“There is a satanic quality to the French Revolution that distinguishes it from everything we have ever seen or anything we are ever likely to see in the future.” – Joseph de Maistre
With Francophiles throughout the world observing Bastille Day on Saturday, July 14th, some may feel it is poor taste to bring up Maximilien Robespierre. Maybe it is, but there can be no question that Robespierre’s story, embarrassing or no, is one of the foundation stones upon which modern France has been built. Nor can there be much doubt that an honest examination of democratic modernity’s problems entails a confrontation with Robespierre’s legacy.
In Hilaire Belloc’s estimation Robespierre is best understood as a tragic figure, “a man sincerely attached to the conception of an ideal democracy,” who was “incorruptible” in his pursuit of this democracy but who also, unfortunately, “lacked humility”. Less sympathetic observers would characterize Robespierre as the man who pioneered modern totalitarianism and state-orchestrated terror. Either way, the relative obscurity of this leader who liquidated so many of his countrymen in the name of Equality marks one of many debilitating blind spots in the modern mind. Even if the American leftist has never heard of him, he nonetheless owes Robespierre a great ideological debt, for it was Robespierre as much as anyone who propagated the conviction that evil comes from stifling institutions rather than from man’s sinful heart. As such he stands as the intellectual ancestor of later, seemingly disparate movements, from the Transcendentalists, to the Bolsheviks, to the hippies, to the antifa movement.
Perhaps the normalization of terrorism in France was already a fact the moment that the head of the Bastille’s governor was paraded through the streets on a pike, but that is a question to be debated by scholars of political theory. What can be safely said is that once l’ancien regime was overthrown and the anointed king stripped of his ancient sovereignty, radical changes necessarily had to follow. For hallowed certainties had been called into question, and forces had been set into motion that those leading the first wave of the Revolution – the liberalizing Girondins – proved unable to control.
After pushing the Girondins aside, the Jacobins were for a time able to ride the revolutionary tiger, thereby affording Robespierre and his colleagues the opportunity to experiment on France in accord with principles outlined in Robespierre’s Report On the Principles of Political Morality (1794):
If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time [both] virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue. It is less a special principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most pressing needs […] The government of the revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.
As for the Vendean peasantry and others who might not welcome revolutionary liberty, they would, in the memorable phrase of Robespierre’s favorite philosopher Rousseau, “be forced to be free.” As Robespierre himself put it, “Social protection is due only to peaceful citizens; there are no citizens in the Republic but the republicans.”
In other words, membership in the Republic depended upon one’s subscription to a specific democratic ideology rather than upon complex threads of history and culture. Since revolutionists could not agree about the precise nature of this ideology, the passage of time led to more and more people being excluded from the category of “true” – that is to say, politically-correct – Frenchman. Launay, the governor of the Bastille, was but the first of many to lose his head, from the royal couple to renowned scientist Antoine Lavoisier to the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne. In Robespierre’s France informers listened carefully to conversations, took note of what sorts of jokes their neighbors told, and kept an eye out for priests and nobles in hiding. The idea behind “the despotism of liberty against tyranny” was that tyrants (and their supporters) deserved to be tyrannized.
All this came to be known as the Reign of Terror, and was accompanied by an ambitious program of cultural reconstruction. Under the aegis of the all-powerful Committee for Public Safety, clergy were enjoined to swear loyalty oaths to the revolutionary state, the months of the year were renamed in accordance with rationalist criteria, and the reckoning of the year itself was shifted away from the nativity of Christ and onto the inauguration of the Republic. In an especially audacious move, the Catholic faith was formally replaced by a new Deist civic religion instituted through ceremonies in “The Temple of Reason” — i.e., Notre Dame Cathedral.
Robespierre admitted that his program was intense, even feverish, but such was to be expected from the birth-pangs of a new, democratic France and a new, democratic world:
In order to lay the foundations of democracy among us and to consolidate it, in order to arrive at a peaceful reign of constitutional laws, we must finish the war of liberty against tyranny and safely cross through the storms of the revolution: that is the goal of the revolutionary system which you have put in order. You should therefore still base your conduct upon the stormy circumstances in which the republic finds itself; and the plan of your administration should be the result of the spirit of revolutionary government, combined with the general principles of democracy.
Peacetime norms are all well and good – during peacetime. A very different approach is required during time of crisis. Robespierre’s plainly stated concern was that counter-revolutionaries and their foreign sponsors might take advantage of legal technicalities to avoid detection and punishment as they promoted their agenda. Meanwhile, since Robespierre claimed democracy to be the only valid form of government, his France automatically denied the legitimacy of all the other great nations of Europe. Naturally, then, Europe descended into a state of intense, long-term hostility. Just as other nations feared regime change sponsored by French revolutionary agents, so the French revolutionaries themselves lived in constant fear that a reactionary foreign power might meddle with French democracy. Not without reason, Robespierre came to see enemies everywhere, and the sense of emergency only let up when Robespierre himself was caught in the gears of his own state apparatus and carted down the path to the guillotine on July 28, 1794.
The most charitable way to think about Robespierre’s career is by grasping the half-truths which lie behind his agenda. A certain healthy fear of the law is indeed necessary for any social order, radical republican or otherwise, and even the most quixotic monarchists would admit that the old Bourbon regime had positively invited revolt through ineptitude, over-centralization, and self-absorption. And it is likewise true that the methods called for in holding together a functioning government in a time of chaos must be more assertive and decisive than those appropriate to running a stable, secured government.
Yet decadence calls for a spirit of renewal, not “creative destruction,” and there is never a time so tumultuous that all rules and restraint may be rightfully cast off. Nor can a revolutionary order ever arrive “at a peaceful reign of constitutional laws,” because the revolutionary can never be truly satisfied. After all, today the ideals of the French Revolution are enshrined in the platforms of most Western political parties, and enjoy the support of America’s preeminent authorities, from Hollywood to Harvard, from CNN to the CIA. Nonetheless, for so long as I can remember the revolutionary leftist has styled himself a plucky underdog, pitted against … who or what, exactly? Common sense? Human nature? Himself?
The tantalizing lie of revolution is the idea that heaven-on-earth sits right around the corner, provided some hated class – the aristocrats, or the clergy, or the capitalists – can be overthrown and then purged from public life. Each time the glorious new millennium fails to materialize, the revolutionary always adapts by finding new enemies to blame for the revolution’s failure to deliver on its extravagant promises. In the Jacobin era, the first enemy who blocked the path to limitless progress had blue blood; now the adversary to be terrorized has a blue collar, or a red neck, or floats in utero. And still the purges show no sign of coming to an end anytime soon.
It seems that the Augustinian dictum Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee is not only a central tenet of Christian spirituality, but also the beginning of political wisdom.