November 3, 2013
THE ENEMY IN THE LONG WAR:
'What a man this is, with his crowd of women around him!' : a review of Robespierre edited by Colin Haydon and William Doyle (Hilary Mantel, 3/30/00, London Review of Books)
In the National Assembly which evolved from the Estates, he was part of a tiny radical minority, but this did not bother him because he did not count in the ordinary way. He was always part of a greater majority: the People and Maximilien, Maximilien and the People. He quickly suspected that the heroes of '89, when in power, were merely old regime politicians with a different vocabulary. They spoke the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, while furthering their sectional interests. He tried to shame them into following the logic of their proclaimed principles; mostly, he failed. In the two years following the taking of the Bastille, he pursued an impeccably liberal and far-sighted agenda. He spoke for manhood suffrage and against a property qualification for voters; against slavery; in support of civil rights for Jews; against capital punishment; and against censorship.The two latter principles, notoriously, would buckle under pressure. In the early years of the Revolution he let the radical press establish his credentials. From the spring of 1792 to the early summer of the following year he made a low-key venture into journalism, publishing a weekly paper, of comment rather than news. His distributor was in the cour du Commerce, on Marat's doorstep. It is hard to imagine him in that territory of inky little hacks, trading sneers and insults over each others' misprints. He had been, as Hugh Gough's essay says, 'consistent and tenacious' in defence of press freedom and had refused to take legal action over the many libels published against him, believing that public opinion would vindicate him. After the fall of the monarchy, the anti-censorship case had to give way; only a community of saints would have allowed the royalist press the opportunity to campaign for a restoration. In the spring of 1794, his childhood friend Camille Desmoulins would tell him that it was not vertu but freedom of thought that was the basis of a republic; but the offending issue of the Vieux Cordelier would not make it into print and the childhood friend would go to the scaffold. In this affair you can convict him of timidity, or of coldness of heart, rather than hypocrisy. It is unhelpful to read a man backwards. Robespierre's early commitment to press freedom was genuine, but did not extend to a press which, as he saw it, had been systematically corrupted. As Gough shows, the Committee of Public Safety, when Robespierre was a member, did not reintroduce the repressive censorship of the old regime nor anticipate that of the Directory; though perhaps it was want of capacity, rather than lack of will. By late 1793, Robespierre profoundly feared the press. A syllable, he felt, could sabotage his policy. For example, he had said: 'the republic, one and indivisible.' The press reported that he had said 'one and universal'; thus aligning him with distrusted cosmopolitan radicals. He did not think this was a mishearing, but a plot to trap him.His personal history gave him no reason to believe that the world would let him have his say. He was, it is reported, frequently shouted down and silenced early in his parliamentary career. He had no presence, there were no crowd-pleasing mannerisms or orator's flourishes. Historians usually report that his speeches are arid. It is interesting, then, to read his speech against capital punishment, which is as fresh as if it had been made today. It is perfectly constructed, a brilliant fusion of logic and emotion: as much a work of art as a building or a piece of music could be. You can believe that, as Desmoulins reported, he could bring 800 men to their feet in a single moment. You could quibble over the head-count, but the power seemed to be real. It extended to the women of Paris, who attended the public galleries of the Jacobin Club. This worried his contemporaries. They thought he was taking some sneaky advantage. 'What a man this is, with his crowd of women around him!' said Rabaud Saint-Etienne. Condorcet, the champion of women's rights, sulked because he had got their attention.The status which Robespierre achieved in the Revolution cannot be explained in traditional political terms. For most of his career he fought shy of office, and most of the parliamentary measures he proposed were rejected as too progressive. When he joined the Committee of Public Safety he did so in the quietest manner possible, simply replacing a member who had fallen ill. Soon after he joined the Committee, it began to accrete executive power, till it was the effective Government of France. Its proceedings were generally not minuted, so his role is often unclear. Is he speaking for himself, or for the Government? Whatever the source of his authority, he was undeniably effective. David Jordan's essay describes him as 'that rare being, an ideologue with exquisite political reflexes'. Part of the secret of his success, no doubt, was that initially he was underrated. He was cautious, and could bury himself in detail; these traits were thought the hallmarks of mediocrity. But he had a canny sense of timing and the kind of persistence that wore his opponents down; the weary Danton, at his trial, described him as 'above all, tenacious'. The Robespierre of 1793 is the patron saint of the formerly overlooked, one of the meek who are to inherit the earth. His moral authority held together under pressure of circumstance, and his reputation for probity often seemed the one constant when coalitions were fragile and the reading of events uncertain. He was an idealist who did not believe in losing. As Coleridge put it, 'Robespierre ... possessed a glowing ardour that still remembered the end, and a cool ferocity that never either overlooked or scrupled the means.'In May 1793 he told the Convention: 'To fulfil your mission, you must do exactly the contrary of what existed before you.' Alan Forrest's essay on his part in war organisation shows him confronting the generals with unblinking radicalism. He had opposed a declaration of war by the French, which made him temporarily unpopular. But he knew that, in times of war, public liberty never increases. He was suspicious of soldiers in general, their outlook; they were oppressors by nature, he thought. He was sceptical of the notion that the French Army would spread freedom through Europe: 'who loves armed missionaries?' He suspected that the war was unwinnable, and that once it began it could not be limited. Victories might be more lethal than defeats; he saw a military dictatorship as the end of it, and of course he was right. But as Forrest shows, he became 'a war leader in spite of himself', his imagination and his willingness to tear up the rule book contributing to the high morale of the volunteers and helping to win the Republic's battles. Ideology reinforced strategy. The ambit of heroism was not narrowly defined; a woman who sent her son to the front was also a hero. The soldier was not a brute, but a citizen: not cannon-fodder but a free man whose intelligence must be addressed.But it's not enough to win; you have to be right. The Revolution, he believed, must be justified at every step, and every Revolutionary action must be an expression of virtue. No cynic ever learns anything about Robespierre; unable to come to grips with 'virtue', he retires, baffled. There is a problem with the English word 'virtue'. It sounds pallid and Catholic. But vertu is not smugness or piety. It is strength, integrity and purity of intent. It assumes the benevolence of human nature towards itself. It is an active force that puts the public good before private interest. Its meaning is explored in Patrice Higonnet's Goodness beyond Virtue (1998), which is an extraordinary manual of practical Jacobinism. Higonnet has not much time for Robespierre, who, he says, 'probably died a virgin' (not that historians ever gossip, of course). But his book shows the day-to-day vitality, during the Revolution, of ideas which had a venerable pedigree, but which had been presumed to be entirely theoretical. Robespierre thought that, if you could imagine a better society, you could create it. He needed a corps of moral giants at his back, but found himself leading a gang of squabbling moral pygmies.This is how Virtue led to Terror. Virtue and Terror became inseparable, a single Janus-faced god who guarded the gate to a better world. Was the violence of 1793-94 just the product of circumstances, forced on an unwilling Government panicked by war, civil war and sabotage? Or was it somehow the logical outcome of everything that had gone before? By late 1793 there was a rotten substructure to the Revolution, a web of crooked Army contracts, stockmarket frauds and forgeries, and a capital full of spies and foreign persons of, as Robespierre saw it, dubious worth and allegiance; all information which came to the Government was suspect at source. Also, it was clear that the Sovereign People did not always act in its own best interests. It seemed, from the actions of looters and strikers, that it was given to short-term thinking. Robespierre tried to forge an inner consistency, clinging to the idea of a virtuous people misled by corrupt and factious politicians, by enemies who were masked and veiled. If the Revolution didn't have moral force behind it, it was merely a series of self-serving crimes. Danton had laughed at the idea of virtue; he was therefore not fit to govern. After the courtroom battle with the Dantonists, Robespierre began to fear that the trial process was itself anti-patriotic, criminal, dangerous: the existing law bred crime, if it protected the enemies of the people. Four years of polemics had failed to save the patrie, which was a spiritual, rather than a temporal space; the battle for territory was less important than the battle for the imagination. From now on, there were to be no trials, in the old meaning of the word. The enemy could be judged by his actions, not by a hypocritical form of words he might wield in his defence. There were to be no more arguments, only justice, as swift as death on the field.
On the other hand, consider Russell Kirk's "The conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time."Posted by Orrin Judd at November 3, 2013 10:00 AM