Revolution for Dummies
The Capitol Insurrection in Washington on January 6th, 2021 has made many people wonder once again whether we are heading into revolutionary times, even though the insurrection itself was a farcical tragedy. The insurrectionists seemed to be clueless about what they were doing. They had no goals or leaders, no idea what they would do if they won, how winning would be defined, or what would happen if they lost. Usually, coup plotters know the severe consequences of failure, but in this case they seemed surprised to learn they might be arrested for various crimes. Perhaps they thought it was a TV game show until it they realized too late that it was reality TV.
What was lacking was some historical awareness of what revolution is, and to gain such awareness there is no better source than the French Revolution, the historic break from feudalism that spawned all revolutions that have happened since.
The simplistic view of revolution is that there is a before and there is an after. There is brief, intense period of bloodshed that ushers in a totally new social and political system and the old one is gone forever. Would that it were so simple. In truth, Zhou Enlai got it right when he said in 1972 that it was too soon to say what the outcome of the French Revolution would be. Revolution is followed by perpetual counter-revolution and simmering social, ideological and class divides that sometimes erupt into warfare but never get resolved. We are always on the verge of civil war, and, to quote Zhou Enlai again, “diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”
After 1789, the monarchists tried to bring back feudalism by fighting against bourgeois capitalism and the rise of constitutional republics. Socialist revolution later tried to move the world beyond this predatory phase of human development, and the capitalists fought back in their own counter-revolutions.
A century after the French Revolution, France was still divided along the fault lines made in 1789. France had been through wars with all the major powers of Europe, two eras of Bonapartist empire (1804-1814, 1852-1870), the restoration of the monarchy (House of Bourbon, 1814-1830, House of Orléans, 1830-1848), another revolution (1848), the Second Republic (1848-1852) the Commune (1871), and then after the establishment of the Third Republic (1870), the Dreyfus Affair occurred in the 1890s. Around this single intelligence agency scandal, all the ghosts of the past came to the surface—the urban-rural divide, the power of the church, republicanism versus monarchism, the social dislocations of capitalism feeding nationalism and anti-Semitism, socialism and internationalism counter-acting imperialism, and the hidden, unaccountable power of the military versus the power of democratic institutions.
Dreyfus had his name cleared eventually thanks to the new power of mass media, and activism by citizens, prominent artists and political parties. He was restored and he served as an officer in World War I, the war among empires that led to Bolshevik Revolution, the first successful socialist revolution to threaten capitalism.
In the inter-war period, imperialist powers prepared to fight each other again, but they also had to fight against the proven success of socialist revolution demonstrated by the Soviet Union. World War II could have been avoided if France and Britain had acted on Stalin’s suggestion to form an alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany before its aggressions began. They stalled, however, because they were hoping that Germany would destroy the Soviet system and exhaust itself in the effort, after which they could defeat Germany. When the alliance failed to form, Stalin had to buy time to prepare for a German invasion, so he signed a non-aggression pact with Germany. When the war was over, when the capitalist allies were busy using ratlines to get Nazi officials safe refuge in their countries, they created the false history that said Stalin had formed an “alliance” with fascism, thereby establishing the false equivalence in their propaganda system between communism and fascism.
After the war, nuclear arsenals had made direct war between the large powers impossible, so war had to be fought through intelligence agencies and proxy wars in the developing world. France was divided further now between those who had collaborated with the German occupation and those who had resisted it. Newly independent countries freed from colonization had a natural attraction to socialism because the colonized people knew imperialism had been the advanced stage of capitalism. Thus the revolutionary struggle begun in 1789 now unfolded worldwide, with the anti-communist reactionary forces centered in Washington. Anti-communism became the American religion, which it exported throughout the world through various puppet dictatorships. Revolutionary leaders and various heads of state who stood in the way (Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Che Guevara, Chris Hani, Salvador Allende, Juvénal Habyarimana, Cyprien Ntaryamira) and one United Nations Secretary General (Dag Hammarskjöld) were assassinated. Vicious anti-communist wars were fought against Angola, Vietnam and Indonesia. From the latter struggle, the formula of coup d’état followed by anti-communist genocide was later applied to Central and South America. During the brief reign of a socialist government in Chile, ominous graffiti appeared there stating “Jakarta is coming,” and it did. During the insurrection at the US Capitol, did the frightened members of Congress hiding in their panic rooms give a thought to how Salvador Allende felt during his final moments when the US-backed junta was closing in on him?
Within the United States, agents of Capitalism’s Invisible Army (CIA) studied the Dreyfus Affair in their training. They learned from it and carried out a domestic coup d’état against democratic institutions through the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy—leaders that were the embodiment of the popular threat to oligarchic rule. The intelligence agency scandals of the 1960s made the Dreyfus Affair look like child’s play. There was no Zola who could rouse the nation’s outrage. The prominent voices that cried “J’accuse!” went unheeded, ridiculed even as “conspiracy buffs.”
When the Soviet system fell in 1991, the sole remaining superpower went on a binge. Any country that dared to develop its own political economy outside of the US system was crushed ruthlessly. Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Congo, Iraq, Libya and Syria were all brought into the system through blood-soaked transformations.
During the Trump presidency, the American liberal class was shocked, shocked, I tell you, to discover that there were deep divides within the country. There was talk of a possibility of a second civil war on the horizon. The Capitol Insurrection just made the divisions clear for all to see. When Biden was inaugurated, he talked about the need for unity. All this division and hostility? “This is not who we are,” cried the liberal voices. At the Superbowl Bruce Springsteen appeared in an advertisement for Jeep—featuring a wooden chapel in Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of contiguous forty-eight states, asking everyone to “meet in the middle.”
That might sell some Jeeps and some music, but it won’t resolve the conflicts that have been rocking in the free world since 1789. However, one new unifying but temporary element of the struggle this year is the common enemy that has created an uneasy alliance between socialists and right libertarians. Feudalism is coming back during the pandemic as governments and the interests behind them abolish the rights enshrined in republican constitutions—freedom of assembly, speech, and movement, the right to physical integrity, separation of powers and so on—all that stuff we were told was inalienable. Socialists and libertarians have always agreed that the enshrinement of these rights was a positive development, so they now have common cause to preserve them, but they will separate again, like Girondins and Montangnards of the French First Republic, when it is time to move beyond the capitalist system that led to this return of arbitrary power and neo-feudalism.
This brief overview of revolutionary history in Part 1 might help anyone who is eager to participate in the next big moment of change that seems imminent. One can’t rush into such things like the recent insurrectionists who thought they were just joining a weekend protest and would be back home in West Virginia on Monday. Part 2 of this post goes deeper into this topic. It is a translation of a short history lecture given by Benjamin Brillaud, host and writer of the successful Nota Bene history channel. In this episode, he reveals the many complexities of and misconceptions about the French Revolution (or any revolution) while he examines the life of its most famous figure, Maximilien Robespierre.
Benjamin Brillaud, Nota Bene, July 26, 2020
“Il nous faut être terribles pour éviter au peuple de l’être.”
“We take charge of the terror so that the people don’t have to.”
– Georges Danton
As soon as we talk about the French Revolution, one emblematic figure stands out, before even Louis XVI: Robespierre, the revolutionary par excellence who leaves no one indifferent. For many, he is responsible for the Terror. He was blood-thirsty, guillotine-addicted, cold and calculating, a “legalistic psychopath”. For others, a minority, Robespierre is a hero unjustly blamed, the incarnation of a just and social revolution that was destined to be slaughtered by the wealthy bourgeoisie. If there are many debates in history, there are few that consist of two portraits so diametrically opposed and cartoonish, so it is difficult to get to the truth. Already, at the beginning of the 20th century, the great historian Marc Bloch lamented: “Robespierristes, anti-robespierristes, we beg for mercy. Please, just tell us what Robespierre was.”
So we will try to see more clearly, even if it will, unfortunately, be impossible to ever know completely who Robespierre was. From the outset, the sources have been very biased. They emanate from both his supporters and his enemies, and over time, legends have grown and accumulated. In addition, Robespierre, unlike many other figures of the Revolution, left us no memoirs because his premature death prevented him from recording his view of the events he lived through. The main writings that we have of him are therefore articles and, especially, his many speeches. The entirety of these writings occupy no less than eleven volumes!
The problem is that speeches and political articles are not reliable records of history. No one would take political speeches of contemporary politicians at face value, and those of the Revolution are no different. All these sources therefore must be criticized, cross-checked, and contextualized, and of course, the analyses are always different. We can add to that the unfortunate tendency of certain authors do dime store psychology, and much of what has been written about Robespierre turns out to be quite dubious, in fact very bad. Fortunately, there are also many excellent academic works that have been done recently which bring us to a better understanding of the man. This report will not pretend to tell you all the truth about Robespierre. No one can do that. On the other hand, we will try to explain what we know about him, and how his image has been distorted over time.
Robespierre was born into a good family from Arras, from a line of lawyers. He was therefore in the class of the bourgeoisie just below the nobility. His childhood was nevertheless marked by the death of his mother, then the departure of his father. As an orphan, the young Maximilien Robespierre was, however, surrounded by the rest of his family. This orphan status has sometimes been used to explain what he became, but the historian Jean-Clément Martin recalls with good reason that in France at the end of the Ancien Régime, orphans were far from rare. Many future revolutionary colleagues of Robespierre had family situations at least as difficult. From this point of view, Robespierre was doing quite well.
Having obtained a substantial scholarship, he studied brilliantly at the Lycée Louis-Le-Grand in Paris before returning to Arras where he became a lawyer. He then led several fairly high-profile cases in which he appears to have had a fairly constant tendency to fight against prejudices and arbitrariness. Like many jurists of his time, he also participated in competitions, submitting writings calling for legal reform on such issues as the rights of illegitimate children or the honor of families of those condemned for crimes.
In the late 1780s, France was in a crisis over the issue of debt and taxes. To put it simply, Louis XVI wanted to extend some taxes to the privileged orders (estates), the clergy and the nobility, but every attempt at reform was blocked by provincial parliaments and courts of justice that were dominated by nobles who opposed the king in order to preserve their privileges. This obstacle therefore led to the convening of the Estates General, an institution which had not been used for centuries. At the beginning of 1789, the three estates—clergy, nobility and commoners—were called on to produce files of grievances and to elect their representatives. Robespierre, sensitive to the social conditions, chose to write up a grievance for the association of cobblers from Arras, one of the poorest constituents. In April, he was also one of the eight deputies elected to represent the Third Estate of Artois. In this capacity he went to Versailles where he then totally blended in to the group of unknown deputies, far from the famous stars of the time such as Mirabeau, Le Chapelier or LaFayette. The sequence of events is rather well-known, but we will go over it briefly.
In June 1789, the Estates General had been meeting for a month but it was blocked by the Third Estate (elected commoners) that wanted a fairer balance of power among the three estates. The Third Estate declared the formation of the Constituent National Assembly [which gained power and legitimacy through the simultaneous revolution in the street]. For the next two years, the deputies developed the first constitution of the country and a number of reforms.
[TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: It is well known by French people, but this needs to be mentioned here for an international audience: these revolutionary changes in the governing assemblies, which brought the abolition of feudalism, state control of the Catholic Church and extension of the right to vote, were accompanied by the revolution on the street. Between July and October, 1789, soldiers mutinied, and citizens raided The Bastille and marched on Versailles to force the king to reside in Paris. The revolution also triggered the slave revolt in the French colony of Haiti, which eventually led to independence.]
Robespierre then clearly ranked among the “patriots,” those deputies attached to the revolutionary cause and opposed to those who wanted the king to retain power. Some of these conservatives even refused to support having a new constitution. But even among the patriots, Robespierre soon stood out as someone very radical and popular, along with another deputy, Pétion, who later become mayor of Paris.
During these years, Robespierre intervened many times, even if he was not always listened to. He was part of a small vanguard of deputies firmly denouncing the death penalty, but he stood out especially for his denunciation of what was then called the marc d’argent, a very substantial sum that had to be paid for the right to vote. The Constitution being drafted proposed censitary suffrage, which meant only men with a certain amount of wealth could vote. Robespierre fought firmly against this, without being listened to. During this period of the Constituent Assembly, Robespierre therefore made a name for himself, and he became very popular in Paris. But he also made political enemies who found him too radical. His influence remained in all cases very modest, and though he was one most popular deputies, along with Pétion, he was far from being the most powerful. Before the end of the Constituent Assembly, he did however propose an important law: the ban on members of the Constituent Assembly from running for election in the next assembly, the Legislative Assembly. By making this proposal, Robespierre thus hoped to eliminate his political enemies who would no longer be contenders. The proposal passed, and therefore, when the Convention broke up, Robespierre ended his career as a deputy.
Politically, he remained very present in Paris and became the president of the Jacobin Club, a society that initially brought together the most devoted deputies of the Constituent Assembly. Since June 1791 and Louis XVI’s attempt to flee abroad, however, the club experienced a split. The moderates, who continued to support the king, created the Feuillants Club, leaving to the Jacobins the most radical members, including Robespierre, now one of the most prominent. In the new assembly, the Legislative Assembly, elected at the end of 1991, the moderate Feuillants dominated. As a small group of more radical deputies opposed to the king, the Jacobins were led by the deputy Brissot. Very quickly, the debates focused on the issue of war. This war would be against foreign powers, especially Austria where many nobles took refuge and wanted Louis XVI and his entourage to restore their power. Brissot and his friends also wished for war. They thought it would force the king to reveal his double game. Among the Jacobins, Robespierre was much more reluctant. He feared that war would endanger the Revolution. A victorious general could come back with too much power. And here he was thinking specifically of Lafayette! Robespierre and Brissot engaged in a long, heated and polarized debate over this question. Finally, Brissot won and, in April, France declared war on Austria.
Very quickly, the fears of Robespierre proved to be well founded. The war went badly, and Louis XVI engaged in obstruction, which did not help matters. When the Parisian people rose up for the first time in June (under the leadership of Brissot and his friends), Lafayette returned to the capital in disaster and proposed repression of the Jacobins. He did not succeed, and his failure showed that Robespierre had been completely right. Louis XVI was finally overthrown on August 10, 1792 by Parisians fearing his betrayal. On this day, as during the other insurrectionary days, Robespierre kept a distance and did not organize anything, regardless of what his enemies said afterwards. On the other hand, he defended the insurgents against those who wanted to punish them. He accused them of wanting “the revolution without revolution”. With the constitutional monarchy now overthrown, a new constituent assembly was elected— the Convention. Robespierre was elected triumphantly in Paris and became one of the influential members of the group of deputies that we call the Mountain (la Montagne), opposed to Brissot and his friends who were known as Girondins.
At the end of 1792, the two camps fought fiercely over the question of the death penalty for the king. The Montagnards wanted it quickly while most of the Girondins were much more reluctant. At this time, Robespierre’s opposition to the death penalty was long gone. His view had evolved and he considered that Louis XVI’s betrayal was too serious for him to live. In his eyes, those who represented a danger to the Revolution and the nation could legitimately be sentenced to death. And don’t think that he was losing his head … not yet!
Robespierre was, however, far from being the only executioner of Louis XVI, and his death was voted for, contrary to legend, by a fairly large majority. The debate had nonetheless polarized the Convention because it covered a broader issue: the articulation between this elected power and the popular movement of Parisian sans-culottes which was much more radical. At the Convention, these sans-culottes were defended by the Montagnards, in particular by Danton, Marat and Robespierre. All three were much less radical than the popular movement, but they hoped to limit its influence. The Girondins opted for a more repressive strategy and, in the spring of 1793, they tried to attack great popular figures, notably Marat, who, however, got away without a hitch in the trial against him.
The response of the sans-culottes was very lively. In late May and early June, they stormed the Convention and asked for the arrest of twenty Gironde deputies. The mountain dominated the Convention now while some Girondins fled to the provinces (notably in Normandy and Lyon) and were supported by revolts there, by what was called federalism. Contrary to popular belief, the Girondins were not innocent victims. They were not against sending their enemies to the guillotine. And Robespierre was not their terrible executioner. On the contrary, while the most radical deputies demanded the execution of around 75 deputies supporting the Girondins, Robespierre protected them to the end to avoid losing support from moderates. These 75 deputies survived, but were not especially grateful to Robespierre for this. They returned to the Convention after his death and created the black legend about him.
Be that as it may, in the summer of 1793, the Montagnards were in power at the Convention, even if in their turn they had to manage a popular movement that was much more radical. Robespierre and the other deputies of la Montagne were indeed far from being communists. Yes, Robespierre was interested in the fate of the poorest, but he did not believe at all in equality of wealth, which he saw as unrealistic. Nor did he favor the sharing of property, the famous “agrarian law” which he saw as a counter-revolutionary tool. In short, Robespierre was not a communist, but rather quite the opposite. However, he considered that wealth must have limits when it interferes with the freedom of others, and that’s why he opposed slavery and accepted the idea of controlling the price of certain essential products, which gave rise to a law of the maximum general price which was to prevent starvation of Parisians. For Robespierre, as for many other deputies, it was out of the question to answer the most radical demands, such as those of the priest Jacques Roux, leader of a group called the “Enragés.” Robespierre could not find harsh enough words for him.
The whole strategy for the Convention was, therefore, to promise just enough to the popular movement so as not to be overthrown. That’s how we must see many of the executions of 1793, be it that of Marie-Antoinette, Brissot, the Duke of Orleans or quite a few others. It was then a question of giving Parisians some blood so that they would not ask for more. As Danton explained, “We take charge of the terror so that the people don’t have to.” It is also in this context that the Convention sent armies of sans-culottes to repress, sometimes quite violently, and with voluntarily vague orders, the counter-revolt in Vendée. It got them out of Paris, so that was killing two birds with one stone!
In all this, what is Robespierre’s personal responsibility? It’s hard to say. From the summer of 1793, and for a year until his death, he was a member of the Committee of Public Safety, one of the committees of the Convention, and the most important. It managed the conduct of the internal and external war until peace could be restored. To put it simply, this committee was responsible for just about everything in the management of the country, even if its power was permanently subject to the approval of the Convention. Robespierre was one member among twelve. He was certainly one of the most influential, with Barère, but he still had to work with other prominent figures. Some were relatively close to him, like Saint Just and Couthon. Others were more radical, like Billaud Varenne and Collot d’Herbois. Others were more moderate, like Carnot. Debates were therefore raging, and if Robespierre was undoubtedly the most emblematic, he was far from controlling everything, especially since certain initiatives went beyond him.
One such case was that of the de-Christianizers who, at the end of 1793, desecrated churches and fought against the hold of religion. In the minds of people today, Robespierre is associated with this atheist fight, but this belief is completely false because, on the contrary, Robespierre judged atheism as counter-revolutionary and did everything to put an end to this de-Christianization by fighting those responsible. He succeeded, and many of them went to the guillotine in March-April 1794. Likewise, Robespierre is often accused of being involved in the violence of deputies sent to the provinces, the famous “representatives on mission” such as Carrier, the perpetrator of the Nantes drownings. However, Robespierre was, on the contrary, totally opposed to these dynamics, and several violent “representatives on mission” (Carrier, Fouché, and Tallien) plotted his downfall to avoid accounting for their abuses.
Finally, many believe Robespierre was involved in the execution of several political enemies, especially Danton, in April 1794. However, it is necessary return to the context of this execution: the factional struggles. At the beginning of 1794, the Committee of Public Safety attempted to eliminate two dangers: ultra-revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries (in short, the too extreme and the too moderate), all accused of undermining the Revolution. The “ultras” were the first to be eliminated in March, especially with the execution of Hébert and some of his friends. Robespierre was not the only one who wanted this execution. The whole committee approved it, as did the Convention and the so-called “indulgents” like Danton.
To be precise, Danton also had enemies, and now some on the committee (Billaud, Collot) also wanted see the “indulgents” disappear. In this context, after having pruned to its left, the committee next pruned to its right. But here too, Robespierre was not alone, since apart from Robert Lindet (and Hérault de Séchelles, who was one of the executed), the whole committee approved the idea. So the executions were not the folly of a tyrannical Robespierre but of broader political calculations that were part of a vast factional struggle. The concern was that after Danton’s death, Robespierre happened to be the most prominent figure still alive, which legitimately made him more and more afraid of his enemies.
In June, the feast of the Supreme Being was thus held, eagerly awaited by Robespierre, who saw it as an attempt to reconcile the country around rather vague religious values. But the central role he occupied there reinforced the impression that he was now too powerful. At the same time, his friend Couthon prepared the “law of prairial”, which centralized executions in Paris and made the convictions faster. The goal of Robespierre, who participated in the preparation of the law, was surely to limit the executions by placing all of them under the control of the committee. But in fact, these were multiplying in June and July, especially under the action of some of his enemies like Barère and especially Vadier, the strongman of the Committee of General Security, a rival committee in charge of police operations. These executions are attributed to Robespierre, who was losing popularity, but he had nothing to do with them. He even denounced them in his speeches, not being fooled by the maneuver to tarnish him. During most of the month of July, Robespierre ceased to appear in the committee, feeling that the divisions were too strong, while his enemies used many methods to sully his reputation.
Finally, at the end of July, the tensions between Robespierre and his enemies within the committee, in particular Collot and Billaud, to his left, were too strong. Added to them were deputies who feared being the next to be executed, in particular the famous violent “representatives on mission”, Fouché, Carrier and Tallien. All were aware that in order to survive they must eliminate Robespierre.
On 8 Thermidor (July 26th), Robespierre made a remarkable speech to the Convention, then to the Jacobins, in which he denounced, without naming them, all those he saw as enemies of the Revolution. From the following night, they prepared his downfall. The next day, Robespierre and some of his supporters were silenced and arrested. Sure of his rights, Robespierre waited to defend himself but, for a mysterious reason, the jailers of the Luxembourg Palace refused to imprison him, so he found himself free but an outlaw.
He and his supporters met at Paris City Hall where the municipal government was favorable to him. He was facing the Convention and its troops, who could henceforth have him executed without trial. His supporters contemplated mounting an insurrection, but there was total confusion, and Robespierre was reluctant to violate the law. Finally, the Hotel de Ville was breached during the night, and on 10 Thermidor, Robespierre, his brother Augustin, and several of their relations, including Couthon and Saint-Just, were executed. From the 11th, seventy other people followed them to the scaffold. It was the largest batch of guillotined heads of the period and Robespierre was a victim, not an executioner!
Very quickly, his enemies helped to blacken his image and that of the period called The Terror, which they supposedly ended. Fouché (the “machine gunner” of Lyon) and Tallien (who conducted reigns of terror in Bordeaux) renounced all the violence allegedly done by Robespierre, now dead and accused of all wrongs.
Rumor appeared and took root. The rumors said he wanted to become king. He was sexually obsessed, or, on the contrary, too uninterested in sex to be considered normal. He designed guillotines with seven blades and wore clothes made of human skins. In short, little by little, Robespierre was erected as the ultimate executioner. It was a useful strategy to for those with dirty hands who now needed to pass as innocents. Fouché, for example, had a good career under Napoleon and was even a minister for Louis XVIII (the monarch restored after Napoleon’s defeat).
So who was Robespierre? He certainly was not the proto-communist that some think he was. In reality, his political ideas are often difficult to define, as they fluctuated over time and with the challenges of the day. He was not blood-thirsty, either, which does not make him totally innocent. Like all the actors of the Revolution, he accepted this violence and participated in it, but certainly less than many others who are forgotten or glorified today. As Jean-Clément Martin emphasizes, he played to perfection the role of scapegoat. In recent years, many works by academics have tried to put Robespierre back in his proper place. The collective work Robespierre: Crossed Portraits, directed by Michel Biard and Philippe Bourdin thus tries to come back to many aspects of the man: his social ideas, his relation to the death penalty, education, slavery, politics. Hervé Leuwers also recently produced an excellent biography, as well as Jean-Clément Martin. This last is of value for putting Robespierre back in historical context, to show that he was one actor among others who were rarely put in an exceptional position. Take Robespierre down from his pedestal to understand him better. Maybe that is the best justice we can do him finally.
[TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Recommended books in English on Robespierre and the French Revolution are these two by Peter McPhee: Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (2012), and The French Revolution (2014)]