Robespierre’s Rules for Radicals
When Victor Hugo wrote the original Les Misérables, he aimed to reconcile France's Catholic and revolutionary traditions. But Tom Hooper's film adaptation of the musical version focuses on the redemptive power of religion, not of revolution, illustrating the modern world's pessimism about revolutionary change.
Revolutionary France in 1794 was a crucible, combining all the elements that would embody Western politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All eyes were on Paris. Depending on who was looking, Maximilien Robespierre was either a hero or a villain. Robespierre, once an obscure lawyer from northern France, had in four short years transformed himself, or so it seemed, into the chief architect of the transition from the hated ancien régime to an uncertain new order. That new order was threatened by invading armies from neighboring countries, counterrevolutionaries in the Vendée region, and intense divisions within the revolutionary ranks, including the Jacobin faction to which Robespierre belonged. The Catholic and conservative right feared the idea of a republic and desired a return to stability. The left wanted to create a virtuous society -- but also simply wanted more bread. Welcome to modern politics.
Unrelenting in his attacks on all those whom he accused of wanting to stop the revolution, and fearless in his denunciation of corruption, Robespierre secured a place on the 12-member Committee of Public Safety, which served as the executive branch of government from 1793 to 1794. In that position, he wielded tremendous power. But his maneuvering space was, in fact, quite narrow. Robespierre faced the same dilemmas that have troubled all democratic revolutionaries ever since: how to uphold the defense of property while also pursuing universal rights, how to balance individual rights with those of the wider community, and how to achieve an outcome consonant with revolutionary ideals without resorting to means that would reproduce the sins of the old order. Fatefully, Robespierre chose to resolve this problem by trying to impose virtuous citizenship on French society by force.
Robespierre's response to resistance (real or imagined) was, in Hegel's formulation, to chop heads off as if they were cabbages. During the Reign of Terror, some 17,000 people were condemned to death by guillotine. Tens of thousands more were imprisoned. And all told, hundreds of thousands died during the civil wars that followed the revolution and which only ended with Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power in 1799.
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