April 12, 2006


If you’d seen his green eyes: a review of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr (Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books)

Robespierre was born a nobody, but he is not undocumented. Unhappy childhoods always leave something behind – if only death certificates. Born in Arras in 1758, Robespierre was the eldest in his family; his mother died when he was six, giving birth to a fifth child. She was a brewer’s daughter, and had been five months pregnant when François de Robespierre, a lawyer, got around to marrying her. The de Robespierres were a ‘good’ family with no money. His mother’s death was followed by his father’s desertion. François left debts and, no doubt, gossip behind him. The children were split up and cared for by aunts and grandparents.

Later, Rousseau would assure him that people were naturally good, that nature could be trusted, that he was free from original sin. Did he feel he was good, that he was free? His touchiness, his vulnerability, his tendency to flinch from people, suggest an active sense of shame. Later he would champion the rights of illegitimate children. He insisted, at an early stage in his career as a legislator, that the age-old concept of ‘bad blood’ should be abandoned. Children were not responsible for what their parents did, what their parents were. You get a fresh start in this life; the ideal Robespierrist state would have guaranteed it, educating you and keeping you from want. In a democracy, an individual would be judged by his merits, not by the accident of his birth. [...]

As soon as Robespierre had any direct experience of politics, he understood what type of thought and language a revolutionary needed. When the minister Foulon was killed in the post-Bastille lynchings, he wrote: ‘M. Foulon was hanged yesterday by the people’s decree.’ He grasped at once what was needed – speed, resolution, and a willingness to tear up the law books. Robespierre didn’t operate within the conventional power structure, even the one that the early revolution had set in place. He sat in the first National Assembly, but was excluded from its successor by the self-denying ordinance that he himself had proposed. He was never a government minister. His power base was within the Jacobin club, which had branches all over France; he was one of the first to grasp the potential of its cellular organisation. He climbed to power through the insurrectionary commune of 1792, and through a National Convention, which was elected on a basis of universal manhood suffrage – though admittedly, a large percentage of the potential electorate were too confused or too frightened to vote. Finally, the instrument of his power was the Committee of Public Safety. [...]

What Scurr shows very ably is how liberal instincts succumbed to circumstance.

There is, of course, no way to rescue a philosophy that denies the reality of Man's Fallen nature, so Robespierre's project was never going to end well. But we should also note that the instinct to prevent all want is illiberal. Combine the two and the Terror is a logical outcome.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2006 11:01 PM

Lenin may have been the political heir of Marx, but he was the strategic heir of Robespierre.

Posted by: Gideon at April 13, 2006 2:13 AM

oj - did you get an advance copy of this to review?

Posted by: Shelton at April 13, 2006 9:37 AM

Sadly, no.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2006 9:41 AM

"Green eyes". Ah, so that's why Carlyle called him the"sea-green incorruptible".

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 13, 2006 11:05 AM

The idea that men are good from the get-go is proof positive that none of these chaps ever baby-sat for two and three year olds.

Utterly, totally, completely clueless.

Thus sayeth Uncle Mikey

Posted by: Mikey at April 13, 2006 11:06 AM

Admitting a two year-old is 'sinful' means admitting that I am sinful. A lot of intellectuals just can't do that.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 13, 2006 11:30 AM

how can a child be sinful ? it is mutually exclusive with a state of innocence. they can be cruel, and any number of other undesirable human traits -- but not sinful.

Posted by: toe at April 13, 2006 3:21 PM

Because they're mortal.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2006 3:26 PM

maybe in medieval times.

Posted by: toe at April 13, 2006 5:40 PM

... that the age-old concept of bad blood should be abandoned. Children were not responsible for what their parents did, what their parents were. You get a fresh start in this life;

So then how did they leap from this, which is reasonable, to the idea that individuals are never responsible for their own actions? That we are all permanently children who must be protected from ourselves and victims to forces beyond any control?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 13, 2006 9:00 PM