Robespierre: Incorruptible or Tyrant?

Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is a new book on the revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). Written by prominent French intellectual Marcel Gauchet (b. 1946), it presents a personal view of the problem of Robespierre. For the supporter of humanism and secularism, Robespierre is both a hero and villain, embodying the best and worst of human nature. Rather than a biography that mines primary sources, Gauchet’s book traces Robespierre’s actions during the Revolution. Even today, Robespierre has supporters (who consider him a misled pioneer of human rights) and detractors (who view him as a reckless, paranoid autocrat).

Gauchet is a philosopher, professor of social sciences and prolific author. Gauchet comes at the subject as a moderate Socialist with liberalist tendencies. (By British standards, he would be considered a left of centre.) In the introduction to Gauchet’s book (originally published in 2018), David A. Bell and Hugo Drochon frame Gauchet’s argument. They give biographical sketches of Robespierre and Gauchet to inform non-French readers about background. The translation reads well but the decision not to translate long titles of speeches and pamphlets will vex non-Francophones.

Well-educated (as a lawyer), intelligent and hardworking, Robespierre was a member of the Legislative Assembly when the Revolution commenced. He was initially a principled liberalist, arguing for a constitutional figurehead monarchy, the extension of the franchise and ending capital punishment. He was a tireless advocate for acceptance of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Initially an unimportant figure, Robespierre’s eloquent speeches attracted admiration. Part of the Montagnard faction in the newly elected Convention in 1792, Robespierre became ever more extreme.

By the spring of 1793, Robespierre was at the head of the Committee of Public Safety, the new Republic’s government. He used his legal training and oratorical skills to justify the Terror, during which over ten thousand were executed as counter-revolutionaries after show trials. According to Robespierre, the torrential bloodletting and curbs on freedom were only ever extraordinary measures, temporary, contingent and regrettably necessary in the face of counter-revolutionary activities domestic and foreign. When Robespierre’s accelerating regime of fratricide was on the verge of threatening virtually every member of the Convention, the members turned on him. Denounced and arrested, Robespierre was sent to the guillotine on 10 Thermidor, Year 2 (28 July 1794).      

The legacy of the French Revolution (in France) was the establishment of a secular state, institution of democracy, the supremacy of humanism as a national value, the enforced fusion of the wishes of individuals with the intentions of the state and the authority of the state to control and kill citizens in the furtherance of its continuation. Robespierre’s intentions were utopian and it is precisely because they were impossible that the failure to implement his policies in practice led to violence. When an ideologue encounters opposition, it is merely a test of his resolve and his enemies are the enemies of the people and it is in the name of the people that the ideologue will put to the sword their enemies.

This quote shows Robespierre at his most trenchant. “There are now only two parties in France, the people and their enemies. All these rogues and scoundrels, who eternally conspire against the rights of man and against the happiness of all peoples, must be exterminated. […] There are only two parties, one of men who are corrupt, the other of men who are virtuous.” Here we have the cry of the political radical throughout the ages, echoing unchanged.

Gauchet has precepts which – while it would be insulting to describe as unexamined – verge on the banal. The Revolution was terrible because of the bloodshed but the establishment of democracy was worth it. (“The truth is that the ends were just and the means were horrifying.”) Was it? There are strong arguments against democracy (as presented in my article here), and Gauchet’s blithe assumption asks too much of a critical readership. French monarchists and staunch Catholics actively opposed democracy until the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

Robespierre was no atheist. His promotion of the Cult of the Supreme Being – an abstraction of rationalism, scientism or humanism, call it what you will – was not the act of a cynical atheist but the act of a believer. His own need for religion led him to found a state religion, in order to unify people and provide a spiritual justification for the radical social changes wrought by the Revolution. Robespierre (according to Gauchet) probably had to force through the decree of the worship of the Supreme Being despite the hostility or scepticism of the Committee for Public Safety. It was the deep antipathy of the Convention towards that decree that sparked Robespierre’s show trials of moderates, which frightened and angered members and led to his downfall.  

Gauchet finds much to admire in Robespierre: his opposition to slavery, his championing of the common man, the support for human rights, his brilliant speeches. Gauchet, as a centrist, perhaps predictably considers Robespierre neither “saint or the demon that he has so comprehensively and so complacently been made out to be. The roles of heroic martyr or bloodstained monster in which most historians have tried to confine him are of little use in discovering who he was and what his life meant.”

Gauchet interprets his subject as driven by circumstances. He was made by 1789 and was transformed into an extremist by the storming of the Tuileries Gardens on 10 August 1792. Gauchet rejects interpretations that dig into Robespierre’s biography or attempt to provide a psychological explanation to his actions. The result is that Gauchet’s Robespierre can seem like mechanical soldier, walking implacably in any direction into which he is set, like a chattering automaton without free will.

Gauchet (and modern French intellectuals) erroneously divides people into those who revile Robespierre for his murderous callousness but admire his ideals and those who regret his excesses but consider his aims and achievements ultimately worth the price. There is a disregarded third group – those who reject the values of the French Revolution. Ultimately, Robespierre can only seem heroic if you consider his values worthwhile and his values definitely are contestable.

Gauchet’s Robespierre sets out the autocratic and liberal facets of his subject but it goes no further because Gauchet cannot see further, with one exception. Gauchet writes something insightful when he describes Robespierre’s fatalism before his removal from power. Robespierre’s religious devotion to the cause of the emancipation of the French people had a martyr-like quality. “Ultimately, self-abnegation, the surrender to something greater than oneself, could be motivated only by the conviction that by acting in this way one could once more act in accordance with the design of the supreme arbiter of all things. In the absence of a shared recognition of some higher authority than man, there could be no justice among men.”

Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is, notwithstanding the limited perspective of the author, an accessible current-day overview of a pivotal figure in French history.

Marcel Gauchet,  Malcolm DeBevoise (trans.), Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most, 3 May 2022, Princeton University Press, cloth hardback, 200pp + xxii, £28, ISBN 978 0 691 21294 4

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit http://www.alexanderadams.art