MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Organisations
Girondists and Montagne
In the French Revolution of the 1790s, the Girondists were the representatives of the big bourgeoisie in the Convention of 1792-94, the Parliament set up to replace the monarchy. The Girondists were “the party of order,” vascillating between democratic measures and compromise with the Royalists.
Their opponents were the Montagne, the “mountain,” representing the most consistent democrats based among the petit-bourgeoisie and the poor. The terms Girondists and Montagne were also used during the revolutionary events of the 19th century to identify opposing currents, by analogy with the parties of the 1790s. This is the division which is the origin of the terms Left and Right.
The two great parties in the Convention were the Girondists and the Mountainists. The Girondists were the party of orderly progress, sweetness and light the men who dreaded all violent, i.e., energetic measures, in short, the Karl Pearsons of the Revolution. Such men, however well-intentioned they may be, must always in the long run become the tools of reaction from their timidity and hesitancy. The Girondists desired a doctrinaire republic, led by the professional middle-classes, the lawyers and literateurs. Their main strength lay in the provinces, the name being derived from the department of the Gironde, whence some, of their chief men came. Among the leaders of the Girondist Party may be mentioned Condorcet, Roland, Petion, Barbaroux; Vergniaud and Brissot. Some of them had been, in spite of their generally mild attitude, active in preparing the 10th of August. It was Barbaroux who sent to his native town for the Marsellais, and directed this remarkable body of men on the day of the insurrection.
The other leading party in the Convention were the Mountainists, as they were termed, because they sat on the benches at the top of the left, comprising the leaders of Paris and virtually identical in policy with Commune, many of whose members sat in both the municipal and the legislative bodies. Robespierre, Danton and Marat and all the most advanced Revolutionary leaders belonged to the “Mountain”, which had its strength in the 48 “sections,” and in the faubourgs, or outlying suburbs, in which the populace of Paris found voice. The Mountainists advocated uncompromising revolutionary principles (besides aiming to some extent, at economic equality) a vigorous policy and strong centralisation in, opposition to the Girondists, who favoured strictly middle-class republicanism, a timid and vacillating policy, and federalisation, or local autonomy. The struggle between the Mountain and the Gironde was in part a struggle for supremacy between Paris and the departments. Besides the Mountainists and Girondists proper – i.e., those who represented any definite principles at all, who both together constituted a minority in the Convention, notwithstanding that they decided its character and policy there was the actual majority which was called the Plain, its members being sometimes designated in ridicule, “frogs of the marsh”. Like most majorities, the Plain, was an inchoate mass of floating indifferentism and muddle-headedness, with more or less reactionary instincts, which; naturally inclined it to the side of the Girondists as the “moderate” party, but whose first concern being self preservation was open to outside pressure from the armed “sections” of Paris and the faubourgs as we shall presently see. These “men of the plain” or “frogs of the marsh” included many persons of ability who subsequently came to the front under the Directorate after all danger of popular insurrection was at an end.
From Sketches of the French Revolution, Part II, Belfort Bax 1890.