All these revolutionary forces were subject to the influence of ideas, and used them to clothe and warm desires. In addition to the propaganda of the philosophers and the physiocrats, there were scattered communists who continued and extended the socialism expounded in the preceding generation by Morelly, Mably, and Linguet.56 Brissot de Warville, in Recherches philosophiques sur le droit de propriété (1780), anticipated Pierre Proudhon’s “La propriété, c’est le vol” by arguing that private property is theft of public goods. There is no “sacred right … to eat the food of twenty men when one man’s share is not enough.” The laws are “a conspiracy of the stronger against the weaker, of the rich agairíst the poor.”57 Brissot later apologized for his early books as schoolboy ebullitions; he became a leader of the Girondins, and was guillotined for moderation (1793).
In 1789, shortly before the taking of the Bastille, François Boissel issued a Caté chisme du genre humain, which went the whole distance to communism. All evils are due to “the mercenary, homicidal, and antisocial class which has governed, degraded, and destroyed men till now.”58 The strong have enslaved the weak, and have established the laws to govern them. Property, marriage, and religion have been invented to legitimize usurpation, violence, and deceit, with the result that a small minority own the land, while the majority live in hunger and cold. Marriage is private property in women. No man has a right to more than he needs; everything above this should be distributed to each according to his need. Let the rich idlers go to work or cease to eat. Turn the monasteries into schools.59
The most interesting and influential of these radicals was François-Émile Babeuf. After serving nobles and clergy in their assertion of feudal rights against the peasants,60 he sent to the Academy of Arras (March 21, 1787) a proposal that it offer a prize for the best essay on the question “With the general sum of knowledge now acquired, what would be the condition of a people whose social instincts were such that there should reign among them the most perfect equality; … where everything should be in common?”61The Academy did not respond; so Gracchus Babeuf (as he later called himself), in a letter of July 8, 1787, explained that by nature all men are equal, and in the state of nature all things were in common; all later history was degeneration and deceit. During the Revolution he gathered a numerous following, and was about to lead a revolt against the Directory when he was arrested by its agents and sentenced to death (1797).
Such ideas played only a modest part in engendering the Revolution. There was hardly a trace of socialist sentiment in the cahiers (bills of grievances) that came to the States-General from all quarters of France in 1789; none of them contained attacks upon private property or the monarchy. The middle class was in control of the situation.
Were the Freemasons a factor in the Revolution? We have noted the rise of this secret society in England (1717), and its first appearance in France (1734). It spread rapidly through Protestant Europe; Frederick II favored it in Germany, Gustavus III in Sweden. Pope Clement XII (1738) forbade ecclesiastic or secular authorities to join or help the Freemasons, but the Paris Parlement refused to register this bull, so depriving it of legal effect in France. In 1789 there were 629 Masonic lodges in Paris, usually with fifty to a hundred members.62 These included many nobles, some priests, the brothers of Louis XVI, and most leaders of the Enlightenment.63 In 1760 Helvétius founded the Loge des Sciences; in 1770 the astronomer Lalande expanded this into the Loge des Neuf Soeurs, or Lodge of the Nine Sisters (i.e., the Muses). Here gathered Berthollet, Franklin, Condorcet, Chamfort, Greuze, Houdon, and, later, Sieyés, Brissot, Desmoulins, Danton.64
Theoretically the Freemasons excluded the “godless libertine” and the “stupid atheist”;65 every member had to profess belief in “the Great Architect of the Universe.” No further religious creed was required, so that in general the Freemasons limited their theology to deism. They were apparently influential in the movement to expel the Jesuits from France.66 Their avowed purpose was to establish a secret international brotherhood of men bound in fellowship by assemblage and ritual, and pledged to mutual aid, religious toleration, and political reform. Under Louis XVI they entered actively into politics; several of their aristocratic members—Lafayette, Mirabeau pére et fils, the Vicomte de Noailles, the Due de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, and the Due d’Orléans—became liberal leaders in the National Assembly.67
Last came the definitely political clubs. Organized at first on the English model—for eating, conversation, and reading—they became, toward 1784, centers of semi-revolutionary agitation. There, said a contemporary, “they hold forth loudly and without restraint on the rights of man, on the advantages of freedom, on the great abuses of inequality of condition.”68 After the assembling of the States-General the deputies from Brittany formed the Club Breton; this soon widened its membership to include non-Bretons like Mirabeau fils, Sieyés, and Robespierre. In October, 1789, it moved its headquarters to Paris, and became the Société des Jacobins.
So, as with most pivotal events in history, a hundred diverse forces converged to produce the French Revolution. Fundamental was the growth of the middle classes in number, education, ambition, wealth, and economic power; their demand for a political and social status commensurate with their contribution to the life of the nation and the finances of the state; and their anxiety lest the treasury render their governmental securities worthless by declaring bankruptcy. Subsidiary to this factor, and used by it as aids and threats, were the poverty of millions of peasants crying out for relief from dues and taxes and tithes; the prosperity of several million peasants strong enough to defy seigneurs, tax collectors, bishops, and regiments; and the organized discontent of city masses suffering from the manipulation of the bread supply, and from the lag of wages behind prices in the historic spiral of inflation.
Add to this a maze of contributory factors: the costly extravagance of the court; the incompetence and corruption of the government; the weakening of the monarchy by its long struggle with the parlements and the nobility; the absence of political institutions through which grievances could be legally and constructively expressed; the rising standards of administration expected by a citizenry whose intellect had been sharpened beyond that of any contemporary people by schools and books and salons, by science,philosophy, and the Enlightenment. Add the collapse of press censorship under Louis XVI; the dissemination of reform or revolutionary ideas by Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert, d’Holbach, Helvétius, Morellet, Morelly, Mably, Linguet, Mirabeau pére,Turgot, Condorcet, Beaumarchais, Mirabeau fils, and a thousand other writers whose sum and brilliance and force had never been equaled, and whose propaganda penetrated into every class but the peasantry, into the barracks of the army, the cells of monasteries, the palaces of the nobility, the antechambers of the King. Add the catastrophic decline of faith in the credibility of a Church that had upheld the status quo and the divine right of kings, had preached the virtues of obedience and resignation, and had amassed a hoard of enviable wealth while the government could not find the means to finance its expanding tasks. Add the spread of belief in a “natural law” that required a humane justice for every rational being regardless of birth, color, creed, or class, and in a bountiful “state of nature” in which all men had once been equal, good, and free, and from which they had fallen because of the development of private property, war, and caste-oriented law. Add the rise and multiplication of lawyers and orators ready to defend or attack the status quo, and to arouse and organize public sentiment; the profusion and fury of pamphleteers; the secret activity of political clubs; the ambition of the Due d’Orléans to replace his cousin on the throne of France.
Bring all these factors together in the reign of a gentle and benevolent, weak and vacillating King bewildered by the maze of conflicts about him, and the contradictory motives within him; let them operate upon a people more keenly conscious of its grievances, more passionate, excitable, and imaginative than almost any other people known to history; and all that would be needed to unite and ignite these forces in a disruptive explosion would be some event affecting multitudes, and reaching deeper than thought to the most powerful instincts of men. Perhaps that was the function of the drought and famine of 1788, and the cruel winter of 1788-89. “Hunger alone will cause this great revolution,” the Marquis de Girardin had predicted in 1781.69 Hunger came to the countryside, to the towns, to Paris; it was sharp enough in the masses to overcome tradition, reverence, and fear, and to provide an instrument for the aims and brains of well-fed men. The dykes of law and custom and piety broke, and the Revolution began.