ROBESPIERRE: The Man Who Divides Us Most

Marcel Gauchet

ISBN 978-0-691-21294-4  Princeton  £28

Reviewed by Alan Dent 

“The man of the revolution of the Rights of Man died because  he fundamentally misunderstood what a republic that had any chance of winning the approval of a majority of the French people might look like”.  This observation comes close to the end of this fascinating study. As does this remark of 16th August 1794 from Cassat the Elder, a virtually unknown journalist: “The fact remains that Robespierre exercised a very real tyranny and that he himself did not suspect that he was a tyrant.”   “Robespierre,”  Cassat continued, “did not mistrust himself enough, and that is what ruined him.” It has ruined many. In most lives it engenders personal tragedy, in political leaders, collective tragedy, and perhaps someday, the end of the human adventure.  

François Furet may have declared the French Revolution over, but the debate about Robespierre’s role in history will probably never end. It is certainly still vital for us because what Robespierre set out to achieve is unfinished. Our democracies, or more properly our systems of representative government, haven’t given power to the people. Corporate interests exert greater influence over governments than votes. Money is concentrated in few hands and, as has often been pointed out, democracy is hobbled when money can buy power. The principle is simple: no one should have power without the consent of those they have power over; making it a reality is fraught.  

Robespierre, Gauchet implies, was an inadvertent radical. He began in timidity and ended in arrogance. Like many politicians, he trained as a lawyer (the skill in advocacy seems to impel solicitors towards parliament, though many have little to offer but advocacy), with literary ambitions. In April 1791 speaking to the Jacobins he declared: “Overturn the monarchy! As if I were mad enough to wish to destroy the government…”. The irony of this is just as great as that of his early belief in the abolition of the death penalty. He came to believe in the overthrow of the monarchy, and the beheading of Louis XVI, because he thought only in this way could the revolution be defended, and as the revolution expressed the incorruptible will of the incorruptible people, whatever stood in its way was evil. Taking power from the feudal aristocracy wasn’t enough. The “most unbearable” aristocracy of all was that of money and though he considered material inequality inevitable, he thought its extremes the result of bad laws and bad government. He would assault them with the Rights of Man: the universal rights conferred by the deity. They applied to everyone, except women. Robespierre believed in universal male suffrage. It’s interesting to wonder how his mind embraced the contradiction. Of course, women were thought of as lesser, inferior, and therefore unable to enjoy the liberties which nature granted to men. Yet wasn’t there a moment when it might have occurred to him that Rights of Man which exclude half the species are somewhat lacking? Perhaps this illustrates how easy it is to imagine yourself a purveyor of absolute justice while harbouring egregiously unjust views.  

“Our constituents are all the French people, and I shall defend all of them, above all the poorest.” This commitment to the poorest first, obviously adumbrates socialism, though Gauchet grants Robespierre no particular influence in this regard. He does point out that had Robespierre died in 1791, he would be remembered as a classic liberal. That liberalism allied to priority for the poorest might have saved a deal of agony. What led Robespierre astray, principally, was his fantastical belief in the virtue of “the people”. It’s hard not to see this carrying forward into the equally fantastical belief in the heroic historical role of the “proletariat”. In both cases, replacing real, living individuals in all their contradictions and nuances by an abstraction that could contain neither, led to the opposite of what was desired. The high-minded impulse to equality, democracy and justice resulted in entrenched inequality, dictatorship and thought-control. Nor is this a matter of mere what-if-ism: we are still in the throes of the attempt, the world is tilting towards authoritarianism, we still need to be able to struggle for democracy and equality without embracing fantastical notions of perfect virtue. As Flaubert says about Dr Larivière in Madame Bovary, “he practised virtue without believing in it”. That’s the difficult balance we have to find.  

“Freedom of the press cannot be separated from freedom of speech. The two are sacred, like nature; they are both necessary, like society itself.” Robespierre, in the first years after 1789, believed freedom of the press must be total. By 1794 he was sending people to the guillotine for what, seen from today’s perspective, look like relatively minor disagreements. He illustrates, more poignantly than any radical of the modern era, the enormous difficulty of turning principle into policy. Principle in opposition is easy. Once you have to get things done, some measure of compromise is inevitable. Had Robespierre been able to strike a deal with Danton, they might have secured universal male suffrage and headed off Napoleon’s military dictatorship; but Robespierre was unable to distinguish between the pure motivation which drove him and the need for something less ultra-refined as a way of entrenching a few crucial gains. Once again, it’s hard not to see this foreshadowing the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their fine rhetoric laying the path to the gas chamber and the gulag.  

Gauchet is clear about Robespierre’s disinterestedness, which distinguishes him from subsequent dictators. Living modestly in rented rooms in a carpenter’s house, Robespierre entertained no dreams of great wealth; he had no interest, it seems, in sexual relations; he didn’t even want power for himself. He wasn’t a kleptocrat like Putin, a power-hungry Stalin or Castro: he became a dictator while living very modestly. He was seeking nothing for himself, everything for his beloved people. The difficulty was that the people of his imagination didn’t exist. He murdered in their name genuinely believing he was a mere conduit. Yet it is precisely that capacity to annul himself, to depersonalise himself that gave rise to the Terror. The students of 1968 scrawled on Parisian walls the slogan: “A revolution which demands you sacrifice yourself for it, is dad’s revolution.” The rebellious young of 1968 had grasped that change needs to assist personal fulfilment. Gauchet is wise to point out that trying to understand Robespierre’s psychology is a fool’s errand. Yet it might be worth saying that something in his make-up permitted him to be unusually and perhaps pathologically self-denying. He was willing to die for his revolution. The students were right: change has to be life-enhancing.  

However, before events drove him into a corner, he showed himself remarkably tolerant and balanced: 

“..one must allow people’s minds time to mature, so that insensibly they are raised up above prejudices.” 

This comment on religious tolerance has tragic overtones: Robespierre ran out of time. Events moved fast and overtook him. There was no relaxation in which the people’s minds could mature. Within a few years, he had moved from granting them the leeway to let their minds change almost effortlessly to cutting off their heads for minor disagreements.  

Robespierre was an enemy of war. He understood that it takes away the possibility of criticizing the executive, or as it was later succinctly expressed by Randolphe Bourne: “War is the health of the State.” Time and again, in Robespierre’s speeches before his mistake of instituting the Terror, he is a wise philosopher. His fate perhaps tells us that philosophers are well advised to remain in their studies. Most of his early ideas were sound, but they, in and of themselves, couldn’t withstand the machinations of politics in which people pursue their interests at any cost. There were only two possibilities for Robespierre: drop out or join in. By doing the latter he destroyed the enlightened philosopher of 1789 and elevated the bitter tyrant of 1794.  

Opposed to war he was, logically, inimical to colonialism: “No one welcomes armed missionaries.” He also expressed serious doubts about insurrection seeing it as a “rare remedy, uncertain, extreme”. The people, he knew, had come late to the revolution. It began with the nobles, the clergy, the rich. The people joined in when their interests coincided. At this stage, Robespierre was no advocate of sans-culotte subversion. He saw revolution as a form of gradualism. In all this can be discerned his conviction that events would stay within the bounds of his ideas, that the revolution would be conducted according to his principles. Cassat was right: he needed a little self-mistrust, to ask himself whether in the flux of revolutionary upheaval, with contesting factions fighting for advantage, events might not demolish the strict psychic boundaries on which his way of  life depended.  

“I know of nothing so frightening as the idea of an unlimited power, handed over to a numerous assembly that is above the law..” 

The political interest expressed here is healthy, like so much of the content of his early speeches, yet it didn’t prevent him taking more or less unlimited power to himself. Exercising the power of life and death over his fellow countrymen became virtuous. The distance from tolerant liberalism to vicious tyranny is impossibly small. It was traversed easily and quickly because of Robespierre’s romanticisation of the people: 

“The people ask only to be left undisturbed, ask only for justice, for the right to live. Powerful men, the wealthy, crave distinctions, riches, sensual pleasure. The interest, the desire of the people is that of nature, of humanity; it is the general interest.” 

There is, of course, a common political sense. It’s true enough that by and large the common folk want to be left to get on with their lives and not to be abused; but Robespierre is attributing to them a high-minded disinterestedness, which was his but isn’t widespread. Danton was nearer the mark. On his way to the guillotine he is reputed to have said words to the effect of “Alas, I am dying before my time. I should have left my legs to that cripple Couthon and my balls to that eunuch Robespierre.” He liked life. He liked people. He enjoyed sensual pleasure. Yet he was in favour of the end of the feudal aristocracy and  establishment of democracy. Robespierre made the mistake of thinking anything but absolute self-sacrifice was evil and anti-democratic. Once again, with due recognition given to their silly excesses, the counter-cultural young of the sixties were right in seeing that a campaign for justice and equality had to permit people to enjoy themselves. Gauchet says Robespierre was no protosocialist or Marxist avant la lettre, but 1789 and its aftermath certainly influenced the young Marx. Just as the disturbances of the 14th July had no need of Robespierre, so the events of 1848 had no need of Marx. He observed them from Parisian cafes, recognised something was on the move, combined it with his upside-down Hegelianism(much of which was nonsense) and by so doing elaborated a theory intended to make him at one and the same time a great philosopher and the instigator of world revolution. Ça serait trop beau. The parallels shouldn’t be forced, but there is at least a little in common between Robespierre, the philosopher turned activist, and Marx the philosopher revolutionary. Their legacy may be unfortunate. Perhaps they have put into the world that lack of  the self-mistrust which is necessary to hold us back from our worst mistakes.  

“Be aware that I am in no way a defender of the people; never have I pretended to this pompous title; I am of the people; I have always been that; I wish only to be that; I despise anyone who claims to be something more than that.” 

False humility, as Gauchet writes, but also simply false. Robespierre didn’t come from “the people”, in the sense in which that term is used to mean the common folk, the majority who perform relatively low-level work and earn modestly; and his political position made him part of an elite. In this unwillingness to recognise social realities which sat uncomfortably with his abstract principles, we can see how he deluded himself. The result was an inability to discern how the application of the principle of power in the hands of “the people” might work in practice: if rights were universal they would apply to those who weren’t of “the people” and once granted rights, who could predict how millions of individuals would choose to use them? The over-confidence in a desired outcome led swiftly to the oppression necessary to keep the illusions in place.  

The revolution was supernatural. Robespierre denied that faith in the Supreme Being could lead people into superstition. Further, he identified himself fully with the supernatural character of the revolution and the Supreme Being:

“Alone but for my soul, how could I have borne labours that are beyond human strength, had I not raised up my soul.” 

Once again, it’s interesting to reflect on how this plays forward: Marx dismissed a deity but replaced it by History. As Robespierre saw himself as the agent of the Supreme Being, so Marx conceived of himself as that of the abstract force of History. Moving backwards, we find that Adam Smith cast his theory of the wealth of nations in the framework laid down in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: because the world was ruled over by a beneficent deity there could be only “partial evil”; greed was sure to be limited by the moral context established by god. This need for an over-arching force seems to get in the way of practical responses. Certainly, in Robespierre’s case it drove him into a corner of his own making from which the only escape was martyrdom. 

Rousseau was Robespierre’s mentor. He admired not only his philosophy but also his personal example. This damaging hero-worship helped seal Robespierre’s and France’s tragedy. Rousseau was a deeply flawed man with a cruel side to his nature. The famous dispute with Hume showed him at his worst: paranoid, vindictive, malicious, conniving. He was a skilled writer and, in some ways, a good thinker; but he was also probably the victim of chronic mental health problems. That Robespierre adulated him and found not even any minor grounds for criticism perhaps reveals more than naivety. Hume was taken in by Rousseau, for a while. Robespierre know him only through his writings and they can be deceptive. A man of high intellect like Rousseau can easily disguise his failings in rigorous prose.  

Gauchet argues that the speech made by Robespierre on 28th October 1792 adumbrated all the revolutionary rhetoric of the next two centuries. We truly are Robespierre’s heirs and we need to distance ourselves from his terrible mistakes. He was, however, capable of useful insight. He remarked that in order to form the political institutions he believed in, the minds such institutions would create would be necessary. Here he is close to recognising his dilemma: the virtue he believed the people embodied would in fact be a reality only under radically changed circumstances, and even then, how could it be complete given millions of individual motivations?

“Virtue is always in the minority”, said Robespierre in a speech of 28th December 1792. Gauchet points out the phrase was intended to gain tactical advantage in preventing the question of what should be done with the king being put to the people, yet acknowledges its wider significance. Unfortunately, politicians will say almost anything to steal a march, but did Robespierre recognise, at least partially and for a time, that his virtuous people couldn’t be a reality if it was also true that virtue didn’t predominate?  

Revolutions move quickly, which is their charm and their tragedy. Democracy is slower, frustratingly so, but has the advantage of avoiding the guillotine and the firing squad. “The true means of moving quickly are to lay down principles from which it remains only to draw the consequences.” Simple. Unfortunately, Robespierre’s short life as a revolutionary illustrates that drawing the consequences from principles may be easy for an individual, but to make it work socially is extraordinarily hard.  

Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety on 27th July 1793. On 5th September of that year, speaking at the Jacobin Club he said, “let us make terror the order of the day.” On 26th November Danton declared “…the people wish…that terror be made the order of the day, but they wish that terror be referred to its true end.” At that point, Robespierre supported him, but the divergence was to prove fatal, for both. Robespierre believed in “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” The formulation prefigures Orwell. It’s a beautiful illustration of how people can justify to themselves the most despicable cruelty because they are convinced of their impeccable virtue. They don’t mistrust themselves enough. No doubt the rulers of the People’s Republic of China, Putin and Donald Trump, among many others, are convinced of their virtue. The point about liberty, however, is that if people have it they will use it in unpredictable ways. It’s impossible to believe in both freedom and control. The more controlled a society or institution, the less freedom people enjoy. A choice has to be made.  

In relation to Danton, Robespierre felt that the propensity to pleasure was a greater danger than that to over-confidence. How strange: a revolution whose aim is to diminish pleasure. What kind of virtue isn’t pleasurable? There were sackcloth and ashes somewhere in Robespierre’s mind. Yet Danton’s love of pleasure didn’t prevent him supporting the Terror, even if he didn’t push it as far as Robespierre. The mistake is fundamental: believing the end justifies the means: killing people in the name of setting them free.

Gauchet argues that Robespierre’s vision was incompatible with the nineteenth century. How could he have known what was to come? Wanting to predict or control the future is a fool’s game. Robespierre believed the virtue of the people was bound to prevail, but he never defined what that virtue was nor what a society founded on it might look like. He is arguably the most important figure in modern politics because his delusions and contradictions remain ours. He started out to make France democratic and egalitarian, but democracy proved to embrace possibilities he hadn’t bargained for and egalitarianism would have denied him the power to implement the rule of virtue.  

At the heart of Robespierre’s tragedy lies something which Gauchet doesn’t explore: the sole agency available to him in his effort to establish a society of virtue was the State; but the State didn’t arise to encourage virtue or freedom but to ensure power for dominant economic interests. Robespierre might as well have used a flamethrower to put out a fire. Compromise could have brought significant gains, but virtue has to be total or not at all. He didn’t recognise that not all goods are compatible: it may be good to have a tightly governed populace, but the good of liberty is reduced. It might be good to have liberty, but that puts the good of tight government in question. Robespierre thought he could square circles. Out politics is playd out in his shadow, which makes Gauchet’s study a vital book.