights of Man and the Bill of Rights declarations pale into insignificance.

 “The French Revolution was just the harbinger of another much greater revolution, a far more important one: the last". They said that this revolution would abolish property, and even the state: “no more individual land ownership! The earth belongs to no-one. We demand, we desire common enjoyment of the fruits of the earth: these fruits belong to everyone”; “At last, away with you, foul divisions between rich and poor, great and humble, masters and servants, rulers and ruled!”. This was not only “dreaming” but a programme of action which rigorously defined itself apart from the programmes of the bourgeoisie: “The aristocratic charters of 1791 and 1795 fastened your chains, rather than breaking them. That of 1793 was a significant step towards real equality: we have never been so close before or since, but it still did not fulfil our objectives or achieve common well-being”.

Some of the Equals’ decrees were equally striking: "There shall be established a great national common wealth...It will take ownership of the nation’s unsold goods, the assets of enemies of the revolution, public buildings, commonly-owned goods, almshouses, and assets abandoned by their owners or usurped by those who have used their posts to enrich themselves...The right of inheritance is abolished. All goods will return to the common wealth...The goods of the national community are exploited in common by all able-bodied members...The great national community maintains all its members in an equal and honest mediocrity; it furnishes them with all they need.....good citizens to contribute to the success of this reform by a voluntary abandonment of their goods to the community...The great national community is administered by local magistrates chosen by its members...Each municipal administration has a council of elders, delegated by each class of laborers; this council enlightens the administration on all that concerns the distribution, the lightening, and the improvement of work...The administration will promote the use of machines and the procedures necessary to reduce the burden of work... Workers will be deployed by the administration according to their understanding of necessary tasks”....From this time forward, the national community assures each of its members: A healthy, comfortable, and properly furnished lodging; work and leisure clothes of linen or wool, in conformity with the national costume; laundry, lighting and heat; a sufficient quantity of foodstuffs in the form of bread, meat, fowl, fish, eggs, butter or oil, wine and other drinks commonly used in the various regions; vegetables, fruits, seasoning, and other objects with the gathering together of constitutes a mediocre and frugal ease; the assistance of the healing arts...The Republic no longer issues money...Neither gold nor silver will ever again be brought into the Republic."

We see how the Equals foresaw the creation of a "socialist" organisation of the economy, administering and developing production, using the most advanced techniques and inventions, even outlining a form of planning. This society would be established following a great revolution of the exploited. 

The conspiracy never really had much chance of success as it was infiltrated from the start by government spies and probably most of those involved in it favoured the Jacobin ideal of a Republic of small property owners (as well as the Jacobin policy of a dictatorship, which Babeuf himself favoured also) rather than common ownership and the abolition of all property. 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! The Blanquist notion of the seizure of the political power by a revolutionary act by a minority as the sole effective method  towards the reorganisation of society is clearly traceable to the movement of the Equals. Blanquism still a following and till reuires refuting.

Revolutionary ideas do not follow a straight course and the struggle entails the periods of retreat and advance. Nevertheless socialism can be enriched by the experience of the previous eras. Our history is important.

 "...the preservation of equality is the goal of association, because it’s only through it that men gathered together can be happy. In uniting their forces, mankind surely wanted to assure itself the maximum of pleasure with the minimum of pain.The abundance of necessary things assures these pleasures, and is itself assured by the labor of those who are leagued together. This labor is reduced to the minimum for each of them only when it is shared by all...The goal of the revolution is to destroy inequality and restore common happiness"
- Babeuf  said

Worth a read is Kropotkin's history of the French Revolution available online here

Song of the Equals

For too long a wretched code
Enslaved men to men:
May the reign of the brigands fall!
Let us finally know what our condition is
Awaken to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind,
People! Take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

You created us to be equal,
Nature, oh beneficent mother!
Why, in property and labors,
This murderous inequality? Awaken!

Why a thousand slaves crawling
Around four or five despots?
Why the small and the great?
Arise, brave sans-culottes.

During humanity’s childhood
We saw no gold, no war,
No ranks, no sovereign,
No luxury, no poverty!
Sacred and sweet equality
Fills the earth and makes it fertile.
In these days of felicity
The sun shines for all.

Everyone loved everyone else, all lived happily,
Enjoying a common ease;
Regrets, shameful debates
Didn’t trouble independence.

Alas! Soon ambition
Relying on imposture
Dared to contemplate the plot and outrage
Of usurpation.

We saw princes, subjects,
The opulent, the poverty-stricken;
We saw masters, valets:
The day before all were alike.

Horrible brigandage was cloaked
With the names of laws and institutes
They called virtues crimes,
And pillage necessity.

Alas! Your generous plans,
Immortal sons of Cornelius
Couldn’t save your lives
From the assassin’s steel.

And you, Lycurguses of the French
O Marat! Saint-Just! Robespierre!
Of your sage projects
We were already feeling the salutary effects.
Already, the rich and his altars were
Plunged in the darkest night,
Mortals repeated:
The sun shines for all.

Already your sublime labors
Returned us to nature
What is their price? Scaffolds,
Assassination, torture.

Pitt’s gold and the voice of d’Anglas
Opened a new abyss:
Crawl or be a scoundrel,
Choose death or crime.

People, smash the ancient charm
Of a too lethargic slumber:
With the most terrible of awakenings
Spread alarm to grinning crime.
Lend an ear to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind.
People, take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

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