Present historic: Carlyle, Robespierre and the French Revolution

Part one

By Ann Talbot
15 July 2010

Ruth Scurr (ed.) Carlyle’s The French Revolution (London and New York: Continuum, 2010) and Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (London: Vintage, 2006)

The following is the first part of a two-part essay reviewing two books by Ruth Scurr on the French Revolution. The second part will be posted Friday, July 16.

The boy kneels in the street. His borrowed clothes are wet with the rain that has been falling all day. A coach rattles across the cobbles and halts beside him. The occupants do not get down because of the rain. Instead, a window is lowered and the boy, still kneeling, delivers an oration. The coach drives on, leaving the boy and several hundred other boys and masters kneeling in the street. They get to their feet and file back through the gates of Louis-le Grand College, walking neither too fast nor too slow as the school rules prescribe.

The boy was Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) and the coach contained Louis XVI and his family returning from his coronation at Reims in 1775. Louis had considered breaking with a tradition that dated back to the fifth century and holding the coronation in Paris, but his advisers warned him that the times were too troubled to risk such innovations. The visit to the college was something of a compromise. It was a nod towards the new France in which these boys would take their place as administrators and lawyers. They were being educated for their future role, according to a strict classical regime.

Their reading was carefully monitored to exclude the influence of unsuitable and subversive literature. That did not stop them reading it. Robespierre became a passionate devotee of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Even the classics they read formed their minds according to a pattern of republican virtue that jarred with the aristocratic mores of ancien regime France. Tacitus might be an exercise in style, history and grammar in any other circumstances, but in late eighteenth century France it read like an exhortation to revolution. The authorities of Louis-le-Grand would find that they had produced a generation of revolutionaries. The talents of the college’s young orator would be applied to a very different purpose when he next encountered the king.

Ruth Scurr has done an enormous service by producing a collection of extracts from Thomas Carlyle’s powerful narrative The French Revolution to add to her earlier biography of Robespierre, in which she uncovers something of the character and motivations of a man who is more usually hidden in the “blood red mist” of the Terror. The portrait she offers is a generally sympathetic one that aims to present an objective picture of Robespierre and restore him to his rightful place in history as a man who helped to shape modern political institutions—albeit by a means of a revolutionary process that is entirely unpalatable to the present-day liberals that benefit from it. As Scurr writes, “To understand him is to begin to understand the French Revolution.”

Not only the French Revolution. A serious study of Robespierre inevitably throws light on other revolutions, as Scurr’s critics have been quick to point out. Reviewing Scurr’s biography in the Nation, Professor Lynn Hunt, who teaches French and European history at the University of California, Los Angeles, draws a direct connection between Robespierre and Leon Trotsky, and between both of them and all forms of terror.

“History transformed Robespierre from a highly personalized ogre into the embodiment of revolution itself. The right has been certain of the pedigree, at least since 1917. In their view, the theorist of terror set the mold for all the great revolutionary butchers: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and, more recently, both Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The left has felt less sure of what to do with his legacy. For Marx he was a “terrorist with his head in the clouds,” driven by ancient Roman ideals and therefore inherently incapable of sniffing out the ascension of modern bourgeois social relations. But the later French socialists and Russian Bolsheviks, especially Trotsky, lionized him. Trotsky remained obsessed with “the Incorruptible” throughout his life, seeing Lenin and then himself as the true Robespierre of the Russian Revolution.” [Lynn Hunt, “For Reasons of State,” The Nation, May 29, 2006.]

Marx does not describe Robespierre as a “terrorist with his head in the clouds,” as Hunt suggests. What he and Engels wrote was that Napoleon was “no terrorist with his head in the clouds” [Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Holy Family (1845) MECW, vol. 4]. The omission of that two-letter word and the false attribution to Robespierre is of a piece with the unhistorical amalgam that Hunt attempts to create between Trotsky and Robespierre, and the distinction she attempts to draw between Trotsky and Marx. Marx was certainly critical of Robespierre, but then so was Trotsky. Trotsky defined the relationship between Marxism and Jacobinism in the following way in Results and Prospects (Trotsky, 1906).

“The whole of the present international proletarian movement was formed and grew strong in the struggle against the traditions of Jacobinism. We subjected its theories to criticism, we exposed its historical limitations, its social contradictoriness, its utopianism, we exposed its phraseology, and broke with its traditions, which for decades had been regarded as the sacred heritage of the revolution.


“But we defend Jacobinism against the attacks, the calumny, and the stupid vituperations of anaemic, phlegmatic liberalism. The bourgeoisie has shamefully betrayed all the traditions of its historical youth, and its present hirelings dishonour the graves of its ancestors and scoff at the ashes of their ideals. The proletariat has taken the honour of the revolutionary past of the bourgeoisie under its protection. The proletariat, however radically it may have, in practice, broken with the revolutionary traditions of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless preserves them, as a sacred heritage of great passions, heroism and initiative, and its heart beats in sympathy with the speeches and acts of the Jacobin Convention.”

There is, in this sense, a continuity between the French Revolution in what Trotsky describes as its “heroic phase” and the proletarian revolution. But the social basis of the French Revolution of 1789 was entirely different from that of the Russian Revolution of 1917. To attempt to fuse them together, as Hunt does, is to remove them from their proper historical context and to deny the distinctive social content of each. It is hopelessly abstract to speak of revolution without specifying the social and historical content of the particular example under discussion. To throw assorted dictators and Islamic fundamentalists into the mix is simply to sow confusion.

If we are historically specific about the Jacobins, we can see there was an inescapable contradiction within their programme. They attempted to create a society founded on reason, liberty, equality and fraternity on the basis of private property and of social relations that presupposed the exploitation of one class by another. It was an inevitably utopian project that ultimately could be sustained only on the basis of the Terror, and then only on a temporary and tenuous basis.

The imperatives of private property and profit were not about to stand still, and the Jacobins had no alternative form of social organisation to offer. Robespierre did not need to imagine conspiracies. They arose in plenty. Just across the Channel, the emerging capitalist power of Britain could afford to finance the armies of the surviving ancien regimes and uprisings such as that in the province of La Vendée. Domestic opposition was produced by the war profiteers and grain merchants, who exploited the continuing shortages of grain.

Historians tend to focus on the Terror and attempt to catalogue its victims in Paris and the provinces, but they seldom set beside it the death toll from the war that resulted from the invasion of France, or the potential death toll if the Terror had not enabled the Jacobins to mobilise resistance to that invasion. France defeated, devastated, despoiled and partitioned would have seen a far higher death toll than that produced by the guillotine. The terror of the guillotine is remembered, but the terror of the invading Prussians is forgotten. Nor had the French monarchy and aristocracy been slow to resort to their own terror in the past.

The fascination with the Terror to the exclusion of the circumstances in which it took place has tended to lead to the conclusion that revolution is necessarily associated with Terror. Not every revolution is the French Revolution. It is therefore unhistorical to suppose that all revolutions must lead to a terror comparable to that of the French Revolution.

Scurr’s biography of Robespierre attempts to put him in his correct historical context, rather than submerge him in a long and assorted list of dictators and Islamic fundamentalists who are all supposed to be rendered equal in their sanguinary aims. The picture she offers of Robespierre is historically founded and nuanced. He is a complex character rather than a crude stereotype culled from the current, modish fears of the liberal intelligentsia.

It would be impossible to write about the execution of the king or the Terror without mentioning Robespierre, and it would be impossible to write about Robespierre with mentioning the Terror and his role in the decision to execute Louis. But Scurr is meticulous in showing how both the execution of the king and the Terror emerged from the logic of political events. She traces the evolution of Robespierre’s political thought through his speeches, and shows how the young lawyer who opposed the death penalty became the strongest advocate of the king’s execution and the Terror under the pressure of war and internal conspiracies.

If there is a weakness in the book, it is that Scurr does not have a firm grasp of the class issues involved in the revolution and which underlay the terror. In part, this is imposed by the medium of biography. Scurr’s focus must be on the person of Robespierre and cannot shift to the wider social context that would be required if she were to examine why capitalist social relations made the Jacobin programme utopian.

But even in a longer, more wide-ranging book it is possible that the same problem would be evident, since Scurr largely sees France through Robespierre’s eyes. Even in biography, that has its limits. It is possible now to have a far clearer conception of eighteenth century social relations and their material basis than Robespierre could have had at the time.

The influence of Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul is evident in Scurr’s willingness to see history from below, which sets her somewhat apart from the revisionist tradition, and she has managed to raise some hackles from this quarter as a result. It may be that her future work will encourage her to explore the class questions more closely.

To be continued