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Spirit of the Terror

La 1ère République

by Albert Soboul
Calmann-Lévy, 365 pp., $19.90 francs

Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française

Société des Etudes Robespierristes, 6 francs

English Historians on the French Revolution

by Hedva Ben-Israel
Cambridge, 311 pp., $11.50

Saint-Just, the collaborator of Robespierre and one of the moving spirits of the Terror, was born in 1768. His bi-centenary last year was the occasion of tributes to his memory and to the regime in which he played one of the principal roles. The Annales devoted to him the whole of its January-March issue. Professor Soboul brought out his 1ère République in which, as has long been fashionable, the period of the Terror is portrayed as the heroic period of the Revolution. As the jacket to this work informs us, though the first republic endured until Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor in 1804, the events after Thermidor (July 27, 1794), when Robespierre and Saint-Just were executed, have been eclipsed by “the tragic grandeur of the year II. In the eyes of history the first republic remains that of 1793.”

In 1793 Saint-Just became a member of the Committee of Public Safety, which between the fall of the Girondins and Thermidor was the effective government of France. He was one of the leaders of the group of men who put down revolt at home and laid the civil and military foundations for victory abroad, and whose economic measures halted the progress of inflation and preserved the poor from starvation. The practical part, however, which he played in these events does not seem to have been large. One of the contributors to the Annales shows that as a representative on mission to the armies, he had considerable administrative achievements to his credit, but these could hardly entitle him to the claim of having been one of the Revolution’s great men of action. Nothing, indeed, has so far emerged to upset Georges Lefebvre’s judgment that on the principal occasion when action was required of him, that is, at Thermidor, he proved incapable of it. He is famous primarily as an orator who in his speeches gave an inflexible support to the republic, and to the Terror which he saw as the instrument of its preservation. It is because of these services to the revolutionary cause that Professor Soboul, in his Introduction to the issue of Annales of January 1968, claims that Saint-Just will never fail to arouse men’s admiration.

Saint-Just, who was only in his twenty-seventh year when he was guillotined, began his adult life as a rascal who stole his mother’s silver and sold it in Paris to pay his debts—an offense for which he was imprisoned in a house of correction designed for the delinquent children of families who could afford to pay for their board and lodging, but lacked the social standing necessary to get them into the Bastille. No one knows how the young libertine was transformed into the model of revolutionary virtue; the transformation was, however, complete by November 1792 when Saint-Just delivered his famous speech in the Convention in favor of the execution of Louis XVI.

Saint-Just’s reputation for virtue rested on his incorruptibility, at a time when many of the revolutionary leaders were making fortunes by illegitimate means, and on the courage and devotion with which he supported the republican cause. He drew his inspiration on the one hand from his passionate hatred of the ancien régime, which he saw as combining the evils of political despotism and social exploitation, and on the other from his vision of a future state which would embody the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. For him, as for Robespierre, the Terror was not a regrettable necessity in the struggle against counter-revolution and foreign invasion, but an essential means of social regeneration, and in consequence morally justified. “Terror,” Robespierre once declared, “is only another form of prompt, severe, inflexible justice.” Referring to Montesquieu’s analysis of despotism, Robespierre argued that

terror was the spring of despotic government. Therefore is yours like despotism? Yes, as the blade that shines in the hands of the heroes of liberty is like the one with which the satellites of tyranny are armed. As the despot governs his brutalized subjects by terror, he is right as a despot. Subdue the enemies of liberty by terror and you will be right as founders of the Republic. The government of the Revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.

This was the philosophy which inspired the war of the “people” against the king and the “aristocrats” (a term which was used at the time to designate all the right-wing opponents of the government). It greatly surpassed in savagery the doctrines which governed the conduct of international war, either then or later, for these never demanded the complete annihilation of the enemy. Saint-Just on the contrary maintained that “there can be no hope of prosperity so long as the last enemy of freedom draws breath. You have to punish not only the traitors, but even those who are indifferent. You have to punish everyone whose attitude to the Republic is merely passive and who does nothing for her.” “What constitutes a republic,” Saint-Just said on another occasion, “is the total destruction of everything opposed to it.”

While to Robespierre and Saint-Just terror was merely an instrument for clearing the ground in preparation for establishing the reign of virtue, the moment for abandoning it continually receded, since it created enemies faster than it disposed of them. By its very nature it struck blindly. It dispensed not only with every safeguard for the accused, but even with the idea that the accused needed to be guilty of any criminal offense. “To judge,” Saint-Just said in his speech demanding the King’s execution, “is to apply the law. The law expresses a relationship of justice. What relationship of this sort can exist between humanity and kings? The King must be tried not for the crimes of his administration but for that of being a king.” When Saint-Just was on mission with Mayor of Strasbourg complained on one occasion that many of his colleagues had been unjustly condemned. Saint-Just replied: “Perhaps you are right in certain cases, but we are in great danger and we do not know where to strike. A blind man looking for a pin in a heap of dust, seizes the heap of dust.”

In the end this way of proceeding inspired so widespread a fear for their own skins among the other members of the Committee of Public Safety and in the Convention that Robespierre and Saint-Just, whose economic policies had lost them the support of the sans-culottes which they had previously enjoyed, were themselves sent to the guillotine. The terror, however, was not exorcised as a result, but merely turned against the associates of the former terrorists.

A Frenchman,” Lenin said to a French Communist in 1920, “has nothing to renounce in the Russian Revolution, which in its methods and its procedures recommences the French Revolution.” The Russian experience, and the Marxist doctrines of the class struggle (many of the elements of which Marx must have derived from the writers of the French Revolution, notably Sieyès and Barnave), provided French historians with a new inspiration and new insights. From the 1920s onward they began to investigate the economic causes of the Revolution and of its various phases; to study the social and economic conditions of the peasants and the san-culottes; to explain the attitudes of the leading revolutionaries by investigating their social and economic interests. It was at this time that the Terror, which in the past had often been condemned even by historians who supported the republican cause, assumed its “tragic grandeur.” It seemed grand not only because of its practical achievements in mobilizing the resources of the Republic against its external and internal enemies, but because of the ideals of its leaders, and because it could be represented as the first battle in the class war which was scheduled to end in the establishment of the classless society, and in the triumph of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The Terror was, however, also tragic because its ideals were not fulfilled, and because it resulted in the triumph of the “bourgeoisie.”

By the triumph of the bourgeoisie the upholders of the current French orthodoxy mean the establishment of a limited franchise based on wealth, the end of all attempts to help the poor by seizing the property of the rich, and the substitution of a belief in laissez-faire for the belief in a controlled economy to which war and inflation had driven the Jacobins. The triumph of the bourgeoisie was in accordance with the Marxist analysis but nevertheless seemed tragic because Robespierre and Saint-Just, though themselves bourgeois (or more accurately petits bourgeois) in their social origins, as well as in some of their points of view, were far from completely bourgeois in their sympathies, however the term bourgeois is understood. Because of their hatred of the rich, their indifference to wealth and personal possessions, their austere morality and their concern for the poor, whom Saint-Just often identified with the nation, they may be said to have been accorded the status of honorary proletarians.

Before Robespierre’s and Saint-Just’s eyes there floated misty visions of a democratic and egalitarian society of small producers. In this society, what Saint-Just called “the monstrous wealth of a few families” would have been abolished and everyone would have enough but not too much! Despotism and terror would have given place to government in accordance with the general will, which Saint-Just, in the scheme for a constitution he drew up in April 1793, assumed would receive expression by means of manhood suffrage and elections of deputies and officials by open vote in village communes. Since, however, Robespierre’s and Saint-Just’s knowledge of economics was, as Professor Soboul says, “quasi-nul,” they were not in a position to draw up any long-term schemes for the alleviation of poverty, and did not even attempt to do so.

Indeed, to Saint-Just, economics seemed a function of politics, and he assumed that once the reign of virtue had been established economic affairs would look after themselves. His constitutional proposals were so naïve and impracticable that, except as evidence of his belief in direct democracy, it is impossible to take them seriously. But while by twentieth-century standards his vision of the millennium was defective, his heart seemed in the right place, and for nearly fifty years in consequence he has inspired a romantic and sentimental devotion among French intellectuals.

It is not difficult to explain the Terror by referring to the chaotic conditions with which the Jacobins had to cope. The only alternative to a terror exercised by the Left, it could be argued, must have been a terror exercised by the Right, which would have been no less brutal and ultimately more disastrous. The admirers of Robespierre and Saint-Just, however, wish not only to explain but to applaud. The condition of most of the people, who even before 1789 had lived at or below subsistence level, greatly deteriorated afterwards because of a combination of bad harvests and the dislocations caused by war and inflation. Robespierre and Saint-Just showed more concern for this state of affairs than any of the other revolutionary leaders and took more steps to combat it. Their love of blood has seemed redeemed by their preoccupation with poverty, and the massacres for which they were responsible by their economic controls. For however arbitrarily and inadequately these worked, they preserved the poor from the disasters of a runaway inflation which was unleashed after Thermidor when the controls were abandoned.

When historians contemplate the facts of the Terror their passions are always aroused. For the Right in France, at such moments (admittedly rare) when it has been in the ascendant among intellectuals, the villains have been the Jacobins because of their bloodthirstiness. For the Left they have been all those who benefited (or were assumed to have benefited) from the peoples’ miseries—the king and the nobility till they were disposed of, and afterwards the rich, particularly the nouveaux riches, for whom Thermidor opened up new opportunities, and who made large profits from the war and the inflation.

Balzac’s Père Goriot was one of these, though since he is portrayed as an object of pity the fact is usually overlooked. He accumulated the fortune of which his daughters so cruelly deprived him, by operations on the black market at a time when the Jacobins had imposed a legal maximum on prices. Balzac, however, did not view the comédie humaine through the spectacles of a political ideology. Historians cannot be so fortunate. When they are required to pronounce on the causes and results of great events, however much they may delude themselves to the contrary, they cannot direct their researches or organize their material without a political ideology of some sort.

Any understanding of historical events thus presupposes an awareness of the points of view of their historians. Among the other reasons she has seen for studying the historiography of the French Revolution, Miss Hedva Ben-Israel has seen this one. Her analysis of the attitudes of English historians to the Revolution is, however, disappointing, partly because of the limits she sets to her subject. Her account stops with Acton, that is, before the Russian Revolution and the doctrines of Marx had begun to influence the thinking of the French, let alone the British. The histories written before this time seem like museum pieces, to which Miss Ben-Israel is in any case not an ideal guide, since she appears to have too little interest in the Revolution itself to be able to form an opinion on the adequacy or inadequacy of her authors’ assessment of it.

In summarizing her conclusions she notes that the British historians in her period all had an ambivalent attitude to the Revolution because, though they believed that it had at first been inspired by the ideals for which their own government stood, they saw its course as having been determined by “error and crime.” They all condemned the society of the ancien régime (since they knew little about it they exaggerated the differences between its upper classes and their own), but they also condemned the Terror. They were, indeed, much given to moral judgments. So, however, were, and are, the French, though their standards are different. Moral judgments are excessively difficult to avoid in such a subject, and certainly will not be avoided so long as the issues are still living issues.

Judgments of this sort, nevertheless, become an obstacle to creative writing once they have ceased to seem relevant to the circumstances of the writer’s times, or have lost their meaning through constant repetition. For these reasons the British intellectuals were forced to abandon their belief in the all-saving power of compromise, and when they did so they also abandoned the wish to interpret the Revolution in any terms except those they had learned from the French. It now seems, however, that the French belief in the constructive role of vengeance is also being overtaken by events.

In its day this belief, which inspired historians to study the condition of the urban and the rural poor, and the part they played in the Revolution, was the source of much illuminating research and eloquent writing. The works of Professor Soboul, the successor of Mathiez and Lefebvre, are, at their best, an illustration of this. In whatever ways future generations may interpret the Revolution, it is unlikely that his analysis of the sans-culottes, and their relations with the Jacobin government, will fail to seem important. Professor Soboul, however, reached his conclusions some time ago and merely summarizes them in his 1ère République. The celebrations of Saint-Just’s bi-centenary have not added to our knowledge except on points of detail. In broad outline the interpretation of the Revolution which Mathiez propounded has not changed since he brought out his Révolution Française in the early 1920s. Half a century, and such a half-century, is a long time.

The founders of the present orthodoxy were moved by a moral passion and a utopian vision. Their passion inspired them with hatred of all regimes in which the many were exploited for the benefit of the few, and they particularly hated the ancien régime whose ruling classes, besides seeming selfish, were also unproductive. Their vision was of a classless society brought about by means of class war. The events of the past fifty years, however, have increasingly cast doubts on the relevance of their moral judgments and the correctness of their vision. The ancien régime was a bad regime, but it fell because of its inefficiencies and not because of its wickedness. Whatever the part played by force in human affairs, Saint-Just’s assumptions on this subject, which the present orthodoxy endorses, are plainly calculated to increase the vices of selfishness, ruthlessness, and corruption which he believed that force could eradicate.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the present orthodoxy was being established, leading intellectuals everywhere were fond of insisting that you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, but they never, apparently, reflected on the way these two operations should be related. It does not seem to have occurred to them that any child can break every egg within reach while remaining totally ignorant of the art of making omelettes. Belief in the virtue of vengeance and destruction, though far from exorcised, now seems less a sign of progressive thinking than it used to. The Russian intelligentsia, who at the beginning of the present century took the French Revolution as a model, no longer do so. There can be no more eloquent denunciation of reigns of terror than Yuli Daniel’s This Is Moscow Speaking, for which he is at present serving a sentence of five years’ hard labor in a camp on the middle Volga.

Sooner or later, presumably, these facts must alter the present historical approach to the French Revolution, which for all the great services it has rendered to scholarship, leaves many points unexplained. Particularly, its apostles have failed to explain coherently the causes of the Revolution or to analyze its results. Its causes must lie in the ancien régime, but this is a subject which it is impossible for the orthodox to consider seriously, and no Frenchman since Tocqueville has in fact done so. As Professor Soboul points out in his 1ère République: the “volonté punitive“—the desire to punish—was the driving force of the Revolution in the period of its greatness, and belief in the virtue of the volonté punitive precludes the desire to understand the circumstances of its victims. Equally, the accounts of the class war, however large the elements of truth which they may contain, are unsatisfactory in their present form, because of their loose terminology. The preoccupations of French historians in the last half-century have led them to distinguish between the various social elements formerly lumped together under the heading of “the people.” But they continue to use the terms “aristocracy,” “nobility,” and “bourgeoisie” as imprecisely, and in as many different senses, as did the Revolutionaries and those of their Marxist followers for whom these words were weapons of propaganda. In consequence it is difficult or impossible to see which social classes provided the Revolution with its leaders, and which were the principal losers or beneficiaries.

It is significant that the issue of the Annales here under discussion carries on its back page an advertisement (inserted, however, by the Dutch and not the French) which offers a prize of 400 florins for an essay, in any one of several languages, on the part played by the bourgeoisie in the Revolution. The candidates, who are particularly instructed to define their terms precisely, are asked among other things to consider whether the capitalist bourgeoisie of the Marxist analyses did in fact play a leading role or reap any immediate benefits.

Very likely it did neither. Very likely this is not the only case in which the existing orthodoxy is misleading. Its days may be numbered. Historians like other people condone the mistakes and even the crimes of those whose ends they approve. But the means may destroy the ends, and when this seems to happen the accepted ideology collapses, and with it the historians’ assumptions which determine the order of facts they select for investigation.

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