Peter Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793 (N. F. Dryhurst, Trans.), 1909.


Causes of overthrow of Robespierre -- Evils of transfer of land -- Republican successes abroad -- Terror continues -- Dantonists, Girondins and "Marsh" unite to overthrow Robespierre -- Unpopularity of Committee of Public Welfare -- Robespierre attacks Barère and Fouché -- His speech in Convention -- Effect of speech -- 9th Thermidor -- Arrest of Robespierre and his associates -- Efforts of Commune -- Capture of Hôtel de Ville -- Execution of Robespierre and Terrorists -- -End of Revolution -- Reactionaries continue executions -- Attempted rising of workers -- Execution of last of Montagnards -- Triumph of middle classes -- Royalist manifestations -- Massacres of revolutionists -- Reaction succeeded by Directory -- Final effort of revolutionists -- Napoleon proclaims himself Emperor

If Robespierre had many admirers, who adored him, he had also quite as many enemies, who utterly detested him and lost no opportunity of making him odious by attributing to him all the horrors of the Terror. Nor did they neglect to render him ridiculous by connecting him with the doings of an old mad mystic, Catherine Théot, who called herself "the Mother of God."

But still it is evident that it was not personal enmities which overthrew Robespierre. His fall was inevitable, because, he represented a régime that was on the point of foundering. After the Revolution had passed through its ascendant phase, which lasted until August or September 1793, it entered upon its descendant phase. It was now passing through the Jacobin régime of which Robespierre was the supreme expression, and in its turn this régime had to give place to the men of "law and order," who were longing to put an end to the unrest of revolution, and were only waiting for the moment when they could overthrow the Terrorists of the "Mountain" without provoking an insurrection in Paris.

We cannot overestimate all the evil resulting from the fact that in economic matters the Revolution was based on personal gain. A revolution should include the welfare of all, otherwise it is certain to be crushed by those very persons whom it has enriched at the expense of the nation. Whenever a shifting of wealth is caused by a revolution, it ought never to be for the benefit of individuals, but always for the benefit of communities. Yet it was on this point precisely that the Great Revolution fatally erred.

The estates, which were confiscated from the church and the nobility, were given to private persons, whereas they should have been restored to the villages and the towns, because they had formerly belonged to the people -- being, as they were, the lands which individuals had fastened upon under the protection of the feudal system. There have never been any cultivated lands of seigniorial or ecclesiastic origin. Apart from a few monastic communities, neither lords nor priests had ever with their own hands cleared a single acre. The people, those called vilains or manants, had cleared every square yard of cultivated soil. It was they who had made it accessible, habitable, and given value to it, and it was to them it should have been restored.

But, acting in the interests of a middle-class State, the Constituent and Legislative Assemblies, and even the Convention too, acknowledged the legal claims of lord, convent, cathedral, and church to lands which in former times had been appropriated by those props of the then growing State, and they took possession of these lands and sold them chiefly to the middle classes.

It can be imagined what a scramble for a share in this booty took place when estates, of which the total value amounted to from ten to fifteen thousand millions of francs, were on sale for several years under conditions extremely favourable to the purchasers -- conditions which could be rendered still more advantageous by currying favour with the new local authorities. In this way the famous "black bands" were formed in the provinces, against which all the efforts of the Convention's commissioners were powerless.

The pernicious influence of these pilferers, reinforced by the Paris stock-jobbers and the army contractors, spread by degrees to the Convention itself, where the honest men among the Montagnards found themselves confronted by "profitmongers" and helpless against them. What was there to oppose to them ? Once the Entragés were crushed and the sections of Paris paralysed -- what remained in the Convention beside the "Marsh" ?

The victory of Fleurus, won on June 26 (8th Messidor) over the combined forces of Austria and England -- a victory which ended the campaign in the North for that year -- and the successes gained by the Republic's armies in the Pyrenees, the Alps, and on the Rhine, as well as the arrival of a transport laden with wheat from America -- at the cost, be it said, of several battleships -- these successes served in themselves as powerful arguments with the "moderates," who were anxious to restore order. "What," said they, "is the good of a revolutionary government, now that the war is almost over ? It is time to go back to legal conditions, and to put an end to government by revolutionary committees and patriotic societies in the provinces. It is time to restore order and to close the period of revolution ! "

But the Terror, so generally attributed to Robespierre, far from relaxing, was still fully maintained. On the 3rd Messidor (June 21), Herman, a government official, "commissaire des administrations civiles, police et tribunaux," a man much attached to Robespierre, sent in a statement to the Committee of Public Welfare, asking permission to inquire into the plottings among the prisoners and hinting that "it might be necessary presently to purge the prisons." He was authorised by the committee to hold the inquiry, and forthwith began the sending of those horrible "batches," those cartloads of men and women to the guillotine, a sight more abominable to the Parisians than the September massacres. These executions were all the more odious because no one knew where they would end, and because they went on in the midst of balls, concerts, and other festivities given by the class that had so recently grown rich, and amid the derision of the royalist jeunesse dorée, who grew daily more aggressive.

Everyone must have felt that this state of things could not last, and the Moderates in the Convention took advantage of it. Dantonists, Girondins, and the members of the "Marsh," joined ranks, and concentrated their forces on Robespierre's overthrow, as the first point to be gained. The condition of Paris favoured their designs, as the Committee of Public Welfare had succeeded in crippling the sections -- the true centres of the popular movements.

On the 5th Thermidor (July 23) the general council of the Commune, in which Payan, an intimate friend of Robespierre, was now all powerful, did much to injure its popularity by issuing a decree that was absolutely unjust to the workers. The council ordered in all the forty-eight sections the proclamation of the maximum, which was to fix the limit of the workers' wages. As we have seen, the Committee of Public Welfare had already made itself unpopular with the sections by destroying their autonomy, and appointing the members of several of their committee.

The moment, therefore, was ripe for attempting a coup d'état.

On the 21st Messidor (July 9) Robespierre had at length decided to begin the attack upon his enemies. Eight days previously he had been complaining at the Jacobin Club of the war that was being waged against him personally. He now went into particulars, and made some allusions to Barère -- that very Barère who until then had been the pliant instrument of his faction, whenever a bold stroke had been needed in the Convention. Two days later, again at the Jacobin Club, he made a direct attack on Fouché for his terrible doings in Lyons, and succeeded in having him summoned to answer for them before the club.

By the 26th Messidor (July 14) war was declared, as Fouché had refused to appear before the Jacobins. As to the attack on Barère, it meant also an attack on Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne, as well as on two powerful members of the Committee of Public Safety, Vadier and Voulland, who often conferred with Barère and had collaborated with him in the business of the prison plots.

All those of the Left, therefore, who felt themselves threatened -- Tallien, Barère, Vadier, Voulland, Billaud-Varenne, Collot d'Herbois Fouché -- banded themselves together against the "triumvirs" -- Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon. Moderates, such as Barras, Rovère, Thirion, Courtois, Bourdon, and the rest, who, for their part, would have liked to see the downfall of the whole "Mountain," including Collot d'Herbois, Billaud-Varenne, Barère, Vadier and the others, no doubt said to themselves that it was best to begin by attacking the Robespierre group, as, once that was overthrown, the rest could be easily managed.

The storm burst in the Converntion on the 8th Thermidor (July 26, 1794). It must have been expected; for the hall was thronged. Robespierre attacked the Committee of General Safety in a carefully prepared speech and charged it with conspiring against the Convention. He was there, he said, to defend the Convention and himself against slanders. He also defended himself against the charge of dictatorial tendencies, and he did not try to be conciliatory towards his adversaries -- even towards Cambon, of whom he spoke, as well as of Mallaremé and Ramel, in terms borrowed from the Enragés, calling them "Feuillants, aristocrats, rascals."

He was permitted to finish, because people were anxious to know his conclusions, and when he had expressed them it was perceived that in reality he was asking for an increase in his own authority and that of his group. There was no new outlook, no new programme in his speech. It was only the demand of a Government member for more power -- still more power, to be used for purposes of repression.

"What is the remedy for the evil ? " he said in conclusion. "The punishment of the traitors, a complete reconstruction of the Committee of General Safety, the purification of that committee and its subordination to the Committee of Public Welfare ; the purification of the Committee of Public Welfare itself ; and unity of Government under the authority of the National Convention which was the centre and the judge."

It was understood then that he confined himself to asking for more authority to be vested in his triumvirate, to be used against Collot and Billot, Tallien and Barère, Cambon and Carnot, Vadier and Voulland. The conspirators of the Right must have rubbed their hands. They had only to let Tallien, Billot-Varenne and the other Montagnards act.

The evening of the same day the Jacobin Club rapturously applauded Robespierre's speech and made a furious demonstration against Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varenne. It was even proposed to march against the two committees. But nothing went beyond mere talk. The Jacobin Club had never been a centre of action.

During the night Bourdon and Talhen secured the support of the Conventionals of the Right, and apparently the plan agreed upon was to prevent Robespierre and Saint-Just from speaking.

The next day, the 9th Thermidor, as soon as Saint-Just rose to read his statement -- which, by the way, was very moderate, for it only asked for a revision of Government procedure -- Billaud-Varenne and Tallien would not allow him to read it. They demanded the arrest of the "tyrant," meaning Robespierre, and shouts of "Down with the tyrant ! " were re-echoed by the whole of the "Marsh." Robespierre attempted to speak, but he, too, was prevented. An order was given for his prosecution, including his brother, Saint-Just, Couthon and Lebas, and they were immediately arrested and taken off to different prisons.

Meanwhile Hanriot, the chief of the National Guard, followed by two aides-de-camp and some gendarmes, was galloping through the streets in the direction of the Convention, when two of the members of the Convention, seeing him pass in the Rue Saint-Honore, had him arrested by six of the very gendarmes under his command.

The General Council of the Commune did not meet until six o'clock in the evening. It then issued an appeal to the people, calling on them to rise against Barère, Collot, Bourdon and Amar, and Coffinhal was despatched to deliver Robespierre and his friends who, it was thought, were kept under arrest in the building occupied by the Committee of General Safety, but Coffinhal found there only Hanriot, whom he released. As to Robespierre, he had been taken first to the Luxembourg, but the officials there refused to receive him ; and, instead of going straight to the Commune, and casting in his lot with the party of insurrection, he went to the Police Office on the Quai des Orfèvres, and remained doing nothing. Saint-Just and Lebas went as soon as they were free to the Commune, and Coffinhal, again sent by the Council to seek Robespierre, had to force his hand to compel him to go to the Hôtel de Ville, which he reached about eight o'clock.

The Council of the Commune began to arrange for a rising, but it became clear that the sections had no mind to rise against the Convention in favour of those whom they charged with having guillotined Chaumette and Hebért, killed Jacques Roux, ejected Pache from office, and destroyed the autonomy of the sections. Paris, moreover, must have felt that the Revolution was dying out, and that the men for whom the Council of the Commune appealed to the people to rise were in no way representative of the popular cause.

By midnight the sections had made no sign of stirring. Louis Blanc says that they were in a state of division, their civil committees being unable to come to agreement with the revolutionary committees and the General Assemblies. The fourteen sections that obeyed the Commune in the first instance did nothing, while eighteen were hostile, and of these, six were in the immediate neighbourhood of the Hôtel de Ville. The men of Jacques Roux' section, the Gravilliers, even formed the first nucleus of one of the two columns that marched upon the Hôtel de Ville at the order of the Convention.1

In the meantime, the Convention was declaring the insurgents and the Commune outlaws, and when this declaration was read in the Place de la Grêve, Hanriot's artillerymen, who had been posted there with nothing to do, slipped away one by one. The Place was quite deserted when shortly afterwards the Hôtel de Ville was invaded by the columns from the Gravilliers and the Arcis. A young gendarme, who was the first to enter the room in which were Robespierre and his friends, fired a pistol-shot which broke Robespierre's jaw. The Hôtel de Ville, the very centre of the resistance, was thus taken without a blow being struck in its defence. Thereupon Lebas killed himself, the younger Robespierre tried to kill himself by leaping through a window from the third story ; Coffinhal caught hold of Hanriot, whom he accused of having lost their cause, and hurled him out of window ; Saint-Just and Couthon allowed themselves to be arrested quietly.

The next morning, after a mere form of identification, they were all executed, to the number of twenty-one. They went to their death in the Place de la Révolution by a long route amid the insults of counter-revolutionary crowds. The fashionable people who hastened to enjoy the spectacle were even more festive than on the day of the execution of the Hébertists. Windows were let at fabulous prices, and the ladies who sat in them wore full dress. Reaction was triumphing. The Revolution had come to an end.

Here we, too, shall pause, without narrating the details of the orgies under the White Terror, which began after Thermidor, or the two attempts at insurrection against the new régime : the movement of Prairial in the Year III. and the conspiracy of Babeuf in the Year IV.

The opponents of the Terror, who were always talking of clemency, wanted it only for themselves and their friends. The first thing they did when they came into power was to execute all the partisans of the Montagnards whom they had overthrown. In the three days, the 10th, 11th, and 12th Thermidor (July 28, 29, and 30) there were a hundred and three executions. Denunciations poured in from the middle classes and the guillotine was working hard -- this time on the side of reaction. From the 9th Thermidor to the 1st Prairial, in less than ten months, seventy-three Montagnard representatives were condemned to death or imprisoned, while seventy-three Girondins re-entered the Convention.

It was now the turn of the real "Statesmen." The "maximum" on commodities was speedily abolished, which produced a violent crisis, during which stock-jobbing and speculation attained gigantic proportions. The middle classes held high holiday, as they did again later on after June 1848 and May 1871. The jeunesse dorée organised by Fréon ruled Paris, while the workers, seeing that the Revolution was vanquished, crept back to their hovels to meditate on the chances of the next upheaval.

They attempted to rise on the 12th Germinal, Year III. (April 1, 1795), and again on the 1st Prairial (May 20) demanding bread and the Constitution of 1793. On this occasion the faubourgs showed much spirit, but the middle classes had had time to organise their forces. The revolutionary tribunal had been abolished, so the last of the Montagnards -- Romme, Bourbotte, Duroy, Soubrancy, Goujon and Duquesnoy -- were condemned to death by a military commission and executed.

Thenceforth the middle classes remained masters of the Revolution and the descendant phase continued. The reaction soon became frankly royalist. The troupe dorée no longer remained concealed, but openly wore the grey coat with the green or blue colour of the Chouans2 and ill-treated all those known as "terrorists" -- that is to say, all republicans. There were persecutions both wholesale and retail. Whoever had assisted in any way in the execution of the King -- or in his arrest after the flight to Varennes, whoever had taken any part whatever in the assault on the Tuileries, was pointed out to the royalists and life made insupportable for him.

In the departments, especially in the South, the "Compagnies du Jésus," the "Compagnies du Soleil" and other royalist organisations practised wholesale reprisals. In the prisons at Lyons, Aix and Marseilles they killed all those who had taken part in the former government. Mignet says: "Nearly every place in the South had its second of September," and that, of course, means its royalist second of September. Besides these wholesale massacres, the members of the above-named Societies of Jesus and the Sun held individual man-hunts. In Lyons, whenever they found a revolutionist who had escaped their massacres, they killed him and threw the body into the Rhône without any pretence at a trial. Similar deeds were enacted in Tarascon.

The reaction increased until at last the Convention broke up on the 4th Brumaire, Year IV. (October 26, 1795). The Directory succeeded it and prepared the way for the Consulate first and the Empire afterwards. The Directory was a terrible orgy of the middle classes, in which the fortunes acquired during the Revolution, especially during the Thermidorean reaction, were squandered in unbridled luxury. For, if the Revolution had put in circulation eight milliards of paper-money, the Thermidorean reaction went ten times as fast in that direction, for it issued the amazing sum of thirty milliards in paper within fifteen months. By this we can calculate the amount of the fortunes which had been accumulated by the "profitmongers," thanks to these tremendous issues of paper-money.

Once again, in May 1796, the revolutionary Communists under the leadership of Babeuf tried to get up an insurrection through their secret society, but they were arrested before it was ripe. An attempt to raise the camp at Grenelle on the night of the 23rd Fructidor, Year IV. (September 9, 1796), also failed. Babeuf and Darthé were condemned to death, and killed themselves with a dagger on the 7th Prairial, Year V. But the royalists had their failure too, on the 18th Fructidor, Year V. (September 4, 1797), and the Directory lasted until the 18th Brumaire, Year VIII. (November 9, 1799).

On that day Napoleon Bonaparte carried out his coup d'état, and national representation was completely suppressed by the ex-sans-culotte, who had the army on his side.

The war, which had lasted seven years, had thus come to its logical conclusion. On the 28th Floréal, Year XII. (May 18, 1894), Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, and then war broke out again, to last with brief intervals until 1815.


1The sections, M. Ernest Mellié says, took no initiative, but tamely followed their committees, the members of which were dependent on the Committees of Public Welfare and General Safety. They were left no part in politics. . . . They had even been forbidden to call themselves primary assemblies ; on the 20th Floréal, Year II. (May 9, 1794), Payan, the national agent of the Commune, who had taken the place of Chaumette, warned them by letter that, under a revolutionary government, there were no primary assemblies. . . . This was to remind them that their abdication was complete (pp. 151, 152). After recounting the successive purifications to which the sections had submitted to make themselves acceptable to the Jacobins (p. 153), M. Mellié concludes with these words : "Michelet was right, therefore, in saying that by this time the assemblies of the sections were dead and that all power had passed over to the revolutionary committees, which, being themselves nominated by the Government, had no longer any vitality either" (pp. 154, 155). On the 9th Thermidor (and of this M. Mellié has found the proofs in the Archives), in nearly all the sections the revolutionary committees were assembled to await the orders of the Government (p. 169). It is not surprising, therefore, that the sections did not take action against the Thermidoreans.

2The Breton royalists.