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.