Posts Tagged ‘National Assembly’

The Sansculotte Programme of 1793

April 22, 2014

French Revolution Book

D.G. Wright’s Revolution and Terror in France, 1789-1795 also contains the address the radical sections of the Sansculottes sent to the National Assembly on 2nd September 1793. The sansculottes weren’t all working class, nor were they Socialists, and the address was the closest they ever came to a programme of social and economic reform. Nevertheless, it shows a profound and extremely radical commitment to social equality and is marked by demands for limits to be placed on wealth in the interest of providing for the poor. It runs:

Mandatories of the People – Just how long are you going to tolerate royalism, ambition, egotism, intrigue and avarice, each of them linked to fanaticism, and opening our frontiers to tyranny, while spreading devastation and death everywhere? How long are you going to suffer food-hoarders spreading famine throughout the Republic in the detestable hope that patriots will cut each other’s throats and the throne will be restored over our bloody corpses, with the help of foreign despots? You must hurry for there is no time to lose … the whole universe is watching you; humanity reproaches you for the troubles which are devastating the French Republic. Posterity will damn your names in future if you do not speedily find a remedy. … You must hurry, representatives of the people, to deprive all former nobles, priests, parlementaires and financiers of all administrative and judicial responsibility; also to fix the price of basic foodstuffs, raw materials, wages, and the profits of industry and commerce. You have both the justification and the power to do so. To speak plainly! To talk of aristocrats, royalists, moderates and counter-revolutionaries is to draw attention to property rights, held to be sacred and inviolable … no doubt; but do these rogues ignore the fact that property rights are confined to the extent of the satisfaction of physical needs? Don’t they know that nobody has the right to do anything that will injure another person? What could be more harmful than the arbitrary power to increase the price of basic necessities to a level beyond the means of seven eighths of the citizens? … do they not realize that every individual in the Republic must employ his intelligence and the strength of his arms in the service of the Republic, and must spill his blood for her to the very last drop? In return, the Republic should guarantee to each citizen the means of sufficient basic necessities to stay alive.

Would you not agree that we have passed a harsh law against hoarders? Representatives of the people, do not let the law be abused … this law, which forces those with large stocks of foodstuffs to declare their hoard, tends to favour hoarders more than it wipes out hoarding; it puts all their stocks under the supervision of the nation, yet permits them to charge whatever price their greed dictates. Consequently the general assembly of the Section des Sans Culottes considers it to be the duty of all citizens to propose measures which seem likely to bring about a return of abundance and public tranquillity. It therefore resolves to ask the Convention to decree the following:

1. That former nobles will be barred from military careers and every kind of public office; that former parlementaires, priests and financiers will be deprived of all administrative and judicial duties.

2. That the price of basic necessities be fixed at the levels of 1789-90, allowing for differences in quality.

3. That the price of raw materials, level of wages and profits of industry and commerce also be fixed, so that the hard-working man, the cultivator and the trader will be able to procure basic necessities, and also those things which add to their enjoyment.

4. That all those cultivators who, by some accident, have not been able to harvest their crop, be compensated from public funds.

5. That each department be allowed sufficient public money to ensure that the price of basic foodstuffs will be the same for all citizens of the Republic.

6. That the sums of money allowed to departments be used to eradicate variations in the price of foodstuffs and necessities and in the cost of transporting them to all parts of the Republic, so that each citizen is equal in these things.

7. That existing leases be cancelled and rents fixed at the levels of 1789-90, as for foodstuffs.

8. That there be a fixed maximum on personal wealth.

9 That no single individual shall possess more than the declared maximum.

10 That nobody be able to lease more land than is necessary for fixed number of ploughs.

11. That no citizen shall possess more than one workshop or retail shop.

12. That all who possess goods and land without legal title be recognised as proprietors.

The Section des Sans Culottes thinks that these measures will created abundance and tranquillity, and will, little by little, remove the gross inequalities of wealth and multiply the number of proprietors. (pp. 118-20).

It’s very much of it’s time, but some of it is still relevant to today. There are struggling small farmers in Britain, who need support from the government if they are to survive. In the corporative 1960s and ’70s, the government did pursue and prices and incomes policy, to make sure that wages matched the price of goods. There is a problem where prices have risen while the government and industrialists have kept wages low and frozen, so that some families are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The same also applies to another necessity that didn’t exist in the late 18th century: electricity. The Labour party announced that if it won the election, it would freeze electricity prices. A few months or so ago one of the electricity companies also announced that they were not going to raise their prices due to the fact that there was so much indignation at the cost of electricity when people were finding it difficult to pay for it.

As for limits on personal wealth and the number of businesses one should own, even though governments wish to promote successful industries and businesses, the policies can still be justified. It is obscene that the pay for company directors, elite bankers and the extremely rich has risen colossally, while the majority of workers have either had their wages frozen or their pay actually cut. The Japanese have a law which expressly states that company directors and chairmen may only enjoy a salary at a set, maximum level above the average wages of their workers. Japan is now one of the very largest economies in the world, and in many respects it is a ruthlessly capitalistic culture. Yet Japanese culture also stresses the importance of harmony and consensus. The law setting a ceiling for managers’ salaries was deliberately introduced in order to create an orderly, middle-class, harmonious society with little extremes of wealth. It’s questionable whether this has been successful, given the rise in unemployment due to the massive Japanese slump, and the appalling conditions endured by outcast groups such as the ‘Village People’ and Japanese Koreans.

It’s also the case that the actual number of businesses trading in the high street is contracting as more and more local businesses are forced out or taken over by the big firms. In Stokes Croft in Bristol four years ago there were riots due to the opening of yet another branch of Sainsbury’s, which threatened to put the local grocers and supermarkets out of business. The increasing homogeneity of the high street has attracted media attention and discussion. There has even been discussion of laws to prevent too many of the same brand of supermarket from opening in the same area.

cameron-toff

If the Sansculottes were around now, this man would not be in government.

And finally, considering the present government, you can well sympathise with the Sansculotte proposal to exclude nobles and financiers from government. The present government is, after all, composed by aristos and financiers, working on behalf of aristos, financiers and big business against the poor.

As I said in my last post, we could do with rediscovering a little bit more of the Sansculotte commitment to genuine democracy and egalitarianism.

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Workers’ Councils as a Support for Democracy

March 18, 2014

Eisner pic

Kurt Eisner, Bavarian politician and Workers’ Council leader, in 1918.

Yesterday I put up a piece about the establishment of workers’ control of industry during the Russian revolution in 1917, when Lenin granted the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils – the soviets – the power to manage the enterprises in which their members were employed. Germany also experienced a council revolution of its own 1918, following its defeat in the First World War. This was a period of immense political turmoil throughout Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Germany, the Kaiser was forced to abdicate and his noble successor, Prince Max of Baden, granted sweeping changes to the constitution. Germany was to become a constitutional monarchy, stripped the emperor of command over the army and made the Reichstag, the German parliament, responsible for deciding war and peace. In Germany the revolution started on the 29th October, when the sailors at Kiel mutinied against an order to launch one last attack on England. With support from the dockers, they established a workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ council. From there the movement spread through the rest of Germany.

Although the councils appear to have been modelled on the Russian soviets, there was very little Communist influence in them. Most of their members belonged to the majority socialist Social Democrat Party. In many cases the movement fizzled out after a year. In some parts of Germany they acted as Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, advising working people on how to obtain better wages, conditions or housing. Only in the Ruhr did they attempt to nationalise the mines. Their existence was a matter of considerable controversy, as majority of the German Social Democrats felt that they were a threat to the parliamentary democracy they wished to create.

The leader of the workers’ council in Munich, Kurt Eisner, was a left-wing theatre critic. He was not a radical nor an opponent of parliamentary democracy. He wished instead to combine the new workers’ councils with parliament to create a system where the workers and peasants had a direct influence on parliament. In a meeting with the representatives of other German states in Berlin, Eisner thus explained his ideas

The workers; and soldiers’ councils must remain the basis of the whole movement, and in the south the peasant councils too, which in the east would be agricultural labourers’ councils. The more the workers’ and soldiers’ councils were given an opportunity to do fruitful work the less we would have to fear the bogy of chaos.

With regard to the question of the National Assembly it was entirely obvious that it must be summoned. This applied to the Reich as well as to the individual Diets. The revolution was no the same as democracy, the revolution would have to create democracy (Hear, hear!)

It must thus be our task to use the time to lead the whole mass of the people towards democracy. There were people who maintained that democracy consisted of elections every five years and then remaining at home for five years. That was the bourgeois parliamentarianism of the past. Now all productive forces must be employed in the work of democratic consolidation…

The revolution was only two weeks old, and if there was much discussion about the excesses of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, one thing was certain: they had not yet ignited a world war; such small matters should not be taken too seriously…

F.L Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-19 (Aldershot: Wildwood House 1988) 183.

In a debate in the Bavarian cabinet with Frauendorfer, who opposed the councils, Eisner stated that giving the council legislative, rather than advisory powers, would be Bolshevism, to which he was opposed. He was instead a supporter of parliamentary democracy. This was, however, qualified in a speech he made a few days later to a conference of Bavarian workers’ councils.

The workers’ councils shall be the parliaments of those doing physical and also intellectual work, and if this is countered by the view that the National Assembly, the Diet, will make these workers’ councils redundant, then I maintain: on the contrary, we may do without the National Assembly rather than without the workers’ councils. (Tumultuous applause.)

For, if the National Assembly is not to lead again into empty parliamentarianism, then the living force of the workers’ councils must unfold itself., The workers’ and other councils are as it were the organization of the electors. The electors must watch and be active and must not leave it to the deputies to do whatever clever or stupid things they see fit to undertake. The function of these councils in my opinion is the direct politicization and democratization of the masses…. (pp. 185-6).

Eisner, however, lost the subsequent Bavarian elections and the Diet passed a Basic Law establishing the Diet as the organisation to which ministers were responsible, rather than the councils. Eisner was therefore asked to offer his recognition the next day, the 21st February. As he was on his way to the Diet to do so, he was shot dead by an extreme right-wing aristocrat, Count Anton Arco-Valley.

Parliament should clearly be at the heart of British politics as the cornerstone of democracy and representative government down the centuries. There is, however, a real problem in that many people are alienated from government., especially the working classes, who feel that all the parties are the same. This is to some extent true, as all the parties have adopted the same Neoliberal policies to a greater or lesser extent. If the parties really are serious about trying to get more people to take an interest in politics, then they need to create institutions where ordinary people genuinely feel that their voices are heard, and that politicians are not left to do whatever they wish in parliament regardless of the views or the impact it will have on the electorate. And politics should be far more than simply a case of putting a cross in a box every five years. We now need an expansion of politics and democratic institutions, not the atrophied state in which they have lapsed since Thatcher.