Albert Soboul’s work on the Parisian Sans-Culottes in the Year Two of the French Revolution footnote1 begins with the victory of the Montagnards over the Girondins, a bloodless political triumph despite the fact that it was won with the support of the armed people of Paris: ‘On 2 June 1793, the Montagne took power by pressuring the Convention with the threat of the Parisian sansculottes. It did not, however, intend to let the sans-culottes rule . . . ’ From the very outset of his book, Soboul focusses on the problem which he intends to study: the conflict, at first latent and then open, between the revolutionary government and the masses which had brought it to power. This conflict was eventually to exhaust both the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses and the authority of those in power. Its final outcome was Thermidor. The author deliberately limits the object of his research. He ignores or passes over other aspects of this turbulent period, in particular the foreign policy of the revolution, the subject of a recent debate between Jean-Paul Sartre and Daniel Guérin. footnote2 Soboul confines his study (by a conscious methodological limitation) to the determinant social force in the revolutionary process, the Parisian Sections. Historians, he tells us, know this period well at the level of the State, Institutions and Leaders—in other words, from above. Albert Soboul, on the other hand, following in the steps of Georges Lefebvre, but advancing yet further, seeks to study ‘the Parisian populace in its general assemblies and sociétés sectionnaires’. To the earlier histories of the events of the Revolution—of the men, ideas and institutions it produced—and to the economic histories of Mathiez or Labrousse, Soboul has now added a history of the social forces of the French Revolution, in a volume, whose essential concern is sociological. The research this involves is sometimes surprisingly detailed: it includes the biographies of individuals who played some part in the great drama, however minimal or local. We learn of their social origins, and thereby discover the social composition of the different Parisian Sections, which illuminates their respective political roles remarkably, and is in turn clarified by them. Though Soboul purposely avoids other questions, particularly the general political problems of the French Revolution, he does not separate his meticulous research from the total movement which is the object of his study; the rise, stabilization, reflux and decline of the mass movement of the Parisian sans-culottes.

With a rare wealth of documentation, Soboul shows how—very soon after the Montagne had won power—‘disturbances’ broke out that promptly polarized different economic attitudes and political programmes within the victorious camp. These ‘disturbances’ were provoked by apparently trivial and invariably everyday reasons. Thus, by the end of June 1793, soap was scarce in Paris. Laundresses thereupon started to loot soap from the boats docked at the Parisian quays. In effect, these women were forcibly taxing a scarce commodity and, by their intervention, posing the problems of provisioning in the capital, control of distribution and generalization of the laws of the ‘maximum’ governing prices and wages: in other words they were raising the question of economic equality in a situation of shortages. Soboul points out the significance of this intervention by women—housewives—in the political democracy of the time; an intervention spontaneously pushing the latter towards a directly social form of democracy. He follows its evolution and that of other small ‘disturbances’ in great detail, because they show the ‘depth of the social crisis’ by putting in question the foundation of society and not merely its political and ideological superstructures. In doing so, Soboul transforms Michelet’s prophetic but generic ‘vision’ of the Revolution as a series of epic descriptions of the battles of insurgent Paris.

In 1793, the popular masses of Paris manifestly neither wanted nor were able to go on living as they had previously done. This—according to Lenin—is the definition of a profoundly revolutionary period. Soboul shows how the process of radicalization that had begun in 1789, and then become bogged down in Girondism, gathered momentum again. The upsurge of the masses worsens the economic crisis and this worsening then intensifies their pressure. They push towards goals determined by the demand of a daily life which has become intolerable. They want State power to be used for the satisfaction of their needs, right up to outright control of distribution and even of production, if necessary through their direct delegates. The Jacobins in power, on the other hand, want to use the State for very different purposes. They have other perspectives, and also other responsibilities, particularly those of national defence, of the war and how to fight it. Political democracy, which they are willing to make as egalitarian as possible, is enough for them, particularly since through their actions it rapidly becomes a centralized and dictatorial State power, which uses its legality to suspend the rights of individuals and of personal freedom. Objectively, conflict between the Jacobins and the sans-culottes was inevitable. Very early, a gulf opened up between the language of leaders who talked of ‘patriotism’ and of masses who more and more spoke of ‘food’. By its very nature and necessary limits, the Jacobin (bourgeois-democratic) Revolution was incapable of solving this contradiction. A hundred and thirty years later another revolution—qualitatively distinct but not absolutely separated from it—would try to push democracy in every field to its limits, by simultaneously achieving political democracy, economic democracy and social (socialist) democracy.

As early as July 1793, the leader of the Parisian masses, Jacques Roux, was politically defeated. His fate was a fore-shadowing of what was to follow, but nobody in July 1793 realized this. In this respect, Soboul’s book has the suspense of a great novel: destiny is decided, declared, presaged and yet none of the actors or characters is aware of it. He who knows—the historian—shows their uncertainty, ignorance and lack of consciousness. It is to be noted that in July 1793, both Hébert and Marat participated in the Jacobin operation against Jacques Roux; however, the force behind the popularity of the leader whom they had eliminated, in other words, the pressure of the masses, was to sweep them up in their turn and impel them farther, too far, along the same road.

Soboul provides us with an impressive account of how, in this period, politics were conducted. Those whom the people already called ‘statesmen’ invented or perfected all the devices of modern politics; they manipulated the masses, utilized them and confiscated their energies to mobilize, repress or break them. The Jacobins, those great (bourgeois) revolutionaries, created and employed every contemporary means of maintaining power: the communications system, newspapers and rumour, informers and police, mystification and slander. (Hébert was attacked as an ‘English agent’.) Manoeuvring was constant—and utterly unscrupulous. For example, the Moderates set the Sections against the Commune and the Jacobins by whipping up agitation over the food crisis; after which, pretending to deal with the shortages, the Government dissolved (from above) the Provisioning Commission set up by the Sections, which was an expression of direct democracy and represented an aspiration towards greater social and economic equality.

Economic freedom thereby triumphed: in other words, the exact opposite of what the militants in the Sections had wanted! The manoeuvre thus concluded with a victory of the most powerful and dominant economic tendency at that moment, amidst fluctuations caused by demagogic initiatives and clashes of contradictory currents of opinion and action. Another example of the same type can be cited from a later episode of the Revolution. When the Jacobin revolutionary government struck at the extreme-left opposition which had sought to appeal to the masses, it fabricated a remarkable amalgam; it tried and condemned a sizable contingent of Moderates together with a crowd of Hébertists.

In this respect Soboul’s book has a very wide significance, perhaps greater than its author intended. Far better than in any previous work on the French Revolution, the reader can follow here the birth of modern politics, both in their ignominy and their tragic grandeur (when executioners become victims). For all its size, the book could serve as a breviary for many different people, some of them to learn politics, the others to feed their hatred for political mystifications and trickery, even when these are historically effective.