The Girondists and the Jacobins of Europe

1. The Girondists:


It has already been pointed out that the two parties which were prominent in the Legislative Assembly in 1791 were the Girondists and the Jacobins.

The Girondists had the majority and the Jacobins were in a minority. The Girondists were so-called from the district of Gironde from which many of their leaders came.

On the whole, they were men of high intellectual calibre, education and refinement. They were honest and decent.

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Their intentions were pure. They were not unscrupulous in their methods. They were moderates. They had a sense of restraint and loved order. They were not prepared to compromise with the past and hoped to establish a Utopia of their own in France. They stood for a Republican form of government. Their view was that if a war was declared there was every possibility of monarchy being discredited and a republic set up in the country.

It was partly on account of their zeal that France declared war against Austria in April 1792. As they were impractical idealists, France did not do well in the war. The French armies were defeated everywhere. Instead of setting their house in order and fighting the enemies, attempts were made to put the responsibility of failures at the door of the king.

The net result of this condemnation was that his residence was attacked, his Swiss Guards were murdered and he himself had to take shelter in the Legislative Assembly premises. The mob of Paris was supreme. It was under these circumstances that the National Convention met in September 1792.

As soon as the National Convention opened, a republic was proclaimed in France and a struggle for supremacy between the Girondists and Jacobins started. To begin with, the Girondists were stronger and they seemed to be determined to use their power to suppress and punish the leaders of the Paris Commune. They succeeded in dissolving the Commune. However, in other respects the Girondists were not successful.

Their proposal for the formation of a guard for National Convention was not accepted. Their demand for the punishment of those who were responsible for the September massacres was rejected. Their attacks on Robespierre, Marat and others created mutual bitterness.

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Their monopoly of power was threatened by the Jacobins. In October 1792, Pache, the Minister of War, left the Girondists and joined the ranks of the Jacobins. The War Office became the meeting place of the Jacobins and Pache also put his wealth and influence at the disposal of the Jacobins.

The Girondists were also weakened by the trial and execution of the king in January 1793. While the Jacobins had demanded the execution of the king, the Girondists were prepared to compromise with him if only he was prepared to give up the exercise of his discretionary power and act as a constitutional head. The resolution for the execution of the king was carried through by a process of wholesale intimidation.

From the beginning of 1793, the Girondists began to lose ground. Roland, who was a very active member of the Girondists party, resigned his office in January 1793. Garat was put in charge of the Ministry of the Interior.

He was a man of moderate views and good intentions but was absolutely unfit for his job. He lacked both vigour and decision. He did not safeguard the interests of his party because although he got information regarding the preparations of the Jacobins to overthrow the Girondists, he did not inform his own party and also did not take any action himself. Foolishly, he did not attach importance to them.

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When Pache joined the Jacobin party, he was removed from the War Office but he was elected the Mayor of Paris and thus the Jacobins secured control over the Commune of Paris. At that time, the Girondists’ proposals for a new constitution were published. Those proposals were unpractical in their nature and pleased none.

The Jacobins got an opportunity to attack the Girondists on the ground that the latter wanted to give more powers to the provinces and thereby weaken the influence of Paris and break the unity of the republic. The Girondists declared a kind of war on the Paris Commune. They condemned the disorders which had been created by the mobs of Paris.

They foolishly boasted that the provinces were loyal to them while the Paris Commune was not. They threatened to punish all those who intimidated them but actually took no steps to achieve that objective. Danton tried to bring about reconciliation but he was condemned by them. He was the only man who had influence and ability to save them. Danton remarked thus: “You know not how to forgive!”.

The financial position of the government began to deteriorate and it had to resort to fresh issue of Assignats. As a result of inflation, the value of Assignats fell and prices of commodities went up. The people were hard hit and for all these the Girondists were condemned.

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Some of the Girondists protested against the money grants spent in providing cheap bread for Paris. This added to the unpopularity of their party in Paris and a demand for their punishment and removal. On 10 March 1793, it was planned to get rid of the Girondists by force. The Jacobin leaders did not approve of it and consequently the attempt failed.

While the Girondists were wavering and steadily losing ground, the Jacobins were preparing for battle with them. They had behind them all power and priority of the Paris Commune, the prestige of the Jacobin leaders and the backing of Jacobin Clubs all over the country- They also possessed military power. The National Guard was also separately organised. While their opponents were preparing for a battle royal, the Girondists did nothing to save themselves.

They could not depend on the Paris Commune whom they had alienated by their speeches and action. It was they who had demanded that Paris be reduced to her eighty-third share of influence in the country. It was they who had said that Paris be reduced to ashes so that posterity might ask on which side of the Seine she stood. The Girondists could not depend upon the National Guard to defend them as it was under the control of the Jacobins.

They had no organization of their own which could take up arms on their behalf. They were not considered to be their leaders either by the middle class or by the aristocracy. They had eloquence and parliamentary battalions but that could not save them from the physical forces of the Jacobins.

In April 1793, the Girondists attacked Marat who was responsible for the September massacres of 1792. However, he was acquitted by the Revolutionary Tribunal. The Girondists condemned the plots in the various parts of Paris, but in spite of their condemnation, those plots continued. Instead of compromising, they decided to appeal to the country against Paris. They proposed to shift the National Convention from Paris to Versailles.

They talked of dissolving the Paris Commune. In May 1793, they carried a motion appointing an extraordinary commission to enquire into the conspiracies against the National Convention. The Commission ordered the arrest of Herbert, who was the leader of the plotters. This precipitated matters.

The Jacobins and the Paris Commune decided to take action against the Girondists. On 31 May, 1793, the Commission was cancelled, but on 2 June, 1793, the National Convention was intimidated to order the arrest of 22 leaders of the Girondist party.

They were arrested and hanged. While they were being hanged they went on chanting the Marseillaise until death stilled their voices. Madame Roland uttered the following words: “Liberty! what crimes are committed in thy name!” The tragic end of the Griondist leaders created a stir in the country. Lyons, Marseilles, Toulon and Bordeaux declared against the French Government in Paris. Many departments of France prepared themselves to raise the standard of revolt. The Allies were marching on France from many directions.

The English fleet was blockading the French ports. Some of the Girondists escaped from Paris and began to organize resistance in the North. However, the Jacobins handled the situation with a firm hand. The revolts were crushed and the Allies were beaten back. The country was saved both from internal troubles and danger.

The Girondists fell, but it cannot be denied that their ideals will always command sympathy and their eloquent hopes and their courage will always win respect. But they will always be considered as incompetent statesmen.

2. The Jacobins:


As compared with the Girondists, the Jacobins were men of rougher stamp, occasionally ill-educated, coarse and unscrupulous. In some cases, they were cruel. In many cases, they were corrupt. However, they were practical and alert politicians who were prepared to run great risks. They were merciless to their enemies, but were prepared to suffer themselves if they were defeated.

According to the Jacobins, all powers and rights resided in the people and the law and government must give way before them. It was the business of the people to watch their rulers, supervise their conduct zealously and always remind them that they were only their agents.

It was the duty of the government to obey the people, no matter what its commands were. Popular movements were the highest expression of the law. Even if there was violence and murder, they were still the action of the sovereign. Those who obstructed the will of the people were traitors and those who punished them were guilty of crimes.

The result of such a philosophy was that every man began to assert himself as if he were a pan of the sovereign. He began to dictate to the government. Centrifugal tendencies began to take rout m the country. Even small municipalities began to assert their independence and refused to listen to any higher authority.

It is stated that the priest of a little town established his own dictatorship at the place, issued a complete code for the government, imposed taxes, imprisoned his opponents, confiscated property and exercised all the powers of a sovereign. If the people were sovereign, it followed that any proportion of them were also sovereign. Such a philosophy was bound to result in lawlessness.

The labouring classes also began to assert themselves. They refused to pay rents, tithes, taxes and money claims. The peasants acted likewise. They refused to pay the new taxes imposed on them. They tried to help themselves by taking illegal possession of the property of the State. Trees were cut from the public lands. Even Church property was not spared. Army associations were formed to check the collection of taxes. Customs houses were attacked and clerks were turned out.

It is clear from the above that the Jacobins’ philosophy resulted in anarchy in the country. There were riots, murders and acts of pillage everywhere. There was a kind of civil war in the country. Law and order broke down. Anyone could kill anyone with impunity. Mob leaders became the law­givers. The opponents were shown no mercy and were killed everywhere. Wherever law is paralysed, the most violent are the most powerful. It was in this atmosphere that the Jacobin party came to the front and took full advantage of the existing state of affairs to drive out the Girondists from power.

A reference may be made to the party organisation of the Jacobins. It is pointed out that the Jacobin party was the first modem example of what organisation could accomplish in politics. The number of genuine Jacobins was never very large. Probably, when the Jacobins were at the height of their power, their number in Paris did not exceed ten or eleven thousands. Their total number in the country was estimated at three or four lakhs. Jacobin leaders belonged mostly to the middle class. There were lawyers, professional men, clerks, journalists, etc. The important leaders of the Jacobins were Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Desmoulins, Freron, Robert, Chaumette, Marat, Collot, Gregoire, etc. There were philosophers, visionaries, priests, actors, etc.

The Jacobin party had its headquarters in Paris. However, it had a large number of branches all over the country. By the end of 1790, it had more than 120 clubs all over the country. By the end of 1791, their number was 400. By June 1792, the number rose to 1,200. In August 1792, there were 26,000 Jacobin clubs in France. It was through these clubs that the Jacobins were able to dominate the politics of France. These clubs became the centres of revolution. Their members had faith, enthusiasm, recklessness and ambition.

The Jacobins were able to add to their strength by capturing the Paris Commune. By doing so they came to have control over the National Guard. The resources of the capital also came into their hands. The Jacobins controlled the Paris Commune, the Paris Commune controlled the politics of Paris and the politics of Paris controlled France.

By their superior resources, by their better organisation, by their fanaticism for their acts and their unscrupulousness, the Jacobins were able to oust the Girondists. After that, they established the Reign of Terror in the country. However, when the object of the terror was achieved and the foreign invaders were driven out of the country and dissent was suppressed, differences arose among the Jacobin leaders.

To begin with, the extreme section of the Mountain, called the Herbertists, was got rid of after that came the turn of followers of Danton. He and his followers were disposed of by Robespierre. On 28 July, 1794 Robespierre himself and his friend St. Just were guillotined. After the ending of the Reign of Terror peace was restored within the country by stages. The Paris Commune was dissolved.

The Revolutionary Tribunal was ended. Restrictions were imposed on the powers of the Committee of Public Safety and the Jacobin clubs were also closed. It was under these circumstances that the Jacobins disappeared from the scene after doing a lot of destruction but at the same time saving the country from the foreign invaders and establishing her prestige.

Kropotkin says, “Most historians, paying a tribute to their authoritarian training, represent the Jacobin Club as the initiator and the head of all the revolutionary movements in Paris and the provinces, and for two generations every one believed this. But now we know that such was not the case. The initiative of June 20 and August 10 did not come from Jacobins. On the contrary, for a whole year they were opposed, even the most revolutionary of them, to appealing again to the people. Only when they saw themselves outflanked by the popular movement, they decided, and again only a section of them, to follow it.

“But with what timidity! They wished to see the people out in the street, combating the royalists, but they dared not with for the consequences. What if the people were not satisfied with overthrowing the royal power? If popular wrath should turn against the rich, the powerful, the cunning ones, who saw in the Revolution nothing but a means of enriching themselves? If the people should sweep away the Legislative Assembly, after the Tuileries? If the Commune of Paris, the extremists the “anarchists”—those whom Robespierre himself freely loaded with his invectives— those republicans who preached ‘the equality of conditions’—what if they should get the upper hand?

“This is why, in all the conferences which took place before June 20, we see so much hesitation on the part of the prominent revolutionists. This is why the Jacobins were so reluctant to approve the necessity of another popular rising. It was only in July, when the people, setting aside the constitutional laws, proclaimed the ‘permanence’ of the sections, ordered the general armament, and forced the Assembly to declare ‘the country in danger’—it was only then that the Robespierres, the Dantons and, at the very last moment, the Girondists decided to follow the people’s lead and declared themselves more or less at one with the insurrection.”

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