In July 1794, the Jacobin government overseeing the French Revolution had come crashing down. The bourgeoisie had united in opposition to its extreme left-wing policies, whereas the worn-out urban poor could no longer muster the energy to sustain their support for the Jacobins’ grand design for remaking French society top to bottom. It is more apt to say that the Revolution became less revolutionary rather than less violent after Thermidor, as Robespierre and 70 of his allies were executed after their overthrow. In Lyon, too, hundreds of Jacobin supporters were killed. The Terror was met with its equal and opposite reaction as those who had once wielded influence and power became its victims. Now able to pursue their own agenda, the new government – made up of the middle class moderates who had survived the Terror – repealed the centralizing powers of the government, including the price controls on food. This, of course, led to the resumption of riots over bread and a return to famine. The working classes had given their tacit support to the downfall of the Jacobins, but there was still an enormous tension between their interest and those of the bourgeoisie, given their inherent contrasts.
The tension became the driving force behind the Revolt of 1 Prairial Year III (May 20, 1795). An enormous crowd of the sans-culottes, galvanized by the usual pamphleteering and agitation, invaded the National Convention and even killed a deputy, demanding that their employment and their provision be addressed. This popular demonstration distinguished itself from previous incidents in that it lacked a bourgeois political force supporting the sans-culottes. The Jacobins had been that force, and it had been fiercely dismantled. Accordingly, the bourgeois government faced no real opposition when it used security forces to disperse the crowd and to occupy rebellious neighborhoods. No one class had been able, throughout the Revolution, to fully hold political power while still in this transitory stage. The moderate bourgeoisie who now ruled had done so after the elimination of much stronger rivals, of which potent remnants remained.
The new government was called the Directory and comprised of 500 deputies elected by property-owners who qualified to vote. Their first challenge came as a royalist uprising on 13 Vendémiaire (October 5, 1795). Those Frenchmen seeking to restore the monarchy had not been entirely defeated, and were now receiving great support from the European powers allied against France, especially Great Britain. After a series of royalist military successes, monarchist sympathizers rebelled in Paris and attacked the Convention. Once again, the bourgeoisie depended on the military rather than popular action to save themselves. The leader of the forces defending the government at the palace was Napoleon Bonaparte, whose leading role in the crushing of this particular revolt transformed him overnight from a mere artillery officer to one of the leading French generals. His further triumphs leading French troops in Italy in the coming years would serve to further bolster his standing and position him for his ultimate seizure of power.
In the meantime, the Parisian working class learned valuable lessons from its past defeat. François-Noël Babeuf, known as Gracchus Babeuf, was quickly emerging as a popular left-wing critic of the Directory as France’s economic condition worsened. Paris workers, who had once been so closely linked with the Jacobins, feared that other cities and regions would benefit at their expense. Babeuf began the process of organizing them into crude revolutionary cadres, nodes in a network he termed the “Conspiracy of the Equals.” Like the Jacobins, Babeuf and his disciples were romantic in their view of an equal society without any sort of private property, but their impetus to organize underlines how working class radicals gradually learned to stop relying on bourgeois benefactors and commit themselves fully to revolution. In May 1796, Babeuf felt that it was the time to strike as France became more divided and the economic crisis intensified. The government learned his plans, however, and he along with his key allies were executed. Throughout the rest of 1796, various cells of Jacobins and other left-wing dissenters were jailed and typically killed as enemies of the state. Unable to win over the working classes by providing them their demands, the state returned repeatedly to repressive methods. Indeed, much of the Directory period would be defined by a cycle of internal upheavals from the right and left as an endless war and national bankruptcy continued. The need for control, even if it came in the form of a dictatorship, crystallized. The bourgeoisie even turned from its moderates to those who favored a constitutional monarchy. In other words, it became possible that France would actually vote for royal restoration.
The problem was that there was no way for the remaining classes to reconcile themselves. The sans-culottes had been defeated along with the Jacobins; peasants, to the extent they were politically active, supported absolute royalism and the Church; and the bourgeoisie, who desired liberal policies more than anything. The solution became for the bourgeois not to pursue a liberal democracy but a liberal dictatorship. Elites inside the Directory decided to make the popular (and reform-minded) Napoleon their figurehead. After the coup of 19 Brumaire (November 20, 1799), Napoleon became a “consul,” in reference to the highest elected office of the Roman Republic, who wielded executive authority on behalf of the state. Gradually, of course, Napoleon undermined his fellow consuls and other rivals, setting up his declaring himself Emperor in 1804. In its relatively brief lifetime, the French Empire did in fact adhere to many Enlightenment values while keeping the militarism and authoritarianism of the old Bourbon regime.
Napoleon’s ultimate defeat would mean a Bourbon restoration did finally occur, but the clock simply could not be turned back. There would no longer be obscene aristocratic privileges or noble monopolies. The bourgeoisie would not abide exclusion from the political process. Employment and the general welfare of the urban poor remained problematic, but the working classes would repeat their tendency to resist when pushed to the limit. The French Revolution never arrived at a definite final product; hence part of the oft-cited quip attributed to the Chinese communist official Zhou Enlai that it was “too early to say” what the effects of the Revolution were. The Revolution clearly drove the European feudal system into extinction. The realization of the philosophical ideals behind it, however, both by moderate liberals and left-wing radicals remains elusive. We have not yet created a society where reason and individual merit inform all public decisions, no more than we have created a classless civilization without poverty or want. Yet, the Western status quo pays lip service to Enlightenment virtues even as we slide deeper into a highly managed bourgeois oligarchy. When democracy produces results elites do not like, however, we see the thin masquerade fall and we are confronted with the contempt the ruling class has for its subjects. The present system persists because the bourgeoisie has purchased their support through public services and benefits. As those policies have been eroded by recent economic crises, we are seeing a return to greater populist politics and unrest. We are not seeing the sort of famine and hardship present at the outset of the French Revolution, but a new sort of grievance: generations being born worse off than the previous ones, their basic needs more insecure. There is a general sense of disappointment with existing regimes but few clear plans for revolution or founding an alternative society. This is something that we have in common with the French Revolution, even if we are separated by centuries of political movements.
The French Revolution was at the setting-out point, the first major excursion into political practice deeply divided from the old system. Not seeing the need to unify, believing in the righteousness of their own causes, the different factions in play acted only against one another unless it was politically expedient. The strongest alliance to emerge was the one between the Jacobins and the sans-culottes, but even that loose coalition fell apart when it hindered the specific ambitions of Robespierre. Future revolutionaries would learn from this mistake and actively court other classes. The middle class Bolsheviks preached to the proletariat while working class Nazis won over the panicked German middle class. The new elites learned from the Revolution as well. They threw all their weight behind incremental reform and small progress – a theme commonly seen today. We are told what the Jacobins did was wrong, but it is unclear what a “proper” social revolution looks like. We learn a great deal about the victims of the Terror but very little about the horrors that influenced it, or about the victims of the royalist forces before, during and after the Revolution. The French Revolution now exists in a vacuum, disconnected from its context and historical structures, so it can be denounced cleanly, without also having to condemn popular struggle, self-determination and political courage.
We can and should sympathize with the French Revolution, because even with its excesses, it was a move forward on the path of social progress. It revealed the rottenness at the core of the feudal system and made plain that classes that had once been outside politics could take political power. It showed that clean breaks with the past are in fact possible when people are properly mobilized and driven to action by their grievances. It also revealed that there is an unavoidable and clear divergence between bourgeois and working class interests and the desired outcome of participatory government. It is this last revelation that we should take heed of, as we enter a period where ordinary people are choosing extreme candidates with extreme views as expressions of their discontent.
Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford Paperbacks, 1989.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. William Morrow & Company, 1981.
Hunt, Lynn, David Lansky, and Paul Hanson. “The Failure of the Liberal Republic in France, 1795-1799: The Road to Brumaire.” The Journal of Modern History 51.4 (1979): 734-759.
Lefebvre, Georges. The French Revolution. Vol. 2. Columbia University Press, 1964.
Lyons, Martyn. France under the Directory. CUP Archive, 1975.
McGarr, Paul. “The Great French Revolution.” International Socialism 43 (1989): 15-110.
Neely, Sylvia. A concise history of the French Revolution. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
Rudé, Georges. The Crowd in the French Revolution. Vol. 129. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin UK, 2004.
Soboul, Albert, Alan I. Forrest, and Colin Jones. The French Revolution, 1787-1799: from the storming of the Bastille to Napoleon. Allen & Unwin Australia, 1989.
Sutherland, Donald MG. The French revolution and empire: The quest for a civic order. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
Woronoff, Denis. The Thermidorean regime and the Directory 1794-1799. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, 1984.