Rousseau, however, was not isolated in the expression of this right of revolution ; although perhaps he saw or felt more clearly than others what practical consequences were involved in the theory of popular sovereignty. The theorists of the eighteenth century supposed the existence of a Law of Nature by which, as Blackstone has it, men have ‘natural rights such as life and liberty, which no human legislature has power to abridge to destroy ; but here was a principle of revolution in the guise of a basis for established law, since any man might assert that the existing human legislature violated his rights according to the Law of Nature. And this Law of Nature, being unknown to every one, could be quoted by any one. It agreed on all sides that it involved certain rights existing in man as man and irrespective of social rank or inherited privilege.
Nature was an excellent ground for destroying the governments which existed ; but in practice the direct sovereignty of a fraternal and equal people was not established even by the Revolutionaries who were inspired by Rousseau. Direct popular government is only possible in small groups ; but the Revolution had inherited the whole of monarchical France as a unit to be governed. Hence an indirect government of the people had to be set up ; and the various committees and councils of Paris adopted the old methods of centralised authority. Hence also the same principle of revolution which had destroyed the monarchy destroyed any government which the Revolution could create ; for the ‘true believers’ in the Rousseau gospel could always protest that any existing government was a tyranny when the whole people did not vote on every issue.
Rousseau’s ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men’ contains the same general theme.20` It admits natural inequality and deplores the political inequality erroneously founded upon it. Rousseau clearly expresses the prevailing difficulties and puts them all down to inequality. Even the natural inequality is misrepresented he says, in a state of things in which ‘a child is king over an old man, an imbecile leads a wise man, and a few are gorged with superfluities while the hungry majority lack what is barely necessary.’21` It is only too easy to point out the mistakes as to fact and the erroneous political judgements of Rousseau. What is not easy but is more important is to see how clearly he expressed the general distress and the accepted idea of what would remove it. If we could suppose all men equal, the Revolutionaries might have said, we should at least discover by competition with equal opportunities who were the best.22` Thus by political equality in place of prevailing inequality we might arrive at natural inequality and also at the fundamental likeness between all men irrespective of their special abilities. But this political equality of right was to be secured by direct popular government.
The political conceptions of Rousseau were confused and unpractical ; but the ideal which moved him was shared by very many and it survived even the ludicrous consequences of the first attempts to apply it. For, after all, the repudiation of representative government was only a means suggested by which to arrive at the end of giving all men equal political rights ; and although Rousseau thought it was a necessary means, we may perhaps suppose that there are others.23` And if it is really possible for all men to have equal political rights in groups which are too large for direct voting on all issues to be practical, then we may value the ideal of the Revolution independently of our judgement of its political programme. That ideal as it appears in Rousseau is the production and development of individuals who may have the freest possible play fr all their
faculties. It involves that no human being is to be sacrificed to the development of any other ; all are equal, all brethren, and all are free. The still more fundamental conception, which is perfectly valid, is that man is essentially ‘good’; and this transformation of the fundamental basis of equality was wrought by the French thinkers almost in spite of their English teachers, Locke and Hobbes. For with Hobbes especially the fundamental prejudice, inherited from Puritanism, is that human nature tends to evil. Social organisation is the result of man’s tendency to ‘conflict’; and government improves man. Rousseau on the contrary held that government degrades man; for man is essentially free and independent. How then did society arise if it was an evil ? It arose as the less of two evils. ‘The state of nature’ was being destroyed by the inevitable growth of natural forces (crowding, etc.) and to save themselves men conventionally agreed to unite. Thus the less government the better, for thus we are nearer to the free life of the naturally virtuous man. Such conceptions, it is clear, have their modern results in Anarchism or in Socialism according as government is conceived as a bad convention or as a natural result of human nature. The important point for our present argument is the immense faith in the original purity of man’s nature which was possessed by all the great Revolutionaries.
The facts as to the Revolution are sufficiently well known, but it is perhaps necessary to point out why we should discuss Rousseau’s expression of the ideal before even stating the events in which that ideal may be seen to have been an influence. It is not altogether true that the philosophers made the Revolution; but it is true that by contrast with the history of other ideals the ideal of the Revolution, at least in France, preceded in statement the attempt at realisation of it in fact.24` This does not mean that the want from which the ideal arose was not felt long before Rousseau or other Revolutionary thinkers expressed it. The Revolution was not the result of a political theory but of definite distress. The dumb rage of the peasantry led to the Jacquerie; but even in that brutal action one may see the want out of which an ideal arises. We may read the list of grievances in the account of all that was abolished in 1789. This and much
more of the same kind exists as proof of the nature of the want felt. It was economic but also political. Financial distress and brutalising poverty were combined with obsolete administration and privileges which turned awry all the energies of the community. Vaguely and for the greater number unconsciously, a conception was moving men to action, a dream that all might be well if privilege was destroyed. There was hope in a king who would deliver his people; but the deliverance was delayed until patience was exhausted.
The mass of men are not interested in their rights until they suffer physically and mentally. But all the force of established government went to maintain this mass of suffering, until the dams were broken and the flood overwhelmed the whole obsolete system. Paris rose in insurrection, the Bastille was taken and popular assemblies voted complete reform. Then the forces of Revolution began to divide among themselves. Such an immense tradition of obsolete abuses naturally gave rise to innumerable plans of reform; and fear, which makes states as well as gods, began to force extreme measures upon those who would have anything rather than a return to the old evil. The sovereigns who had been established by the Renaissance allied themselves against the new France (1791); and the people of the Revolution replied by raising armies and at last, impelled by fear of civil warfare, by the execution of Louis XVI (1793).
The whole effort was to realise equality of political rights among all the inhabitants of France, and this equality was to be extended by the destruction of privilege and caste in every country. But the established government having been destroyed, different groups grasped at the supreme power. Paris was in the throes of extreme party controversy and all France was in confusion, while the armies of the Revolution passed the frontiers (1793, 1794). It was clear practically, though not yet in theory, that without any settled government, caste and privilege must be destroyed but no one would be any the better. Confusion and a strong army led to the Directorate (1795): that gave Bonaparte prominence, and the result was the transformation of the First Consul into the Emperor (1804). Thus the gospel of equal political rights, led to a sort of military despotism. It had however, achieved something for the bourgeoisie and it remained as an inspiration for the movement of 1848.
But perhaps it is as well to state that the equality at which the Revolution aimed was not a futile and abstract equality of worth among all men. We must not imagine that the Revolution failed to make that real, for that it never attempted to establish. The ideal of the Revolution does not imply that all men have good brains any more than that all men have long legs. Only the rhetorical fool can imagine that he gains a victory over those old enthusiasts by showing ---- what is perfectly obvious ---- that men are not equal in ability, in birth, or in moral character. No one ever said they were, and perhaps it might have been less misleading if the Revolutionary theory had asserted, not that all men are equal, but that they are all similar. That would have sounded like a platitude, but it would not therefore have been a useless observation; for the fact is that the Revolution was protesting against the continual forgetfulness of precisely that platitude. Political thinkers, statesmen, and lawyers had really forgotten that, underlying the distinctions there was a fundamental likeness in all men. The distinctions were given a prominence which quite obscured the similarity; so that in practice the humanity of human beings was disregarded. Some men were treated as beasts and others as gods. The Revolution aimed first at establishing that all were men. It may be said that this is a fantastic exaggeration of the grievance against which the Revolutionaries were protesting. It may be held impossible to believe that thinking men ever forgot the common humanity of all men. It may not be possible to realise that our conception of equality was not always current. But if there is any difficulty, we need only think of the same sort of pre-Revolutionary conceptions which are in vogue today with respect to women.
In spite of Plato, in defiance of history, on a plea of reference to ‘facts’, it is actually possible for many today even in civilised countries to consider that sexual differences render insignificant or negligible the common
humanity of man and woman.25` It is indeed said that women because of their sex are not competent terminology that the bodily structure of the female makes it to think or act in political issues. It is urged that it is pseudo-scientific impossible for her to enter into business or politics. Not many years ago the same sort of argument was used to show that their bodily structure made women incompetent in mathematics, science, philosophy, or the higher branches of art. But this reference to differences, involving a repudiation of fundamental likeness, is precisely the attitude of the ‘ancien regime’. Exactly the same was said of the differences in birth, wealth, education or genius, all of which showed that whole classes of men were incompetent in political issues and that their interests would best be considered by others. The arguments drawn from differences once supported caste and privilege. The point is that if many still do not recognise in politics the common humanity of man and woman, we can easily imagine how many in the eighteenth century did not recognise the common humanity even among male human beings. It was therefore no platitude but a paradox at that time to say that the labourer and the shopkeeper should have equal politial rights with the landowner and the courtier.
Out of Renaissance Sovereignty combined with Revolutionary Rights comes Nationalism. The local independence of the sovereign State was at last connected with the right of the inhabitants to choose their own form of government; and the result has been the conception that every group of sufficient permanence and with enough of a distinct tradition to have a ‘national’ character should have an opportunity for developing its own forms of law and government. The existence of many small independent states has resulted in the past in the art of Athens or Florence, the philosophy and science of Greek cities and the International Law which arose among the Dutch. The Nationalist would therefore argue that each group with a civilised tradition has a right to independent development in view of what it may produce for humanity at large. In practical politics, therefore, we should allow every distinct national group to have a genuine political freedom. For, in the second place, no one method for organizing the
relation of individuals is correct universally. States should vary in their methods of law and government, reflecting in their variety the distinctions of human groups. Besides independence, therefore, a characteristic development should be supported, and the tendency to assimilate due to the increasing ease of communication should be corrected.
First came the observed fact of difference, and then the ideal of Nationalism was conceived. The old historians used to write as though the ideals of the Renaissance, independent states and the self-development of the individual, had come first, and then had come the Renaissance state and the Renaissance prince. But clearly events occurred in the reverse order. Nations were independent before philosophers and politicians said that they should be so. Individuals had freed themselves from medievalism before artists and poets claimed self-development as a right. I do not mean that men already had what they aimed at; but what they had gave them the first hint of the advantage of having more of the same kind. As yet, however, the ideal was embryonic. We may imagine it as the unborn child of the ideal of Renaissance sovereignty; for governmental independence came before any clearly conceived Nationalism. Accepting the fact of difference it was now possible for nations to work out their own futures. Not even in theory was it any longer the business of an emperor or a pope to see to the development of England or of France. The Renaissance, however, divided Europe rather into a collection of states than into nations. The ideal of the time was governmental independence, not group-development. And it was not until the Revolution had come and gone that the long slumbering national consciousness came to birth as a new ideal.26` What sort of ideal was then conceived ? First, Nationalism meant the independent development of each distinct group. Racial dialect had become a literary and official language; differences of custom had become fixed in distinct systems of law and government; and all this was no longer thought of in terms of organisation as it had been during the Renaissance. The new Nationalism was based upon the common character of distinct groups of people. The people became the centre of interest; they and
not the government were the nation. The Age of monarchs passed and the popular gospel of Revolution followed; but the work of the Renaissance and Reformation in dividing the religious tradition was not undone, and Nationalism found ready to its hand characteristic creeds in different groups. Through the centuries that followed the Renaissance, and until the Napoleonic era, Nationalism was rather a sentiment than a programme, but the sentiment was strong. It was felt as a real political fact at the partition of Poland (1772). It gave force to the Spanish resistance against French government from 1806 until 1813. It produced the defeat of Napoleon at Moscow and the revival of Germany;27` and although it was disregarded by the statesmen of the Congress of Vienna,28` it continued to grow until at last it became a definite political ideal in about 1848. Thus, as Lord Morley puts it, Nationalism ‘from instinct, became idea; from idea, abstract principle; then fervid pre-possession; ending where it is today, in dogma, whether accepted or evaded’.29`
In this last form therefore, it must be further described; for whether we oppose or not, it is one of the greatest forces in modern politics. Nationalism was in the first place revolutionary, because Europe still bore traces of the crude dynastic divisions of the Renaissance. In some cases one nation forced its own institutions upon another, as Austria upon the Italians. ‘Europe bled white by the man who was to have been her saviour was again prisoner to kings whom she no longer reverenced.’30` The association known by the name of ‘Young Italy’ was founded on ‘the three inseparable bases of Independence, Unity, and Liberty ---- that is, the Austrians must go, the various small states must be united in one, and democratic government with liberty of opinion must be established’.31` But first ‘Austria must go’; and so in every country Nationalism implied a shaking of established governments, which were sometimes, as in Italy, alien to the people governed, sometimes, as in Germany, an inheritance from obsolete politics. But Nationalism was also constructive. It implied that each national group should and could develop its own institutions and manage its own affairs. Thus it was at once an assault on any governmental oppression and a plan for reorganisation. The
group was to choose, establish, and maintain its own form of law and government. The general principles of all such law or government were drawn from what had been proved in the Revolution; and, speaking vaguely, Nationalism was democratic in all countries: but it implied also that particular application of these general principles should be made by each group for itself.
The bare existence of the United States has been an inspiration to democracy. The Rights of Man in the French Revolution were derived from the statements of the Constitutions of the United States. It is no accident of history that one of the most brilliant essays on democracy is an analysis of the situation in the United States. Tocqueville’s ‘Democratic en Amerique’ still remains an admirable expression of the democratic ideal in action.32` The author sees the very essence of the ideal. ‘Poetry, eloquence ---- all those gifts’, he says, ‘which heaven scatters, are a gain to democracy; and even when they fall to those who oppose democracy, they serve its cause by showing the natural grandeur of man.’33` He points out that the French Revolution by destroying the old local administrations favoured the despotism of a bureaucracy rather than liberty,34` and he sees the dangers in the approach to democracy ---- the pernicious retention of false but popular ideas, the growth of industrial autocracy, to balance political democracy, instability of mind, the desire of the officers of a democratic army for war to give them social prestige. He is not, therefore, a blind enthusiast, but in a democratic society he finds vigour and initiative, ability to organise in associations for definite purposes, sobriety of judgement and freedom from the restrictions of old custom. He also sees that it is only in a democracy that other political ends are thought superior to the mere preservation of order. And it is perhaps for this reason chiefly that men are now moved by the democratic ideal: since democracy allows for a continually changing form of social organisation; and we now regard the future as indefinitely long, the possibility of improvement as infinite. Our Utopias are not now fixed and eternal situations, but continually developing organisations of life. When at the close of 1790, Edmund Burke published his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, it was a bitter arraignment of “mob
rule” and a brilliant defense of conservative evolution against radical revolution. Although Burke’s book was speedily challenged by Thomas Paine and other radicals it enjoyed widespread popularity. It was quickly translated into the chief languages on the Continent and was acclaimed by monarchs, nobles, and clergymen. Catherine II of Russia personally complimented the author, and the puppet king of Poland sent him a letter of flamboyant glorification and a gold medal. All over Europe, voices were raised against the French Revolution as a wicked assault upon traditional society and civilisation.
Of the monarchs of Europe, several had special reasons for viewing the progress of the Revolution with grave misgiving. The Bourbons of Spain and of the Two Sicilies were united by blood and family compacts with the ruling dynasty of France; any belittling of the latter was likely to affect disastrously the former. Then, too, the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, was an Austrian Habsburg. Her family interests were in measure at stake. In the Austrian dominions, the visionary Joseph II died in 1790 and was succeeded by another brother of Marie Antoinette, the gifted though unemotional Emperor Leopold II. Leopold skillfully extricated himself from the embarrassments at home and abroad bequeathed him by his predecessor and then turned his attention to French affairs. He was in receipt of constant and now frantic appeals from his sister to aid Louis XVI against the revolutionaries. He knew that the Austrian Netherlands, whose rebellion he had suppressed with difficulty, were saturated with sympathy for the Revolution and that many of their inhabitants would welcome annexation to France. As chief of the Holy Roman Empire, he must keep revolutionary agitation out of Germany and protect the border provinces against French aggression. All these factors served to make him the foremost champion of the “old regime” in Europe and incidentally of the royal cause in France.
Now it so happened that Leopold II found an ally in Frederick William II of Prussia, who had succeeded Frederick the Great in 1786, and who combined gross sensuality with Protestant mysticism in most curious ways. He neglected the military machine which his predecessors had constructed with
infinite patience and thoroughness. He lavished money on favourites and mistresses. In foreign affairs he reversed the policy of Frederick the Great by allying himself with Austria and accepting for Prussia a secondary role among the German states. In August 1791, he joined with the Emperor Leopold in issuing the public Declaration of Pillnitz, to the effect that the two rulers considered the restoration of order and of monarchy in France an object of “common interest to all sovereigns of Europe.”
The declaration was only a threat, for the armies of the German allies were not prepared for war, but the very threat of foreign despots to interfere in the internal affairs of France aroused bitter and militant feeling among the mass of Frenchmen, who were patriotic as well as revolutionary. The Constituent Assembly had sat for two and a half years and passed 25,000 decrees. It had taken the initial step of revolution and reconstruction. It had swept away the ‘ancien regime’. It had set up the first democratic constitution for France and reorganised the administrative system. It had, however, kept peace with foreign Powers and it had preserved the Monarchy. Its successor, the Legislative Assembly, was within a year to destroy the throne and plunge France into war.
With the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the French Revolution entered on a new phase and into the control of a new set of men. The men of 1789 passed into the ranks of conservatives, ‘Constitutionalists’, defenders of the order which they had established. It is interesting to notice the fate of some of the leading men of 1789. Lafayette, the most popular hero of 1789, appeared in 1792 trying to lead the troops under his command to defend the Monarchy against the attacks of revolutionaries. He was proscribed by the Assembly, abandoned France, and gave himself up to the enemy. Bailly, President of the National Assembly on the occasion of the Tennis-court Oath, was guillotined by the Revolutionaries in 1793. Mounier, another President of the Assembly, went into exile after the October Riots of 1789. Talleyrand saved his head by withdrawing himself from France in 1792. He was then proscribed as an ‘émigré’.
A fresh set of Revolutionaries, idealists and theorists, led the country
into new paths of republicanism, militarism, and later, terrorism and socialism. The conduct of affairs fell increasingly into the hands of professional politicians, more particularly into the hands of the clubs, as the ordinary citizen tended to concern himself less and less with politics. Men with other occupations soon wearied of the incessant elections which required their votes; elections for district and administrative offices, for judges of various ranks, for members of municipal corporations, for bishops and cures, for deputies to the Legislative Assembly, & c. ---- elections which often dragged on for weeks. From the middle of 1790 the records show an astonishing reduction of active voters. Often less than 25 percent, of the qualified voters exercised their votes. In the Paris elections of 1791, less than 12 percent voted.
The leaders of the French government at this time were the moderate Girondists, a body of young and eloquent men of the middle class, who, since they were drawn from the south-western area of France called the Gironde, soon became known, and are to this day remembered, as the Girondins. Of the art and science of government the Girondins knew little; but they possessed, and were able to communicate to others, a glowing enthusiasm for the republican idea, and a missionary impulse to spread it through Europe. The Girondins ---- so called because some of their conspicuous members came from the mercantile department of the Gironde ---- were the radicals and were intensely patriotic. They were filled with noble, if somewhat impractical, “classical” ideas borrowed from the ancient republics of Greece and Rome. They were eager to discredit Louis XVI and to establish a republic in France. In Brissot, a Parisian lawyer, they had a leader and organiser and diplomatic advisor. In Vergniaud, they had a polished orator and Isnard was also an orator. In Condorcet, they had a scholar and philosopher. In Dumouriez, they possessed a military genius of the first order. And in the home of the wealthy and talented Madame Rolland, they had a charming salon for political discussion and she was the Egeria of the party. The dazzling dreams, the sentimental enthusiasm, and the tragic end of the Girondins have secured them many friends. Upon them however, must rest the chief responsibility for a long
and terrible war, which destroyed the system of Richelieu and left France a permanently enfeebled member of European society, shielded from imminent danger on the eastern border only by heavy taxes and a universal and compulsory system of military service.
In internal affairs the Legislative Assembly accomplished next to nothing. Everything was subordinated to the question of foreign war. Here, Feuillants and Girondists found themselves in strange agreement. Only such extreme radicals as Marat and Robespierre, outside the Assembly, opposed a policy which they feared would give rise to a military dictatorship. Marat expressed his alarms in the ‘Friend of the People’: “What afflicts the friends of liberty is that we have more to fear from success than from defeat;…..the danger is lest one of our generals be crowned with victory and lest…..he lead his victorious army against the capital to secure the triumph of the Despot.” But the counsels of extreme radicals were unavailing.
Afraid of losing political support in France, the Girondists pronounced the Declaration of Pillnitz a threat to national security, hoping that enthusiasm for a war would unite the French and result also in enthusiasm for their continued rule. Pretexts for a war were not lacking. Leopold of Austria could complain of French encouragement given to a revolution in Belgium, of German princes dispossessed of feudal rights in Alsace, of Avignon snatched from the Pope and annexed to France, of the novel and disquieting principle that the people of a country have the right to determine their own allegiance, and yet more important than these other occasions of friction, of the dangerous position of his sister the Queen of France. To Marie Antoinette’s entreaties that he should summon a European Congress to deal with the French Revolution and concentrate an armed force to give effect to its decisions he could not be altogether indifferent. Yet the situation, though grave, was still not beyond repair. A cold, prudent, long-headed man, much occupied with the internal problems of the Austrian empire Leopold had no desire to embark upon a quixotic crusade against the tumultuous democracy of Frace. Prompt to threaten, he was reluctant to act,
and hoped that when Louis had accepted the Constitution the need for action had passed away. But as autumn melted into winter, and every week brought fresh news of revolutionary violence in Paris, the Emperor’s mind turned more and more towards an armed intervention. On all sides he was pressed to stem the tide of militant French democracy; by the ‘emigres’ who were gathered at Coblentz, by Catharine of Russia, by Gustavus of Sweden, by the King of Spain, and more particularly by Marie Antoinette, who saw in an unsuccessful French defense against foreign invasion the one chance for the salvation of her husband’s crown. But then, before his slow resolution ripened to action, Leopold unexpectedly died.
The Girondists of France were aided in their scheme by the activities of monarchists, both within and outside France, whose plottings and pronouncements could be made to appear an additional threat, though to a greater extent than they actually were. On April 20, 1792, the assembly declared war against Austria and Prussia. Although Leopold had just died, his policy was followed by his son and successor, the Emperor Francis II. The campaign of 1792 of Austria and Prussia was the first stage in a vast conflict which was destined to rage throughout Europe for twenty-three years. It was the beginning of an international contest between the forces of revolution and those of the old order. Enthusiasm was with the French. They felt they were fighting for a cause ---- the cause of liberty, equality, and nationalism. Men put on red liberty caps, and such as possessed no firearms equipped themselves with pikes and hastened to the front. Troops coming up from Marseilles sang in Paris a new hymn of freedom which Rouget de Liste had just composed at Strasbourg for the French soldiers ---- the inspiring ‘Marseillaise’ that was to become the national anthem of France. But enthusiasm was about the only asset that the French possessed. Their armies were ill-organised and ill-disciplined. Provisions were scarce, arms were inferior, and fortified places in poor repair. Lafayette had greater ambition than ability. Though the French army was disorganised, and Austria and Prussia were leagued against them, Brissot and his followers were confident of victory. At the shock of war the peoples of Europe would rise against their tyrants. Everywhere thrones would fall.
The principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality would conquer the world. Robespierre, an oracle of the Jacobin Club, reasoned otherwise, thinking that the war would restore prestige to the French Crown. But Robespierre’s hour had not yet struck. A Girondin ministry, with the able Dumouriez at the Foreign Office, swept their country into war (April 20, 1792). Almost all of the various political factions in France welcomed the war. The Girondists expected that their aggressive policy would solidify the loyalty of the people to their regime. Reactionaries hailed the intervention of Austria and Prussia as the first step in the undoing of all that had happened since 1789. Radicals hoped that initially the French would suffer reverses that would discredit the moderate Girondists and the monarchy, and thus hasten the advent of republican rule in France, and the triumph of people’s armies and revolutionary ideals across Europe. As the radicals hoped, the forces of the French met serious reverses. “The rupture of the Austrian alliance is as necessary as the taking of the Bastille.” Brissot, ‘the Girondist’.
On July 25, 1792, the Duke of Brunswick, as commander-in-chief of the allied armies, issued a proclamation to the French people. He declared it his purpose “to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the King the security and liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him.” The Duke further declared that French soldiers who might be captured “shall be treated as enemies and punished as rebels to their King and as disturbers of the public peace,” and that, if the slightest harm befell any member of the royal family, his Austrian and Prussian troops would “inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction, and the rebels guilty of such outrages to the punishment that they merit.” This manifesto sealed the fate of the French monarchy. It convinced the revolutionaries that French royalty and foreign armies were in formal alliance to undo what had been done. The French response was the insurrection of August 9-10, 1792.
Then it was discovered that, if revolutionary France was to be effectively defended against the monarchies of unreformed Europe, Louis XVI must cease to reign and France submit to a strict form of tyranny very remote from that extreme dispersion of political authority which had found favour at the opening of the revolution. The war led straight to the fall of the Monarchy, the establishment of the Republic, and to the formation of the government of the Terror. It imparted a deeper note of savage apprehension and passion to the anxieties which had been caused by dear bread and soaring prices, by the widespread prevalence of disorder, and by the ceaseless agitation of the bloodthirsty press against counter-revolutionary activities. It was therefore the exciting cause of terrible crimes, and of a shameful fashion of bloodthirstiness which has been surpassed in modern times only by the communists of Russia. But the war had other consequences more profound and enduring. Revolution was identified with patriotism. For the first time the vast latent energies of the French people were deployed in defense of a cause which was regarded as the common concern of every citizen in the land. For the first time France, emerged as an organic nation, its institutions based on popular assent, and maintained against a world in arms by a people in revolution, the masters and servants of a revolutionary state. Another consequence was inevitable. As the military spirit of the French people was aroused, the idyllic professions of pacificism and cosmopolitan brotherhood which had decorated so many revolutionary speeches passed swiftly into the background. Old diplomatic principles, familiar objects of territorial ambition, resumed their empire. The ghost of Louis XIV returned to direct the counsels of the Jacobins. Fraternity was thrown to the winds. The Girondins were drunk with vainglory and the lust of conquest. They determined to isolate Austria, that they might rob her of Belgium, and bring the French frontier to the Rhine.
“We will make a graveyard of France rather than fail to regenerate her according to our ideas.’ Carriere, ‘the Jacobin’.
For the moment, however, the impolicy of the Girondins had launched France all unprepared (for the royal army was in dissolution) in war against Prussia and Austria, the two strongest military states on the continent. The result was what might be expected. By August 1792 the allied armies of Austria and Prussia had crossed the frontier and were threatening the capture of Paris. A fury of rage and despair seized the capital. The first hostile exchanges were sufficient to show that the revolution had no army upon which it could rely for the defense of the country. There was cowardice, indiscipline, failure, and, as invariably happened after every military reverse, the cry of treachery. It was during this period of agonised uncertainty, when the old army had proved itself incompetent, and before the new volunteers of the revolution had proved their worth, that the fate of the monarchy was decided. How, it was asked, could the war be made to succeed, while Louis, the friend of the enemy, reigned in the Tuileries, dismissing his Girondin ministers, refusing a decree for a big military camp near Paris, holding out, so it was believed, secret encouragement to the invader ? In the French insurrection of August 9-10, 1792, the proletariat and the extreme element among the bourgeoisie of Paris revolted against the constitutional monarchy. They supplanted the legal commune with a radically revolutionary commune. At this crisis when the Prussian army was marching on France, and its chief was threatening Paris with destruction if the royal family was injured, a great, gross revolutionary figure rose above the tumult and took sudden command. The memory of Danton is red with violence. It was he who organised the attack on the Tuileries (Auguat 10, 1792), when the gallant Swiss Guard were hacked to pieces, and the King and Queen were delivered over to captivity, and a Convention was summoned to proclaim a Republic; nor can he be acquitted of condoning the terrible September massacres in the prisons, which were planned to influence the elections to this new Parliament.
The allies were advancing into France. Fear deepened into panic. Supreme control fell into the hands of the revolutionary commune. Danton became virtual dictator. His policy was simple. The radicals should strike terror into the hearts of their domestic and foreign foes. “In my opinion,” said Danton, “the way to stop the enemy is to terrify the royalists. Audacity, more audacity, and always greater audacity !” The news of the investment of Verdun by the allies, published at Paris on September 2, was the signal for the beginning of a massacre of royalists in the French capital. For five days some 2,000 persons were taken from the prisons and handed over by a self-constituted judicial body to the tender mercies of a band of cutthroats. Among the victims were women and children, nobles and magistrates, priests and bishops, ---- anyone suspected of royal sympathy. Meanwhile Danton was infusing new life and spirit into the French armies. Dumouriez replaced Lafayette in supreme command. And on September 20 the allies received their first check at Valmy. The very day on which news reached Paris that it was saved and that Brunswick was in retreat, the newly elected National Convention, amid the wildest enthusiasm, unanimously decreed “that royalty is abolished in France’ Then it was resolved to date from September 22, 1792, Year I of the Republic. A decree of perpetual banishment was enacted against the émigrés, and it was soon determined to bring the King to trial before the Convention.
Nevertheless more than any other revolutionary character of the time Danton was a statesman and a patriot, with an eye for essential needs, a mind clear of illusions, and a rare power for decisive action. He aimed at giving France a convinced republic instead of a disloyal monarchy, a centralised government in place of anarchy, and new armies highly disciplined and permeated by the revolutionary faith in place of the crumbling and doubtful fragments of the army of the Crown. The Girondin idea of a crusade against all the crowned head of Europe soon struck him as fantastic. The man who pulled down the French monarchy became in diplomacy a pupil of the ‘ancien regime’. To Danton as to all statesmen in time of war terror was a necessary instrument of policy. The one intolerable thing, as long as foreign enemies were on French soil, was disunion among Frenchmen. That such disunion existed was a suspicion widely entertained. Every misfortune at home and abroad, the high prices, the bad trade, the foreign
war, the disquietude about the king and the priests, was calculated to swell the ranks of the malcontents. A counter-revolution was no impossibility. Such measure of terrorism as was necessary to cow the enemies of the revolutionary state Danton was always prepared to employ.
From this point, the country’s leadership passed into the hands of an equalitarian-minded “middle” class. These new leaders called themselves Jacobins, after the political club to which they belonged, whose headquarter was in Paris, but whose membership extended throughout France. Like the Girondists, the Jacobins were mostly members of the bourgeoisie, professionals and businessmen, though an increasing number of artisans joined the club as it grew. They differed from the Girondists in their political philosophy, however. Girondists were loud in their defense of liberty, by which they often meant no more than their freedom to pursue their own economic interests without state regulation. Because their political base was in the provinces, they tended to mistrust Parisians and were alarmed by the extremism of the Commune. Jacobins, in contrast, were the master-minds of the Commune. They were vigorous proponents of equality. They supported the elimination of civil and political distinctions, favoured universal suffrage, and state programmes for the maintenance of the poor. The Jacobins differed from the Girondists in that they were a tightly organised party. As such, again unlike the Girondists, they were able to move decisively and prepared to act ruthlessly in defense of their programs and their leadership.
The most famous of the clubs was that of the Jacobins. The central Jacobin Society had grown out of the Breton Club, an informal group of Breton deputies to the National Assembly. It had moved to Paris with the Assembly in October 1789, established itself in the convent of the Jacobins, and widened its membership. Branches began to be formed in the provinces, and by September 1791 there were 406 affiliated societies all over France. This great centralised society with its headquarters at Paris soon became the most powerful organisation in France, and before its overthrow in 1794, the real ruler of the country. The Moderates35` tended to fall away from it, and it became during 1792
and 1793 increasingly the organ of the Extremists.
The strength of the Jacobins was seen in the new Legislative Assembly. On the left36` sat a solid group of 130 members of the Club, who because they had a definite and united policy, succeeded in dominating the Assembly, and in drawing the majority of the members into their following.37 They were led by a group of men from the Gironde district, Brissot, Vergniaud, Condorcet, and others. Later these men from the Gironde were to enter into mortal conflict with the Jacobins and be overthrown by them. In the year 1791, however, Jacobins and Girondists were still at one in the common aim of striking a blow for the Revolution and routing its enemies. These enemies they saw in the non-juring priests who would not accept the Civil Constitution, in the ‘émigré’ nobles who were stirring up mischief beyond the frontiers, and finally in the King and his court where they believed dwelt treachery and ill will to the Revolution. They were also bent upon war. A war on behalf of France and the Revolution would bring about the fulfillment of their aims. It would inflame the people, give a fresh impetus to the Revolution, expose treason and apathy, force the King into the open, shake the throne, and carry the Republicans to power. ‘We have need of great treasons,’ declared Brissot, ‘for there is still poison in the heart of France which needs a powerful explosion to expel it.’
There were also other sections of France which were not averse from war; the people, who thought it would take off the rowdy elements; the Court and the Monarchists who believed that a foreign war would keep the army together, refresh the loyalty of the country, and restore to the King his declining popularity. Only a handful of Jacobins, Robespierre among them, opposed the war, arguing that it would destroy the Revolution, and give rise to a dictator, maybe the sovereign, maybe some one else. They were to be proved right. The war was to lead to Napoleon. The war which opened in 1792 expanded into a great European struggle, which for twenty-three years exerted a relentless pressure upon the history of France and the history of Europe.
The clue to the understandin of revolutions is that they are worked by
small fanatical minorities. The French Convention, which proclaimed the Republic, executed the King, sent the Girondins to the scaffold, and established the Terror, was returned by the votes of some six percent of the total electorate. The main body of the French people, after the first blaze of enthusiasm had died down, wanted nothing so much as to be allowed to manage their own concerns in tranquility, and were well content to leave politics to the club men. Either because he was too inert or too busy, too selfish, or too indifferent, too frightened or too disgusted, or too little capable of entering into combination with others, the average respectable citizen stood aside from the battle. In Paris, where political interest was most widely diffused, it would appear from the report of a careful observer that in every one hundred and thirty persons only one gave active support to the Terror.
The vast majority of the Convention, known as the Plain or ‘Marais’, belonged to that moderate, colourless, uncertain, but wholly respectable section of the French middle class, which constituted the strength of the nation. To such it was natural to seek guidance from the Girondins, who were returned a hundred and twenty strong, and were already established in parliamentary reputation. The Girondins were the last apostles of the liberal idea. They believed in liberty local and personal. They had a vision of France settling down to a blameless and brilliant existence under a Republican Constitution the finest in the world. Being essentially humane, they were shocked by the crimes of August and September. But though they could make beautiful speeches, they were incapable of brave and concerted action. They attacked Robespierre, but did not imprison him; assailed the assassins of September, but did not prosecute them; realised the dangerous opposition of revolutionary Paris, but would neither close the clubs, nor curb the Press, nor provide the Convention with the necessary safeguard of an armed force on which reliance could be placed. One man might have saved them from destruction, and offered to do so; but the Girondins were too respectable to clasp the strong, but blood-stained hand of Danton. To the average Frenchman no respectability remained to a party which had given a regicide vote, and when the
Girondins through cowardice and ineptitude allowed themselves against their better judgement to be outmanoeuvred by the Mountain into sending the King to the guillotine, they had decreed their own extinction. After that no moderate Frenchman would lift up a finger to help them.
The spring which followed the execution of Louis was crowded with disaster for the regicide state. With England, Spain, and Holland added to the circle of her enemies, with her armies withdrawn from Belgium, with Dumouriez, her best general, gone over to the enemy, with insurrection ablaze in the Vendee and in Lyons, and with Toulon at the mercy of the British fleet, the Republic was fighting with its back to the wall. It was the stress of these terrible anxieties which swept the Girondins clean out of the political scene, and founded that firm and terrible instrument of autocratic rule which succeeded amidst much bloodshed and cruelty in restoring the military situation.
The Jacobin Government consisted of a small secret Cabinet or Committee of Public Safety for the general direction of policy, of a somewhat larger Committee of Public Security for police, of a revolutionary tribunal for the dissemination of terror, and of a plan for the strict supervision of generals in the field by civil agents of the purest fanaticism known as ‘representants en mission’. The Convention, scornfully described by Dumouriez as a body of three hundred scoundrels and four hundred imbeciles, continued to sit, to debate, to legislate; but its authority was gone. A ‘coup d’ etat’ led by Henriot (June 2) had eliminated those Girondin orators whose eloquence had so often charmed and delighted the assembly. The party of these brilliant idealists had not even been able to defend its leaders from proscription or the scaffold. It could not police its debating hall. Paralysed by the publicity which its principles forbade it to renounce it was overshadowed by the new Cabinet, by the Commune of Paris, by the Jacobin and Cordelier Clubs, and by the discipline and vocal ruffians who dominated the revolutionary committees in the forty-eight sections or electoral districts into which the capital was divided. Other times required other methods. The stress of war had created an immense acceleration in affairs: swift and ruthless action in place of
the interminable loquacity which had so long perplexed and arrested the march of government was the note of men like Carnot at the War Office and Jean Bon Saint-Andre at the Marine. The Jacobins, who saved the Republic, were giants of industry. Science came to their aid. On July 27 an order was sent from Paris to the armies on the frontier in a quarter of an hour. The semaphore telegraph, one of the secrets of an impending military Empire, had made its debut in the service of France.
The man of the new era was Robespierre, the lean lawyer from Arras, who entered the Committee of Public Safety on July 28, 1793, and for one amazing year, memorable for its military glories and domestic shame, was the real ruler of France and the master spirit of Europe. What a catalogue of Jacobin triumphs belongs to the reign of Robespierre ! The royalist revolution put down in Lyons, Toulon recaptured, the Duke of York beaten at Hondschoote, the Austrians defeated at Wattignies and Fleurus, Belgium reconquered, Holland invaded, French soil everywhere liberated from the invader. It is the year of the first ‘levee en masse’ of the nation in arms, the year, though not the official natal year, of that system of military conscription which still brings a dark shadow into every Frenchman’s life, the year in which Carnot began to organise the armies which made for Napoleon his instrument of conquest.
One of the Jacobins’ first actions was to call for an election by universal suffrage of delegates to a national convention whose task would be to draft and enact a new and republican constitution. This convention became the effective governing body of the country for the next three years. It was elected in September 1792, at a time when disturbances across France reached a new height. The so-called September massacres occurred when patriotic Paris mobs, hearing a rumour that political prisoners were plotting to escape from their prisons, responded by hauling them before hastily convened tribunals and sentencing them to swift execution. Over one thousand supposed enemies of the revolution were killed in less than a week. Similar riots engulfed Lyons, Orleans, and other French cities.
When the newly elected convention met in September, its membership was far more radical than that of its predecessor, the Legislative Assembly, and its leadership was determined to demand an end to the monarchy and the death of Louis XVI. On September 21, the convention declared France a republic. In December it placed the king on trial and in January he was condemned to death by a narrow margin. The heir to the grand tradition of French met his end bravely as “Citizen Louis Capet,” beheaded by the guillotine, the frightful mechanical headsman that had become the symbol of revolutionary fervour.
Meanwhile, the convention turned its attention to the enactment of further domestic reforms. Among its most significant accomplishments over the next three years were the abolition of slavery in French colonies; the prohibition of imprisonment for debt; the establishment of the metric system of weights and measures; and the repeal of primogeniture, so that property might not be inherited exclusively by the oldest son, but be divided in substantially equal portions among all immediate heirs. The convention also supplemented the decrees of the assembly in abolishing the remnants of manorialism and in providing for greater freedom of economic opportunity for the commoner. The property of enemies of the revolution was confiscated for the benefit of the government and the lower classes. Great estates were broken up and offered for sale to poorer citizens on easy terms. The indemnities hitherto promised to the nobles for the loss of their privileges were abruptly cancelled. To curb the rise in the cost of living maximum prices for grain and other necessities were fixed by law, and merchants who profiteered at the expense of the poor were threatened with the guillotine. Still other measures of reform dealt with religion. An effort was made to abolish Christianity and to substitute the worship of Reason in its place. In accordance with this purpose a new calendar was adopted, dating the year from the birth of the republic (September 22, 1792) and dividing the months in such a way as to eliminate the Christian Sunday. Later, this cult of Reason was replaced by a Deistic religion dedicated to the worship of a Supreme Being and to a belief in the immortality of the soul. Finally, in 1794, the convention decreed simply that religion was a private matter, that church and state would therefore be separated, and that all beliefs not actually hostile to the government would be tolerated.
While effecting this political revolution in France, the convention’s leadership at the same time accomplished an astonishingly successful reorganisation of its armies. By February 1793, Britain, Holland, Spain, and Austria were in the field against the French. Britain’s entrance into the war was dictated by both strategic and economic reasons. The English feared French penetration into the Low Countries directly across the Channel; they were also concerned that French expansion might pose a serious threat to Britain’s own growing mercantile hegemony around the globe. The allied coalition ranged against France, though united only in its desire to contain this puzzling, fearsome revolutionary phenomenon, was nevertheless a formidable force. To counter it, the French organised an army that was able to win engagement after engagement during these years. In August 1793, the revolutionary government imposed a levy on the entire male population capable of bearing arms. Fourteen hastily drafted armies were flung into battle under the leadership of young and inexperienced officers. What they lacked in training and discipline, they made up for in improvised organisation, mobility, flexibility, courage, and morale. (In the navy, however, where skill was of paramount importance, the revolutionary French never succeeded in matching the performance of the British). In 1793-1794, the French armies preserved their homeland. In 1794-1795, they occupied the Low Countries, the Rhineland, parts of Spain, Switzerland, and Savoy. In 1796, they invaded and occupied key parts of Italy and broke the coalition that had arrayed itself against them.
Then there was the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety. These achievements were not without their price, however. To ensure their accomplishment, the rulers of France resorted to a bloody authoritarianism, that has come to be known as the Terror. Although the convention succeeded in 1793 in drafting a new democratic constitution, based upon manhood sufrage, it deferred
its introduction because of wartime emergency. Instead, the convention prolonged its own life year by year, and increasingly delegated its responsibilities to a group of twelve leaders known as the Committee of Public Safety. By this time the moderate, upper middle-class Girondists had lost all influence within the convention. Complete power had passed to the Jacobins, who, though from the middle class, continued to proclaim themselves disciples of Rousseau and champions of the urban workers.
Foremost among the members of the Committee of Public Safety were Marat, Danton, and Robespierre. Jean Paul Marat (1743-1793) was educated as a physician, and by 1789 had already earned enough distinction in that profession to be awarded an honorary degree by St. Andrews University in Scotland. Almost from the beginning of the revolution, he stood as a champion of the common people. He opposed nearly all of the dogmatic assumptions of his middle-class colleagues in the assembly, including the idea that France should pattern its government after that of Great Britain, which he recognised to be oligarchic in form. He was soon made a victim of persecution and was forced to take refuge in sewers and dungeons, but this did not put an end to his efforts to rouse the people to a defense of their rights. It did, however, leave him with a chronic skin affliction from which he could find relief only through frequent bathing. In 1793 he was stabbed through the heart during one of these soothing respites by Charlotte Corday, a young woman who was fanatically devoted to the Girondists. In contrast with Marat, Georges Jacques Danton (1759-1794) did not come into prominence until the revolution was three years old; but, like Marat, he directed his activities toward goading the masses into rebellion. Elected a member of the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, he had much to do with organising the terror. As time went on he appears to have wearied of ruthlessness and displayed a tendency to compromise that gave his opponents in the convention their opportunity. In April 1794 he was sent to the guillotine. Upon mounting the scaffold he is reported to have said: “Show my head to the people; they do not see the like every day.”
The most famous and perhaps the greatest of all extremist of all the extremist leaders was Maximilien Robespierre (1775-1794). Born of a family reputed to be of Irish descent, Robespierre was trained for the law and speedily achieved a modest success as an advocate. In 1782 he was appointed a criminal judge, but soon resigned because he could not bear to impose a sentence of death. Of a nervous and timid disposition, he was a less than able administrator, but he made up for this lack of talent by fanatical devotion to principle. He had adopted the belief that the philosophy of Rousseau held the one great hope of salvation for all mankind. To put this philosophy into practice he was ready to employ any means that would bring results, regardless of the cost to himself or to others. This passionate loyalty to a gospel that exalted the masses eventually won him a following. Indeed, he was so lionised by the public that he was allowed to wear the knee breeches, silk stockings, and powdered hair of the old society until the end of his life. In 1791 he was accepted as the oracle of the Jacobin club. Later he became president of the National Convention and a member of the Committee of Public Safety. Though he had little or nothing to do with originating the Terror, he was nevertheless responsible for enlarging its scope. He came to justify ruthlessness as a necessary and therefore laudable means to revolutionary progress. In the last six weeks of his government, no fewer than 1,285 heads rolled from the scaffold in Paris.
The years of the Terror were years of ruthless dictatorship in France. There was ruthless suppression of enemies of the state. Pressed by foreign enemies from without, the committee faced sabotage from both the political Right and Left at home. In 1793, a royalist counterrevolution broke out in the western area of the Vendee. The peasantry there had remained generally loyal to church and king. Government attempts to conscript troops into the revolutionary armies fanned long-smoldering resentments into open rebellion. By the summer, the peasant forces there, led by noblemen in the name of a Royal Catholic Grand Army, posed a serious threat to the convention. Meanwhile, Girondist fugitives helped fuel rebellions in the great provincial cities of Lyon, Bordeaux, and Marseilles. This
harvest of the decentralising policies of the National Assembly was bitter fruit to the committee. At the same time they met with the scornful criticism of revolutionaries even more radical than themselves. This latter group known as the ‘enrages’, was led by the journalist Jacques Hebert, and threatened to topple not only the government but the country itself by its extremist crusades. Determined to stabilise France, whatever the necessary cost, the committee dispatched commissioners into the countryside to suppress the enemies of the state. During the period of the Terror, from September 1793 to July 1794, the most reliable estimates place the number of executions as high as twenty thousand in France as a whole. The victims were by no means all aristocrats. Anyone who appeared to threaten the republic, no matter what his social or economic position, was at risk. Far more peasants and labourers than noblemen and women were killed. Among those executed was Marie Antoinette (“The Widow Capet”). When some time later the Abbe Sieyes was asked what he had done to distinguish himself during the Terror, he responded dryly, “I lived.”
Three points need to be made with regard to the Committee of Public Safety. First, it dramatically reversed the trend toward decentralisation which had characterised the reforms of the assembly. In addition to dispatching its own commissioners from Paris to quell provincial insurrection, the committee published a ‘Bulletin des loix’, to inform all citizens what laws were to be enforced and obeyed. And it replaced local officials, some of them still royalist in sympathy, with “deputies on mission” whose task was to conscript troops and generate patriotic fervour. When these deputies appeared eager to act independently, they were in turn replaced by “national agents,” with instructions to report directly to the committee. Second, by fostering, as it did, the interests of the lower middle class the committee significantly retarded the pace of industrial transformation in France. Through policies which assisted the peasant, the small craftsman, and the shopkeeper to acquire property, the government during this “second” revolution encouraged the entrenchment of a class at once devoted to the principle of republicanism while unalterably opposed to a large scale capitalist
transformation of the economy of France. Third, the ruthless Terror of the committee undoubtedly achieved its end by saving France from defeat at the hands of coalition of European states. Whether the human price extracted in return for that salvation was worth the paying is a matter historians --- and indeed all thoughtful human beings ---- may well never finally resolve.
The Thermidorian reaction was stage three. The Committee of Public Safety, though able to save France, could not save itsef. It failed to put a stop to inflation, thereby losing the support of those commoners whose dissatisfactions had helped bring the convention to power. The long string of military victories convinced growing numbers that the committee’s demands for continuing self-sacrifice, as well as its insistence upon the necessity of the Terror, were no longer justified. By July 1794, the committee was virtually without allies. On July 27 (9 Thermidor, according to the new calendar) Robespierre was shouted down by his enemies while attempting to speak on the floor of the convention. Desperate, he tried to rally loyal Jacobins to his defense and against the convention. Discovered in the thick of this plot by convention troops, Robespierre tried unsuccessfully to shoot himself. The following day, along with twenty-one fellow conspirators he met his death as an enemy of the state on the guillotine. Now, the only remaining leaders in the convention were men of moderate sympathies, who, as time went on, inclined toward increasing conservatism. Gradually, the revolution came once more to reflect the interests of the upper middle class. Much of the extremist work of the radicals was undone. The law of maximum prices and the law against “suspects” were both replaced. Political prisoners were freed, the Jacobins driven into hiding, and the Committee of Public Safety shorn of its absolute powers. The new situation made possible the return of priests, royalists, and other émigrés from abroad to add the weight of their influence to the conservative trend.
In Paris the year of Robespierre marks the culmination of the Jacobin Terror. The man was of the type of Lenin, a fanatical believer in an inspired text. As Karl Marx was to the Russian, so was Rousseau to the French revolutionary. Part of his power with the Parisians lay in his plain simplicity of purpose, and in
a life reputed to be free from the taint of peculation. “You may laugh at him now,” said a contemporary, “but that man will go far. He believes every word he says.” The ease and malice of his oratory, the violence of his views, coupled with a great dexterity in the arts of political management, made him almost from the first a leader among the Jacobins. He was the master of the Paris revolutionary machine before he became a director of national policy. Scrupulously, and elegantly dressed, well-mannered, ostentatious in his professions of republican virtue, he had for every dissenter from his narrow creed the one and simple remedy of the guillotine. In March he sent Hebert and Chaumette to the scaffold for their anarchy and aetheism. In April, the knife fell upon Danton and Desmoulins, who in the ‘Vieux Cordelier’, the one piece of real literature produced in the revolution, had advocated a return to clemency and moderation. At last the man-eating tiger overreached himself by a law (the law of 22 Prairial) which threatened the life of every member of the Convention, for the legislators were deprived of their immunity, and the last feeble safeguards for the protection of persons accused for political offences were swept away. In self-defense even cowards may pluck up courage. There were men in the Convention led by Barras and Tallein who resolved that the tyrant should perish and saw that with a careful organisation of forces outside the assembly the deed could be done. Meeting the Jacobins, not with eloquent speeches, but with their own weapons of calculated force, these capable men achieved a swift and easy victory. On July 2, 1794 (9 Thermidor by the Republican Calendar), the Hotel de Ville was invested and stormed by a force largely drawn from the Section Lepelletier, a well-to-do quarter of the city. Their Robespierre was found, his jaw shattered by a bullet wound, and thence he was hauled, all bleeding, to the scaffold that he might die under the knife, as his many victims had died before him.
The long nightmare was over. The hateful epidemic of butchery, which in Paris alone had cost two thousand six hundred victims, came to a sudden end. Moderates and Dantonists seized the wheel of power, abolished the Commune, closed the Jacobin Club, amnestied the Vendeans, and recalled the
Girondins. The dark miasma of suspicion which had poisoned the political life of Paris passed away with Robespierre’s fall and Jourdan’s great victory at Fleurus. In her sudden deliverance from fear and humiliation, the country swung back into the sunlight of gaiety and hope. No more fanatical gloom ! No more ravings of a blood-thirsty press ! No more guillotining of the brave, the good, the beautiful, the innocent ! Frivolity resumed its long-interrupted reign. But if France ceased to be Terrorist, she remained revolutionary. The members of the regicide Parliament could make no advances to the party of reaction. For them it was a matter of life and death so to manoeuvre that, whatever the future government of France might be, regicides from the Convention should stand at the wheel.
Thus we see that there is lot of similarity between the French Revolution and era following it in Europe and Indian national and renaissance movement. French Revolution was a precursor to the Indian Renaissance movement so far as the revolutionary, terrorist aspect was concerned. The terrorism factor was as much therein theFrench Revolution period as in the Indian National and Renaissance period. The only difference was in the intensity and scale. The terrorism factor in French revolutionary period was on a much larger scale and very bloody and cruel.In Indian movement, it wasless bloody and on a smaller scale. But both were supposed to be against outsiders or enemies of the country. And both resulted in some way in giving a boost to each country’s national movement. Thus French Revolution was a precursor so far as terrorist, revolutionary aspect was concerned.
The Indian terrorist phase may be traced in the following few pages. Revolutionary terrorism made its appearance in India in Bengal roundabout 1907. The Moderate nationalists had exhausted their historical role. Their achievements were immense considering the low level of political consciousness and the immense difficulties they had to face when they began. Their failures too were numerous. They lacked faith in the common people, did no work among them and consequently failed to acquire any roots among them. Even their propaganda did not reach them. Their politics were based on the belief that they would be able to
persuade the rulers to introduce economic and political reforms but their practical achievements in this respect were meagre. Instead of respecting them for their moderation, the British treated them with contempt, sneered at their politics, and met popular agitations with repression. Their basic failure, however, was that of not keeping pace with events. They could not see that their own achievements had made their politics obsolete. They failed to meet the demands of the new stage of the national movement. Visible proof of this was their failure to attract the younger generation. Extremist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Lala Lajpat Rai also did not succeed in their aims.
Thus the end of 1907 brought another political trend to the fore. The impatient young men of Bengal took to the path of individual heroism and revolutionary terrorism (a term we use without any pejorative meaning and for want of a different term). This was primarily because they could find no other way of expressing their patriotism. It is necessary at this point to reiterate the fact that, while the youth of Bengal might have been incensed at the official arrogance and repression and the ‘mendicancy’ of the Congress Moderates, they were also led to ‘the politics of the bomb’ by the Extremists’ failure to give a positive lead to the people. The Extremists had made a sharp and on the whole correct and effective critique of the Moderates. They had rightly emphasised the role of the masses and the need to go beyond propaganda and agitation. They had advocated persistent opposition to the Government and put forward a militant programme of passive resistance and boycott of foreign cloth, foreigners’ courts, education, and so on. They had demanded self-sacrifice from the youth. They had talked and written about direct action. But they had failed to find forms through which all these ideas could find practical expression. They could neither create a viable organisation to lead the movement nor could they really define the movement in a way that differed from that of the Moderates. They were more militant, their critique of British rule was couched in stronger language, they were willing to make greater sacrifices and undergo greater suffering, but they did not know how to go beyond more vigorous agitation. They were not able to put
before people new forms of political struggle or mass movements. Consequently, they too had come to a political dead end by the end of 1907. Perhaps that is one reason why they expended so much of their energy in criticising the Moderates and capturing the Congress. Unsurprisingly, the Extremists’ waffling failed to impress the youth, who decided to take recourse to physical force. The ‘Yugantar’, a newspaper echoing this feeling of disaffection, wrote in April 1906, after the political assault on the peaceful Barisal Conference. ‘The thirty crores of people inhabiting India must raise their sixty crores of hands to stop this curse of oppression. Force must be stopped by force.’38`
But the question was what form would this movement based on force take. Organising a popular mass uprising would ordinarily be an uphill and prolonged task. Many thought of trying to subvert the loyalty of the army, but they knew it would not be easy. However, these two objectives were kept as long-term goals and, for the present, revolutionary youth decided to copy the methods of the Irish nationalists and Russian nihilists and populists. That is to say, they decided to organise the assassination of unpopular British officials. Such assassinations would strike terror into the hearts of the rulers, arouse the patriotic instincts of the people, inspire them and remove the fear of authority from their minds. Each assassination, and if the assassins were caught, the consequent trial of the revolutionaries involved, would act as ‘propaganda by deed.’ All that this form of struggle needed was numbers of young people ready to sacrifice their lives. Inevitably, it appealed to the idealism of the youth; it aroused their latent sense of heroism. A steadily increasing number of young men turned to this form of political struggle.
Here again the Extremist leadership let the young people down. While it praised their sense of self-sacrifice and courage, it failed to provide a positive outlet for their revolutionary energies and to educate them on the political difference between a revolution based on the activity of the masses and a revolutionary feeling based on individual action, however heroic. It also failed to oppose the notion that to be a revolutionary meant to be a believer in violent
action. In fact, Aurobindo Ghosh encouraged this notion. Perhaps the actions of the Extremist leadership were constrained by the feeling that it was not proper to politically criticise the heroic youth who were being condemned and hunted by the authorities. But this failure to politically and ideologically oppose the young revolutionaries proved a grievous error, for it enabled the individualistic and terroristic conception of revolution to take root in Bengal.
In 1904, V. D. Savarkar organised ‘Abhinav Bharat’ as a secret society of revolutionaries. After 1905 several newspapers openly (and a few leaders secretly) began to advocate revolutionary terrorism. In 1907, an unsuccessful attempt was made on the life of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal. In April 1908, Prafulla Chaki and Khudiram Bose threw a bomb at a carriage which they believed was occupied by Kingsford, the unpopular judge at Muzaffarpur. Unfortunately, they killed two English ladies instead. Prafulla Chaki shot himself dead while Khudiram Bose was tried and hanged. Thousands wept at his death and he and Chaki entered the ranks of popular nationalist heroes about whom folk songs were composed and sung all over the country.
The era of revolutionary terrorism had begun. Very soon secret societies of revolutionaries came up all over the country, the most famous and long lasting being ‘Anushilan Samiti’ and ‘Jugantar’. Their activities took two forms ---- the assassination of oppressive officials and informers and traitors from their own ranks and dacoities to raise funds for purchase of arms, etc. The latter came to be popularly known as Swadeshi dacoities ! Two of the most spectacular revolutionary terrorist actions of the period were the unsuccessful attempt under the leadership of Rash Behari Bose and Sachin Sanyal to kill the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge who was wounded by the bomb thrown at him while he was riding an elephant in a state procession ---- and the assassination of Curzon-Wylie in London by Madan Lal Dhingra. In all 186 revolutionaries were killed or convicted between the years 1908-1918. The revolutionary terrorists also established centres abroad. The more famous of them were Shyamji Krishnavarma, V. D. Savarkar and Har Dayal in London and Madame Cama and Ajit Singh in Europe.
Revolutionary terrorism gradually petered out. Lacking a mass base, despite remarkable heroism, the individual revolutionaries, organised in small secret groups, could not withstand suppression by the still strong colonial state. But despite their small numbers and eventual failure, they made a valuable contribution to the growth of nationalism in India. As a historian has put it, ‘they gave us back the pride of our manhood.’39`
The revolutionary terrorists were severely suppressed during World War I, with most of their leaders in jail or absconding. Consequently, in order to create a more harmonious atmosphere for the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, the Government released most of them under a general amnesty in early 1920. Soon after, the National Congress launched the Non-Cooperation Movement and on the urging of Gandhiji, C. R. Das and other leaders, most of the revolutionaryterrorists either joined the movement or suspended their own activities in order to give the Gandhian mass movement a chance. But the sudden suspension of the Non-Cooperation Movement shattered the high hopes raised earlier. Many young people began to question the very basic strategy of the national leadership and its emphasis on non0violence and began to look for alternatives. They were not attracted by the parliamentary politics of the ‘Swarajists’ or the patient and undramatic constructive work of the No-Changers. Many were drawn to the idea that violent methods alone would free India. Revolutionary terrorism again became attractive. It is not accidental that nearly all the major new leaders of the revolutionary terrorist politics, for example, Jogesh Chandra Chatterjea, Surya Sen, Jatin Das, Chandrashekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Shiv Varma, Bhagwati Charan Vohra and Jaidev Kapur, had been enthusiastic participants in the non-violent Non-Cooperation Movement.
Gradually two separate strands of revolutionary terrorism developed ---- one in Punjab, U. P. and Bihar and the other in Bengal. Both the strands came under the influence of several new social forces. One was the upsurge of working working class trade unionism after the War. They could see the revolutionary potential of the new class and desired to harness it to the nationalist revolution.
The second major influence was that of the Russian Revolution and the success of the young Socialist State in consolidating itself. The youthful revolutionaries were keen to learn from and take the help of young Soviet State and its ruling Bolshevik party. The third influence was that of the newly sprouting Communist groups with their emphasis on Marxism, Socialism and the proletariat.
The revolutionaries in northern India were the first to emerge out of the mood of frustration and reorganise under the leadership of the old veterans, Ramprasad Bismil, Jogesh Chatterjea and Sachindranath Sanyal whose ‘Bandi Jiwan’ served as a textbook to the revolutionary movement. They met in Kanpur in October 1924 and founded the Hindustan Republican Association (or Army) to organise armed revolution to overthrow colonial rule and establish in its place a Federal Republic of the United States of India whose basic principle would be adult franchise. Before armed struggle could be waged, propaganda had to be organised on a large scale, men had to be recruited and trained and arms had to be procured. All these required money. The most important ‘action’ of the HRA was the Kakori Robbery. On 9 August 1925, ten men held up the 8-Down train at Kakori, an obscure village near Lucknow, and looted its official railway cash. The Government reaction was quick and hard. It arrested a large number of young men and tried them in the Kakori Conspiracy Case. Ashfaqulla Khan, Ramprasad Bismil, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Lahiri were hanged, four others were sent to the Andamans for life and seventeen others were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Chandrashekhar Azad remained at large. The Kakori case was a major setback to the revolutionaries of northern India; but it was not a fatal blow. Younger men such as Bejoy Kumar Sinha, Shiv Varma and Jaidev Kapur in U. P., Bhagat Singh, Bhagwati Charan Vohra and Sukhdev in Punjab set out to reorganise the HRA under the overall leadership of Chandrashekhar Azad. Simultaneously, they were being influenced by socialist ideas. Finally, nearly all the major young revolutionaries of northern India met at Ferozeshah Kotla Ground at Delhi on 9 and 10 September 1928, created a new collective leadership, adopted socialism as their official goal and changed the name of the party to
Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (Army).
Even though, as we shall see, the HSRA and its leadership was rapidly moving away from individual heroic action and assassination and towards mass politics, Lala Lajpat Rai’s death as the result of a brutal lathi-charge when he was leading an anti-Simon Commission demonstration at Lahore on 30 October 1928, led them once again to take to individual assassination. The death of this great Punjabi leader, popularly known as Sher-e-Punjab, was seen by the romantic youthful leadership of the HSRA as a direct challenge. And so, on 17 December 1928, Bhagat Singh, Azad and Rajguru assassinated, at Lahore, Saunders, a police official involved in the lathi-charge on Lala Lajpat Rai. In a poster, put up by the HSRA after the assassination, the assassination was justified as follows: ‘The murder of a leader respected by millions of people at the unworthy hands of an ordinary police official…..was an insult to the nation. It was the bounden duty of young men of India to efface it…..We regret to have had to kill a person but he was part and parcel of that inhuman and unjust order which has to be destroyed.’40`
The HSRA leadership now decided to let the people know about its changed objectives and the need for a revolution by the masses. Bhagat Singh and B. K. Dutt were asked to throw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly on 8 April 1929 against the passage of the Public Safety Bill and the Trade Disputes Bill which would reduce the civil liberties of citizens in general and workers in particular. The aim was not to kill, for the bombs were relatively harmless, but, as the leaflet they threw into the Assembly hall proclaimed, ‘to make the deaf hear’. The objective was to get arrested and to use the trial court as a forum for propaganda so that people would become familiar with their movement and ideology. Bhagat Singh and B. K. Dutt were tried in the Assembly Bomb Case. Later, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru and tens of other revolutionaries were tried in a series of famous conspiracy cases. Their fearless and defiant attitude in the courts ---- every day they entered the court-room shouting slogans ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, ‘Down, Down with Imperialism’, ‘Long Live the Proletariat’ and singing
songs such as ‘Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mei hai’ (our heart is filled with the desire for martyrdom) and ‘Mera rang de basanti chola’ (dye my clothes in saffron colour ---- (the colour of courage and sacrifice) ---- was reported in newspapers; unsurprisingly this won them the support and sympathy of people all over the country including those who had complete faith in non-violence. Bhagat Singh became a household name in the land. And many persons, all over the country, wept and refused to eat food, attend schools, or carry on their daily work when they heard of his hanging in March 1931.
The country was also stirred by the prolonged hunger strike the revolutionary under-trials undertook as a protest against the horrible conditions in jails. They demanded that they be treated not as criminals but as political prisoners. The entire nation rallied behind the hunger-strikes. On 13 September, the 64th of the epic fast, Jatin Das, a frail young man with an iron-will died. Thousands came to pay him homage at every station passed by the train carrying his body from Lahore to Calcutta. At Calcutta, a two-mile-long procession of more than six lakh people carried his coffin to the cremation ground. A large number of revolutionaries were convicted in the Lahore Conspiracy Case and other similar cases and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment; many of them were sent to the Andamans. Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was carried out on 23 March 1931.
In Bengal, too, the revolutionary terrorists started reorganising and developing their underground activities. At the same time, many of them continued to work in the Congress organisation. This enabled them to gain access to the vast Congress masses; on the other hand, they provided the Congress with an organisational base in small towns and the countryside. They cooperated with C. R. Das in his Swarajist work. After his death, as the Congress leadership in Bengal got divided two wings, one led by Subhash Chandra Bose and the other by J. M. Sengupta, the Yugantar group joined forces with the first and Anushilan with the second. Among the several ‘actions’ of the reorganised groups was the attempt to assassinate Charles Tegart, the hated Police Commissioner of Calcutta, by Gopinath
Saha in January 1924. By an error, another Englishman named Day was killed. The Government came down on the people with a heavy hand. A large number of people, suspected of being terrorists, or their supporters, were arrested under a newly promulgated ordinance. These included Subhash Chandra Bose nd many other Congressmen. Saha was hanged despite massive popular protest. The revolutionary activity suffered a severe attack. Another reason for stagnation in revolutionary terrorist activity lay in the incessant factional and personal quarrels within the terrorist groups, especially where Yugantar and Anushilan rivalry was concerned. But very soon younger revolutionaries began to organize themselves in new groups, developing fraternal relations with the active elements of both the Anushilan and Yugantar parties. Among the new ‘Revolt Groups’, the most active and famous was the Chittagong group led by Surya Sen.
Surya Sen had actively participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement and had become a teacher in a national school in Chittagong, which led to his being popularly known as Masterda. Arrested and imprisoned for two years, from 1926 to 1928, for revolutionary activity, he continued to work in the Congress. He and his group were closely associated with the Congress work in Chittagong. In 1929, Surya Sen was the Secretary and five of his associates were members of the Chittagong District Congress Committee. Surya Sen, a brilliant and inspiring organiser, was an unpretentious, soft-spoken and transparently sincere person. Possessed of immense personal courage, he was deeply humane in his approach. He was fond of saying: ‘Humanism is a special virtue of a revolutionary.’ He was also very fond of poetry, being a great admirer of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Surya Sen soon gathered around himself a large band of revolutionary youth including Anant Singh, Ganesh Ghosh and Lokenath Baul. They decided to organise a rebellion, on however small a scale, to demonstrate that it was possible to challenge the armed might of the British empire in India. Their action plan was to include occupation of the two main armouries in Chittagong and the seizing of their arms with which a large band of revolutionaries could be formed into an armed detachment; the destruction of the
telephone and telegraph systems of the city; and the dislocation of the railway communication system between Chittagong and the rest of Bengal. The action was carefully planned and put into execution at 10 o’clock on the night of 18 April 1930. A group of six revolutionaries , led by Ganesh Ghosh, captured the Police Armoury shouting slogans such as ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, ‘Down with Imperialism’ and ‘Gandhiji’s Raj has been established’. Another group of ten, led by Lokenath Paul, took over the Auxiliary Force Armoury along with its Lewis guns and 303 army rifes. Unfortunately, they could not locate the ammunition. This was to prove a disastrous setback to the revolutionaries’ plans. The revolutionaries also succeeded in dislocating telephone and telegraph communications and disrupting movement by train. In all, sixty-five were involved in the raid, which was undertaken in the name of Indian Republican Army, Chittagong Branch.
All the revolutionary groups gathered outside the Police Armoury where Surya Sen, dressed in immaculate white ‘khadi’ dhoti and a long coat and stiffly ironed Gandhi cap, took a military salute, hoisted the National Flag among shouts of ‘Bande Mataram’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’, and proclaimed a Provisional Revolutionary Government. It was not possible for the band of revolutionaries to put up a fight in the town against the army which was expected. They, therefore, left Chittagong town before dawn and marched towards the Chittagong hill ranges,, looking for a safe place. It was on the Jalalabad hill that several thousand troops surrounded them on the afternoon of 22 April. After a fierce fight, in which over eighty British troops and twelve revolutionaries died, Surya Sen decided to disperse into the neighbouring villages; there they formed into small groups and conducted raids on Government personnel and property. Despite several repressive measures and combing oppressions by the authorities, the villagers, most of them Muslim, gave food and shelter to the revolutionary outlaws and enabled them to survive for three years. Surya Sen was finally arrested on 16 February 1933, tried and hanged on 12 January 1934. Many of his co-fighters were caught and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. The Chittagong Armoury Raid had an immense impact on the people of Bengal. As an official publication remarked,
it ‘fired the imagination of revolutionary-minded youth’ and ‘recruits poured into the various terrorist groups in a steady stream.’ The year 1930 witnessed a major revival of revolutionary activity, and its momentum carried over to 1931 and 1932. There were numerous instances of death-defying heroism. In Midnapore district alone, three British magistrates were assassinated. Attempts were made on the lives of two Governors; two Inspectors-General of Police were killed. During this three-year period, twenty-two officials and twenty non-officials were killed. The official reaction to the Armoury Raid and the revival of revolutionary terrorist activity was initially one of panic and, then, of brutal reprisals. The Government armed itself with twenty repressive Acts and let loose the police on all nationalists. In Chittagong, it burnt several villages, imposed punitive fine on many others, and in general established a reign of Terror. In 1933, it arrested and sentenced Jawaharlal Nehru to a two-year term in jail for sedition. He had in a speech in Calcutta condemned imperialism, praised the heroism of revolutionary youth (even while criticising the policy of terrorism as futile and out-of-date) and condemned police repression.
A remarkable aspect of this new phase of the terrorist movement in Bengal was the large-scale participation of young women. Under Surya Sen’s leadership, they provided shelter, acted as messengers and custodians of arms, and fought guns in hand. Pritilata Waddedar died while conducting a raid, while Kalpana Dutt (now Joshi) was arrested and tried along with Surya Sen and given a life sentence. In December 1931, two school girls of Comilla, Santi Ghosh and Suniti Chowdhury, shot dead the District Magistrate. In February 1932, Bina Das fired point blank at the Governor while receiving her degree at the Convocation. Compared to the old revolutionary terrorists, as also Bhagat Singh and his comrades, the Chittagong rebels made an important advance. Instead of an individual’s act of heroism or the assassination of an individual, theirs was a group action aimed at the organs of the colonial state. But the objective still was to set an example before the youth, and to demoralise the bureaucracy. As Kalpana Joshi (Dutt) has put it, the plan was that when, after the Chittagong rebellion, the
Government would bring in troops to take back Chittagong they (the terrorists) would die fighting ---- thus creating a legend and setting an example before their countrymen to emulate.’41` Or as Surya Sen told Ananda Gupta: ‘A dedicated band of youth must show the path of organised armed struggle in place of individual terrorism. Most of us will have to die in the process but our sacrifice for such a noble cause will not go in vain.’42 The Bengal revolutionaries of the 1920s and 1930s had shed some of their earlier Hindu religiosity ---- they no longer took religious oaths and vows. Some of the groups also no longer excluded Muslims ---- the Chittagong IRA cadre included many Muslims, like Sattar, Mir Ahmad, Fakir Ahmad Mian, Tunu Mian and got massive support from Muslim villages around Chittagong. But they still retained elements of social conservatism, nor did they evolve broader socio-economic goals. In particular, those revolutionary terrorists, who worked in the ‘Swaraj’ party, failed to support the cause of Muslim peasantry against the ‘Zamindars’.
A real breakthrough in terms of revolutionary ideology and the goals of revolution and the forms of revolutionary struggle was made by Bhagat Singh and his comrades. Rethinking had, of course, started on both counts in the HRA itself. Its manifesto had declared in 1925 that it stood for ‘the abolition of all systems which made the exploitation of man by man possible’43`. Its founding council, in its meeting in October 1924, had decided ‘to preach social revolutionary and communistic principles.’44` Its main organ, ‘The Revolutionary’, had proposed the nationalisation of the railways and other means of transport and large-scale industries such as steel and ship-building. The HRA had also decided ‘to start labour and peasant organisations’ and to work for ‘an organised and armed revolution.’45` In a message from the death-cell, Ramprasad Bismil had appealed to the youth to give up’ the desire to keep revolvers and pistols,’ ‘not to work in revolutionary conspiracies,’ and to work in ‘the open movement.’ He had asked the people to establish Hindu-Muslim unity and unite all political groups under the leadership of the Congress. He had also affirmed his faith in communism and the principle that ‘every human being has equal rights over products of nature.’46`
Bhagat Singh, born in 1907 and a nephew of the famous revolutionary Ajit Singh, was a giant of an intellectual. A voracious reader, he was one of the most well-read of political leaders of the time. He had devoured books in the Dwarkadas Library at Lahore on socialism, the Soviet Union and revolutionary movements, especially those of Russia, Ireland and Italy. At Lahore, he organised several study circles with the help of Sukhdev and others and carried on intensive political discussions. When the HSRA office was shifted to Agra, he immediately set up a library and urged members to read and discuss socialism and other revolutionary ideas. His shirt pockets always bulged with books which he constantly offered to lend his comrades. After his arrest he transformed the jail into a veritable university. Emphasising the role of ideas in the making of revolution, he declared before the Lahore High Court: ‘The sword of revolution is sharpened on the whetting-stone of ideas.’47` This atmosphere of wide reading and deep thinking pervaded the ranks of the HSRA leadership. Sukhdev, Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Shiv Varma, Bejoy Sinha, Yashpal, all were intellectuals of a high Order. Nor would even Chandrashekhar Azad, who knew little English, accept any idea till it was fully explained to him. He followed every major turn in the field of ideas through discussion.The draft of the famous statement of revolutionary position, ‘The Philosophy of the Bomb’, was written by Bhagwati Charan Vohra at the instance of Azad and after a full discussion with him. Bhagat Singh had already, before his arrest in 1929, abandoned his belief in terrorism, and individual heroic action. He had turned to Marxism and had come to believe that popular broad-based movements alone could lead to a successful revolution; in other words, revolution could only be achieved ‘by the masses for the masses.’ That is why Bhagat Singh helped establish the Punjab Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1926 (becoming its founding Secretary), as the open wing of the revolutionaries. The Sabha was to carry out open political work among the youth, peasants and workers. It was to open branches in the villages. Under its auspices, Bhagat Singh used to deliver political lectures wit the help of magic lantern slides. Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev also
organised the Lahore Students Union for open legal work among the students.
Bhagat Singh and his comrades also gave expression to their understanding that revolution meant the development and organisation of a mass movement of the exploited and suppressed sections of society by the revolutionary intelligentsia in the course of their statements from 1929 to 1931 in the courts as well as outside. Just before his execution, Bhagat Singh declared that ‘the real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories.’48` Moreover, in his behest to young political workers, written on 2 February 1931, he declared: ‘Apparently, I have acted like a terrorist. But I am not a terrorist…..Let me announce with all the strength at my command, that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through those methods.’49` Then why did Bhagat Singh and his comrades still take recourse to individual heroic action ? One reason was the very rapidity of the changes in their thinking. The past formed a part of their present, for these young men had to traverse decades within a few years. Moreover, effective acquisition of a new ideology is not an event; it is not like a religious conversion, it is always a prolonged historical process. Second, they were faced with a classic dilemma: From where would come the cadres, the hundreds of full-time young political workers who would fan out among the masses ? How were they to be recruited ? Patient intellectual and political work appeared to be too slow and too akin to the Congress style of politics which the revolutionaries had to transcend. The answer appeared to be to appeal to the youth through ‘propaganda by deed,’ to recruit the initial cadres of a mass revolutionary party through heroic dramatic action and the consequent militant propaganda before the courts. In the last stage, during 1930 and 1931, they were mainly fighting to keep the glory of the sacrifice of their comrades under sentence shining as before. As Bhagat Singh put it, he had to ask the youth to abandon revolutionary terrorism without tarnishing the sense of heroic sacrifice by appearing to have reconsidered his politics under the penalty of death.50` Life was bound to teach, sooner or later, correct politics; the sense of sacrifice once lost
would not be easy to regain.
Bhagat Singh and his comrades also made a major advance in broadening the scope and definition of revolution. Revolution was no longer equated with mere militancy or violence. Its first objective was national liberation ---- the overthrow of imperialism. But it must go beyond and work for a new socialist social order, it must ‘end exploitation of man by man.’51` ‘The Philosophy of the Bomb’,written by Bhagwati Charan Vohra, Chandrashekhar Azad and Yashpal, defined revolution as ‘Independence, social, political and economic’ aimed at establishing ‘a new order of society in which political and economic exploitation will be an impossibility.’52` In the Assembly Bomb Case, Bhagat Singh told the court: “Revolution,” does not necessarily involve sanguinary strife, nor is there any place in it for individual vendetta. It is not the cult of the bomb and the pistol. By “Revolution” we mean that the present order of things, which is based on manifest injustice, must change.’53` In a letter from jail, he wrote: ‘The peasants have to liberate themselves not only from foreign yoke but also from the yoke of landlords and capitalists.54` In his last message of 3 March 1931, he declared that the struggle in India would continue so long as ‘a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.’55` Bhagat Singh defined socialism in a scientific manner ---- it must mean abolition of capitalism and class domination. He fully accepted Marxism and the class approach to society. In fact, he saw himself above all as a precursor and not maker of the revolution, as a propagator of the ideas of socialism, and communism, as a humble initiator of the socialist movement in India.56` Bhagat Singh was a great innovator in to areas of politics. Being fully and consciously secular, he understood, more clearly than many of his contemporaries, the danger that communalism posed to the nation and the national movement. He often told his audience that communalism was as big an enemy as colonialism.
In April 1928, at the conference of youth where Naujawan Bharat
Sabha was organised, Bhagat Singh and his comrades openly opposed the suggestion that youth belonging to religious-communal organizations should be permitted to become members of the Sabha. Religion was one’s private concern and communalism was an enemy to be fought, argued Bhagat Singh.57` Earlier in 1927, condemning communal killings as barbaric, he had pointed out that communal killers did not kill a person because he was guilty of any particular act but simply because that person happened to be a Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. But, wrote Bhagat Singh, a new group of youth was coming forward who did not recognise any differences based on religion and saw a person first as a human being and then as an Indian.58` Bhagat Singh revered Lajpat Rai as a leader. But he would not spare even Lajpat Rai, when, during the last years of his life, Lajpat Rai turned to communal politics. He then launched a political-ideological campaign against him.59` Because Lajpat Rai was a respected leader, he would not publicly use harsh words of criticism against him. And so he printed as a pamphlet Robert Browning’s famous poem, ‘The Lost Leader’ in which Browning criticises Wordsworth for turning against liberty. The poem begins with the line ‘Just for a handful of silver he left us.’ A few more of the poem’s lines were: ‘We shall march prospering, -- not thro’ his presence; songs may inspirit us, -- not from his lyre,’ and ‘Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more.’ There was not one word of criticism of Lajpat Rai. Only, on the front cover, he printed Lajpat Rai’s photograph !
Significantly, two of the six rules of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, drafted by Bhagat Singh, were: ‘To have nothing to do with communal bodies or other parties which disseminate communal ideas’ and ‘to create the spirit of general toleration among the public considering religion as a matter of personal belief of man and to act upon the same fully.’60` Bhagat Singh also saw the importance of freeing the people from the mental bondage of religion and superstition. A few weeks before his death, he wrote the article ‘Why I am an Atheist’ in which he subjected religion and religious philosophy to a scathing critique. He traced his own path to atheism, how he first gave up belief, ‘in the mythology and
doctrines of Sikhism or any other religion,’ and in the end lost faith in the existence of God. To be a revolutionary, he said, one required immense moral strength, but one also required ‘criticism and independent thinking.’ In the struggle for self-emancipation, humanity struggle against ‘the narrow conception of religion’ as also against the belief in God. ‘Any man who stands for progress,’ he wrote ‘has to criticise, disbelieve and challenge every item of the old faith. Item by item he has to reason out every nook and corner of the prevailing faith.’ Proclaiming his own belief in atheism and materialism, he asserted that he was ‘trying to stand like a man with an erect head to the last; even on the gallows.’61`
Government action gradually decimated the revolutionary terrorist ranks. With the death of Chandrashekhar Azad in a shooting encounter in a public park at Allahabad in February 1931, the revolutionary terrorist movement virtually came to an end in Punjab, U. P. and Bihar. Surya Sen’s martyrdom marked an end to the prolonged saga of revolutionary terrorism in Bengal. A process of rethinking in jails and in the Andamans began. A large number of the revolutionaries turned to Marxism and the idea of a socialist revolution by the masses. They joined the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and other Left parties. Many others joined the Gandhian wing of the Congress. The politics of the revolutionary terrorists had severe limitations ---- above all theirs was not the politics of a mass movement; they failed to politically activate the masses or move them into political actions; they could not even establish contact with the masses. All the same, they made an abiding contribution to the national freedom movement. Their deep patriotism, courage and determination, and sense of sacrifice stirred the Indian people. They helped spread nationalist consciousness in the land; and in northern India the spread of socialist consciousness owed a lot to them. The common feature of terrorism in both the French Revolutionary period and Indian Renaissance and National period was that both occurred or happened due to force of circumstances in each place. The differences in the nature of the terrorist movement in the two places were only differences of the peculiar
conditions of the two places and thus in a rightful way the French Revolution and revolutionaty era following it in Europe was a precursor to the Indian National and Renaissance Movement.
I will again proceed to give a synoptic view of the revolutionary terrorism in India. ‘Storming heaven’: these historic words are perhaps the aptest description of the bold fight for freedom which the revolutionaries of Bengal and India launched and continued for about thirty years, against the mightiest empire of history. It required courage no doubt, the courage to ‘do and die’ when for generations Indians of light and leading had been taught to beg and pray. More even than that, it required imagination and faith in the National Destiny. For, these revolutionaries dreamt the dreams which came true and remained unshaken in their belief at an hour when ‘responsible citizens’ looked confused and crushed at the very idea of full freedom and the responsibility such freedom would entail. The seeds had been sown earlier by men of vision and courage but the plant of freedom was watered with the martyrs’ blood. It was their revolutionary lot to have the soil watered and not to reap the fruit; no, for many of them, not even to see it in bloom. They were giving themselves, in most cases unknown and unhonoured, to the cause, to live or die as in the Task-master’s eye, until the goal of freedom was at last accepted as the national objective. The national organisations were thus won from passivity and vacillation to revolutionary and uncompromising struggle for freedom; and, violent or non-violent, constitutional or unlawful, whatever be the methods, all popular forces including themselves merged into the revolutionary struggle against imperialism.
Freedom was the issue, and not this or that method, as in the perspective of history we can see clearly today. For, methods and techniques of the freedom movement varied as they must according to times and circumstances. The zigzag course of Indian freedom was naturally marked by a variety of methods and techniques. Each of them had, however, its genesis in the national life, and, to look deeper, in the very complexities of that life. As such, the Grand Strategy of Freedom needed them all. To distinguish any section of the national force merely
by its apparent technique and method is to confuse largely the means with the end; and, secondly to lose sight of the inner connection among the different forces of the national life. National freedom is a complex process of development. The main features have undoubtedly to be recognised as they distinguished each particular section of the freedom fighters of India. The popular term ‘Revolutionary Terrorism’, which we employ, serves a useful purpose to describe a pattern of activity pursued for a prolonged period of 30 years, from 1904 to 1934. We realise now the role the nationalist revolutionaries played in the development and transformation of Indian politics as a whole. The technique and features of their fight have also to be studied now with care with the full perspective in view. These in the past were often improperly emphasised in order to throw the picture of revolutionary contribution out of focus.
‘Revolutionary Terrorism’, both in its origin and growth, was no simple phenomenon. It was not confined to Bengal; the freedom movement in other parts of India, particularly in the Punjab and Northern India, was also marked at certain priods by revolutionary terrorism. So, at the outset we should note the broad facts and salient features of the Bengal movement.
First, the revolutionaries did not belong to a single unified party, but were divided into a number of secret groups, generally working independently. Second, they did not subscribe to any common ideology but expressed the common nationalist aspiration for full freedom and a common faith in armed revolution. Third, the common features of their ‘terrorism’ were organisation of secret societies, anti-imperialist indoctrination of their members physical and moral training, collection of firearms, collection of funds by dacoities, assassination by bombs and firearms of enemies and traitors. Fourth, by no means were all who belonged to these revolutionary secret societies reconciled to all such activities (see Jadugopal Mukhopadhyay’s ‘Biplavi Jivaner Smriti’). Many of them accepted these as temporary and unwelcome devices of defense and counter-attack. Almost all took to these as necessary steps in the process of revolution, in the preparation for guerilla campaigns, defection of Indian forces; and finally, for
armed insurrection on a wide and national scale. A good number valued the method as calling for maximum sacrifice by minimum men to draw out by their examples at least minimum sacrifice by maximum men in the cause of national freedom. Fifth, it is also to be noted that as opportunities presented themselves, in the national and international fields, the revolutionary terrorists tried to take advantage of them and varied their method and technique in accordance with the requirements of the situation. Lastly, most of the leaders of the groups, like Sri Aurobindo himself, had probably an exaggerated notion about the role of the middle-class intelligentsia in the national democratic revolution. The democratic content was relatively weak in their political consciousness and of course it was alien to their methods of organisation which were intended to be military and secret.
Bearing in mind this particular aspect we have to look deeper into the Bengali life and movements since the last quarter of the 19th century if we are to understand why revolutionary terrorism had such a prolonged existence in particular in Bengal from 1904 to 1934. We can then proceed to study the different phases of the movement as it waxed or waned.
I. ‘The Background: Renaissance and Revolutionary Ideas’.
“The spirit of freedom,” writes Bipinchandra Pal in recalling the birth of ‘Our New Nationalism’ in the seventies of the last century, “quickened by contact with modern European thought and history, throbbing under the new impulse imparted by idealism of the French Revolution, was abroad” (‘Memories of My Life and Times’, Vol.I, p. 237). The literary and cultural renaissance in Bengal was in high tide in the seventies of the last century. The spirit of freedom that it generated challenged the religious and social authorities with all its might. But very naturally it perceived that a challenge to the political authorities of the land was out of the question. The liberal attitude was to look for help from the rulers for ordered progress; the nationalist attitude as expressed through the Hindu Mela (1867) was to inculcate a movement of self-reliance and
self-respect. During Lord Lytton’s viceroyalty (1876-1880), educated Indians of different schools of thought came to realise that the authorities would not allow any free development of Indian political life. Secret societies were a natural offshoot of this political feeling, and the feeling was specially acerbated by the Vernacular Press Act and the Arms Act of Lord Lytton.
(i) ‘Secret Societies of the Seventies’.
So while the liberal Anandamohan Bose gathered the students of Calcutta in the first organised Students’ Association (1875) and Surendranath Bannerji raised “the storm in the College Square” with his orations there on Josef Mazzini and the ‘New Italy’ movement (1875), we are told, on the authority of Bipinchandra Pal (‘ibid’), that “Calcutta student community was at that time honeycombed with” secret organisations. Surendranath himself is said to have been the President of a number of such groups. Bipinchandra was writing about 1932, when the wave of Revolutionaty Trrorism was touching its peak in Bengal and he is careful to remind the readers that these organisations of the seventies “were without any revolutionary motive or any plan of secret assassination as the way to national emancipation” (unlike those of the 20th century) and their thought and imagination alone were of a revolutionary character”. He refers to one such organisation, probably to the one that Sibnath Sastri and his friends initiated (‘Atma Charit’, Sibnath Sastri). Rabindranath Tagore in a humorous description refers to a different one the ‘Sanjibani Sabha’. It was founded by Rajnarayan Bose, the grand-father of Indian revolutionism and Hindu Nationalism, and young Jyotirindranath Tagore; and Rabindranath, then a lad of fifteen only, also was a member of it (‘Jiwan Smriti’). This too contemplated no action in near future to overthrow the foreign yoke. All probably died a natural death and none constituted any danger to the regime.
What however is to be noted from such attempts is this: first, a revolutionary temper was being created. Secondly, secret societies came to be regarded as natural. British liberalism was passing into arrogant Imperialism from about the time of Lord Lytton’s viceroyalty in India. The educated intelligentsia of
Bengal had frequent clashes with the foreign rulers and their henchmen, as at the last session of Hindu Mela (see Pal on Hindu Mela). Serious-minded men were thus forced to realise that secret organisations were needed for maintenance of national and personal honour.
But as yet the secret societies of Calcutta had no idea of direct action, nor felt any need of it. The task they set before themselves was ideological and physical training. Two other features are worth noting, namely that it is the students and the educated young men who form the basis of the movement; and that, while vows and rituals associated with Hinduism marked the initiation into some of these societies, Mazzini and ‘Young Italy’, the anti-Czarist secret organisations, as well as the American War of Independence were their real political inspiration.
(ii) ‘The Middle Class in Isolation’.
These features point to the basic complexity of our colonial social existence. Political consciousness had undoubtedly been quickened by contact with modern European thought and history. But it had been quickened only among a very small minority, a section of the urban middle class in particular, for they alone could avail of the new education. It is the young men of this ‘bhadralok’ section, the students generally, who “throbbed with the impulse