The historian Marcel Gauchet (1946) is largely unknown in the Netherlands, but in Paris he is one of the thinkers of De Store Boulevards, on which France has an enviable monopoly. Gauchet is widely educated, wrote about the wars of religion and published no less than four volumes on the advance of democracy. His biography of Robespierre, now in English translation, was originally published in the series Des hommes qui ont fait la France. Another reason for intellectual jealousy, and who knows a good idea for a Dutch equivalent?
Gauchet’s Robespierre is no ordinary biography. Two of these have been published in recent years, and that’s enough. Gauchet summarizes the first 31 years of the life of the man who embodied terror in a single page. He did not write a biography, but a study on radicalization. The book covers only five years, from the beginning of the revolution in 1789, when a small lawyer moved from Arras (Atrecht) to Paris, to 1794, the year in which Robespierre himself met his inevitable end on the scaffold. In those five years, ‘thoughts were translated into action’, as Gauchet nicely puts it.
Robespierre was already completely himself in 1789 and would not change for five years. While he was still in Arras, he had written two pamphlets, one of which was about “Unmasking the Enemies of the Fatherland”. A very revolutionary program has been condensed into it. Robespierre stood for the uncompromising implementation of human rights and was the man who suspected a conspiracy behind every tree. One is related to the other. Human rights are the Lord’s Prayer of the French Revolution. The idea that precedes it is borrowed from the philosopher Rousseau: man is good and in principle wants to do good. Thereby he must be shown the right path, which in Robespierre’s view meant that evil had to be cut short.
The problem with human rights was then – and still is – that no political program follows from it. Robespierre’s interpretation was that he could not be satisfied with the shortcomings of the harsh government practices. Revolution meant that the legislative power – the people – should always take precedence over the executive power. If something went wrong in public administration, it must have been motivated by self-interest and corruption. The government had to shape the ‘general will’ of the people, but this was impossible as long as it did not coincide with the people and thus knew what the true interests of the people entailed. The accidents did not wait.
Not that Robespierre was a bad person, on the contrary. He was known as ‘the imperishable one’. He lived, so to speak, above his private concerns, entirely in the service of society. His original ideas were liberal, including freedom of the press and abolition of the death penalty. He was against colonialism. In the assembly he found his role in the objections to the wars waged by France. He opposed war because he feared that the government would see in it a pretext to declare martial law and thus eliminate the legislative power.
In 1792 he exposed the first conspiracy against the people. He himself believed that he was speaking for the people in a sea of enmity and corruption. This was followed by the cry that “courts” would be set up. The rest of the story follows almost automatically. While Robespierre was against the death penalty, his virtuous people could not coexist with the selfishness of one person, the king. Thus “citizen Louis Capet had to die so that the Fatherland could live”.
After a coup d’état, the principled opponent Robespierre became ruler himself, against his own will, as part of the Committee for the General Welfare. Virtue took power, terror was inevitable. The revolution could not tolerate division, so any contradiction was considered a betrayal of the good cause. The guillotine whizzed diligently and – Robespierre had predicted it himself – a year later the prophet of the revolution also died on the chopping block.
Political purity as an ideal
Gauchet tells it with gusto, but it is only in the last chapter that the monkey comes out of his sleeve. France has taken two hundred years to come to terms with its revolution. Because the country always struggled with the dirty politics of everyday life, it was doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Brilliant principles in each revolution (1830, 1848, 1870) resulted again in ruthless practice. In 1979, Gauchet’s famous fellow historian François Furet solemnly declared that the French Revolution was over because Communism was dead and all but buried. The collective illusion of convergence between people and government was laid to rest on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.
But Gauchet warns that the second Robespierre, not the one of the General Committee of Welfare, but the first Robespierre who acted as a principled opponent of power, is making a surprise return. The idea of the great revolution is dead, while the idea of political purity as an ideal is alive and kicking. In both Europe and America, the politics of rights leads to a fierce distrust of the executive power.
It started with populism, which would drain the ‘Washington swamp’ or mock the ‘ruins of the Purple’. On the other side of the same coin, the awakened ideology has fought against political impurity. If there is even a hint of an alleged violation of individual rights, in the press, politics or in the academy, yellow and preferably red cards are drawn. The only shortcoming of this book is that Gauchet does not elaborate on this idea. His current lesson is no less. Once morality and politics meet, the guillotine, whether real or metaphorical, is not far.
Marcel Gauchet: Robespierre – L’homme qui nous divise le plus. Gallimard; 278 pages; €21.
Published in English as Robespierre – The man who divides us the most (translation: Malcolm DeBevoise). Princeton University Press; 224 pages; €33.