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The September Massacres

Let me begin with a brief comment concerning the images of popular violence against which George Rudé directs his argument. This imagery was not invented by right-wing historians after the revolutionary events; the perception of the revolutionary mob as composed of the lowest, least-stable elements of the population was common to the time. And it was not just the wealthy and counterrevolutionary who feared the vast underworld of the desperately poor and criminal. As George Rudé is not unaware, almost all sectors of society, including the revolutionary, and the revolutionary sansculotte, shared the same fears relative to les gens sans aveu; and almost all sectors were equally willing, when confronted with social disturbances contrary to their perceived interests, to blame the same people. In other words, the stereotyped images of the revolutionary mob constitute less a historical argument, or even a political argument, than a widely shared social prejudice, both then and now and in times intervening. As such, this prejudice must be considered part of the reality it purports to describe; for it is part of the motivations and intentions of the Revolution's actors; indeed it seems to have a social dynamic of its own, almost independent of the multiple uses to which it was put. On more than one occasion, it was rumors, almost always false, concerning the least favored part of the population, that set the popular movements in motion. What historians refer to as the Great Fear, the peasant insurrections of the summer of 1789 which swept away the old rural order, was precipitated by rumors that Paris was expelling its surplus population, casting into the countryside a confused and hungry mass that would pillage farmer and farm alike. And again it was "lesser fears" that were the catalyst of several of the journées révolutionnaires in Paris, the sans-culottes rising in self-defense against imaginary threats posed by the same desperate elements, presumed in the pay of some counter-


revolutionary conspiracy. In truth, as we shall see, this most unfortunate sector of the population was more likely to be the victims of popular violence than its perpetrators. As a target, the object of George Rudé's critique is simultaneously weak and resilient: weak in the sense that no great imagination is required to see that the stereotypes are largely false, the result of what is generally known as scapegoating; and resilient in the sense that for this very reason they will always be with us.

There is another point that must be brought out here. How can Professor Rudé speak of the revolutionary actors as reasonable when those he would defend hold the very prejudices that he would attack? Or better, how can one speak, whether implicitly or explicitly, of rational actors, when the grounds of their actions lie within a social imaginary composed, at least in part, of rumors and hearsay?[12]

Beyond all questions concerning the actors, their social composition, their "rationality," what can be said about their violence? George Rudé as suggested, leaves an impression of moderation, but only by neglecting, if not entirely ignoring, what are known as the September Massacres of 1792. The ostensible reason for his neglect has to do with the paucity of evidence relative to those who participated in the massacres. No one wanted to admit their participation after the event for, unlike the other journées revolutionnaires, there was little to gain and much to lose in any such admission.[13] The only real data comes three years after the massacres, and one year after the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobin party, when judicial proceedings were brought against thirty-nine persons for alleged participation in the massacres—and then all but three were acquitted for lack of evidence.[14] However, despite the lack of hard data relative to social composition, the character of the event remains clear. And the character of the September Massacres was so exceptional, that it must be considered in some detail.

What immediately strikes the observer about the September Massacres is the extent of their violence. The number of victims—again among the unarmed and defenseless—exceeded by far anything that had occurred previously. George Rudé provides a maximum estimate of 1,400 executed, and this figure has not been exceeded by more recent estimates.[15] Admittedly, the September Massacres occurred under exceptional circumstances. Paris, it then seemed, was threatened with foreign invasion, the leaders of the invading forces had threatened widespread reprisals against the revolutionaries, and the Parisian populace was, understandably, affected by a nervous ferment. And yet the massacres appear not to have been a panic reaction. They appear to have been, at least in part, premeditated, and they unfolded in relative calm. The ostensible reason for the massacres was the presence in the prisons of numerous counterrevolutionaries, many of them rounded up during the last journée révolutionnaire, August 10, when the monarchy had fallen. There were rumors of a complot des prisons , a conspiracy amongst the


prisoners against the Revolution,[16] and on the second of September the prisons were invaded by the revolutionary crowds. However, it must be said that the massacres were not limited to the prisons, or by what one usually understands as prisons, and the largest number of the victims was not counterrevolutionaries. At least 70 percent of those executed were common-law prisoners: common thieves, prostitutes, forgers, vagrants, and the like—that is, precisely, the gens sans aveu, the eternal scapegoats discussed above.[17]

In this regard, it is perhaps surprising that George Rudé seeks to serve the September Massacres with reasons—reasons, one might add, not far removed from those given by the septembriseurs themselves. For he writes that "[u]nsavoury as the episode must appear in itself, the massacres . . . completed the destruction of the internal enemy some weeks before" the defeat of the external enemy at Valmy.[18] One wonders in what sense most of the victims were enemies of the Revolution, and in what sense those who were enemies of the Revolution, being in prison, were threats to the Revolution. Even if there was a complot des prisons—for which there is no evidence—it should hardly have to be said that it would have been highly unlikely that these prisoners could have (1) escaped the prisons, (2) armed themselves, and (3) successfully confronted an armed and vigilant, revolutionary populace. Born in fear, fueled by rumor, and directed at a wide, imprecise array of victims, this journée révolutionnaire, perhaps more than any other, cannot be reduced to the terms of a means-end rationality, let alone justified in such terms. The violence was, in a sense, "too total."

Now George Rudé is not a "rational-choice" theorist in any rigorous sense. He does not seek to demonstrate that the massacres resulted from the rational pursuit of the self-interests of the massacreurs , nor that the means chosen in the pursuit of these interests were perfectly adequate to the designated ends. He does, however, implicitly believe that the revolutionary actors were reasonable and that their actions are to be understood as such. And this belief results in some rather blatant revolutionary apologetics.[19] In claiming the "utility" of the massacres, George Rudé is perhaps justifying less the rationality of the events than the "rationality" of the Revolution itself, or at least of the "popular Revolution," understood as a whole that must be rescued from the taint of ambiguity and defended in all its peripeties. Here, most definitely, I must part company with Professor Rudé and let him continue to fight, some two hundred years later, the Revolution's battles, and with almost the very same arguments.[20]

The importance of the September Massacres does not simply lie with the number of its victims. Many historians see the massacres as marking the beginning of the end of popular violence. Already several weeks prior to September, Danton, then the minister of justice, had declared: Que la justice des tribunaux commence, et la justice du peuple cessera .[21] And after the massacres, almost all parties with influence on the government agreed that a special


apparatus had to be established to carry out revolutionary justice and monopolize the violence carried out in its name. Accordingly, the events of September are seen as marking the last important outbreak of what is sometimes called the Popular Terror, which was to be replaced by the official Terror of the Revolutionary Government. As such, a line is drawn after the September Massacres, distinguishing popular violence from state violence, the latter being explicitly presented as a means to stop the "popular executions," while satisfying the sans-culottes' desire for "prompt justice."

My account is going to be somewhat different. I will not situate the rupture after the September Massacres with the construction of a governmental apparatus specializing in "revolutionary justice."[22] Without denying the value of the more common account, I shall place the September Massacres themselves at the point of rupture. For my rupture concerns not those who carried out the violence, but the forms of that violence.

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