The Girondins, by M. J. Sydenham:

University of London, Athlone Press. 35s. pp. 252.

thr purpose of Dr. Sydenham’s book is to show that Girondins should be written “Girondins”. There is a limited sense in which this is a useful historical enterprise, since the legend has endured that the Girondins were a large, distinct and cohesive party, in opposition to another large, distinct and cohesive party—the Jacobins. Though the falsity of this view has long been evident, no one before Dr. Sydenham has undertaken so thorough a demonstration of the fact that the existence of such a Girondin party is a legend. The Girondins were a small group of provincial deputies, which included some of the most eloquent orators of the Legislative Assembly of 1791–2, and of the Convention which succeeded it. Their views and policies were, for a long time, indistinguishable from those of the vast majority of their colleagues in these assemblies, not excluding the vast majority of Jacobins. (Indeed, many Girondins were themselves members of the Jacobin Club until the beginning of 1792). It was a group, as Dr. Sydenham shows, which lacked organisation, and whose members, connected by loose ties of friendship, sometimes spoke and voted in concert, and sometimes, even on crucial issues, did not. The only true unity they attained was in death and proscription, after their expulsion from the Convention in June 1793.

So far, so good. But only so far. For their opponents, and notably Robespierre, only exaggerated the cohesion and extent of the group, just as the Jacobins, before June 1793, exaggerated, for political and propaganda purposes, the consciously counterrevolutionary character of the Girondins’ endeavours. But their enemies were not wrong in seeing the Girondins as a faction, and, in the circumstances of 1792–3, as a counter-revolutionary faction at that. If ever the notion of “objective counter-revolutionary” had demonstrably applicable meaning, it was in theircase.

The Girondins first attained real prominence in the second half of 1791, when they assumed the leadership, within the revolutionary movement, of a massive propaganda drive designed to persuade the French people that a preventive war was essential to save the Revolution. This war-mongering campaign was remarkably successful; by April 1792, when France did declare war, support for it was overwhelming everywhere in the country. It is one of the major ironies of the French Revolution that it was the war which the Girondins did their best to bring about which was the cause of their downfall; while Robespierre, who led the tiny opposition to it, owed his assumption of power to the new conditions war created. For the Girondins, having willed war, and thus exposed the Revolution to mortal peril, did not will the means of prosecuting it successfully; and indeed did all they could to prevent it from being prosecuted successfully.