Robespierre and Democracy: Four Perspectives

8 August 2022

Robespierre and Democracy: Four Perspectives

It is just over two hundred and twenty eight years since Maximilien Robespierre fell from power. And yet Robespierre still has the capacity to incite debate. Just last month, when left-wing members of the French National Assembly announced their intention to celebrate Robespierre’s life, they were met with denunciation and accusations of “historical ignorance” by government ministers and right-wing politicians alike.

In this piece, four different perspectives are offered on Robespierre’s significance for politics today: Marisa Linton and Catherine Hulse both consider the ambiguities of Robespierre’s relationship to revolutionary democracy and to the rule of law, Chris Chambers highlights Robespierre’s still-relevant defences of democratic citizenship, and Geoff Mann emphasises the importance of Robespierre’s pragmatic critique of market fundamentalism.

Together, these different perspectives show us both the complexity of Robespierre as a figure, and what we can still draw today from democracy’s revolutionary past.


 

Robespierre and the Problem of Democracy in the French Revolution – Marisa Linton

Robespierre was a complex man in a fraught and fast-moving time – the first five years of the French Revolution. Understanding Robespierre aids our appreciation of the precarious, unstable nature of democracy. His life and the choices he made throw light on the degree to which the security of a democracy rests on the integrity of its politicians. In order to get to grips with Robespierre’s political ideas we must situate him in the context of his time. We need to get beyond the black legend of Robespierre constructed by the Thermidoreans, the men who overthrow him, and who subsequently laid the responsibility for ‘the Terror’ at his door in order to exculpate themselves for their own collective participation in decisions taken during the crisis of war and revolution.

In the early years of the Revolution Robespierre was one of a small group of Jacobin radicals in the National Assembly who argued that the principles of the Revolution, enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, should be applied to all men, regardless of poverty and individual religious beliefs. He also argued against slavery as being in contradiction to the Rights of Man. In May 1791 he tried – unsuccessfully – to get the death penalty abolished, arguing that it was a barbaric, immoral and ineffectual practice. Over the winter of 1791-1792 he opposed – again unsuccessfully – the move to declare war on France’s neighbours, on the grounds that ‘no one welcomes armed liberators’, and arguing that war would play into the hands of military leaders, and risked enabling the rise of a military leader, a new Julius Caesar at the expense of popular sovereignty. Had Robespierre died in early 1792 his reputation as an advocate of democracy would be readily accepted. But the war declared in April 1792 transformed France’s circumstances, and destabilised and polarised politics. It swiftly led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the declaration of the first Republic. War changed the Revolution, and it also changed Robespierre.

In common with most revolutionaries Robespierre was an advocate of the ideal of political virtue – that is, the obligation for politicians to put the public good before personal self-interest or self-enrichment. The perceived need for political leaders to act as men of virtue was in part a reaction against the corruption and venality endemic in the old regime. As the Revolution progressed there was a growing awareness that deeds must match words, that the integrity of revolutionaries must be authentic, rather than mere words that were mouthed to win support. Amongst his supporters on the radical left, and amongst the working people of Paris, Robespierre was one of the revolutionary leaders whose integrity was seen as authentic – he could not be bought or bribed: hence his soubriquet, ‘the Incorruptible.’

Robespierre’s transformation into a supporter of terror does not lie in some individual flaw in his personality, but in the headlong and increasingly traumatic politics of the Revolution itself. In June 1793, the Jacobin leaders wrote the most democratic, egalitarian and libertarian constitution that the world had yet seen. Then they shelved it ‘until the peace’ – that is, until the war should be over. The circumstances of war, they argued, necessitated a crisis government. Robespierre did not cease to be a democrat. But he thought other things were more important – chief of which was the survival of the Republic. Everything must be subordinated to that. Revolutionaries must be prepared to adopt the ruthless tactics that their enemies would deploy were the positions to be reversed. In these circumstances, Robespierre considered the recourse to terror to be acceptable provided it was guided by virtue (political integrity). Thus the humanitarian and libertarian politician became a defender of terror, and ironically it is for that that he is principally remembered.

Whenever in contemporary society we face problems of political stability; the universality – or otherwise – of human rights; the dangers of military takeover in a weakened state; political and financial corruption; the need for authentic integrity in politicians; the gap between what politicians say and what they do; the fraught relationship between virtue, terror, and the public good – we are walking in the same landscape where Robespierre and the Jacobins walked before us. If we are attentive, we can learn from their successes as well as their failures.

Marisa Linton is Emerita Professor of History at Kingston University. Her books include: The Politics of Virtue in Enlightenment France (Palgrave, 2001), Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (OUP, 2013), and Terror: the French Revolution and its Demons (with Michel Biard, Polity, 2021).


 

Robespierre and the Price of Citizenship – Chris Chambers

Contemporary Western democracies have come a long way since property requirements still excluded most white men from the franchise. Yet the notion that citizenship comes at a price remains an important analytic for understanding the substance of democratic citizenship and the obstacles that continue to prevent its full realization. The history of citizenship and its relationship to class has been given its most thorough articulation in T.H. Marshall’s Citizenship and Social Class, and in the welfare historian Michael B. Katz’s classic works of American social history. But well before these authors, it was Robespierre who most powerfully articulated that property and other monetary requirements for citizenship should be named and publicly denounced for their fundamentally anti-democratic character.

Today, it is easy to take the absence of such requirements for granted. But Robespierre reveals their enduring democratic significance: he was the first to see that behind them lay a snobbish, vaguely contemptuous attitude toward the poorest members of society. Along with racial and gender-based exclusions, early innovators of democratic citizenship regularly excluded menial laborers and the unemployed from the franchise. For example, although in seventeenth-century England the “Digger” Gerrard Winstanley argued that the franchise should extend to all the poor, many other participants in the famous “Putney debates” insisted that the propertyless should be kept outside of political society; James Harrington might inspire democratically minded scholars of republican thought, but it is worth remembering that his ideal commonwealth always excluded servants; Jean-Jacques Rousseau held property ownership as sacrosanct and also treated it as a precondition of citizenship; and when Emmanuel Sieyès claimed that sovereignty resided in the nation, he did not mean with all the people and their representatives, but specifically active citizens. Active citizenship referred to the electorate and was defined by its property-based qualification and exclusion of women, colonized subjects, and servants. As C.L.R. James aptly put it, the passive citizens were the “poor who had fought in the streets”—the laboring and nonlaboring classes who exemplified democratic politics but were not seen as deserved of political agency.

A defense of the political agency of the unpropertied can be found in the seventeenth century with Winstanley, and, as his caricature as a vulgar realist has faded, Niccolò Machiavelli has also become one of political theory’s exemplars of the politics of the unpropertied. Yet, in terms of contemporary democracy, it was Robespierre who was there, at the birth of the modern representative democratic order, to challenge Sieyès’s distinction between active and passive citizenship. In the context of revolutionary France, he saw the exclusionary attitude toward the latter as profoundly undemocratic, stressing in his 1790 speech “On the Silver Mark” that equality and liberty would mean nothing if the active-passive distinction were maintained. Insidious and barbaric, “passive citizen” was a category that stripped poor people of dignity and, more than anything, buttressed the corruption and plutocracy of the rich. By defining citizenship financially, elites could expand the franchise to an extent while still excluding those poor considered undesirable. Robespierre understood that “passive citizen” was code for the “rabble”—that is, the category of poor people who were painted as distinctly inferior and contemptible.

Historically, the “rabble” has referred to overlapping, but not exactly equivalent categories of the poor: the “underserving poor” and the “lumpenproletariat,” the “underclass” and the “truly disadvantaged.” The most marginalized economically in any given society, in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century political thought they were depicted as morally degraded and politically impotent. Indeed, even the most sympathetic and egalitarian thinkers often betrayed a hatred toward the poorest of society, not least because they thought the very poor’s interests had been captured by their masters (or, later, employers, demagogues, and reactionaries). The undeserving poor were essentially seen as mindless drones who needed aristocratic ties of dependency to function as responsible humans (many believed for this reason that the very poor barely were humans). Since the unpropertied supposedly lacked their own, stable interests, they were to be kept at the margins of society. As the historian Rachel Hammersley has shown, even if Robespierre’s perspective prevailed to some degree with the expansion of the franchise in 1792, servants were still prevented from voting. Class remained, like gender and race, a principal barrier to citizenship, especially for those at the absolute bottom of the economic order.

For Robespierre, this view of citizenship and attitude toward the poor could not be separated from the principles and hopes of democracy. If a hateful distinction between deserving and undeserving poor inflected citizenship, then it was simply wrong to assert that either the people or nation were sovereign. Put differently, “popular sovereignty” was a vacuous notion if measures existed to keep certain poor people outside of citizenship, as second-class “citizens”.

The democratic significance of social citizenship and the political situation of the “undeserving poor” no longer attracts significant theoretical attention. But as Scott W. Stern recently has argued, hateful stereotypes about the “undeserving poor” remain a burden on social citizenship: in the U.S., they have been invoked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to defend welfare restrictions. While inseparable in the U.S. context from anti-black bigotry, these stereotypes belong to a longer history of anti-poor, which is to say, anti-democratic, rhetoric and political practice. So long as they are used to publicly justify the various registers of capitalism and plutocracy that entrench economic and political isolation among the very poor, citizenship in any meaningful sense will be more an ideal than a reality of democracy. Robespierre’s legacy may be complicated and ultimately tragic, but his example instructs us on how to think more critically, and more honestly, about the scope of our democratic republics.

Chris Chambers is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Yale University. His dissertation, tentatively entitled “Hatred of the Poor: Poverty and the Politics of Human Nature from Smith to Engels” explores discourses about the poor to critically examine “aporophobia,” the idea of hostility toward the poor, in its relation to the politics of social citizenship.


 

Robespierre and the Politics of Necessity – Geoff Mann

Hannah Arendt once said that Robespierre’s “emotion-laden insensitivity to reality” was to blame for what she saw as his disproportionate contribution to the iniquities of the revolutionary tradition:

“Since the days of the French Revolution, it has been the boundlessness of their sentiments that made revolutionaries so curiously insensitive to reality in general and to the reality of persons in particular, whom they felt no compunctions in sacrificing to their ‘principles’, or to the course of history, or to the cause of revolution as such”.

Arendt is only repeating the mistake made by so many others, reading Robespierre’s biography backwards, so that his role in the Terror retrospectively defines the entire life that preceded it.

On the contrary, the politics of the relation between “principle” and practice was central to much of Robespierre’s thinking during the Revolution. Take, for example, his opposition to a Girondin proposal to reinstate “freedom of commerce” by terminating price controls legislated by the Constituent Assembly in 1791, but suspended since the imprisonment of the King and the abolition of the monarchy on 10 August 1792. Robespierre opposed the reinstatement of commercial freedom—not in principle, but at that moment. Noting that the masses were up in arms—as he spoke, 10,000 peasants were marching on Tours to demand a fixed price on wheat—he reminded the delegates that meeting the people’s needs was not only the their “most sacred duty”, but in “their most precious interests”. In conditions of scarcity [disette] and desperation, “the first social law guarantees all members of society the means to live; all others are subordinate to that one”.

For Robespierre, one of the more ridiculous errors of the bourgeois insistence on freedom of commerce lay in the fact that the practical problem of securing private property—how to ensure it survived the crisis—so clearly required abandoning the principle. The situation in the streets meant a strict commitment to an abstraction like “economic liberty”—what today would be called “free markets”—was foolish given the actually existing world upon which it was to be imposed. If the Girondins’ plan entailed “unlimited freedom of trade, and bayonets to calm fears or appease hunger”, then it very clearly crossed a crucial threshold: “freedom of trade is necessary up to the point where homicidal greed starts to abuse it; the use of bayonets is an atrocity; the system is essentially incomplete because it fails to touch on the real principle”, i.e. that no one “has the right to amass piles of wheat beside a neighbour who is dying of hunger”.

Robespierre pressed the point: if one can starve while one’s neighbour can “amass piles of wheat”, then the problem is clearly not a scarcity of wheat. If so—and it was, and still is, obviously so—then the world behind skyrocketing prices and bread riots is not the outcome of “natural” scarcity. On the contrary, scarcity is a problem only because people produce it: “In every country where nature provides for the needs of men with prodigality, scarcity [disette] can only be due to the vices of the administration or the laws themselves; bad laws and bad administration originate in false principles and bad morals. It is a well-known fact that the soil of France produces far more than is needed to feed her inhabitants, and that the current scarcity is artificial [une disette factice]”.

The theorists of freedom of commerce made no distinction between essential goods and ordinary merchandise. Consequently, “having failed to bring that fundamental matter into their calculations, they made a faulty application of principles evident in general”. In other words, the abstract principles failed to take account of the substance of the world in which we actually live. “Bon sens” tell us that commodities that “are in no way necessities can be abandoned to the merchant’s limitless speculations; any momentary shortage is always bearable; and in general it makes sense that unconstrained freedom in such markets should be to the greatest profit of the state and some individuals; but the lives of men cannot be subjected to such uncertainty”.

At least on these questions then, Arendt’s assessment of Robespierre could not be more wrong. In the unavoidable confrontations between liberal principle and necessity, it was principle that he insisted must relent. “It is not true that property never gets in the way of human subsistence. The food necessary to life is as sacred as life itself. Everything indispensable to life is the whole of society’s common property”. Necessity is history’s challenge to all the universal principles human communities convince themselves must be true and natural. Robespierre reminds us that there are no principles so pure that before them even hunger and the force of history itself give way.

Geoff Mann is Director of the Centre for Global Political Economy at Simon Fraser University, and the author of In the Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution (Verso, 2017).


 

Robespierre and the Rule of Law – Catherine Hulse

William Doyle and Colin Haydon’s 1999 publication of conference proceedings on Robespierre highlighted that the general public knows little or nothing about him (despite the vast number of academic works). What it did (or indeed, does) know about him, and indeed the entire Revolution, is confined to grisly images of the guillotine and the Terror:

“The links to the horrors of the twentieth century [have been] repeatedly emphasised. And in so far as Robespierre was perceived as the architect and perpetrator of terror, he has found himself more reviled than ever, and stigmatised as responsible in some sense for political bloodshed long after he himself had fallen victim to it.”

Nonetheless, Robespierre was – and continues to be – far more than this. He was not dissociated from the notion of democracy, but was, in many senses, a visionary. His immovable commitment to rights, justice, and equality saw him subscribe passionately to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the general will. Though he became more radical over the course of the Revolution, his commitment to rights and a system that worked for the genuine common good remained absolute, and he continued to view himself as defending democracy, albeit rarely using the term itself.

Unlike Rousseau, Robespierre accepted that democracy (in a large modern state at least) was a system where elected representatives carried out the will of the people through direct, affirmative action. They should be trusted in this role because, “everything guarantees their fidelity, their personal interest, that of their family, of their posterity, that of the people whose confidence had elected them”. We may consider this as overly optimistic, particularly given recent stories in the news, however, Robespierre envisaged a far more politically-engaged citizenry than we arguably have today – a citizenry which would judge their representatives and of which their representatives would be part, not above. A citizenry, moreover, that would demand transparency in all elements of law-making and governance and that would maintain a means of expressing its will over that of its agents and delegates: “It is impossible to pretend… that [the nation] has no way of retaining any part [of its delegated authority] , without any modification whatsoever.”

This leads to Robespierre’s perhaps most crucial point on democracy, relevant to the notion of such government more than two-hundred years later: “It must be remembered that governments are established by the people and for the people; that all those who govern, and consequently the kings themselves, are only the agents and delegates of the people.” Accountability was, and needs to be, a most basic principle of any political system claiming to be democratic.

Following the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, Robespierre began to move from a focus on a strong legislature to an extreme execution, though continued to highlight in his own Draft Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, that, “the law is the free and solemn expression of the people’s will”, “is equal for all”, and most importantly, “should above all defend public and individual liberty against abuse of authority by those who govern.” His belief that “all citizens have an equal right to contribute to the appointment of the people’s representatives, and to the formation of law” remained central.

Much could be said about the development of his thought and the dichotomy between words and action over the following year, though the importance of context cannot be understated – there is a distinct contrast made in Robespierre’s thought between constitutional government (i.e. “the ideal”) and revolutionary government. Regardless of how warped the practice of Terror was with hindsight, Robespierre maintained that its purpose, the purpose of revolutionary government, was “to establish and consolidate the rule of law. It has nothing in common with arbitrary rule; it is public interest that governs it and not the whims of private individuals.” “What is the goal we aim for?” he asked, “the peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality, [when]laws have been engraved, not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of all men…” Even in the most extreme of contexts, the centrality of law fundamentally by and for the people remained the ultimate goal.

Far more could be said about Robespierre and democracy. However, if we are to take away anything from any analysis of his thought on the subject, it is the importance, firstly, of a politically engaged citizenry, aware of its rights, and secondly, of accountability. The two go hand in hand, and without them, democracy cannot be successful. Robespierre is important for democracy today because he is a reminder that we should not be complacent in our attitude towards our representatives, the rule of law, and, indeed, the fundamental assurance of our rights.

Catherine Hulse gained her doctorate from Queen Mary University of London in 2020 with a thesis entitled “Power and Purpose: Rousseau and the Pursuit of Legitimacy in Revolutionary France.” She has since been developing a career outside of academia in the UK Civil Service.


 

Image credit: unknown artist, public domain

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