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One Mars Unshackled: The French Revolution in World-Historical Perspective1
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War and Political Radicalization

When we move on to examine the political radicalization of the French Revolution after the early years of attempts at constitutional monarchy, it becomes even easier to demonstrate the links between the geopolitics and the domestic politics of the French Revolution. Lynn Hunt is ambiguous on the matter of whether the French Revolution brought "democracy," but surely it is safe to conclude that there was, during the Revolution, no stable democratization of national politics in the modern Western sense of that term. Democratic politics was not part of revolutionary practice or rhetoric right at the start, for national representation at first meant only the direct participation of all active citizens—that is, in practice, the propertied and educated elites of French society. Moreover, in later years, as popular involvement in revolutionary politics deepened in Paris and the provinces alike, "democracy" never came to mean orderly, predictably institutionalized electoral participation, as it would come to mean in the post-1820s United States, for example. Calculable and predictable rules for a liberal-democratic political "game" never stabilized amidst the dizzy succession of regimes that ruled revolutionary France.

What "democracy" did come to mean, however, especially under the aegis of the Montagnard Jacobins, was popular political mobilization to secure


the virtuous defense of the Revolution against its treasonous, conspiratorial enemies at home and abroad. As François Furet has argued, "Jacobinism laid down the model and the working of direct democracy by dictating opinion in the first organized group to appropriate the Revolution's discourse on itself."[24] But this did not happen all at once. It took an emergency context of national mobilization for war to bring out the full mass-mobilizing potential of Jacobinism.

The Jacobin clubs operated all along in some tension with the readings of national interest embodied in the representative Assemblies sitting in Paris, since they agitated on behalf of an "elect" understanding of the nation's and the Revolution's interests, namely their own understanding. Even so, in the early years when they were dominated by better-off middle-class elements, the Jacobin clubs operated as genuine forums for broad public discussion of all the major political issues of the day.[25] Arguably, the early Jacobin clubs embodied civic republicanism at its best. And they could hardly dictate to the national representative assemblies; they could only petition and lobby.

All of this changed after France went to war in 1792, and especially once the Montagnard Jacobins undertook the most intense efforts during 1793 and 1794 to defend their version of the Revolution against multiple revolts at home and invasions from abroad. After 1792, Isser Woloch tells us, the Jacobin clubs became more congenial places for political participation by the "common people," formerly passive citizens such as "master craftsmen, journeymen, artisans, small shopkeepers, minor clerks and functionaries, and common soldiers."[26] But during the same period the "clubs were markedly transformed. Having started as educational and propagandistic associations of middle-class reformers, they had gradually evolved into socially heterogeneous political action groups. Finally, in the Year II (1793—94), the sociétés populaires became the arms of a triumphant Montagnard government."[27] The clubs accepted central discipline from Paris, served as recruitment agencies for national administrative and military efforts, and became "unpaid bureaucratic agents" of local political surveillance and repression.

Exactly as both François Furet and Lynn Hunt would maintain, there was a powerful logic of political culture at work in all of this, not just the "force of circumstances." Because French revolutionary rhetoric did not leave room for institutionalized contention over alternative ways to further the national interest, and because "virtue" in revolutionary discourse was consistently defined in opposition to the treason of "aristocratic conspirators," those who mobilized more and more of "the people" into national politics found it easiest to do so in the context of unlimited wars against what were perceived as overwhelmingly threatening enemies at home and abroad. War and terror went hand in hand, and in an important sense fulfilled revolutionary rhetoric.


Yet surely it would be a mistake to overlook how well the Montagnard Jacobin practices and rhetoric of centrally directed popular mobilization also served the very real military needs of the Revolution—and, ironically, simultaneously brought to fruition the military reforms that had been attempted under the Old Regime.

Desperate to stop the invading armies of foreign monarchies and French emigrés, the Montagnard representatives on mission frequently cashiered officers who failed on the battlefield and immediately replaced them with other soldiers or officers who, regardless of previous social status, had demonstrated battlefield valor and excellence in the immediate cause of defending the Revolution. As has often been emphasized, this gave reality to the Revolution's theme of "careers open to talent." But, equally important, the surviving parts of the line armies of France were actually reinvigorated under the Jacobins.[28] After voluntary enlistments failed to bring in sufficient troops to meet foreign and domestic military threats, the Montagnard Committee on Public Safety decreed the levée en masse on 23 August 1793, subjecting to conscription for war all national resources, human and material. This measure not only enormously expanded French forces, it also reinforced the amalgamation of regular line forces and revolutionary militias which had been decreed by the Convention in February 1792. Together, the amalgamation and the levée en masse married the army of the Old Regime to the forces and principles of the Revolution.

In the officer corps, regular-army noncommissioned officers—those retaining their old positions and those newly promoted after the flight of French officers following the king's capture at Varennes in 1791—remained dominant in the expanding armies, ensuring continuity between the old and new armies. And there was not only continuity for many personnel, there was also continuity in the organization of military command structures.[29] The division of the army into independent commands, a reform made under the Old Regime, was lauded for its democratic character just as the Terror was emerging in full force![30]

Meanwhile, of course, the rank and file of the French armies was transformed as well as invigorated by national conscription into the amalgamated forces. As military historian John Lynn has argued, "from the first days of the Revolution its leaders insisted that 'every citizen ought to be a soldier and every soldier a citizen' . . . [and the] outbreak of war in 1792 gave substance to theories and ideals expressed during the preceding three years."[31] Specifically, Lynn further explains:

Expansion of the army to the gargantuan size it attained in the summer of 1794 meant that young Frenchmen from all walks of life were called upon to serve . . . . Volunteers and conscripts made the army [as never before in French history] a representative cross-section of the French population. The troops


were now composed of the respectable and hard-working sons of its peasantry, artisans, and bourgeoisie. This change in composition alone . . . had immense significance. In the past those who suffered economic hardship, social inequity, or plain hard luck marched behind the regimental flags; they had reason to be reluctant or dispirited; they were certainly alienated. But by 1792–94 those young men who possessed full talent, confidence, and élan of the French people rallied around the banners of the revolutionary battalions . . . . It is impossible to read their letters without being struck by the intense pride of these soldiers who fought in defense of their homes and families and who expressed enthusiastic support for the revolutionary social and political order . . . . [And, in turn, the] soldiers of the Republic were honored by a grateful people. In hundreds of songs that so typified the Revolution, they were lauded as the heroes who protected their people and their revolution.[32]

Together, the amalgamation and the levée en masse created the first national army Europe had ever seen, fundamentally transforming the nature of war. As Carl von Clausewitz would later write, "a force appeared that beggared all imagination. Suddenly war became the business of the people—a people of thirty millions . . . . Instead of governments and armies as heretofore, the full weight of the nation was thrown into the balance. The resources and efforts now available for use surpassed all conventional limits: nothing now impeded the vigor with which war could be waged."[33] The armies of revolutionary France were able to adopt new, rapid, and flexible battlefield tactics involving the enhanced use not only of artillery, but also of aggressive drives by highly motivated citizen soldiers. Such tactics allowed France to defeat the forces of even those countries, Prussia and Britain, that were the most modern and efficient representatives of the monarchical coalition arrayed against the Revolution.

Thus, when Lynn Hunt suggests that French revolutionary politics was not distinctly "modernizing" because parallel achievements could be made under monarchies, she is simply wrong. She focuses on domestic politics alone and overlooks the real-world advantages of a mobilized, highly motivated citizen soldiery—a chief product of the French Revolution's radical phase of democratic mobilization. Prussia's Frederick the Great, we are told by Gunther Rothenberg, used administrative discipline to create a relatively efficient, albeit rigidly rank-ordered, officer corps, along with an efficient system of supply for his armies. But the Prussian monarch, Rothenberg also points out, never understood the value of native rank-and-file soldiers.[34] And why should he, sitting atop a regime where such soldiers were reluctantly impressed subjects rather than citizens fighting for "their" nation?

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