Rousseau, Robespierre, and English Romanticism

By Gregory Dart | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The politics of confession in Rousseau and Robespierre

I

On the 29 October 1792 the leading Girondin deputy Jean-Baptiste Louvet rose before the National Convention to accuse Maximilien Robespierre of aspiring to the dictatorship of the new French Republic. In his review of the momentous events that had led up to the dissolution of the monarchy, Louvet sought to make a distinction between the 'popular' insurrection of 10 August and the spate of summary executions in the prisons of Paris in September. While the former had been a spontaneous uprising of the people against oppression, 'the work of all', the latter had been the perpetrated by a small band of 'scoundrels'. 'The people of Paris know how to fight', he insisted, 'but they do not know how to murder. ' Far from being 'popular', in fact, the September massacres had been a deliberate attempt by Robespierre to round up and despatch his political opponents:

Then we saw this man urging firstly the Jacobins and then the electoral assembly to denounce certain philosophers, writers and patriotic orators; then we saw his deputy conspirators declaring Robespierre to be the only virtuous man in France, the only one to whom the task of saving the people could be entrusted; this man who has been full of base flattery for a few hundred citizens, whom he dubbed 'the people of Paris', then 'the people', and finally 'the sovereign' … and who, after having celebrated the power and sovereignty of the people, never forgot to add that he was one of the people himself, a tactic as crude as it is blameworthy, the kind of ruse which has always been useful to usurpers from Caesar to Cromwell. 1

Despite publicly proclaiming themselves to be the defenders of the people, the Girondins had become privately unsympathetic to the political demands of the Parisian working class during the course of 1792. And as this ambivalence began to make itself felt, they became markedly less 'popular' than their Jacobin counterparts. For while the Jacobins were willing to acknowledge the influence of the Paris sections, the Girondins began to favour a political programme based on a broader

-43-

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