Jean Marc Schiappaicole Bossut, Chaumette, porte-parole des sans-culottes, Éditions du CTHS Paris, 1998, pp535

NICOLE Bossut has just published the main parts of her thesis under the title ‘Chaumette: spokesman of the sans-culottes’, with a preface by M Vovelle. Chaumette was the procureur général of the Paris Commune in 1793-94, one of the main figures of the revolutionary democracy, and a correspondent of Babeuf in Year II. There has been no other recent biography.

After arguing against a deterministic approach to an individual’s origins, the author develops the account of the youth of this shoemaker’s son, his fascination with the American continent, and his extensive medical studies. We should note this long apprenticeship of a young man who lacked the ‘revolutionary instinct’ that was so strong in a Babeuf or a Robespierre.

Chaumette entered into political activity with the defence of the right to petition against the Loi Le Chapelier in 1791, a law which, as is well known, greatly limited political democracy by banning strikes and collective action; this came at the same time as the narrowly bourgeois constitution of the same year. The study dwells on the provocation of the Champ de Mars in July 1791, where the National Guard proclaimed martial law and fired on the crowd. At this point, Chaumette became one of the main figures of the democratic Club des Cordeliers. He also opposed the ratification of the constitution of 1791, which was monarchist and imposed property qualifications on voting: ‘Freedom is very limited if it is only a choice between yes and no.’ (p84) Indeed, it requires Biblical ultimatism to command: ‘But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ (Matthew, 5:37) It is from this point in 1791 that we must date his unity of action with Robespierre, a unity which was to end tragically, impelled by ‘his passion for republican unity’ (p155). This was never renounced. Thus ‘Chaumette, Hébert, Réal... put their authority at the service of Robespierre’s clearly defined policy’ (p297) in June 1793. After the Champ de Mars, there was a full year of incubation, one might almost say occultation. Chaumette was one of the few to act against the war, like Robespierre and Marat.

The spring and summer of 1792 saw the advance of the insurrection. Then, on 10 August, ‘once more the people attacked in order to defend itself’ (p123). It was the unity of the people in the insurrection, formalised by the union between the fédérés and the insurrectional Commune, just as it was formalised in 1917 by the Second Congress of Soviets supporting the October insurrection. Chaumette was a member of the insurrectional Commune of August 1792, when for the first time the red flag was used subversively to indicate the people’s martial law against the Court. Bossut stresses the rôle of the insurrectional Commune aiming at hav­ing ‘a unified leadership capable not only of commanding the attack but also of dictating the political conditions for it’ (p125). Chaumette had his place, admited­ly a ‘modest’ one (p129), but, like the other leaders, it was an indispensable one.

So the Convention was elected, a product of insurrection and universal suffrage, and enjoying an unassailable moral authority. There was ‘no other rallying point but the Convention’ (p165). In a revolution, there must be a centre: the Commune of 1791, the soviets in 1917. The Convention was indeed ‘solely responsible for legislating for the whole nation’ (p434), which does not mean that it could not be given a stimulus, or that it did not wish such a stimulus. Chaumette was not elected to the Convention, but became procureur of the Commune, since he was a member of the Jacobin Club.

The struggle against the Girondins was paralleled by the popular food riots. The process was tumultuous and even contradictory: there was the upsurge of April 1793 and the hesitations of May. The question is crucial: can Paris substitute itself for the elected nation in the Convention? But if Paris does not rise up, the Convention will disappear. This culminated in the ‘curious day of 31 May’ (p286), before the successful insurrection of the sans-culottes on 2 June, and the elimination of the Girondins. Once more, Chaumette was active in support of alliance with the Montagne, and the ‘battle for unity behind the Convention’ (p310): he was simultaneously ‘loyal to the Montagne and loyal to the common people’ (p334). Should we see this as the reason for his fall, an attempt, which was in the long run impossible, to reconcile divergent social interests? He seemed to have been ‘in search of a compromise between the Commune and Comité de salut public’ (p367). Chaumette was to go on seeking such a reconciliation throughout the agitation of the sections over food supplies in the summer of 1793, when Babeuf played a major rôle, which paved the way for the upsurge of 4-5 September and the measures in favour of the sans-culottes which definitively linked the success of the revolution to them. As the author correctly notes, it was a movement ‘which Chaumette, Pache and Hébert had tried to avoid’ (p326). On 5 September, Chaumette made his famous cry to the crowd: ‘I too have been poor’, and he was indeed the only one of the leaders of the Commune to be able to issue ‘such a war-cry against wealth’: ‘For the first time the municipality, through Chaumette’s voice, offered to take the lead in a mass demonstration, and allowed the hope that if this massive pressure continued, coming from the people joined together with the Commune, then the Convention would at last take all the measures expected of it.’ (p330)

For reasons of space, we shall say little about de-Christianisation, which takes up the whole of chapter 11. Chaumette also defended the fixing of prices (at last, after having refused for so long), which was in fact a partial expropriation, and not a prefiguration of Socialism.

The continuation — or rather the end — is well-known. The revolutionary front broke during the summer (the ‘great summer’ as Bossut writes), leading to the trial and execution of Chaumette.

Throughout this study the question of democracy is examined at length. In particular, we can point to the distinction made by Albert Soboul ‘between “bourgeois” representative democracy and the direct, popular democracy of the sections’ (p18), which doesn’t seem valid to the author. We should recall the ‘principle of recall constantly demanded by the sections’ (p146). But perhaps we should quote pages 81-82 at greater length:

‘The debates of 12 July seem to us to illustrate the enormous effort made at this time by the democrats to define the means for an authentic democracy and to go beyond Rousseau’s hopeless paradox: “The English people believes it is free; it is very wrong. It is free only during the election of Parliament; once this is elected, it is a slave, it is nothing.” If sovereignty “cannot be delegated” as Rousseau insisted, then democracy is impossible, and the nation simply has the choice between the despotism of an individual and the despotism of its representatives, against whom it has only one recourse: insurrection, convulsive and by definition limited to short periods of time.’

The author objects that ‘if there are contradictions and obscurities in the thought of those who claimed to speak in the name of the people, they must be precisely dated, in relation to the nature of the difficulties which they had to face, and for which the considerations of Rousseau, highly illuminating on the nature of the problems to be solved but historically dated, provided answers which were obviously inadequate’.

Thus in this dialectical tension between democracy with a binding mandate and democracy by delegation, new models appear: the Red Cross section ended up by ‘establishing a clear distinction between what was appropriate for the communal level — direct democracy — and what was appropriate for the national level — representative democracy, by delegation’, or again, other sections in 1791 for which ‘their explicit adherence to representative rule did not for all that mean that they were agreeing to sign a blank cheque for the deputies’. It was a huge debate, for the Convention itself, later on, did not want such a blank cheque, and the permanent link between electors and elected was concretely recalled every day in the form of messages and delegations...

Jean Marc Schiappa