Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Robespierre's Rules for Radicals: How to Save Your Revolution without Losing Your Head

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Robespierre's Rules for Radicals: How to Save Your Revolution without Losing Your Head

Article excerpt

Robespierre's Rules for Radicals: How to Save Your Revolution Without Losing Your Head Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. by PETER MCPHEE . Yale University Press, 2012, 352 pp. $40.00.

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.

Why did Robespierre take the path of terror, or "terrorism," a term that was first used in a political context by Robespierre's enemies to describe his methods? Peter McPhee's new biography aims to untangle the personal and psychological motivations that shaped Robespierre's actions. But it also reminds readers that the Terror resulted from quandaries faced by all revolutionaries-including those attempting to construct brave new worlds today.


To understand Robespierre, one must see the French Revolution in tragic terms. The revolution did not devolve into the Terror owing to the revolutionaries' zealous pursuit of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. To the contrary: it devolved because by July 1794, the overwhelming majority of the revolutionaries no longer wanted to reach those goals, whose immediate effects for them, they feared, might be the confiscation of their property, or the guillotine, or both. Indeed, once in power, the Jacobins proved completely incapable of resolving the contradictions of their own revolutionary program.

But it is also true that the revolution was influenced by Robespierre's internal conflicts. Robespierre detested violence and was opposed to capital punishment. Yet he persisted, against all evidence, in believing that smashing invisible (and usually imagined) conspiracies and executing his opponents would solve his problems and those of the revolution.

McPhee concedes that Robespierre was ultimately paranoid and made grave errors of judgment. He was not, however, "the emotionally stunted, rigidly puritanical and icily cruel monster of history and literature. …

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