In the French Revolution, the sans-culottes (French pronunciation: [sɑ̃kyˈlɔt]; "without culottes") were the radical left-wing partisans of the lower classes; typically urban labourers, which dominated France. Though ill-clad and ill-equipped, they made up the bulk of the Revolutionary army during the early years of the French Revolutionary Wars. The appellation refers to the fashionable culottes (silk knee-breeches) of the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries, as distinguished from the working class sans-culottes, who traditionally wore pantalons (trousers).
Among the political ideals held by the sans-culottes were popular democracy, social and economic equality, affordable food, rejection of the free-market economy, and vigilance against counter-revolutionaries. During the peak of their influence, roughly 1792 to 1795, the sans-culottes provided the principal support behind the two far-left factions of the Paris Commune, the Enragés and the Hébertists. Led by populist revolutionaries such as Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert, the sans-culottes were rallied to provide critical support for the radical and far-left factions of the successive revolutionary governments. Shifting crowds of militant sans-culottes also provided the strength behind some of the more violent and visceral events of the revolution, such as the September massacres in 1792. When the moderate bourgeois Jacobin Club took over the National Convention in 1793, many sans-culottes even supported the Committee of Public Safety and Maximilien Robespierre's bloody Reign of Terror.
By early 1794, however, radicalism was rapidly losing influence and political legitimacy in the National Convention. It was not long before Robespierre and the Jacobins turned on the far-left factions of the National Convention as well as their radical sans-culottes supporters. Several important leaders of the Enragés and Hébertists were imprisoned and executed by the very revolutionary tribunals they had supported. With the absence of effective leadership, and having lost their favor with the Jacobins, the sans-culottes withered. Within a year of the execution of Robespierre and the Thermidorian Reaction, the militants were forcibly – and permanently – suppressed by the conservative new government, the French Directory.
The distinctive costume of typical sans-culottes featured:
- the pantalon (long trousers) – in place of the culottes (silk knee-breeches) worn by the upper classes
- the carmagnole (short-skirted coat)
- the red cap of liberty
- sabots (clogs)
The popular image of the sans-culotte has gained currency as an enduring symbol for the passion, idealism and patriotism of the common man of the French Revolution. The term sans-culottism, sans-culottisme in French, refers to this idealized image and the themes associated with it. Many public figures and revolutionaries who were not strictly working class styled themselves citoyens sans-culottes in solidarity and recognition. However, in the period immediately following the Thermidorian Reaction the sans-culottes and other far-left political factions were heavily persecuted and repressed.
The Republican Calendar at first termed the complementary days at the end of the year Sans-culottides; however, the National Convention suppressed the name when adopting the Constitution of the Year III (1795) and substituted the name jours complémentaires.
According to Sally Waller, part of the sans-culottes mantra was "permanent anticipation of betrayal and treachery". The members of the sans-culottes were constantly on edge and fearing betrayal, which can be attributed to their violent and radical rebellion tactics. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm observes that the sans-culottes were a 'shapeless, mostly urban movement of the labouring poor, small craftsmen, shopkeepers, artisans, tiny entrepreneurs and the like'. He further notes they were organised notably in the local political clubs of Paris and "provided the main striking-force of the revolution". Hobsbawm writes that these were the actual demonstrators, rioters and the constructors of barricades. However, he also argues that sans-culottism provided no real alternative to the bourgeois radicalism of the Jacobins. From Hobsbawm's Marxist perspective, the ideal of the sans-culottes, which sought to express the interests of the 'little men' who existed between the poles of the bourgeois and the proletarian, was contradictory and ultimately unrealisable.
The Marxist historian Albert Soboul emphasized the importance of the sans-culottes as a social class, a sort of proto-proletariat that played a central role in the French Revolution. That view has been sharply attacked by scholars who say the sans-culottes were not a class at all. Indeed, as one historian points out, Soboul's concept has not been used by scholars in any other period of French history.
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- Chisholm, Hugh (1911) Sans-culottes. This saying meant "ordinary patriots without fine clothes", and referred to the fancy clothes that famous patriots wore. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.) (Cambridge University Press, 1911).
- Sansculotte. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 08 Mar. 2011.
- Soboul, Albert (1972). The Sans-Culottes: The Popular Movement and Revolutionary Government, 1793–1794. New York: Doubleday. pp. 1–22. ISBN 0-691-00782-9. Retrieved 2011-02-17.
- Darline Levy (1981) Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789–1795 (University of Illinois Press, August 1, 1981). Translated by Harriet Applewhite, Mary Johnson. Pg 144. Quotation:
"The sans-culottes (...) campaigned for a more democratic constitution, price controls, harsh laws against political enemies, and economic legislation to assist the needy."
- Patrice Higonnet (1998) Goodness beyond Virtue: Jacobins during the French Revolution (Harvard University Press, October 25, 1998). Pg 118. Quotation:
In the summer of 1793 the sans-culottes, the Parisian enragés especially, accused even the most radical Jacobins of being too tolerant of greed and insufficiently universalist. From this far-left point of view, all Jacobins were at fault because all of them tolerated existing civil life and social structures.
- Darline Levy (1981) Women in Revolutionary Paris 1789–1795 (University of Illinois Press, August 1, 1981). Translated by Harriet Applewhite, Mary Johnson. Pg 145. Quotation:
They were also allied with the Enragés, the most extreme spokesmen on the left for the interests of the Parisian sans-culottes.
- Soboul (1972), pp. 258–259.
- Sansculottism. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2011.
- Waller, Sally. "How Significant was the Part Played by the Crowd and the Sans Culottes?" France in Revolution, 1776–1830. Oxford: Heinemann, 2002. 162. Print.
- Eric Hobsbawm 'The Age of Revoultion' (St Ives, 1962; repr. 2008), p.84
- Paul R. Hanson (2009). Contesting the French Revolution. John Wiley. pp. 95–96.
- Andrews, Richard Mowery. "Social Structures, Political Elites and Ideology in Revolutionary Paris, 1792–94: A Critical Evaluation of Albert Soboul's' Les sans-culottes parisiens en l'an II'," Journal of Social History (1985) 19#1 pp 71–112. in JSTOR
- Furet, François and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989), pp 393–99
- Woloch, Isser, and Peter McPhee. "A Revolution in Political Culture" in McPhee, ed., A Companion to the French Revolution (2012) 435–453.