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Left to right: Thomas Paine, Thomas Hardy, Theroigne de Mericourt, Mary Wollstonecraft
France 1792 was the year of ‘the second revolution’. On 10 August, the king was overthrown, bringing to an end three years of uneasy ‘constitutional monarchy’. For months the legislative assembly had been locked in conflict with Louis XVI, while at the same time fighting a war against invading Austrians and Prussians. The Parisian masses resolved that conflict by direct action, invading the Tuileries palace and arresting the king. In response, the assembly called a general election – the first election in Europe conducted under universal adult male suffrage. Eighty years would pass before the exercise was repeated.
The elections, held in the first two weeks of September, were festive, proudly democratic occasions marked by wide‑ranging debates, and the results were a resounding confirmation of the action of the Paris masses. The 750 deputies elected to the ‘convention’ were overwhelmingly committed to the formation of a new republic, though they would soon fall out violently over its direction.
The events of 10 August had ushered in not only a new republic but a new power: the plebeian Parisians, who would come to be known as sans-culottes. Organised in the sections (neighbourhood committees) and commune of Paris, in the coming year they would mobilise repeatedly to force their ‘popular programme’ on an often reluctant convention. That programme included not only stiff measures against ‘counter-revolutionaries’ but also price controls and action against hoarders and speculators. If this was a ‘bourgeois revolution’, someone forgot to tell the sans-culottes.
The revolutionary impulse overflowed established categories and surged through ancient barriers. In the British isles, the best-seller was Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, which thanks to its plain but vibrant style and cheap price reached hundreds of thousands, including artisans and labourers.
In Part I, published in early 1791, Paine defended the French Revolution and debunked what passed for the British constitution. ‘The portion of liberty enjoyed in England,’ he observed, ‘is just enough to enslave a country more productively than by despotism.’
In Part II, published in February 1792, Paine amplified his republican arguments. Insisting that ‘only partial advantages can flow from partial reforms,’ he warned: ‘Change of ministers amounts to nothing. One goes out, another comes in, and still the same measures, vices, and extravagance are pursued. It signifies not who is minister. The defect lies in the system.’
Most remarkably, in Part II Paine pushed the democratic revolution into the economic realm. He identified the central contradiction of European progress: ‘A great portion of mankind, in what are called civilised countries, are in a state of poverty and wretchedness, far below the condition of an [American] Indian.’ He went on to propose, in some detail, what would later be known as a welfare state: payments to the elderly, the disabled and parents of young children, universal primary education and public works to provide gainful employment. All this ‘not as a matter of grace and favour, but of right’. And all to be funded by a new system of steeply progressive taxation and cuts in military spending. The search for democracy had led Paine to social democracy.
That there was a ready audience for Paine’s ideas was shown by the rapid growth of the London Corresponding Society, along with similar bodies in Sheffield, Manchester and elsewhere. Dedicated to parliamentary reform and universal male suffrage, the corresponding societies were Britain’s first plebeian political associations, charging dues of only a penny a week. The LCS founding secretary, the shoemaker Thomas Hardy, explained that its members represented ‘a class of men who deserve better treatment than they generally meet with from those who are fed, and clothed, and enriched by their labour, industry or ingenuity’.
Paine and the corresponding societies created a new radical democratic pole in British politics, squarely opposed to and by Pitt’s Tory government. Caught between the two, the liberal Whigs vacillated. Fox and a small band stood out against the attacks on civil liberties and the drift to war with France, but were gradually isolated. Within a year the Whig leaders, driven by their fear of revolution, had joined Pitt’s ministry – not the last time Liberals would respond to a crisis by lining up with Tory reaction.
Paris was the epicentre, but the repercussions were global. The revolutionary contagion spread to Ireland, where the United Irishmen had been formed a year earlier, and to Scotland, where, in December 1792, the Edinburgh Friends of the People organised a ‘general convention’ for parliamentary reform attended by 160 delegates from 35 Scottish towns and villages.
In the Caribbean, the hugely profitable French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) was convulsed by a slave revolt of unprecedented dimensions. On 19 August, the man who was to become its greatest general issued an appeal: ‘Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint L’Ouverture, my name is perhaps known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want liberty and equality to reign in Saint-Domingue. I work to bring them into existence. Unite yourselves to us brothers, and fight with us …’ For the first time, the ideas of the European Enlightenment were turned against European power.
Under the extraordinary conditions of 1792, the question of the ‘rights of man’ also became, briefly, a question of the ‘rights of women’. On 6 March, Pauline Leon, a 23-year-old Parisian chocolate-maker, read a petition to the legislative assembly demanding the formation of a women’s national guard. The petition was signed by 319 Parisian women, including cooks, seamstresses, market-sellers, and wives and daughters of shoemakers, butchers, lawyers and doctors.
On 26 March, the 30-year-old Theroigne de Mericourt, a figure romanticised and demonised by historians and novelists, in a speech to one of the Paris sections, took the call for a woman’s right to bear arms into broader territory. ‘Compare what we are with what we should be in the social order . . . Break our chains. It is finally time that women emerge from their shameful nullity, where the ignorance, pride and injustice of men have kept them enslaved for such a long time.’
Across the channel, Mary Wollstonecraft was completing her Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Cautiously as Wollstonecraft proceeded, focusing mainly on women’s rights to education and barely hinting at political equality, her work was greeted with horror by the polite classes and consigned to oblivion for the best part of a century.
She shared that fate with many of the revolutionary agents of 1792, which was also a year of reaction. The royal proclamation of May, aimed at Paine and the corresponding societies, marked the beginning of a decade of repression (‘Pitt’s Terror’ in popular legend) as severe as anything in British history. The upshot was the silencing of radical dissent and the crushing of popular aspirations, in the course of which a modern elite-driven British nationalism was fashioned, a development whose consequences are still very much with us.
Paine himself barely escaped arrest when in September he crossed the channel to take his seat as an elected deputy in the convention. The world’s first international revolutionary addressed a challenge to his fellow representatives: ‘In seeing Royalty abolished and the Republic established, all France has resounded with unanimous plaudits. Yet some who clap their hands do not sufficiently understand the condition they are leaving or that which they are assuming . . . it is little to throw down an idol; it is the pedestal that above all must be broken down.’
Within little more than a year, Paine would be imprisoned by the revolution he celebrated. On his release after 11 months, he returned to the convention to restate his commitment to that revolution, and to warn the deputies, unsuccessfully, against limiting the franchise by a property qualification.
In the short-term, the democratic radicals of 1792 suffered defeat, isolation, imprisonment or death. Women’s political clubs were banned in November 1793 and nearly all the women militants fell victim to the purges of 1793-95. Toussaint died in a French prison. Leaders of the LCS and the Edinburgh convention were jailed and some transported to Botany Bay. In 1798, the United Irishmen were crushed, at a cost of 30,000 Irish lives.
It would take another 120 years for Ireland to achieve partial freedom and women to win the vote. The anti-colonial struggle, launched in Haiti, remains incomplete. The social democracy envisioned by Paine only came into existence after 1945, and its vestiges are now being stripped away. So were all these struggles ‘premature’, doomed to failure, a waste of passion and effort? Readers can make up their own minds about that.