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.

The condition of military success was, quite simply, a second French Revolution, involving the overthrow of the monarchy, the strict concentration of revolutionary power, the mobilisation of all available resources, and concessions, both political and economic, to the menu peuple, whose support, in the circumstances of war, had become a sine qua non of revolutionary survival.

The Girondins had no thought of making such concessions or of mobilising France for total war. It was they who, at the moment of supreme crisis, came to form the most articulate opposition to revolutionary measures, and who became the most vigorous exponents of conservative policies whose adoption must have spelt final disaster for the Revolution at the hands of its internal and external enemies. Dr. Sydenham is quite right in suggesting that there were many deputies not of the Girondin faction who had no more liking for revolutionary measures than had the Girondins. But it was the Girondins who assumed the leadership of the new conservatism. In particular, it was the Girondins who led the opposition to the Parisian popular movement and to left-wing Jacobinism. They hated the “mob” with the pathological hatred of terrified bourgeois. Long before the massacres of September 1792, they had shown their determination to bring the activists to heel. The massacres only intensified their hatred and fear, and no sooner had the Convention met than they tried to use their predominant influence in that assembly to crush the sans-culotterie, and the insurrectionary Commune that was its emanation. Increasingly, as the months went by, they appeared ever more clearly, not only as a brake upon the Revolution, but as an obstacle to its defence. Dr. Sydenham takes a singularly generous view of their role when he says that “the demand for a departmental guard, the illicit summoning of provincial troops, the proposal for a referendum on the fate of the King, even the strengthening of local authorities in Condorcet’s abortive Constitution, all can be considered as aspects of their effort to redress the balance of power between Paris and the rest of France.” For to redress that balance meant crippling the Revolution. Nor can the conflict seriously be defined in terms of Paris versus the provinces: there were many Girondins in Paris, as there were masses of sans-culotte activists in the provinces. The Girondins’ real concern was to stifle the surge of popular strength produced by the war and to act on the precept that, with their own assumption of power and influence, the Revolution was over. “Their failure to deal effectively with the radicals of Paris”, Dr. Sydenham also writes, “must yet stand as the most serious failure of these men.” But to deal effectively with the radicals of Paris must, in the latter half of 1792, have meant the defeat of the Revolution. By 1793, to deal effectively with the Girondins had become an essential condition of success.