Is the French Revolution over?

10 August 2022

This is a book review of Marcel Gauchet’s Robespierre: The Man Who Divides us the Most (Princeton University Press, 2022)

The name Robespierre still haunts the memory of the French Revolution. His reputation is a dark spectre over two centuries in the making. Since the moment, on 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), when he was overthrown, Robespierre’s enemies have laden upon him all of the supposed crimes of the revolution, until his reputation assumed monstrous proportions. In the Anglophone world in particular, Robespierre’s image remains that of the revolution’s indispensable man, the architect of the Terror glowering over any prospect of revolutionary politics. Likewise, in France, Robespierre is largely excluded from the republican myth around which so much of France’s institutional-historical memory is constructed, a curious absence in the parade of revolutionary heroes. Yet if Robespierre’s memory—and public invocation of it—remain controversial in France, for many on the left, both in France and abroad, he remains a tragic hero, whose vision of a revolutionary republic prefigured the ideals of Marxist socialism. It is the aim of Marcel Gauchet’s ambitious study—originally published in French in 2018 and newly translated into English by Malcolm De Bevoise, with an introduction by David A. Bell and Hugo Drochon—to break free from both of these paradigms and to move beyond the dialectic of the hero and the tyrant which has characterised most hitherto existing writing on Robespierre.


For Gauchet, Robespierre’s biography is characterised not by any contradiction or tension between the ‘Incorruptible’ tribune of the revolution and the Rights of Man of 1789-92, and the tyrant accused of orchestrating the Reign of Terror in 1792-94, but by the essential unity of purpose and personality which connects the two. As he argues, Robespierre’s seeming contradictions in fact represent the fundamental dynamic of a revolution which demanded the use of despotic means to create a new world founded on freedom.


Indeed, it is not so much Robespierre himself who is of interest to Gauchet, but Robespierre as a synecdoche for the revolution. As he writes, it is not Robespierre the man upon whom the book is centred, but Robespierre as “the name of the contradiction that continues to characterise the attitude of the French to their Revolution.” The utility of the study of Robespierre, he therefore argues, is not that it gives us a better understanding of one historically important man, but that in understanding Robespierre we might “come to terms with the revolution” and understand the world which it wrought, the world of liberal democracy, human rights, and popular sovereignty—our world.


It is from this purpose that the book’s idiosyncratic form arises. Gauchet’s book, which has few footnotes or references to the secondary literature, is not a conventional academic biography. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Lynn Hunt has criticised the book for its failure to substantially engage with almost any other writing on Robespierre and for offering very little treatment of Robespierre’s life, French society at the time of the Revolution, or “the nitty-gritty of everyday politics.” All of this is undeniably true, and it is unlikely that Gauchet would dispute that characterisation. His book, by its author’s own admission, makes no attempt to understand the life of Maximillien Robespierre, but instead to take Robespierre as a lens through which we might understand the course of the French Revolution and with it the origins of modern democratic society.


Gauchet is interested in Robespierre as “the name of the contradiction that continues to characterise the attitude of the French to their Revolution.”


At the outset, it is worth noting that this is not quite intellectual history in its usual manifestation in the Anglophone academy. Rather, Gauchet claims that his work is more concerned with producing an intellectual history of events, considering ideas as ‘forces,’ by which he means considering ideas not only as they are written or spoken, but as they intersect with the political action of their authors. His aim, then, is not to produce an intellectual biography of Robespierre as a political theorist, but to explain how his ideas arose from and shaped a particular moment in French history. Thus, although much of the book’s focus is on Robespierre’s writings and speeches in the various revolutionary assemblies, these are placed within the broader context of his actions as a revolutionary statesman and of Robespierre as both product and producer of the revolutionary transformation affected by the collapse of the Ancien Régime.


On Gauchet’s telling, the true tragedy of Robespierre is not that of a man who, as he mischievously argues, might have entered the canon of great liberals had he only died in 1791, only to be instead transformed into a dictator in pursuit of his ideals. Rather, the true tragedy is that Robespierre’s career embodied the doomed trajectory of the revolution itself. The course of Robespierre’s life is familiar and is traced ably by Gauchet. Its reader received a lucid portrait of Robespierre’s transition from ‘the Incorruptible,’ the tireless advocate of the Rights of Man in the Constituent Assembly, to the leader of the Montagnards in their struggle for a republic founded upon those rights, and finally to becoming the face of a revolutionary government founded upon the twin ideals of virtue and terror. But in telling this familiar story, Gauchet shows that all three of these personae were always intertwined. The Robespierre of 1793-94, if cannier and more battle-hardened by his long years in politics, operated on the same logic as the Robespierre of 1789-91.


As a consequence, the book offers a sweeping reinterpretation of the origins of the Reign of Terror, situating it neither in the relentless ambition of an aspiring dictator, nor in the republic’s response to an existential threat to its survival posed by counter-revolution at home and abroad. Instead, building upon an interpretation already advanced by François Furet and his followers, Gauchet argues that the origins of the Terror lay in the revolutionaries’ attempt to create a new regime founded upon human rights, democracy, and the unity of the sovereign will of the people. Thus, as Gauchet writes:


Girondins and Montagnards, in establishing the Republic, had jointly posed a question that neither of them was able to answer: how could the power of popular sovereignty be firmly established, firmly enough that the power of the king would be forgotten?


This problem had animated the revolution since the decision of the deputies of the Third Estate to transform the Estates General into a sovereign National Assembly, and it became particularly acute in the wake of the King’s execution. In short, the challenge of the revolution was to create, for the first time, a regime based not upon any heteronomous principle—divine authority, the hereditary transmission of power, and the division of society into orders—but purely upon human reason and will.


What made Robespierre stand out was the clarity with which he recognised the problem from the outset, and the ceaseless determination with which he pursued an answer upon which he had alighted as early as 1789, which was that the only legitimate grounds for a political community lay in the Rights of Man ascertained through the application of human reason to nature. This is not, of course, to say that Robespierre did not change at all over time. For Gauchet, Robespierre’s transformation from a mere partisan of the Rights of Man to the conspiratorial prophet of Terror came with the storming of the Tuileries on 10 August 1792. In fact, however, his narration of events makes a strong case that the true moment of transformation came with the King’s abortive flight to Varennes in 1791 in a bid to escape from an increasingly hostile revolutionary Paris, perhaps to join with the forces of the counter-revolution abroad.


Prior to the flight to Varennes, Robespierre had been relatively moderate on the issue of the monarchy, supporting its continued existence, albeit stripped of most prerogatives, as the symbolic leader of the nation. Throughout 1791, Robespierre remained slow to declare himself in support of a republic, and as late as 1792 was even accused by the deputy Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray of royalism in an incendiary pamphlet. But if Robespierre was slow to declare himself for the republic, after the fateful decision to abolish the monarchy and execute the King, he came quickly to realise the gravity of the situation. For Robespierre, the entire social order which the King had represented had been destroyed, and as a consequence, the revolution would need to rethink the very foundations of politics.


Indeed, the effect of this remarkable act was obvious to Robespierre immediately. “The tyrant,” he wrote, “has fallen under the blade of the laws. This great act of justice has staggered the aristocracy, annihilated royal superstition, and created a republic.” Such an act represented more than just the execution of a single tyrant: it had “disenchanted minds of this superstitious prestige that for twenty centuries of servitude and ignorance surrounded royalty.” But Robespierre was also mindful that the execution of the King had opened a fatal lacuna at the heart of politics. He argued:


Now that the people have looked upon him with scorn, this antique idol crushed, by their order, under the axe of the laws, what fresh tyranny could be imposed on them? How will the bourgeois aristocracy, for example, be able to hoist itself up on the shattered pedestal of nobles, priests, and kings?


In beheading their King, the French had thrown open the question which had always haunted the revolution: if power did not flow from the traditional legitimacy of the Old Regime, what legitimated the power of the political community? What, in short, did it mean for a political community to rule over itself? And for Gauchet, it was precisely his answer to this question which led Robespierre inexorably towards Terror.


For Robespierre, the void at the heart of French society left by the demise of the monarchy could be filled only with the vision of a sovereign people ‘One and Indivisible,’ committed ceaselessly to upholding the Rights of Man and defending the community. In this new republic, every citizen would have to commit himself entirely to the community—and Gauchet does not discuss how far Robespierre’s theory of citizenship was gendered. If the people were sovereign, and the General Will always true, then each citizen must sublimate himself to the will of the community entirely. As the Abbé Sieyès noted in the first of his famous ‘Thermidorian Interventions’ in 1795 two years after Robespierre’s downfall:


[B]ecause the minds of the French [were] still full of royal superstitions, [they had] made it their duty to endow [popular sovereignty] with the entire heritage of pompous attributes and absolute powers, which made usurped sovereignties shine; […] they seemed to say to themselves, with an outburst of patriotic flair, that if the sovereignty of great kings is so powerful, so terrible, the sovereignty of a great people must be quite another thing.


Confronted with the task of replacing the great and terrible sovereignty of Kings, the Abbé argued, the French had sought to create a sovereign even grander and more terrible in its infinite might. In place of a limited government with only the power needed to maintain the existence of the community, they had simply transferred the absolute power of the King to ‘The People’.


Total self-abnegation and submission to that people’s will was a virtue which Robespierre sought consciously to model in his own life. As Gauchet writes, “His ambition was to efface the private man to the benefit of the public man, who wishes only to work on behalf of the general interest, undistracted by the least egotistical motivations.” And this culminated in a total self-identification with the people, and the annihilation of the self in service of the state, but for Robespierre it also meant his own total self-identification with the General Will. Robespierre thus assumed the role not of a champion or guardian of the people, but as their voice, emerging from the people itself. Which is to say, Robespierre conceived of his own role as the moi-peuple, (rendered somewhat inelegantly as “I the people” in this translation), as the incarnation of the people’s will: not its advocate, or its representative, but its mouthpiece.


Yet, in Gauchet’s telling, this was a conception of politics entirely inhospitable to democracy, contestation, or liberal pluralism. If the people are understood to possess a unitary will which is always true, even if the aggregated preferences of individual people—perhaps even of the majority of them—is not, then it logically follows that anyone opposed to that will, coincidental with Robespierre’s own, was not ‘of the people’ but its enemy. Thus, we find Robespierre declaiming that “There are no citizens in the Republic but that are republicans. Royalists and conspirators it considers foreigners, or rather enemies.” Where those foreign enemies opposed the will of the people at a time of grave crisis and war abroad, it was necessary that they be destroyed.


Indeed, even if revolutionary terror had been necessary to arrest the forces of counter-revolution and save the republic as Robespierre and his allies claimed, the simple elimination of ‘authentic’ enemies of the revolution would never have been enough. If the people were always good and true, and their will always right, then its avatars could brook no dissent in their providential mission to found the republic. There could be no genuine disagreement within the republican camp, but only treason and counter-revolution disguised as patriotism.


Terror did not end, therefore, with the execution of the King and the purging of the aristocracy, but rather when seeing conspiracy everywhere, Robespierre turned first on the Girondins, then on the Dantonists and Hébertists, and finally on his own allies in the Committee of Public Safety and the Convention. Indeed, Gauchet argues, had Robespierre somehow survived 9 Thermidor, his irredeemably Manichaean paranoia would only have unleashed another round of charges of conspiracy and of purges as others doubted the course of action which he had pursued or disagreements arose on questions of policy, as they had amongst the Montagnard camp over the question of the Festival of the Supreme Being. Robespierre’s downfall was, therefore, in Gauchet’s telling, inevitable: in the end, his relentless hunt for phantom conspirators would, eventually, have created another conspiracy as it had on the infamous 9 Thermidor.


Is the French Revolution over?

The arguments mentioned are doubtless familiar to students of the history of the revolution. Where Gauchet departs critically from the Furetist paradigm, however, is in his scepticism that any revolutionary faction came any closer to providing an answer to this problem, or whether it can be solved at all. As Gauchet contends in the final chapter of Robespierre, if the vision of the nation one and indivisible could not fill the lacuna left by the abolition of the monarchy, those whom he calls the ‘Faux Social Realists’ (particularly Sieyès) who sought to stabilise the republic on the foundation of property were no more successful. It is, for Gauchet, the central problem of democratic government, and one which he is not at all certain has been surmounted.


Indeed, in advancing this argument, Gauchet also gestures, particularly in the book’s concluding chapter, towards a wider argument about the nature of democracy with which he has grappled throughout his career. It is to their considerable credit that in their introduction of the book, David A. Bell and Hugo Drochon have elucidated the basic contours of Gauchet’s long career, which will be absolutely indispensable to English readers likely to be less familiar the with the polemical intentions behind this book. Indeed, as they themselves note, Robespierre offers perhaps the easiest entry point to Gauchet’s work. On the other hand, however, the biographical architecture means that his ideas are, at times, presented with less clarity than in more densely theoretical works, particularly La Révolution des droits de l’homme and La Révolution des Pouvoirs, which tread on much of the same ground.


For Gauchet, building upon the writings of Claude Lefort, democracy is characterised by a fundamental indeterminacy about the nature of society, engendered by the absence of a definitive seat of power. Influenced by Ernst Kantorowicz’s theory of ‘The King’s Two Bodies,’ both Lefort and Gauchet argue that under the Ancien Régime, the imagined unity of people and king, and the king’s dual nature as both man and sovereign, formed a permanent locus of power which cohered the competing claims of individuals, and reconciled dissent and dispute around a central and irrefutable core of political authority. But, Gauchet claims, by smashing this unity, the French Revolution gave birth both to democracy and entirely unsettled politics. The question which remained was on what grounds could a new order be sanctified? How could the new polity command the loyalty of citizens even as they bitterly disagreed with one another?


Robespierre’s response was that the people would be united in their adherence to a General Will which emanated from themselves, ordered on the basis of the Rights of Man as ascertained through the power of human reason. Marcel Gauchet, however, has his doubts. In her review, Lynn Hunt casts Gauchet’s scepticism primarily in terms of his long-standing critique of the atomising effect of the politics of individual human rights, but in fact it is clear that for Gauchet what really undermined the project of the Jacobins was their monistic conception of the people’s will and the tension between the power of the community and the rights of the individual. For Robespierre and his allies, if the ultimate authority lay with the unitary will of a self-governing people, dissent could only be treason. A pluralism of values was thus impossible within the Jacobin democratic system.


Combined, these two critiques have frequently opened Gauchet up to the charge that his is a fundamentally reactionary project. Indeed, at times, Gauchet’s argument appears to adopt a distinctly counter-revolutionary character. In the concluding chapter, for example, he hails the continuity and stability of British constitutional monarchy compared to French republicanism, on the grounds that the gradual evolution from monarchy into democracy via “the progressive rehabilitation of governmental authority served to strengthen popular sovereignty through a neutralisation of royal prerogatives that nonetheless allowed the people to identify with the monarchy.” The traditional bond between king and people was preserved in a manner which prevented the endless oscillation between having legitimate authority without power, and having (typically military) power without legitimacy—an oscillation which characterised France’s development right up until the foundation of the Fifth Republic.


But it would be a mistake to regard his as an irredeemably reactionary diagnosis of the ills facing modern democracy. What Gauchet takes from the counter-revolutionary critique of the revolution—as he argues in his 1980 essay ‘Liberalism’s Lucid Illusions’—is a thoughtful analysis of the deficiencies of liberal democracy. For Gauchet, Western democracies are gripped by a crisis of legitimacy, in which the bonds which once held them together are coming undone, and it is not clear that individual liberty alone is enough of a bond to hold societies together. The old moral and political legitimacy of institutions which have historically cohered our democracies is in terminal decline, he argues, an analysis which is as true of the United States and United Kingdom as it is in France. It is into this space that both the vulgar populism of a figure like Donald Trump, but also the ‘Jupiterian’ personalism of Emmanuel Macron can so easily slip. But this politics can only offer a new unity ordered not around a basic shared conception of the common good, but around a single charismatic personality, dissolving a democratic people into factions oriented around the personal connection between an ersatz king and his loyal followers.


The political destabilisation and dissolution which has characterised the last decade of democratic politics compels us to seriously consider how we might maintain the fragile unity which allows a pluralism of values to exist without spilling over into violence and civil war. It compels us to once again take seriously the contradictions at the heart of the democratic project. And for Gauchet, it is only by returning to the French Revolution and to Robespierre that we can address these serious challenges. As he writes:


a democratic consciousness worthy of the name, which is to say one that is fully alert of the task it faces, owes itself to reflect upon the tragedy of our Republican origins by contemplating the example of the figure in whom its destructive tensions are summed up.


We might, therefore, ask ourselves if the French Revolution is truly over, as François Furet so famously declared in 1978. Is not the project of establishing a society founded upon the sovereignty of the people and the rights of man still haunted by the spectre of the revolution and by the ghost of Robespierre?


Image credit: Robespierre: The Man Who Divides us the Most [cover] (Princeton University Press), Fair Use.

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