Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Socialism of the French Revolution and its Consequences by W Lawler Wilson 1909

The Socialism of the French Revolution and its Consequences by W Lawler Wilson 1909

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The tendencies of the great proletarian movement, whose head interpreter was Robespierre, found expression in numberless speeches and acts of a communistic character, and in a series of measures of sheer State Socialism. The doctrine of equality preached since the beginning of the Revolution had generally been construed in a political and moral sense: the Jacobin-Communist party took the momentous first steps towards economic equality, and thereby founded the Socialist movement. Robespierre announced, in words which have been echoed in recent years by an English Socialist, now a Cabinet minister, that 'the richest of Frenchmen should not have more than a hundred and twenty pounds a year.' St. Just declared riches to be infamous. Marat, without realising the full force of his doctrine, had previously propounded the theory that 'equality of rights must lead to equality of enjoyments.' During the ascendency of the Jacobin movement, the economic tendency became more and more pronounced, and the Commune was particularly active in promoting Socialist measures.

The result was the establishment of a form of government resembling, as closely as human nature permits, the Socialist State. The omnipotence of the State over the individual in all the relations of life was the principle of the government. The State claimed the right of nationalising i.e. confiscating all forms of private property. It seized and doled out supplies of food. It attempted to prevent the appropriation of surplus value by sending capitalists to prison for the crime of making profit to the amount of six or ten per cent. It decreed the abolition of all life insurance societies and private share companies. It interfered with the investment of money, and with speculation in the staples of commerce. It endeavoured to stifle private enterprise in commerce and
industry, and to divert all private capital to the coffers of the State. It forced farmers and merchants to render schedules of all the provender they held in store. To check the rise in prices which its own expropriatary measures had caused, it introduced the hateful 'law of the maximum' which forbade traders to charge more than a fixed schedule of prices for their goods, whatever the loss to themselves. Projects of the most complete and advanced Socialism were canvassed. 'The idea was even entertained of seizing the material and the workmen alike for the service of the State, and converting all France into one vast manufactory in the employment of Government.' And, be it noted again, the reign of all these extravagant ideas, false principles, and tyrannous practices
was the direct and natural result to society of tolerating the early stages of a dangerous propaganda. Robespierre announced that 'Society must provide for the support of all its members' a piece of pure Socialism. In order to cope with the terrible destitution produced by the Revolution, public workshops were thrown open in Paris, and steady employment was offered at standard wages to all who required it: and they were many. Workers flocked to the capital, and the Commune was forced to find employment at the public expense for thirty thousand men. In the State Socialism of 1793 we have the true and undeniable origin of all Socialism which has been advocated since. In inviting Society to accept this scheme, Socialists are therefore, in effect, asking that
the State Socialism of the French Revolution shall be given another trial; or, in the alternative, that we shall be so foolish as to believe that a system which could only be introduced by intimidation and supported by terrorism, can now, after a short interval of a century, be tested without danger and brought in without bloodshed.

In another direction foundations were laid on which successive leaders of the Communist-Socialist movement have built. This was in connection with the institution of marriage. The emancipation of women was always a leading item in the Jacobin programme, and the form taken by the emancipation was necessarily hostile to marriage 'the sacrament of adultery' as it was viciously described at the time. For the proletarian movement was in general opposition to the established order, and marriage, as the keystone of that order, could not fail to be attacked. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that a great appeal to the Cossack appetite of the proletariat could possibly spare the Christian charter of womankind. St. Just declared that 'a man and a woman who love one another are
married,' and this idea was carried out in the remarkable Civil Constitution which he introduced to the Convention in Robespierre's name. In this there was Communism of the most fatal kind. Under the new dispensation a man and a woman were to cohabit as a preliminary to marriage, which would not become a binding institution until after the birth of the first child. Boys, at a certain age, were to be taken from their parents and brought up by the State.

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Such were the acts, measures, and principles of the proletarian movement during the French Revolution. In that period every cardinal Socialist principle and every favourite Socialist palliative was put to the test. The omnipotence of the State over the individual; the nationalisation of land; the collectivisation of capital; the appropriation of the means of production; the State organisation of industry; the substitution of public for private enterprise; the adjustment of taxation to redress the inequalities of social wealth; the recognition of the right, and the enforcement of the duty, to work; the bestowal of extensive powers on the municipalities; the establishment of workshops for the unemployed; the distribution of free food all these articles of the Socialist programme were put into force and supported with all the energy of an absolute executive.

And what was the net result of these herculean efforts to ameliorate the lot of the working-classes, prevent the appropriation of surplus value, organise labour, and check social waste? In Alison's words, 'The aspect of France was that of universal destitution. One would have thought that the whole wealth which centuries of industry had accumulated, had suddenly been swallowed up.'

Human nature and intelligence revolted against the system. There was a violent perturbation of values. Private incomes fell to vanishing point, and public expenditure was inflated to an almost incredible degree. The capitalists and the middle class, indeed, were ruined; but the working-class was simultaneously reduced to beggary. Every economic stroke delivered at the luxuries of one rich man fell on the necessities of a score of workers. There was first an immense accumulation, and, later, an immense repudiation of national debt. It was found an economic impossibility to enrich the poor by impoverishing the rich. The system tended to intensify and perpetuate itself up to the breaking-point by its own vices. Thus as the municipalities throughout France copied the Paris Commune, they increased the distress and unemployment which they intended to cure, and thereby widened the breach between the classes. Their extravagance, their megalomania, their neglect of commonplace duties, and their trick of posing as Parliaments, contributed powerfully to the disorganisation of the country, laid the foundations of State Socialism, and eventuated in a state of municipal anarchy, from which only the steel hand of Napoleon evolved order.

In concluding this survey it is well to recapitulate the political articles as distinct from the economic already enumerated which the proletarian movement has transmitted to the Socialist party. These, in addition to the class war, and the sovereignty of the proletariat, are the spoliation of the Church; the secularisation of the State; the establishment of a serviceable instrument of insurrection, in the form of a proletarian militia not under military law; and the principle of local autonomy, with the Free Commune as the administrative unit.

The price paid by France the vicarious sufferer for Europe on that occasion for having allowed her municipal system to be made the stepping-stone to State Socialism, was heavy indeed. Social war,
national bankruptcy, municipal anarchy, and the Reign of Terror these great consequences are imprinted on the page of history as a permanent warning to European society against the light and careless treatment of a movement which, beginning as a plausible municipal and working-class reform, is terrible only because it has behind it the latent forces of expropriation.

In maintaining that the movement whose early development I have traced here is the true source of modern Socialism, I do not stand alone. Six authors cited in this section Gooch, Mallet, Helmolt, Rambaud, Lewes, and Alison separately corroborate this judgment, each from his own point of view. The position of Robespierre in relation to the movement is not the subject of quite the same consensus of opinion: its prominence is better appreciated than its significance. But if the movement of 1793 were in truth the parent of the movement of 1909; if, as I hold, the movement is one organic whole reappearing in successive stages pushing on blindly, tenaciously, terribly, despite all past defeats, towards a veritable Armageddon of European classes; then assuredly Robespierre, the master-interpreter of the original phase, must be regarded as the founder of the Socialist movement.

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