Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution, by Marisa Linton, Oxford University Press, 323 pages, £65, ISBN: 978-0199576302
The dilemma of how to interpret the terror lies at the heart of the French Revolution. Why did a revolution that abolished social privilege and set up a liberal parliamentary monarchy decline so rapidly into a republican dictatorship that guillotined not only its enemies but its former friends? It is a conundrum that haunted contemporaries and polarised opinion between conservatives who, like Edmund Burke, saw terror as the inevitable result of an attempt to uproot tradition and impose abstract reason onto human affairs, and revolutionaries who defended terror as a contingent and necessary event prompted by the strains of civil and external war.
Terror as a method of governing was not invented by the French revolution. It had been used by governing elites for centuries before 1789, to punish sedition and coerce subjects at all levels into submission. It was used by Christian churches through torture, mutilation and the burning of alleged heretics from the late middle ages onwards. Monarchs and rulers in the early modern period also deployed it to impose their authority over dissidents and criminals, staging executions featuring spectacular shows of cruelty. Witches, heretics and homosexuals were burnt; thieves hanged till they choked to death; highwaymen smashed on the wheel and rebels and regicides either hanged, drawn and quartered or pulled apart. Robert-François Damiens was the last victim of the latter punishments, executed for his assault on Louis XV in 1757 in scenes vividly described by Michel Foucault in the opening pages of his classic work Discipline and Punish. These elaborate ceremonies of physical torture and mutilation were carried out in front of vast crowds of men, women and children, who lapped up their theatrical violence.
The difference between old regime terror and the terror of the French revolution lay in its context. As Linton points out in this fascinating study, the development of the terrorist mentality among the Jacobin elite during the revolution was the first example of terror being used to defend explicitly democratic values. The guillotine fell repeatedly in the name of liberty and equality, just as subsequent terrors of the twentieth century were unleashed by revolutionary regimes in the name of the people and “progress” from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, through Stalin’s gulag, to Mao’s China and the killing fields of Cambodia. This has led some to argue that the origins of twentieth century state violence lie embedded in the principles of 1789 and that the peculiar form of democracy that emerged at that time contained a totalitarian virus. That debate, launched by historians as diverse as François Furet and Simon Schama in the 1980s, in the heady days of the commemoration of the bicentenary of the revolution and the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, neatly ignores alternative origins of modern state violence which are rooted in a categorical rejection of the revolution’s values and a very different view of freedom. Most historians would regard a direct link between the terror of 1793 and terror in the twentieth century as being too reductionist yet the issues that the idea raises have to be faced by any historian of the revolution.
Over the last twenty years the debate over the terror’s origins and nature has become more nuanced. It has long been accepted that there was no set plan of revolution or terror in 1789, in contrast to Russia in 1917, where Lenin had a blueprint for revolutionary dictatorship hatched from a long tradition of revolutionary activity in the nineteenth century. Instead recent research has suggested just how improvised the system of terror – if indeed there was a system ‑ was. The terror of 1793-4 evolved more as a series of reactions to events and crises than as the product of a set ideology. And it appears more coherent in retrospect than it did at the time. Much of its chilling rhetoric (of which Marisa Linton cites many examples in the book), and many of its more draconian decrees, were designed to buy off the threat of popular violence and respond to the sense of fear pervading a deeply divided political culture. For terror was as much a feeling of personal and national insecurity – which prompted a belief in the need for violent action ‑ as it was a punitive form of government. After the fall of the Bastille, for example, several administrators were brutally decapitated and their heads paraded around the streets impaled on pikes. Over the following weeks fears of counter-revolutionary retaliation spread rapidly around Paris, including rumours that decapitated patriot heads had been found in suitcases and scattered round the grounds of the Palais Royal, severed by a bloodthirsty former slave of the Barbary pirates who was now in royalist pay. In reality there were no heads or slaves, but the ongoing mood of latent panic erupted into periodic popular violence, as in September 1792, when over a thousand prisoners were brutally massacred on the streets of Paris because of largely unfounded fears that they were enemy agents. That violence in turn forced politicians to organise a legal terror to avoid total anarchy and to adopt an aggressive rhetoric which threatened more than it ever intended to deliver.
Marisa Linton’s book is an important contribution to our understanding of the terror, and in particular of the developments in Paris which led to what she calls the “politicians’ terror” of 1793-4. Paris was far from being the only location of terror: the Vendée saw vastly more deaths and centres of federalist rebellion such as Lyon, Toulon or Marseille had firing squads and guillotines that worked their way remorselessly through several hundred victims. Yet Paris had replaced Versailles as the political capital in 1789. It was the place where factions scrapped, governments were formed and decisions taken. It was also the city that witnessed over two and a half thousand executions carried out by the grossly overworked official executioner, Sanson, on the present-day Place la Concorde. Linton’s approach to this is essentially an analytical narrative which begins with the ancien régime’s collapse in 1789 and follows the subsequent leftward drift of events until the summer of 1794. Her main focus is on the intractable problems that politicians faced in reconciling their ideals of virtue with the practical realities of everyday politics and the vagaries of human nature. Ideology, politics and human nature are the three pillars of her explanation, providing a thematic spine to the whole book.
Revolutionary ideology, she argues, was dominated by an eighteenth century concept of virtue that drew on both the classical republican model of the subjugation of self to the public good, and on Rousseau’s concept of a natural virtue innate to humanity. Between them they imposed the ideal of a simple, honest and selfless life devoted to the wider community rather than to personal advancement. The new politics, which welled to the surface after the collapse of the monarchy in 1789, replaced the corrupt intrigues of a court politics based on archaic notions of honour and lineage with a brave new world of parliamentary assemblies, a free press, political salons and clubs and, above all, a new concept of public opinion. This was the emergence of the new public space, a concept pioneered by Jürgen Habermas almost fifty years ago, which forced men in power to project their personalities and policies to a new form of scrutiny and debate. As for human nature, this embraced the bonds of personal friendship, sentiment and loyalty which laid the foundations for political networking and influence once the revolution began.
Linton’s analysis of events revolves around these three themes, focusing exclusively on the political left, based in the Jacobin club from the winter of 1789 onwards. Over time it steadily radicalised and purged its membership, became a semi-official organ of government during the terror and was finally bullied into closure during the thermidorean reaction following Robespierre’s death. The broad lines of this are well known but Linton’s treatment of it is based on a close reading of a range of primary and secondary sources and contains a range of interesting insights, not least into several of the major political figures involved. Mirabeau’s charisma was undermined by his notorious venality and shady past. Brissot’s journalistic brilliance and talent as a political networker were fatally compromised by his naked ambition and irresponsibility in launching a strident campaign for war in the spring of 1792. The Girondin group that was loosely grouped around him and which included the influential Madame Roland, frittered away its authority and grasp on power during 1792 through its cliquish nature and monopoly of public office. Camille Desmoulins, editor of the newspaper the Vieux Cordelier that campaigned for an end to the terror in the winter of 1793-4, emerges as vindictive (against Brissot) and naive in his choice of friends and allies.
It is inevitable in a book on the terror that Robespierre takes centre stage. The man of several thousand biographies, a mediocre orator who made over fifteen hundred speeches or interventions between 1789 and 1794, remains a central but enigmatic figure: the “sea green incorruptible”, as Carlyle famously labelled him, who was condemned by contemporaries for the carnage of the terror, but remodelled by revolutionary socialists during the nineteenth century. The Bolsheviks erected a statue to him on the banks of the Neva in Leningrad in 1918 but it was vandalised within days. The French ignored him and the Third Republic preferred to honour the Girondins with street names and Danton with a statue outside the Odéon metro on the left bank of the Seine. Given his almost certain venality it might have been better situated near the Bourse on the opposite bank. Robespierre had to wait until 1937 for any topographical recognition in Paris and then it was a humble metro station, on line nine, named after him in the working class suburb of Montreuil. That same year a plaque was also put up in his native Arras (there have been more recent attempts to set up a Robespierre house) and there is also an ugly bust in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis which has a vandalised nose.
One of the problems in assessing Robespierre is that his reputation was trashed after his death by colleagues who wanted to offload their own blame for the terror, and by friends and colleagues of terror victims who wanted posthumous revenge. “Les absents ont toujours tort” [The absent are always in the wrong] in the words of an early eighteenth century play, and Robespierre’s execution in late July 1794 certainly left him short of advocates. Yet, as Linton shows, the hostility of contemporaries, historians and political commentators is not wholly justified. His biographical details are well known. Born in Arras in northeastern France, his mother died and his father vanished while he was still young, and he, a brother and two sisters were raised by a grandfather and aunts. Educated as a scholarship boy in the prestigious Louis-le-Grand school in Paris he returned to Arras as a lawyer, where he had a reputation for austerity, honesty and a commitment to the underdog. He ran an astute campaign for election to the Estates General in the spring of 1789, then quickly emerged as a bête noire for the right for his democratic views and tedious oratory. Yet he was also a hero of the radical left for his integrity and defence of democratic ideas, despite his insistence on retaining the traditional old regime dress style and wig – unlike Brissot, who dressed in austere Quaker style.
There was nothing in the early Robespierre to suggest even a hint of terrorism. He had no interest in political office, persuaded the National Assembly to declare its deputies – including himself – ineligible for re-election in 1791 and vehemently opposed capital punishment. François Furet argued at the time of the bicentenary celebrations in 1989 that he rose to prominence because of his mastery of revolutionary discourse, constantly evoking the need for Rousseauist virtue and presenting issues in black and white. Yet, as Linton shows, there was more to him than that. He was both an adroit political tactician and courageous enough to swim against the consensual tide on issues such as the fate of the king after the flight to Varennes or the declaration of war on Austria in the spring of 1792 that led to the fatal rupture with the Girondins. Once voted onto the Committee of Public Safety in July 1793 his talent as a tactician came to the fore, presenting government policy in ideological terms and wielding his immense influence both in the Jacobin club and on the floor of the Convention to fend off challenges from a radical left that wanted more drastic measures of terror. On the committee he was pragmatic and conciliatory, adept at reconciling opposing opinions, but ready to make a stand on issues of principle. So, he opposed dechristianisation and church closures in the winter of 1793-4 when it would have been easier to swim with the anticlerical tide and tenaciously resisted pressure from the radical left to send seventy-five deputies who had protested against the arrest of the Girondins before the revolutionary tribunal. Indeed he may have toyed with the idea of winding down the terror in the winter of 1793-4 until disturbing evidence of financial corruption and political conspiracy cast a shadow over Danton and his political allies who were advocating it. Linton provides a careful and detailed account of how he then agreed to the political trials that sent both the radical left and his former friends, Desmoulins and Danton, to the guillotine.
An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the disintegration of the revolutionary government over the summer of 1794, much of it dissecting Robespierre’s behaviour as he became increasingly convinced that the natural virtue described by Rousseau was to be found in only a tiny minority of the French population. The fact that the Committee of Public Safety left no minutes and that neither Robespierre nor his close political allies survived to tell their side of the story leaves us with only skeletal sources. Yet we know that Robespierre’s behaviour alienated many of his colleagues. Emotionally and physically exhausted, he was difficult to work with and so dogmatic in his views that relations with his colleagues deteriorated to breaking point. Increasingly convinced that counter-revolution was round every corner and needed to be crushed by terror he fell back on the rhetoric of virtue in terms which came to seem increasingly unrealistic. He appointed cronies and their friends onto important administrative posts because they were men he felt he could trust, but this inevitably alienated colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety and its sister police committee, the Committee of General Security. So too did his attempt to revive public morality through the launch of a new religious cult, the Supreme Being. Several colleagues on the committees or in the ranks of the National Convention were agnostics or atheists opposed to any state sponsorship of religious belief and used the event to both ridicule him and suggest that his ultimate aim was a personal dictatorship.
Yet the commonly held belief that he was the real architect of the so called Great Terror over the summer of 1794 needs, as Linton suggests, to be revisited. During the summer months of 1794 the execution rate in Paris soared to over thirty a day, forcing the guillotine out to the outskirts of the city because of a growing public revulsion against blood. The reason for the dramatic rise was the prairial law of June 1794, passed in the wake of two failed assassination attempts on members of the Committee, which reduced defendants’ rights before the revolutionary tribunal to almost zero. Robespierre drafted the law and pushed it through the Convention against vocal opposition from several deputies who feared that they might be its target. Yet a combination of nervous exhaustion and exasperation with his colleagues meant that he attended very few committee meetings subsequently and had very little involvement in the rise in executions. That was the work of his colleagues and rivals on the two committees, who were equally dedicated to accelerating the terror and eliminating dissent. Indeed they may even have deliberately stepped up the numbers to discredit him through the law that he had introduced.
As de Gaulle once remarked, dictatorships always end badly and Linton provides an interesting analysis of Robespierre’s final days, when he turned down the chance to mend fences with his colleagues on the governing committees and instead denounced his critics to the Convention. Fatally, he refused to name them, which meant that everyone feared they were on the secret list and he was quickly arrested and executed along with over a hundred friends and allies. His end was quick and his opponents on the committees never intended that it would lead to the end of the terror. Quite the contrary, they intended continuing the guillotine’s work but were overwhelmed by a wave of opposition within the Convention and from public opinion that quickly dismantled the entire revolutionary government and shunted them either to prison or onto the political sidelines. Thermidor, the month in the revolutionary calendar when this happened, subsequently became synonymous with a general retreat from radicalism and was used by Trotsky to describe the consequences of Stalin’s rise to power.
Although its focus is relatively narrow, Marisa Linton’s book covers five years of the revolution and integrates a great deal of recent research into an interpretation of the terror which will fascinate the general reader and encourage specialists to extend research into some of the areas she covers. It fits well with her own previous work on eighteenth century virtue, friendship and terror and with a number of recent books and articles by other authors that explore the revolutionary mentality and the pressures that forced reasonable men and women, of a generation deeply affected by the sensibility of a pre-romantic age, to choose terror as a solution to their political problems.
Hugh Gough is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Dublin.