Jacobin Dictatorship

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Jacobin Dictatorship


the revolutionary democratic dictatorship that was the culminating stage of the French Revolution. The dictatorship was the result of the popular uprising of May 31-June 2, 1793, that brought the Jacobins to power (hence its designation, which became established in the historical literature). It was supported by the revolutionary bloc consisting of the urban petite and middle bourgeoisie and the majority of the peasant and plebeian masses. The Jacobin dictatorship was established at a difficult time, when the revolts launched by internal enemies (the royalists in the Vendée and the Girondins in such cities as Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Lyon), counterrevolutionary terror, intervention, and economic difficulties had brought the French Republic to the brink of disaster.

The legalization of the Jacobin dictatorship’s rule was a gradual process; it was crowned by the decrees of Oct. 10 and Dec. 4, 1793, which gave France a “provisional revolutionary system of administration.” Enactment of the bourgeois democratic constitution adopted by the Convention on June 24, 1793, was postponed. All legislative and executive power was concentrated in the hands of the Convention and its committees: the Committee of Public Safety (which from July 27 was in effect headed by M. de Robespierre) essentially performed the functions of the revolutionary government; the main task of the Committee of General Security and of the Revolutionary Tribunal was the struggle against domestic counterrevolution. Officials invested with emergency powers were sent by the Convention to the various departments and armies.

The concentration of state power in the hands of the Jacobin government was combined with the broad initiative of the popular masses and their organizations. In addition to the Jacobin Club, other important political groups were the democratic membership of the Paris Commune elected in November 1792 and the Paris sections associated with it, the Cordelier Club, the revolutionary committees operating throughout the country, and the numerous people’s societies.

Direct pressure on the Convention on the part of the popular masses was largely responsible for the resolute policy of the Jacobin dictatorship. Upon the initiative of the Paris sections of the Commune, a decree of Aug. 23, 1793, mobilized the entire nation to repel the enemy. On Sept. 4–5, 1793, pressed by the plebeian masses of Paris, the Convention instituted revolutionary terror in response to the terror of the enemies of the revolution; speculators were repressed, and the state intervened in the distribution of basic consumer goods (for example, with the law of the general Maximum of Sept. 29, 1793). These measures curtailed the freedom of bourgeois accumulation, affected the interests of the urban and rural bourgeoisie, and went beyond the revolution’s “direct, and already fully-matured bourgeois aims” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 17, p. 47).

The Jacobins very quickly achieved the major goals of the bourgeois revolution and successfully defended its gains. Various decrees were passed in 1793, such as the decree of June 3 on the sale of small plots of land from emigres’ estates; June 10, on returning to the peasants the communal lands seized by feudal lords and dividing such lands equally among members of the communes; and July 17, on the complete abolition of feudal dues without compensation. The decrees provided a radical solution to the principal problem of the revolution—the agrarian question; in its boldness, this solution was unique in the history of bourgeois revolutions in the West.

The Jacobin dictatorship dealt a crushing blow to the forces of domestic counterrevolution, and in particular to the Vendee rebels. The founding of a mass national army, the purge of the officers’ corps, the promotion of talented commanders from among the people, the speedy development of war production, the formulation of new strategy and tactics, the patriotic revolutionary enthusiasm, and the firm military leadership resulted in breakthroughs at the front in favor of France. By early 1794, France was cleared of the interventionists; on June 26, 1794, the main forces of the Austrian Hapsburgs were routed in the battle of Fleurus (in modern Belgium).

In Lenin’s judgment, the revolutionary activity of the Jacobin dictatorship was of great historical significance. “If it is to be a Convention,” wrote Lenin, “it must have the courage, the capacity and the strength to strike merciless blows at the counterrevolutionaries instead of compromising with them. For this purpose power must be in the hands of the most advanced, most determined and most revolutionary class of today” (ibid., vol. 34, p. 37).

Once the Jacobin dictatorship had averted the danger of a restoration of the old regime, mutual antagonisms became more acute within the bloc of social forces that had come together around the Jacobins in the struggle against the common enemy. The lower strata of the urban and rural population were increasingly dissatisfied with the limited bourgeois nature of Jacobin policies—for example, the application of the law of the Maximum to workers’ wages, the persecution of striking urban and rural workers, the suppression of the group known as the Enrages (“madmen”), the disbanding of the “revolutionary army” by the decree of Mar. 27, 1794, and the failure to implement the Ventóse decrees. As the danger of restoration of the monarchy receded, the big and middle bourgeoisie and the affluent and moderately well-off peasantry grew less tolerant of the revolutionary dictatorship’s rule; because of the regime’s restrictions on free trade and free enterprise, the rigidly applied law of the Maximum, the policy of requisitions, and the revolutionary terror, the rich and the relatively well-to-do had limited opportunities to extract all the benefits of the victory of the bourgeois revolution.

In early 1794 these processes brought to a head the political struggle within the Jacobin bloc itself. Expressing the aspirations of the poor, the left Jacobins (or “extremists”), including the leaders of the Paris Commune J. R. Hébert and P. G. Chaumette, together with like-minded leaders of the Paris sections and of the Cordelier Club, demanded the enactment of further leveling measures to limit large-scale ownership and the bourgeois’ freedom of profit, strictest observance of the law of the Maximum, intensified revolutionary terror, and war until full victory was won.

At the other end of the political spectrum were the “Indulgents,” or Dantonists, headed by J. Danton and C. Demoulins; this group, which was associated with the new bourgeoisie that had emerged during the revolution, urged relaxation of the revolutionary dictatorship’s rule and, in foreign policy, the speediest possible pursuit of peace.

Neither the executions of March and April 1794—of Hébert and his followers, of Chaumette, of Danton, and of other Dantonists—nor the intensification of revolutionary terror (by decree of June 10, 1794) could turn aside the inexorable course of the breakup of the Jacobin bloc and the growing crisis of the Jacobin dictatorship. During the months of June and July, a plot was formed within the Convention against the revolutionary government headed by Robespierre and his closest associates. Although some left Jacobins joined the plot, the leading role in it was played by representatives of the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie. On July 27–28, 1794, the Thermidorian coup overthrew the Jacobin dictatorship.

What is historically significant about the Jacobin dictatorship is that it led the bourgeois revolution in France to decisive victory, defended the gains of the revolution against internal and external counterrevolution, and laid the foundation of those revolutionary traditions that have played and still play a major role in the revolutionary movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.