Remembering the Reign of Terror

Robespierre is today depicted as a sexless fanatic who invented modern terrorism. His own words reveal he was a fearless critic of tradition and incorruptibly committed to liberty: a million miles from today’s webcam jihadists.

Dolan Cummings

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The old cliché has it that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

It sounds quaint now, because the national liberation movements of the twentieth century are mostly defunct, and the type of terrorism that now exercises our attention seems to have little to do with freedom. For ‘terror’, read nihilism and misanthropy.

It is salutary to remember, then, that one of the defining moments in the development of modern politics, the French Revolution, involved the deliberate use of terror in the cause of liberty. While today’s political class might like to imagine that this was a case of the democratic revolution ‘going too far’, and that we have since gradually settled on a peaceful, ‘political’ way of resolving social conflicts, the ghostly voice of Maximilien Robespierre is a reminder that politics and violence are not so easily separated. More importantly, it is a reminder that the revolutionary promise of truly popular democratic politics has never been fulfilled.

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

Pacifism is a very unusual political position, and one that has never been more than marginal in any human society. When it comes to the exercise and contestation of power – a basic feature of all hitherto existing societies – violence is not the exception but the rule. Along with civilisation comes the idea of peaceful politics, but always accompanied by its twin, political violence, whether in the form of overt conflict between states or groups, or the more subtle state monopoly of violence in peaceful societies. Generally speaking, ‘terrorism’ is the term used by those in power to describe the violence of those whose political claims they deem illegitimate. While ‘terrorists’ often use distinctive tactics, it’s still true that the definition of terrorism is political rather than military or technical (as is witnessed by the historically fickle list of terrorist groups maintained by the US State Department).

This is not to suggest a ‘moral equivalence’ between the 2005 London bombings, say, and the storming of the Bastille (or indeed US shock and awe in Iraq), but it is to insist that the moral differences are bound up with the political differences. The London bombings were not ‘a good point badly made’, the criminal expression of legitimate grievances. They were wanton destruction: politically despicable and morally repugnant all at once. In contrast, the violent overthrow of a reactionary regime is often the means by which a new and free society is born. (People’s opinions about the occupation of Iraq are largely dependent on how credible they find the claim that this is what’s happening there.) In any case, the use of violence is not an optional tactic to be adopted or rejected depending on one’s moral proclivities and irrespective of the political goal in question.

This collection of Robespierre’s speeches has been published at a time when terrorism is a political obsession. But terrorism is widely discussed as a sort of alien plague on global society rather than something arising from the prevailing political culture itself, while ‘legitimate’ political violence is veiled in layers of obfuscation. It is unnerving to read what amounts to a straightforward defence of terror as a means to political ends. More than that, Robespierre shows none of the empty adolescent bravado of today’s webcam jihadis, even though many describe him as the ‘father of modern terrorism’ as if there is a straight line from him to Osama bin Laden. Instead, he makes a serious intellectual case.

And whereas Osama bin Laden gleefully parrots his Western enemies’ indulgent self-criticism on everything from moral decline to the environment, Robespierre is ruthlessly and earnestly focused on his own idea of virtue: liberty, equality and fraternity, without compromise. The political violence of the Revolution was not symbolic, but meant seriously as a means of crushing the enemies of the people, whether these were aristocrats fighting to restore the ancien regime or opponents within the people’s own ranks. ‘The Terror’ itself was the period between September 1793 and July 1794, when political tensions between revolutionary factions led to thousands of executions before the Robespierrists themselves were crushed and the revolutionary moment came to an end.

The book is attractively produced, with a chronology, glossary and recommended further reading, as well as an introduction by the hip philosopher Slavoj Žižek. But there is something surreal about its publication at a time when serious alternatives, let alone revolution, are off the political agenda. This is especially so because Žižek tends to write as if everyone shares his own radical politics, casually invoking Lenin or Mao to support a point, for example. That this seems innocuous rather than jarring – or even exhilarating – is testament to the gulf that exists today between the world of ideas and intellectuals and our resolutely conservative political reality. Apparently shocking declarations can be met with an insouciant shrug. Nonetheless, even Žižek’s more strong-stomached admirers are unlikely to feel much positive affection for ‘the Incorruptible’, as Robespierre was known.

Robespierre, rather like Lenin, is not a popular figure today, even on the radical left. Just as history has been more forgiving to the charismatic Leon Trotsky (who opposed Stalin after Lenin’s death), and even the ridiculous Che Guevara (who was in fact a Stalinist), it is Robespierre’s more congenial counterpart Georges Danton who is seen as the human face of the French Revolution. He is the tragic subject of a play by Georg Büchner, and was played by Gerard Depardieu in Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 film Danton, against Wojciech Pszoniak’s sexless and fanatical Robespierre. In one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow tries to start a debate after a history lecture by suggesting, ‘Hey! Wasn’t that Robespierre the coolest?’ Buffy answers, ‘Robespierre? You’re kidding me, right?’ And, of course, she is.

Žižek in fact captures the situation well in noting that the Jacobin dictatorship and Terror personified by Robespierre are ‘not to our taste’ today, out of kilter with our basic psychological disposition. It is not just the violence of the Terror that disturbs the contemporary mindset, but the very idea of ruthlessly pursuing a political goal. The grander or more worthy-sounding the claims about liberty, equality and fraternity (let alone ‘virtue’), the more suspicious they seem. In this sense, the revolutionary Terror is a cipher for what might be called ‘real politics’: the active shaping of society by human beings making history. Paradoxically, this definitively human activity seems today almost inhuman, a frightening and deeply unsettling prospect: not only is it not to our taste, but it is hard for us to ‘get it’.

Žižek’s psychoanalytic bent means he is able to shed valuable light on this problem. He makes clear that central to Robespierre’s politics was a sort of proto-existentialist ethic of responsibility that is at odds with today’s morally-detached way of thinking. In arguing that patriotic Frenchmen should not fear the Terror, Robespierre was not offering a guarantee that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’, but rather insisting that patriots should take responsibility as the authors of the revolution, rather than thinking of themselves as mere beneficiaries or victims of it. Fear itself was a kind of treason, a refusal to take that responsibility. The spirit of the revolution was one of fearless action without permission or qualification from any greater authority. There were no guarantees that everything would turn out all right as long as people conducted themselves in a certain way.

Crucially, Robespierre did not even claim direct access to the people’s will, as later dictators often did, but rather staked his life on his own convictions and his ability to convince others of them. Failing that, he was not afraid to die. It was just as well, of course, as he was guillotined before long. In retrospect, we can say he had been right all along or utterly wrong; it doesn’t matter, because Robespierre was never looking for external vindication. Žižek invokes Immanuel Kant’s insistence that, ‘There is no excuse for accomplishing one’s duty!’ Robespierre refused to make excuses for his actions or to defer to real or imagined authority. That’s what made him a revolutionary.

It was this revolutionary sensibility – one so at odds with the conformism of today’s politics, whether conservative or radical – that enabled Robespierre to cast off the ‘habits’ of the ancien regime. As a passionate believer in the equality of all men, he refused to observe polite qualifications on universal principles, such as slavery in the colonies, or the exclusion of Jews and actors from the franchise. In arguing against a property qualification for the vote – justified by a bogus distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ citizens – Robespierre set out a truly egalitarian vision of popular politics, rejecting the entrenched aristocratic assumption that the poor have no business in politics. As a member of the rising middle class, he insisted that his own ‘rough garments’, ‘humble garret’ and ‘modest wage’ were ‘something to ordinary humanity’ and thus ‘as sacred as the glittering domains of wealth’.

Robespierre understood the people not just as suffering objects for the pity of others (as is so often implied by today’s rhetoric of ‘human rights’), but yearning subjects of their own destiny.

The revolution was the enactment of that destiny, and ultimately a hugely progressive moment in human history. The achievements of the revolution cannot be separated from its violence, however. As Robespierre insisted while arguing for King Louis XVI’s execution without trial: ‘The tyrant’s trial is the insurrection; the verdict, the collapse of his power; the sentence, whatever the liberty of the people requires.’ Before the violent overthrow of the ancien regime, there was no way of challenging the king’s authority. In giving Louis a ‘fair trial’ and entertaining the possibility that he was ‘not guilty’ of tyranny, the revolutionaries would have been retroactively delegitimising the republic.

Given that the republic needed instead to be institutionalised as a new and lasting order, the great challenge for the revolutionaries was to inscribe that new order with the democratic, egalitarian spirit of the revolution itself. Like the execution of the king, the Terror was part of this process, but it obviously carried the danger of descending into anarchy, or a new order based on violence itself rather than liberty. Revolutions are inherently unstable, and frustrated idealism can quickly turn to reaction. Cynics argue that revolutions always and inevitably end in tyranny, but it is possible to identify specific historical factors that shape the progress of particular revolutions, pointing to the possibility of things turning out differently.

Žižek suggests that the extreme violence that erupted as the Terror imploded, like Mao’s Cultural Revolution a couple of centuries later, was really a kind of displacement, not a case of ‘going too far’, but precisely a failure to ‘go all the way’ and change society fundamentally. Just as, on a lesser scale, ‘political correctness’ is all the more hectoring because it fails to address the underlying causes of inequality – and, one might add, just as New Labour became more authoritarian when it abandoned Old Labour’s macroeconomic approach to social problems – movements that rely on formal, political measures rather than social change are wont to overcompensate by going to ‘extremes’. Certainly the Jacobins’ egalitarian ideas were hopelessly at odds with the socio-historical context of emerging capitalism, which would create new social inequalities among formally equal French citizens. (Many of Robespierre’s disputes with the Jacobins’ rival Girondins hinged on the latter’s emphasis on property rights and free trade rather than equality.)

Leon Trotsky explained in his unequivocally-titled pamphlet Terrorism and Communism (available in the same series as Virtue and Terror) that the purpose of terror in a communist revolution was not simply to overthrow the old regime, but to enable the thorough-going reorganisation of society. Whereas Robespierre insisted on the state’s right to regulate the distribution of grain to ensure the poor would not starve, the Bolsheviks were unashamed in violently expropriating the entire means of production from the capitalists, and in suppressing any and all threats to the new society they were trying to build. The use of organised violence and terror to help bring about this society was a relatively superficial aspect of the revolution.

Significantly the true horrors of the Stalin era came after this fundamental transformation had failed, and, again as in China some decades later, continuous coercion and terror was the only way to maintain a semblance of the new society. Revolutionary terror gave way to state terror. Interestingly, Žižek points out that it was not Robespierre but Danton who first argued for state terror, ominously as a way of preventing direct popular violence. Once divorced from popular revolutionary sentiment, it is all too easy for terror to become institutionalised as a force containing rather than expressing democratic politics. What is important about the legacy of Robespierre is not his endorsement of terror per se, but the idea of political violence – specifically, revolution – as the direct expression of popular agency.

The failure of any modern revolution to institutionalise this spirit means it is difficult to imagine what form might be taken by a new popular politics today. At the end of his introduction, Žižek floats the idea of what might be called a Green Terror, suggesting we might employ the principles of terror to avert climate change by limiting economic growth. This is unfortunate, but, to adapt the substance of Žižek’s argument, the problem with it is not the ‘terror’ part, but the ‘green’ part. Where Žižek is right is that we need to accept collective responsibility for shaping our own destiny rather than simply accepting ‘impersonal and anonymous socio-historical development’. But while he wagers that the great mass of people can be persuaded to adopt the green agenda, anybody who expects six billion mostly quite poor people to abandon hopes of a substantially better life is surely backing the wrong horse.

Indeed, green thinking has become just the kind of ‘habit’ that Robespierre so ruthlessly rejected. The idea that we need to restrain our aspirations by reducing energy consumption and so on has become entirely orthodox. Rather than imposing the environmentalist agenda more rigorously, as Žižek suggests, we ought to insist that it is the needs and desires of people that come first, and that ‘natural’ limits must therefore be overcome rather than made sovereign. Green Terror would have more in common with the anti-Enlightenment, counter-revolutionary movement than with the spirit of the French Revolution, because environmentalism is implicitly conservative.

In arguing against the use of engineering solutions to the problem of climate change (as an alternative to economic restraint), the Independent columnist Johann Hari recently invoked the English conservative thinker and arch-opponent of the French Revolution Edmund Burke’s idea that any single change such as abolishing the monarchy threatened unwittingly to unravel the threads that bind society together. Hari argued: ‘Burke was seriously wrong about human societies – but, by a strange historical quirk, his approach applies quite well to understanding the ecosystem of the planet.’ (1) One wonders what prevailing orthodoxy Burke’s approach will be found to apply quite well to in another 200 years. In any case, such a precautionary mindset is no more compatible with a revolutionary democratic movement in the present than it was with the French Revolution itself.

A new politics capable of mobilising more than a relatively limited stratum of Western society will have to imagine a way to realise the still-inspiring ideals of that revolution rather than retreating from them. These are not the sole property of any political tradition, and there are no readymade signposts. Given that the task is far from easy, perhaps to liberty, equality and fraternity we should add a fourth ideal. Žižek draws on the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s concept of fidelity. This does not mean just passively ‘keeping the faith’, but rather going beyond momentary explosions of activity, or declarations of intent, in order to impose our principles on reality in an enduring way.

Robespierre was hard on those who called themselves republicans while failing to face up to the hard task of seeing the revolution through: ‘We invoke forms, because we have no principles; we pride ourselves on delicacy, because we have no energy; we flaunt a false humanity, because the feeling of true humanity is foreign to us; we revere the shadow of a king, because we do not know how to respect the people; we are tender towards oppressors, because we are heartless towards the oppressed.’ Rather than settling for a shadow of politics, or redefining political ideals in line with contemporary prejudices, it is now up to us to make good the two-centuries-old promise of true popular sovereignty.

Dolan Cummings is a co-founder of the radical humanist campaign group The Manifesto Club, the editor of Culture Wars and editorial director at The Institute of Ideas.

Virtue and Terror by Maximilien Robespierre, with an introduction by Slavoj Žižek, is published by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Johann Hari: The last green taboo: engineering the planet, Independent, 4 October 2007

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