Robespierre is not an easy man to like. Prudish and prickly, the anonymous small-town lawyer rose to leadership of the all-powerful Committee of Public Safety during the convulsive year of radical revolution, July 1793-July 1794. In his most infamous speech, he brazenly justified the use of terror as an instrument of government. Revolution, he insisted, required both virtue and terror: “virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.” This was no mere rhetorical flourish. Revolutionary justice meant dangerously vague laws for trying suspects, summary judgments and executions in batches. The deputies listening to Robespierre’s speech hardly felt immune; his signature sent many of his colleagues and even his erstwhile friends to the guillotine. Not surprisingly, the fear he inspired while in power turned instantly into vilification upon his fall. Once arrested and executed by order of the same men who had previously supported him, he became the bloodthirsty symbol of all that had gone awry. When not simply denounced as a tyrant, dictator or aspirant to kingship, he was depicted as jealous, cruel, demonic and fanatical, if not downright cannibalistic.

History transformed Robespierre from a highly personalized ogre into the embodiment of revolution itself. The right has been certain of the pedigree, at least since 1917. In their view, the theorist of terror set the mold for all the great revolutionary butchers: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and, more recently, both Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The left has felt less sure of what to do with his legacy. For Marx he was a “terrorist with his head in the clouds,” driven by ancient Roman ideals and therefore inherently incapable of sniffing out the ascension of modern bourgeois social relations. But the later French socialists and Russian Bolsheviks, especially Trotsky, lionized him. Trotsky remained obsessed with “the Incorruptible” throughout his life, seeing Lenin and then himself as the true Robespierre of the Russian Revolution. In the late 1930s Trotsky asked one French supporter to help him gather quotes from his paragon to use in his attack on Stalin.

While the right has stuck to its guns on Robespierre, progenitor of political evil, the left has turned more reticent since 1989, the year of the Revolution’s bicentennial and of the anti-Communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. Michel Vovelle, the last Communist to hold the chair of the history of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne, always defended his Jacobin ancestor, but in more recent years he has emphasized the Robespierre who demanded universal manhood suffrage, supported emancipation for the Jews and slaves, and served as the “animator” rather than dictator of national defense. The barrister turned revolutionary only agreed to guide the Terror, in this view, in order to control its popular excesses and save the Republic at war. He had, after all, originally opposed the death penalty. Vovelle’s Robespierre is the defender of “a certain [social democratic] idea” of the Republic rather than the precursor of Communist revolution.

The left’s current hesitations about Robespierre turn, of course, on his defense of revolutionary violence. Where should the line be drawn? Trotsky, for one, saw no moral dilemma: Violence in the name of “historically progressive tendencies” was not just acceptable; it was required. Yet if this classic end-justifies-the-means argument is rejected, as it must be, then what is going to take its place? Pacifist rejection of any and all forms of political violence? Acceptance of violence only when perpetrated in the name of already established authority? War has justified the abrogation of civil liberties many times in American history, and our own civil war hardly brought out the best in our collective behavior. The present embarrassment of the left in the face of past revolutionary legacies has run the risk of stopping the conversation about these issues altogether. As a result, the easier positions of historians such as Simon Schama rule the terrain. For Schama, “In some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was the Revolution itself.” In his 1989 history, Citizens, he reels off endless, dizzying, sensationalist accounts of revolutionary blood and gore over more than 800 pages of narrative and devotes exactly one paragraph to the white counter-Terror of 1794-95 with its masses of largely uncounted victims of political retribution.

The answer does not lie, however, in a renewed competition between balance sheets, if only because we can never know the numbers with any precision. How would we prioritize the thousands executed by guillotine, the tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands killed in the Vendée civil war, and the millions who died in the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars? Is it the absolute number of victims that counts, or the way in which they died? The point is not to justify some deaths and discount others. It is rather to understand why, as Ruth Scurr says at the beginning of her book on Robespierre, Fatal Purity, hopes for liberty, equality and fraternity “issued” in the Terror. Here, in deceptively neutral language, is the nub of the question: Did the Terror, as Scurr seems to imply, flow from “popular sovereignty, representative democracy, rights and happiness” themselves? Was the idea of democracy somehow tainted with terror from the beginning? And if not, then what did produce terror? Is it a built-in component of all revolutions?

Robespierre seems the perfect vehicle for answering these questions, since he began his revolutionary career as a democratic idealist only to end it as an agent of encompassing repression. Scurr adds no new evidence to the investigation of Robespierre, nor does she aim to give a full account of all that has been written about him or the Terror in recent years. But she does aspire to balance and dares to show more sympathy for him than is often the case. Because she wants to “see things from his point of view” and because she tells the story from a biographical perspective, she inevitably offers a more psychologically inflected account than most, without ever straying into the more questionable forms of psychologizing about her subject’s motives.

Because of the controversy surrounding Robespierre’s political role, it is difficult even to draw a picture of what he was like as a man. Only the most basic facts command agreement. Born in the northern French market town of Arras in 1758, young Maximilien lost his mother when he was 6 and went to live with relatives when his father abandoned him, his brother and his two sisters. He won a scholarship to the elite Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris and gained admission to the bar at age 23. As an adult he stood five feet two or three inches tall, not especially short for the time. He never relinquished the bourgeois proprieties, continuing all through the Revolution to powder his hair and wear embroidered waistcoats. He wore eyeglasses, supposedly tinted green. And he remained a bachelor. Everything else is up for grabs: He was a prize student; he was secretive, dishonest and always envious of the other pupils. He was beloved by all those close to him; he never had a single friend. He was too shy and reserved to marry before the Revolution began; he indulged in orgiastic affairs during the Revolution. Scurr makes her way carefully through these minefields of dispute, concluding that as a person Maximilien was “melancholy, serious, reserved and stubborn: a loner, a dreamer, someone who never forgot an offense.” The characterization helps explain Robespierre’s later behavior: He took democracy to its logical conclusions, even when no one else would; in his solitude, he easily imagined conspiracies being hatched against him; and he positively relished the prospect of martyrdom for the cause.

In 1789, however, these qualities mattered little because Robespierre arrived on the national stage as a bit player. He won election as deputy to the Estates General because he had developed a local reputation in Arras as defender of the downtrodden and critic of the more backward aspects of the French legal system. Arriving in Versailles with not much more than a change of clothes, he slowly began to attract attention, not all of it positive. “He is too wordy and does not know when to stop,” wrote one fellow deputy, “but he has a store of eloquence and bitterness that will distinguish him from the crowd.” Robespierre repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to embrace unpopular positions. He denounced the proposed property requirements for voting and advocated the widest possible freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion as well as full citizenship for Jews and free men of color (like virtually everyone else, he showed no interest in women’s political rights). In addition to opposing the death penalty, he supported the abolition of slavery, at a moment when the tiny handful of abolitionists faced nearly universal scorn. “Let the colonies perish,” he defiantly proclaimed, rather than let slavery continue.

These positions might have tagged the austere northerner as a crank during these early years, but the most famous deputy, Mirabeau, predicted that “Robespierre will go far, for he believes everything he says.” Although Robespierre failed to carry the day on most of these questions, he did win his fellow deputies over to his view that none of those currently serving should be eligible for election to the legislature under the new Constitution. So he, like everyone else, went off to find other employment. He temporarily took up a position as public prosecutor in Paris but dropped it to spend most of his time at the Jacobin Club, cradle of democracy or totalitarianism, depending on your point of view. Nicknamed the Jacobin Club because it met in an abandoned monastery whose monks had been known as Jacobins, the group brought together the leading lights of the still-nascent left. Because “party” connoted division and sectarianism, the Jacobins could not advertise themselves as such. Yet they came closer than any other group to acting like one, and Robespierre proved adept at making the most of the club’s potential. He attended every meeting and intervened in most discussions, often before a sizable audience; he sent printed copies of his speeches to some of the hundreds of affiliated clubs in the provinces; he wrote personal responses to the many local clubs that corresponded with the mother society; and since he could no longer speak in the assembly, he started his own weekly newspaper to publicize his views to a larger audience. In elections for a National Convention, called to replace the monarchy in September 1792, the voters of Paris chose him first.

The newly elected deputy still lived in the same reduced circumstances as before, but almost everything else had changed. Two-thirds of the army officers, most of them nobles, had crossed the border to fight with the armies now aligned against France. As the enemy moved toward the capital, mobs killed hundreds of prisoners suspected of collaboration. The king and queen lived under house arrest in Paris, awaiting a decision on their fate. Unthinkable three years before, a republic now seemed inevitable. Universal manhood suffrage had already been declared. In short, everyone else had caught up with Robespierre. But so had events. The deputies ordered the execution of the king for treason in January 1793. The new republic added Great Britain, the Dutch Republic and Spain to its list of declared enemies. Rebellion of the slaves in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) threatened French control of its richest colony. The introduction of conscription sparked resistance in France, and within weeks peasant armies in the thousands were attacking towns seen as favorable to the republic. Divisions within the Convention about how to proceed came to a head in early June 1793. When armed national guardsmen circled the Convention, those inside voted for the arrest of twenty-nine moderate colleagues seen as unfavorable to the Paris militants. Their arrest provoked yet more resistance and yet more repression. By the summer of 1793 “national emergency” hardly began to describe the situation.

Only at this moment did Robespierre seize the reins of power. In July 1793 his fellow deputies elected him to the Committee of Public Safety, which, in the absence of any other executive power, carried out the will of the Convention. But this team of horses had no fewer than twelve drivers. The Convention (which shelved its new Constitution until peacetime) voted on the membership of its key committee every month; the great mass of deputies could not simply be ignored. The committee itself was no monolith either. Robespierre could always count on his two followers on the committee, the wheelchair-bound Couthon and 26-year-old Saint-Just (what a pair!), but he continually had to persuade the other nine members, most of them with different leanings and not inconsiderable skills of their own.

Here Scurr’s method reveals its limitations. Her focus on one individual ultimately leads her to overlook underlying structural causes. She aptly recounts Robespierre’s ability to turn debate on the floor of the Convention in his favor at critical moments. But she fails to explain that Robespierre looms as large as he does because of the fundamental weakness of revolutionary government. Terror was not the product of dictatorship or ideology, much less the brainchild of one man. It was a set of strategies haphazardly devised by a constantly shifting coalition of middle-class men trying to establish a republic without any real foundation on which to build. Once the gadfly who only talked the talk of democratic republicanism, Robespierre found himself with eleven colleagues facing the impossible task of defending a nation with an army but no government, with a dead king but no Constitution, with sped-up trials but no legitimacy. Robespierre expressed both the aspirations and the almost hysterical fears of the committee and the deputies at large. He neither invented nor produced them; he only gave them voice.

Scurr sets out to answer the same wrong question that has bedeviled so many accounts of the Terror. She asks how Robespierre could have come to incarnate the Terror and with it the entire French Revolution. The question rests on a double fallacy–that Robespierre is the Terror, that the Terror is the French Revolution–whose lure is easily understood. The Terror has always remained the most controversial, the most discussed and the most remembered period in the French Revolution. Because the machinery of the Terror disintegrated after the fall of Robespierre in July 1794, many have concluded that Robespierre and the Terror were somehow coterminous. Even in his richly detailed new book The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, David Andress seems to fall into this trap. The identification of the Terror with Robespierre certainly comforted those who overthrew “the Robespierrists,” since a good number of them had taken even more extreme “terrorist” positions than the archvillain himself. While it may be true, as Scurr writes, that Robespierre’s “self-centered rhetoric, clean living, clear principles, and passionate political commitment made him seem like the Revolution incarnate,” it is also beside the point.

Robespierre undoubtedly turned many a memorable phrase because he believed that he spoke for the Revolution’s most profound principles. But the other deputies only tolerated this pretension as long as the situation demanded what he offered: an ability to keep popular violence in check while indefatigably pursuing victory on the Revolution’s multiple fronts and obscuring the fact that the “regime” lacked all the basic elements of rule. Once the French gained the upper hand in both the foreign and civil wars, Robespierre’s days were numbered. A closer analysis would show that Robespierre had talked so boldly of “terror” because he had to respond to militants’ pressure to make “terror the order of the day.” Demonstrators made this explicit demand in the hall of the Convention in September 1793. Robespierre and his colleagues had to answer to their base in Paris without losing sight altogether of their aim to found a nationwide republic (hence the phrase “virtue, without which terror is fatal”). Terror could not be denied altogether but it had to be yoked to some kind of justice, however truncated and deformed. As Andress shows in his account, the deputies obsessed about legalism even when shamefully removing all meaningful protections for the defense of the accused. Rivals might have been dispatched without true justice, but they were not taken away and secretly murdered in the night; they stood trial in public. On the night of his own arrest, Robespierre worried that a counterdecree signed by him would have no legal standing.

My aim is not to excuse terror or Robespierre’s role in it. It is important, however, not to be seduced by Robespierre’s own self-importance or by his colleagues’ desire to blame him for policies for which they also bore heavy responsibility. If we are to understand how terror arises, in revolution or not, the big picture must be kept in mind. Terror was the last resort of those who had too little support for their overly ambitious programs. War abroad, civil war and resistance at home, and deep divisions over the future of the polity set the stage for fear of conspiracy, repression of dissent and executions of vaguely defined enemies. Since the decline and fall of Communism, scholars and commentators have tended to reject any explanation of the Terror that pointed to the circumstances in which the French republicans found themselves. Current events are casting a different light on the question. Rumor, conspiracy, constant harping on imminent dangers, accusing political opponents of being unpatriotic, internment camps, even lists of suspects vaguely defined have all made a shocking reappearance in the US “war on terror,” along with torture, a practice repudiated by the French even though they had grown up under a monarchy that routinely administered it under court supervision. If the leaders of the most powerful nation in the world can react in this fashion to the threats, albeit real, of small cells of terrorists financed by foreign powers, is it really so hard to imagine that the French responded as they did? Terror, we have rediscovered, has many uses.