Albert Soboul, The Sans-Culottes: The Popular and Revolutionary Government 1793-1794, 1968

The history of the French Revolution will never be fully explored nor will it ever be completely written. From generation to generation, as history, which it made possible unfolds, it will never cease to cause men to reflect, to give rise to enthusiasm – Albert Solboul

Paris of 1968 resembled some aspects of Revolutionary France. The Parisian “counter culture” took to the streets causing unrest and confusion. Perhaps, offering a last gasp of radicalism, the Parisian radicals of the 1960’s, like their American counterparts, were attempting recreate France (or at least its government) into something that would met their seething interests. However, while their success in such endeavors may be debated, their moment in history cannot. They were a tangible presence in a Europe still trying to cope with its Post-WWII Cold War existence. Like the san-culottes of Revolutionary Paris, they were trying to craft something new and innovating. Did they represent a single class? Were their contradictions within the movement? Was social unrest and violence their only means of political action? Questions like these also apply to the sans-culottes movement of Paris.

Originally published in 1968, Albert Solboul’s The Sans-Culottes investigates the “the rise, halt, and finally the decline of the Paris popular movement from the fall of the Girondins on June 2, 1793 … to that of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor, year II, which toppled the revolutionary government and which finally brought about the downfall of the popular movement as well,” (xv). Solboul identifies the fundamental problem of the popular movement as a political issue, however he notes the need for the consideration of social pressures. Accordingly, the historiography of the French Revolution reflects its complexity. Each historian that attempts to explain and fully understand the popular movement, pulls from the body of the revolution a new appendage or organ, revealing a new insight into its workings, “various aspects of [its] totality are revealed to its historians who bring out new data previously concealed behind the enormity of the total phenomenon,” (xvi). Thus, Solboul must recognize his own contribution to scholarship adds to this collection of knowledge. Utilizing papers from the Parisian Sections themselves, Solboul examines records of debates, correspondences between sections, enrollment registers, papers from popular societies and similar sources. While Solboul acknowledges the loss of valuable material over the course of time from random occurrences such as fire, his collection of sources remains impressive.

Two fundamental questions dominate Solboul’s discussion of the sans-culottes. According to Solboul the first is a political question, “how to resolve the problem of the relationship between popular democracy and the revolutionary government,” (xxxiv), while the second focuses on a social issue, “how do we resolve the problem of the relations between the masses and the propertied classes?” (xxxiv). It must be noted that Solboul attributes an agency and autonomy to the popular classes.

Solboul argues that the revolutionary government was a product of a union between the Montagnard bourgeoisie and the Parisian san-culottes. United in a common disdain and hatred for the aristocracy, the popular masses ally themselves with the bourgeoisie allowing for the full culmination of the revolution to unfold. However, with the onslaught of war, both groups needed to rededicate themselves to the perpetuation of the revolution, “The Paris sans-culottes were in agreement with the revolutionary government on the essentials, the hatred of the aristocracy and the desire for victory,” (252). While the war initially suppresses conflict between the two groups, eventually these groups would be at odds because of the war, “However, it was only a short time before there was a conflict between the revolutionary government and the Parisian sans-culottes. Although the conflict was a direct result of the war, it was nevertheless an indication of the existence of two completely irreconcilable attitudes, two different social classes,” (252).

Each group defined democracy differently. While the sans-culottes believed in a direct form of democracy more egalitarian than the bourgeoisie idea, a liberal democracy. Ironically, the revolutionary government failed to meet either group’s perceptions, “But from the first the demands of war resulted in practices that were contradictory to the form of democracy envisioned by the Montagnards and the sans-culottes,” (252) However, this aggravated the sans-culottes more than the bourgeoisie since the sans-culottes’ interpretation of democracy leaned toward a more spontaneous form of direct democracy. The wartime conditions refused to allow for this, causing them greater discomfort than the bourgeoisie, “The san-culottes had called for a strong government which would eradicate the aristocracy; they were not prepared for the fact that in order to win this government would be obliged to force them to toe the line,” (252).

The economic differences between the popular masses and the bourgeoisie were pronounced. While Robespierre and his followers noted the difference between a government in times of domestic tranquility and times of war, this did not prevent economic antagonisms from surfacing. While the government acknowledged the need for a controlled economy, it resented the need for it, “They agreed to these measures only as expedients to be used only to the day of victory,” (253). However, even in a controlled economy, economic interests between the masses and bourgeoisie became problematic, thus the government “which needed both of them, had to play the role of arbitrator,” (253). The sans-culottes’s economic interests were dominated by the ratio between wages and food prices. According to Solboul, the price fixing concerns of the san-culottes stemmed as much from this concern with food as trepidation about the war, “When they forced requisition and price fixing on the Convention, they were not thinking only of national defense: they were even more concerned with being able to feed themselves,” (254). However, despite the controlled economy, Solboul maintains that France was a society built upon a bourgeois structure. Thus, the Public Safety Committee sides with the “haves” rather than the workers. While leaders like Robespierre, would have liked to correct such problems, the government failed to do so, “But the revolutionary government lacked the means of balancing the supply and demand of merchandise and basic foodstuffs,” (255). When the government bans strikes (one of the san-culottes primary political and economic weapons), while failing to instituting nation wide rationing of food, it divides the masses and the bourgeois into two separate corners, “Thus, an insurmountable barrier was erected between the revolutionary government and the popular movement that had brought it to power. The economy was geared to artisan activity and was incapable of adapting itself to a major war effort,” (256).

The confrontation between the sans-culottes and the bourgeoisie only served to exacerbate internal problems among the san-culottes. Solboul argues that the san-culottes failed to constitute an actual class, “The sans-culottes were not a class as such, nor was the sans-culottes movement a class party. Artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants, journeymen and day laborers-along with a bourgeois minority- formed a coalition against the aristocracy, which represented an irresistible force. However, within this coalition there was a friction between those who … enjoyed incomes from private property or industry, and those who … had no other source of income save their wages,” (257). Interests could be suppressed for a time; however, they would eventually surface over time. Social attitudes made these differences even more complex as Solboul points out, “there were numbers of master artisans, employees, who, on account of their lifestyle, considered themselves bourgeois and had no intention of being confused with he lower orders … On the other hand, numbers of real bourgeois called themselves san-culottes and acted as such,” (257). Thus, according to Solboul’s analysis, the sans-culottes held no class-consciousness. While certain groups within the sans-culottes developed class-consciousness, such as the wage earners, the sans-culottes as a whole failed to develop one. Without class-consciousness the sans-culottes never developed a useful tact or instrument for political battles.

Yet, while external and internal conflicts chipped away at the sans-culottes presence, an internal collapse proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. According to Solboul, several factors slowly eroded the militancy of the sans-culottes. Biological factors such as the sheer length of the revolutionary movement served to weaken the cause. Many of the sans-culottes had been active participants in the Revolution from its infancy. Five years of revolution had taken its toll, “Robespierre said that with the war dragging on, ‘the people were getting tired.’ The popular movement had lost its strength and keenness,” (261). The psychological toll of war had also left its mark. Once the war had been concluded the threat of invasion subsided. With victory came more bread, and the militancy of the movement was bound to lose some of its inertia. Moreover, with the war concluded, the bourgeois factions wanted to break away from the fixed economy, thus consolidating both its political and economic power. Additionally, conscription from the war itself crippled the sans-culottes. With more and more men of youth (typically the most militant and active sans-culottes), being conscripted the movement had its legs cut from under it. Finally, success itself undermined the movement. The most militant and aware revolutionaries of the sans-culottes were appointed as commissars within the government. This group was now beholden to the government for wages. With food scarce and wages not increasing, the commissars could not look on unemployment lightly, thus a certain conformism surfaces in their political behavior.

Written in 1968, Solboul’s work has received a lionshare of accolades. However, more recently, it has been the subject of criticism. Richard Andrews voices his complaints in an article for The Journal of Social History in fall of 1985 entitled “Social Structures, Political Elites and Ideology in Revolutionary Paris 1792-4”. His intention in writing the article is “to demonstrate that between the social composition of the ‘sans-culottes’ leadership and the general ideology of the ‘sans-culottes’ movement there was a coherence far more extensive than Soboul, and succeeding historians, perceived,” (71). Andrews locates several points of contention within Solboul’s work. According to Andrews, differences between the sections of Paris are not explored, “the metropolis was not a protagonist of Soboul’s history. It was merely a place. There was no exploration of relations between “quartiers” and sections, between socio-economic geographies and local politics,” (72). In addition, Andrews claims that Solboul fails to adequately represent and analyze the protagonists, “No protagonists were studied in the duration of their social and civic careers. We were presented with a huge, ghostly procession of figurations, within which marched an ostensible popular movement,” (72). A more critical note is marked when Andrews disparages Solboul’s use of dossiers as sources, “these dossiers are transcriptions and polemical mutations of politics. They are not a collection of authentic social identities. Solid conditions of a person’s wealth, class and status appear occasionally, but only … under scrutiny of a dossier,” (76). The use of rhetoric, not only within the dossier, but also at large publicly is not discussed adequately for Andrew’s taste. Additionally, immigration never enters into Solboul’s analysis, yet Andrew argues for its importance,

Andrew concludes his article remarking, “For one historian, alone, to have navigated that immensity was a heroic accomplishment. Subsequent exploration has been possible only because of his voyage. In the historiography or Revolutionary Paris, Albert Solboul was a Magellan,” (98). Solboul’s work no doubt accomplishes what he pointed out in his forward that other histories have done: it has extracted another facet of the French Revolution from its teeming mass. However, like other histories flaws exist. The city of Paris, like any other cosmopolitan metropolis, holds political, social, and economic distinctions between sections. Andrews is correct when he notes this flaw. The “South Side” of Chicago looks nothing like its counter part to the north. France’s immigration historically has been quite significant. A diverse country, Solboul’s failure to even mention immigration as a factor definitely weakens his argument. Where would immigrants ally themselves? Why would they choose such alliances and what was the role of immigration in the Revolution?

What can be said about ideology? Solboul maintains that the sans-culottes lacked a cohesive ideology and class-consciousness, yet he acknowledges that groups within the sans-culottes did develop class-consciousness. Additionally, he argues that the dominant ideology of the sans-culottes was “bread” or the basic need to eat. If the coalition was as tenuous and fractured as Solbuol maintains, then why did it still maintain this ideology of bread? Wouldn’t the more bourgeois members of the movement reject this plea for a more politically and economically advantageous goal? Much of Solboul’s argument seems to rest on the almost Marxian view that the bourgeoisie sold the sans-culottes out for a more capitalistic society. Arguments such as these have fallen under heavy criticism in recent years. The tendency of Marxian historians to oversimplify political and economic conflicts to classism weakens many historical arguments, and does so in Solboul’s case. Andrew’s criticism of dossiers and the rhetoric of the time prove a valuable point. In tense political climates, hyperbole often surfaces. Historians must acknowledge or at least discuss the possibility of such inflated language. Solboul’s neglect in this area once again detracts from his argument. Moreover, when Andrews argues that relations between the Jacobin leadership and the Sections were not as hostile as Soboul maintains, the seed is planted. Andrew labels the relationship a “complex form of symbiosis”. Such an explanation while more complex, in all likliehood reflects reality more accurately. Political actors are more pragmatic than often portrayed historically. Even Stalin had his moments of diplomacy. Solboul’s explanation lacks the complexity that politics, especially revolutionary politics, regularly exhibits.

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