An Elephant Man's Virtue
The Historical Life of Maximilien Robespierre's Reign of Terror
In these post-modern28 times, when we believe–as Francis Fukuyama holds–that we are at the end of history, the Robespierres of history are being slowly forgotten or demonized. The level of analyses is now at a level where Maximilien Robespierre, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong are held in the same contempt as Chenghiz Khan, Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden.
In such times of peril, Robespierre’s legacy needs to be realized. By not only the radical left, but also even by the moderates; however, more so by the conservative utopians who believe that things can go on as they are, with a few cosmetic changes to suit the people. Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that
Quite often, the popular argument comes up that the Terror was not needed, that 1789 could have survived without 1793. In fact, as the wise neoliberal goes on theorizing, 1793 had no impact on the French Revolution as 1799 goes on to show that it was the Gironde goal of Constitutional Monarchy that was realized. There is a grain of truth in this, and I almost agree with the statement. However, it is precisely through 1793 that 1799 (the Gironde goal) could be achieved.
We must, I claim, read this as a dialectical process. The ancien regime (thesis) could only be turned into a constitutional monarchy (synthesis) through the short and violent phase of the Jacobin Terror (antithesis). To reach a hypothetical point 1, from a hypothetical point 0, the pull is required from the point 2. Or, as the Frog’s anecdote goes, “two steps forward, and one step back.”31 Above all, the fact of the matter is that most of the world today lives in Republican Democracies, the end goal of Robespierre. So, it is ironic to argue that the Jacobin dream could not be fulfilled. Perhaps, it is safe to say that Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolutions32 ended only when the goals of its initial days (that of the 1789-1799 Revolution) were finally realized.
Thus, it is now more than ever that we need to resuscitate the legacy of the Jacobins and that of the Terror. Keeping aside its achievements and its excesses, it is undeniable that the Terror is what cemented the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity: as Žižek puts it, “In order to establish the fundamentals of Democracy, you have to go through this zero-level of Jacobinism. You cannot say that we could have done it in an easier way.”33
Is it not time that we acknowledge the statement that for 1789 to survive34, 1793 was needed? Perhaps here lies the answer to the Leninist question of “what is to be done?”
1.) Robespierre, Maximilien On the Principles of Political Morality that should Guide the National Convention in the Domestic Administration of the Republic (speech in the National Convention on 5 February 1794 or 18 Pluviôse Year II)
2.) In my understanding, it is one where the politics of every strand presupposes that neo-liberal capitalism is “the least worst” system that we can have; all historical development has ended, culminating in the present world which we live in and; only possible changes that can happen can happen within this structure.
3.) I have, however, chosen to not include Albert Mathiéz as part of my analysis because his stand is rather well known; he is considered an authority on Robespierre. I use other historians who are not known to be as radically supportive of Robespierre, yet who are arguing for Jacobinism (viz. Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé et al).
4.) Historians like Thomas Carlyle, George Rudé, Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul and even François Furet highlight how it is Robespierre (and not Mirabeau nor Marat nor Sieyès nor Danton) who stands out in the huge tide of events (Furet) of the French Revolution.
5.) He gave up the “de” in his name in 1789, as it was an aristocratic practice.
6.) Thomson, David Europe Since Napoleon (1990, Penguin Books, London)
7.) Žižek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (2008, Verso, New York/London).
8.) The influence was so great that Mirabeau once said, during Robespierre’s early days in Paris that, “he would go far, because he believes in everything he says.”
9.) Contrary to what may appear today, he had little interest in coming into power in his early days.
10.) He was removed from the Committee along with his eight Cordeliers supporters as he had wanted to make negotiations with England in the Revolutionary War; translating into the rhetorical accusation of compromising with the revolution.
11.) Along with Louis Antoine Saint-Just and Couthon, he formed a ‘triumvirate’ within the Committee of Public Safety.
12.) Albert Soboul’s conception of the Bourgeois-Popular Alliance.
13.) On 28 March, the émigré nobles were properly defined by the state as those nobles who emigrated in 1789 and were not back by 9 May 1792. They were all legally banished under the Jacobin Republic.
14.) By 1794 Prussia and Austria in Alsace; British over the seas and; Vendée had been defeated successfully under Carnot’s tactical leadership.
15.) Dubbed as the Great Terror, this law was propounded by Couthon and upheld enthusiastically by Robespierre. This was an extension of the Law of Suspects passed subsequently in September 1793.
16.) Hampson, Norman A Social History of the French Revolution (2006, Routledge, London)
17.) Furet, François The French Revolution (1988, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford)
18.) It is key to note that here, “liberal” refers to the neoliberals.
19.) Žižek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (2008, Verso, New York/London)
20.) This was the cornerstone of the theory of ‘constituent power’, which was used by the Jacobins in 1793.
21.) Mignet however, does admit that the Jacobin Republic under the Cordeliers Club was truly revolutionary.
22.) Carlyle, though, is all praises for Mirabeau and Danton.
23.) He is paraphrasing Merlin de Thionville.
24.) Soboul, Albert Understanding the French Revolution (1989, People’s Publishing House, Delhi)
25.) Žižek, Slavoj In Defence of Lost Causes (2008, Verso, New York/London)
26.) He uses the term “discourse” with Foucaultian weight.
27.) Robespierre, Maximilien On the Principles of Political Morality that should Guide the National Convention in the Domestic Administration of the Republic (speech in the National Convention on 5 February 1794 or 18 Pluviôse Year II)
28.) Read ‘post-ideological’.
29.) Žižek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (2008, Verso, New York/London)
30.) Hobsbawm, Eric Age of Revolution (2010, Abacus, London)
31.) It must be noted here that this is different from the old Leninist “one step forward, two steps back.” I am here, borrowing from the Hegelian-Marxist triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. However, I modify the simplistic progression by arguing that it is the antithesis which, in a way, pulls the thesis towards a middle ground, that of the synthesis. But, let this not be an argument for Centrist, opportunist ways, which may use the Leftist path to achieve a relatively change-less goal. My postulation is simple-it is through radicalism that we can progress.
32.) See Hobsbawm, Eric Age of Revolution (2010, Abacus, London)
33.) Ikra Multitudes (2011, May 18) Slavoj Zizek sur Robespierre, la Vertu et la Terreur. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azKNngXBICs
34.) It is clear that the achievements of the French Revolution since 1789 were in danger. Lest one forget, almost all of Europe had declared war against France. All other major powers in Europe were actively helping the counter-revolution, giving shelter to the fleeing aristocracy. Besides, Louis XVI in his last days was plotting to pitch all of Europe at war with France, where he would lead the people and appear a great nationalist; thus subverting the Revolution and retaining his throne. Despite all of this, Robespierre boldly stated in his response to the Manifestos of the Kings Allied Against the Republic in the National Convention (5 December 1793) that France would not export the Revolution to other countries of Europe. And as is clearly known, he was also against entering the Revolutionary War in the first place. His stance during the War was also that of protecting France and the Revolution, rather than aggressing against other nations.