Posts Tagged ‘Small Masters’

The French Revolutionary Sansculottes, Their Attitudes, Ideology and Continuing Relevance

April 22, 2014

French Revolution Book

I have found this description of the Sansculottes, the radical Parisian republicans, in D.G. Wright, Revolution and Terror in France 1789-1795 (London: Longman 1974). They weren’t working class, but a mixture of people from across the working and middle classes, including wage-earners and prosperous businessmen. The majority of them were tradesmen, shopkeepers, craftsmen, small masters, compagnons and journeymen. Their membership reflected the structure of Parisian industry, which largely consisted of small workshops employing four and fourteen workers. Despite containing many members of the middle class, the Sansculottes believed strongly in manual work and direct democracy.

The ideal sans culotte, depicted in popular prints, wore his hair long, smoked a pipe and dressed simply: cotton trousers (rather than the knee-breeches, culottes, of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie), a short jacket and the bonnet rouge (the Phrygian cap of the freed slave in ancient times). Powdered wigs, scent, knee-breeches, buckled shoes, flowered waistcoats, bows and lorgnettes were dismissed as foppish and frivolous trappings of privilege, with overtones of sexual deviancy. Equally dismissed were the manners and deferent behaviour of the ancient regime: the good sans culotte took his hat off to nobody, used the familiar ‘tu’ rather than ‘vous’ and ‘citoyen’ rather than ‘monsieur’, and swore in the colourful Parisian slang of the Pere Duchesne. He tended to judge people by their appearance: those who wore fancy clothes, spoke in ‘posh’ tones, looked haughty, or failed to offer the fraternal kiss of liberty. Those who seemed to despise the honest working man were in trouble. A music dealer was arrested as a suspect for observing, at a sectional meeting, ‘It was disgusting to see a cobbler acting as president, particularly a cobbler who was badly dressed’.

‘Aristocrat’ and ‘moderate’ became interchangeable terms for those who opposed in any way the outlook and aspirations of the sans culottes or appeared to look down on them or ridicule them; they were also applied to those who seemed indifferent and lacking in the open enthusiasm of the good revolutionary. ‘Aristocrat’ could include those who refused to buy biens nationaux or to cultivate land or sell it at a fair price, or failed to find employment for labourers and journeymen, or refused to subscribe generously to patriotic loans, or to those dealt in gold rather than republican assignats or speculated on the Bourse or in joint stock companies. As the revolutionary crisis deepened in 1793, ‘aristocrat’ increasingly came to mean bourgeois property owner; in May an orator in the Section du Mail declared: ‘Aristocrats are the rich wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers and citizens who own anything.’ Wealth always raised sans culotte suspicion, unless offset by outstanding political virtue. Hoarders and monopolists were seen as hand-in-glove with large merchants, bankers and economic liberals in a plot to starve the people and crush the Revolution; for sans culottes were ultra sensitive to the problem of food supply and the price of bread, while they lived in constant fear of plots and betrayal. Hunger, as well as democratic politics and puritanical moral views, was a cement holding the disparate sans culotte groups together. Hence pillage could be justified as ‘egalitarian’ and ‘revolutionary’ in that it fed the people and struck at the machinations of hoarders and speculators, the visible vanguard of counter-revolution. Sans culottes always tended to advocated immediate and violent political solutions to economic problems and, with brutal simplicity, assumed that spilling blood would provide bread.

Despite the fact that many sans culottes were small property owners, there existed a deep-rooted egalitarianism. They believed in the ‘right to live’ (‘droit a l’existence’) and in ‘the equality of the benefits of society (l’egalite des jouissances). A family should have enough to live on in modest comfort, especially sufficient bread of good quality flour. No rich man should have the power of life and death over his fellow men by his ability to monopolise food and other basic necessities. thus food prices and distribution should be controlled by law, while the government should take stern action against hoarders and speculators. Some of the more radical sans culotte committees demanded taxation of the rich, limitation of rents, restriction of the activities of large financiers, government-assisted workshops and allowances for widows, orphans and disabled soldiers. (pp. 52-4).

‘He was a fervent believer in direct democracy, a concept which stemmed ultimately from Rousseau and the Social Contract and filtered down into the sections through the revolutionary press, broadsheets and speeches, revolutionary songs and Jacobin Club pamphlets and propaganda. Authority could not be delegated, for the true basis of government was the people, sitting permanently in their evening sectional meetings, where they discussed laws and decrees. Deputies should be delegates rather than representatives and be constantly and immediately answerable to societies populaires. The latter had the right to scrutinise the laws of the Assembly, administer justice and the police, and help to run the war effort. Thus the sans culottes saw themselves and the ‘nation’ as synonymous. (pp. 54-5).

We don’t need the murderous bloodthirstiness of the sans culottes, some of whom took their children to public executions as part of their political education, and, as time wore on, became increasingly nationalistic and chauvinistic, to the point where they insisted on Parisian French as they only indicator of political reliability, and were hostile and suspicious of other languages spoken in France, such as the Breton Celtic tongue, and even other French dialects. And I don’t share their radical atheism and hatred of Christianity and Roman Catholicism. However, we do need a revival of other parts of their attitude and values: the radical egalitarianism, which despises and revolted against any attempt to sneer at someone because of their occupation as a worker or manual tradesman. Owen Jones in Chavs points to the way Kenneth Clarke once heckled John Prescott with the cry of ‘Here, barman’, because Prescott had once been a ship’s steward. And this government is indeed that of ‘Aristocrats … wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers’ and the owners of vast property and industry. And monopolists, bankers and economic liberals are pursuing policies that penalise and push into grinding poverty the poorest and weakest sections of the society for their own profit.

Instead of a government by them, which benefits the rich alone, we desperately need instead a government of real egalitarians, that is not afraid to pursue policies that include the ‘taxation of the rich, limitation of rents, restriction of the activities of large financiers, government-assisted workshops and allowances for widows, orphans and disabled soldiers’ and more. Regardless of one’s attitude to religion, it’s about time we returned and revived their radical egalitarianism against a radically unequal, illiberal and thoroughly oppressive regime.

cameron-toff

David Cameron: He personifies the Sansculotte statement ‘Aristocrats are the rich wealthy merchants, monopolists, middlemen, bankers, trading clerks, quibbling lawyers and citizens who own anything.’