Maximilien Robespierre is far from yesterday’s news. In important respects, his paradoxes reveal the paradoxes that remain at the heart of a powerful if deformed version of modernity: a maximalist approach to rights that gives rise to implacable tyranny; a constant search for enemies and conspirators who inevitably fail the test of revolutionary purity; an absolute confidence in the “people” that is compatible with unprecedented forms of repression; the self-obsession of those on “the right side of History” who never question their own motives or acknowledge their own imperfections. In the end, political “Virtue” as annunciated by Robespierre had Terror as its necessary instrument and accompaniment, with the regime of the “Rights of Man” culminating in rivers of blood. How could such a man, and such a lurid approach to modern politics, continue to divide us?
In Robespierre: The Man Who Divides Us the Most recently published in translation by Princeton University Press, the distinguished contemporary French political philosopher Marcel Gauchet (less well known in the Anglophone world than he should be) speaks of a “division” that above all characterizes French opinion about Robespierre and Jacobinism. The latter was the most radical and consistent of the major factions among the French Revolutionaries from 1789 onward. But as we shall see, Robespierre and the Jacobins have their contemporary partisans (and even imitators) outside of France, too. For Robespierre is no ordinary tyrant, no man of unhinged ambition striving for power at any cost. In the early years of the Revolution, Robespierre spoke of nothing but the “rights of man,” of popular government, and the need to eschew any compromise with the remnants of the ancien regime. In his view of things, before 1789 one sees only tyranny, darkness, and oppression; on the other side of the chronological divide there is liberty, emancipation, and the dawn of the reign of the “rights of man.” But the transition required rivers of blood to flow. The “killing machine” that Robespierre became is inseparable from his uncompromising dedication to the “rights of man.” The “hero” and the “monster” are one and the same man fanatically dedicated to the same principles. This ought to give us pause.
Gauchet attempts, and largely succeeds, in doing justice to both sides of the equation. He thus avoids painting Robespierre simply in black. In the end, however, with a different rhetorical emphasis to be sure, Gauchet arrives at a position not all that distinct from that of his friend and predecessor, the great historian of the French Revolution François Furet: the Terror is no mere aberration but has seeds in 1789. The absolutism inherent in the French Revolution is rooted in its extreme valorization of rights without due consideration of prudential considerations or the practical and demanding requirements of “orderly government,” a theme at the center of Gauchet’s book. This is connected to the ease with which the revolutionaries dispensed with what Raymond Aron liked to call “the wisdom of Montesquieu,” the sober and sobering recognition that all power needs to be limited and constrained. The opposite has roots in revolutionary ideology itself. If Furet announces his conclusion at the beginning of his investigation, taking pointed aim at “the revolutionary catechism” which had distorted the study of the French Revolution for a century or more, Gauchet arrives at similar conclusions more slowly, prudently, and with greater hesitation.
The differences between Furet and Gauchet thus are more rhetorical than substantive, with different emphases on the way to similar conclusions. But Gauchet’s caution and restraint has the paradoxical advantage of allowing us to see how essential features of liberalism and liberal “ideology”—reducing the political problem to the protection of the rights of man, and even the categories of democracy and representation—can take a decidedly despotic, even totalitarian turn. This is a truth highlighted much earlier by French counterrevolutionaries such as Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald and in a different way by liberals such as Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Alexis de Tocqueville. But it is largely forgotten by contemporary historians—who are at once too empiricist (lost in minutiae) and ideological (uncritical as they are of the “emancipatory” aims of the French Revolution), and by ideological activists who want to “change the world,” come what may.
Gauchet’s judicious mixture of erudition and moderation illumines what is at stake in the figure of Robespierre, while avoiding undue polemics. Rather than trumpeting the connections between the rights of man and revolutionary atrocities, he allows the links between “hero” and “monster” to reveal themselves through careful analyses of Robespierre’s speech and deed. The public Robespierre, who came increasingly to the forefront between the spring of 1789 and his demise on the ninth of Thermidor, revolutionary Year II (July 27, 1794), is above all to be grasped through the words that poured forth from his mouth in the National Assembly and the revolutionary Convention. In them, he presented himself as the exemplary defender of revolutionary principles, the “virtuous“ representative of the people, and the scourge of the Revolution’s enemies, real and imagined (by the end, they were mostly imagined). Gauchet underscores Robespierre’s “disposition to impersonality,” a talent for self-abnegation that allowed him to identify himself wholly and unreservedly with the revolutionary cause. But his “noble cause,” as he undoubtedly perceived it, was fully compatible with fanaticism and an unreasonable belief in his absolute moral rectitude.
Gauchet suggests that Robespierre came to see himself as the “divine man” alluded to by Rousseau in his Social Contract. Over time, Gauchet argues, “a craving for popularity took root in him and flourished.” Robespierre, like all of us, was human, all too human. He saw in criticism directed at him only malice at work, and could abandon old friends such as Camille Desmoulins to the ferocity of the revolutionary mob, if such abandonment was demanded by revolutionary rectitude. The “Incorruptible,” as the ascetic Robespierre was called, was not immune to an inhuman ideological cruelty. Indeed, he embodied it. Montesquieu wrote in The Spirit of the Laws that “virtue,” by which he primarily meant political virtue, “itself has need of limits.” Robespierre and his Jacobin cohorts perfectly illustrate Montesquieu’s point. For that alone, Robespierre will remain a living presence in universal history, a permanent reminder of what must be avoided for the sake of a political community marked by liberty and moderation.
The same Robespierre who saw enemies everywhere (one of his most memorable speeches is called ‘Les Énnemis de la patrie”) ferociously dedicated himself to defending revolutionary principles. These at first appear to be “uncontroversial” and even choice-worthy liberal principles. The French ideologue defended freedom of speech, representative government, the right to property, and lambasted the death penalty as both immoral and ineffective. On the last point, he was one with Beccaria who himself drew on Hobbes’s account of self-preservation as the foundational political principle. In the years between 1789 and 1791, Robespierre did not oppose the monarchy per se. But he fiercely denounced a royal veto (even of a temporary kind) as a concession to tyranny and completely at odds with the requirements of the “general will.”
Robespierre’s “liberalism,” if we can call it that, was decidedly marred by its rejection of the “wisdom of Montesquieu” and his increasing identification of himself with the purity of revolutionary principles. Gauchet tellingly calls one of his chapters “I, the People.” Robespierre began to divinize himself because he divinized the revolutionary people. After Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes in June 1791, Robespierre and the Jacobins attacked the King with inhuman ferocity. Robespierre tells the Convention that the King is by definition a tyrant and that his mere existence entails an “insurrection” against the nation and the revolutionary state.
In the Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke stated the real truth. At the end of the ancien regime, the French monarchy was “rather a despotism in appearance than in reality.” And the famed English statesman added that the reign of Louis XVI should not be confused with “Persia bleeding under the ferocious sword of Thamas Kouli Khân.” But that was precisely how Robespierre saw things, confusing the gentle and conscientious Louis XVI, a Christian of authentic conviction, with a brute and a monster. The King was transmogrified into a tyrant who must “die in order that the fatherland may live.” In the name of absolute, inviolable, fanatical “principles” the King must die, so the people could live. There was a reason why Alexander Hamilton bristled when he heard the American Revolution compared to the French Revolution. The leaders of the latter revolution—even some of its much-lauded moderate leaders—were in Hamilton’s views “fanatics in political science,” as he wrote in 1794. Bereft of the moderation that flows from prudence, Robespierre came to identify liberty with Virtue, and Virtue with Terror. That identification is literally deadly.
One of the strengths of Gauchet’s book is the way it continually emphasizes the inability of Robespierre and his fellow fanatics to give serious thought to the art of governance in a political order at once popular and representative. Once Robespierre joined the Committee on Public Safety on July 27, 1793, his (and the Revolution’s) metamorphosis was complete. In place of governing, Robespierre and his allies searched for enemies, discerning corruption and conspiracy everywhere. Robespierre made clear that he preferred an “excess of patriotic fervor” over “the stagnation of moderantism.” Moderation was the disposition of soul and civic stance that Robespierre loathed above all. His full embrace of fanaticism in the name of virtue and revolutionary principle reached a morally insane apex in his infamous speech of February 5, 1794. There, he announced that the Revolution was endangered by “depraved men” who regarded the Revolution “as a trade and the Republic as a spoil.”
He saw ill-defined conspiracies everywhere. “Virtue and Terror” were the only legitimate response to such corruption and such conspiracies. Desmoulins had accused the Jacobins and the sans-culottes, the Parisian revolutionary mob, of succumbing to out-and-out despotism. Robespierre did not dispute the point. But he insisted that “the government of the Revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny,” a distinction that was specious in these circumstances. Robespierre had once thought the death penalty an abomination. Now he confused justice—“prompt, severe, inflexible,” with Terror and loudly proclaimed Virtue without Terror to be weak and ineffectual. Robespierre’s fanatical defense of Terror in the name of the “Rights of Man” and Virtue properly understood is the quintessence of ideological despotism.
Robespierre was too fanatically dedicated to abstract principles to ever learn how “to govern the Revolution,” in Gauchet’s apt formulation. Terror came to substitute for prudent and effective governance—an instrument that “devoured its children” to use the memorable image from that time. Besides the guillotine and the pursuit of enemies in every corner of French society, Robespierre increasingly promoted, almost alone, a new “cult of the Supreme Being.” He hated the Christian religion but worried that moral rot would follow the cruel and draconian “deChristianization” campaigns. He worried that ordinary people would spend décadi—the tenth day of the week and the substitute for Sunday in the revolutionary calendar—drinking in taverns (in this, he was not wrong). But most revolutionary leaders did not share Robespierre’s obsession with his new cult. It floundered and with it Robespierre’s political fortunes. The final straw came with the Law of 22 Prarial (June 10, 1794) which established a legal obligation of all citizens to inform on everyone they suspected of counter-revolution, criminality, and subversion. More blood began to flow and everyone (at least in principle) was obliged to be complicit in a regime of Terror. It was hard for even seasoned revolutionaries to see liberty at work in revolutionary government by denunciation and guillotine.
On the 9th of Thermidor in the Year II (July 27, 1794), the “tyrant,” as he came to be called, was unmasked before the revolutionary Convention. He and his supporters equivocated, in part because making incendiary speeches could not get them out of this bind. In his own eyes, Robespierre died a martyr to the Revolution. In the eyes of others, he was a tyrant and terrorist. But not a tyrant in the traditional sense. Instead, Robespierre was the revolutionary ideologue turned tyrant, the man who embodied the destructive fanaticism of principles that know no limits and are bereft of all prudence and moderation. Gauchet quotes a contemporary of Robespierre’s, an obscure journalist named Cassat the Elder, who highlighted the ultimate paradox: “The fact remains that Robespierre exercised a very real tyranny and that he himself did not suspect that he was a tyrant.” Robespierre revealed the tyranny inherent in liberty and virtue when they lose sight of the moderation inherent in true principles.
In this estimable book, Marcel Gauchet might have put more emphasis on the evil that is ideological Manicheanism, the temptation of ideologues and revolutionaries everywhere to “localize” evil and see its embodiment in suspects groups, whose elimination (or even “cancellation”) will lead the world forward to revolutionary bliss. We witnessed this mechanism at work in the totalitarian regimes and ideologies of the twentieth century, the regimes that gave rise to death camps, gulags, and killing fields. We see the same impulse at work in the coercive virtue-signaling that is the specialty of the Woke. If they have their way, why should we expect a happier or less tyrannical outcome? Are intellectual elites in the Western world capable of learning any salutary lessons from these misbegotten ideological adventures? The record so far is not encouraging.
One of the most fashionable magazines on the American Left today is called Jacobin. Is this revolutionary kitsch or just pure blindness? A bit of both, I venture to guess. In 2017, the same year he published a book lauding Lenin’s theoretical and practical achievements, the Left celebrity intellectual Slavoj Žižek published a volume of Robespierre’s speeches called Virtue and Terror: Maximilien Robespierre. The speeches themselves are useful for documentary purposes. But Žižek’s obscene “Introduction” celebrates revolutionary terror as “Divine Violence” and mocks liberals and even leftists in France today who want to separate humanism from terror. With another well-known neo-communist, the fashionable French philosopher Alain Badiou, Zizek denounces this as an unforgivable “political regression.” To be sure, Žižek takes an occasional swipe at the excesses of Stalinism. But he insists that “the couple Virtue-Terror promoted by Robespierre” remains the key to human and political emancipation. The guillotine, anyone? Žižek defends what he calls the “abyss of the [revolutionary] act,” wherever it may lead.
Is this posturing or a practical program? Once again, a bit of both, I suspect. I know from speaking on an untold number of college campuses that this clever but shameful apologist for revolutionary tyranny and terror (“Divine Violence”) is far better known by the young than such anti-totalitarian titans as Solzhenitsyn, Miłosz, Havel, and Kolakowski. As St. Augustine wrote, it is by our loves that we are finally defined. This continuing indulgence toward revolutionary fanaticism ought to be a reason for deep concern.