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Issue #1544      25 April 2012

Robespierre – Bourgeois Revolutionary

Part 2 – The Guillotine

This instrument of decapitation has been the icon of the “horrific excesses of the French Revolution”. It was, in fact, an adaptation of the Halifax Gibbet, an English invention that had been used to behead captives, criminals and traitors in 17th Century England.

It was a surgeon, Monsieur Louis, who redesigned the machine to operate more efficiently, “painlessly”, while in the Assembly Dr Guillotin promoted it as the most humane and democratic means of execution available.

Prior to the Guillotine, capital punishment for “common” criminals had been a gory spectacle: victims were usually tortured, carved open, battered or quartered using horses to pull off limbs, before the “coup de grace”, normally hanging, was delivered. This usually took hours, as a deliberate deterrent.

By contrast, aristocrats condemned to death received the dubious honour of decapitation, usually by sword. There was, purportedly, some nobility in this. Now the revolution extended this “right” to all capital offenders.

Before the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, most people executed on the guillotine were criminals and murderers, but afterwards, with the jails full and desperation rising, political executions grew.

The Committee of Public Safety

By 1793 a deteriorating situation demanded the new Republican Convention take drastic measures. Counter-revolution had broken out in the more far-flung provinces such as the Vendee, cities such as Lyon and Marseilles had fallen to counter-revolutionary forces and republican sympathisers murdered, General Dumouriez had defected to the enemy, Toulon was handed over to the British, and France stood surrounded by hostile forces, all ready to invade and wreak vengeance.

To the members of the revolutionary government, it was now a question of life or death. Two extra-powerful Committees and a special “quick-fire” Court were established by the Convention: the Committee of General Security, the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal, to deal with threats to the revolution by whatever means necessary.

Empowered “Representatives on Mission” were sent to trouble-spots by the Convention. Robespierre’s brother, Augustin, went to Toulon to oust the British. There he met an inventive and ambitious artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, who, after several attempts, succeeded in a stunning victory over the British. It is true to say, that had there been no Robespierre on hand, Napoleon’s fame and promotion would not have happened. He was most certainly a product of the Robespierrist faction during these desperate times, and initially at least, a Jacobin in his political perspective.

At first, Maximilien himself simply remained a high profile member of the Convention in Paris, but after Danton, who was now under a cloud of suspicion, was voted off the Committee of Public Safety and after the stunning assassination of Marat, Robespierre stood out as the popular candidate to save the revolution.

Even to its most severe critics there is a general admission that the nine members of the Committee of Public Safety performed miracles. It was they who set up the structures and institutions of the modern State. They introduced conscription (the Levee en Masse) and clothed, fed, and armed a new, modern mass army that could outnumber and outgun all its opponents combined. They crushed the counter revolution. They set up a system of administration, including police and agents that were nationwide, brisk, and efficient. They implemented the new, metric system of weights and measures across France, and introduced a revolutionary calendar with a ten-day week and renamed months. They contained inflation through price and wage control, underpinned by terror.

Robespierre’s own particular interest was the establishment of a national elementary education system, compulsory and free, with a common curriculum and shared ideals of patriotism and “vigorous” culture. He was intent to follow Rousseau and restore innocence to children, to allow them to respond spontaneously to nature, to play outdoors and learn happily, as well as earn their equal opportunities.

Well in advance of most thinking of the time, he had prepared, presented and passed his Bill through the Convention, but it would take some years for its full implementation under Napoleon.

The Terror

It is important to assess the proper perspective of deaths during the “Terror”, since much of our understanding is coloured by conservative commentary inside France coupled with propaganda from Anglo-Saxon sources, generally hostile to France for many centuries before the revolution, and the century following (wherefrom came Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities).

The actual loss of life within the whole of France, with a population of 28 millions at the start of the revolution, was 41,500 persons, of whom 16,594 died by Guillotine (2,639 in Paris). The remaining 25,000 died through summary executions or internal fighting in the counter-revolution. Feasibly more than twice that number had died on the battlefield by the time of the “Law of Suspects”, passed on September 17, 1793.

By 20th century standards, it is a relatively mild degree of terror, but even by the criteria of its own time the extreme measures of the Reign of Terror would not have reached as deeply as those of the English (revolutionary) Civil War 150 years previous. Then, out of a population of some 5 millions, well over 100,000 English died at the hands of their own countrymen. It is important to remember that, consequent to the English example, the French Terror was enacted precisely to avoid the kind of civil war that beset their counterparts across the Channel in their hour of rebellion.

This is not to justify arbitrary execution or deaths, nor Robespierre’s role in them. Nevertheless he has often been portrayed as a random, blood-crazed murderer, singularly responsible for the Reign of Terror, and this is simply a gross exaggeration.

After Marat’s assassination, the Sans Culottes demanded vengeance for the murder of their hero with a purge of enemies of the revolution. As well as Charlotte Corday (the female assassin), Marie Antoinette, 21 Girondin deputies as well as hundreds of aristocrats and their suspected sympathisers passed through the Revolutionary Tribunal and on to the Guillotine.

Enforcement of the Law of Suspects, designed to eradicate any act undermining patriotic unity was a major component of the Terror, but so too was the Law of the Maximum. This measure was a reward for mass Sans Culottes support in ousting the Girondins: their principle demand had been to control the price of bread. Thus the prices of essential goods were pegged, but so too were wages.

Apart from his support for the laws, and occasional accusations against political opponents, one of them being his old ally, Danton, Robespierre at first played little part in the process. In reality, he had little stomach for death, and did not attend the Place de la Revolution to witness executions. When his tumbrel lumbered past Robespierre’s apartment on the Rue St. Honore, heading for the Guillotine, Danton launched into a thunderous rant against the Incorruptible. He could not be heard, since the windows were shuttered tight and Robespierre remained locked in his room, silent and alone.

The Republic of Virtue

Robespierre’s vision was a Rousseau-ian “Republic of Virtue”. It was an abstracted ideal of a society with secure and complete democracy, but also obligations to fraternity and good works. Yet the reality surrounding Robespierre disappointed him – corruption seemed to be everywhere. He was shocked by the way “true patriots” could be corrupted and turn against the revolution.

Robespierre had no Marxist analysis to guide his decisions. He judged people intuitively on their apparent enthusiasm for the revolution, rather than on any class motive. It is clear in retrospect that Robespierre’s allies were the Sans Culottes of Paris and the peasants of the countryside, but their support withered in the first half of 1794.

First, the Law of the Maximum had pegged wages as well as the price of bread. With the Levee en Masse and so many men now at the Front, the value of the remaining workers’ and peasants’ labour had risen considerably: they agitated to remove the freeze on wages but their pleas went unheeded. Robespierre would not act, despite angry demonstrations by a radical Sans Culottes wing, the “Enrages”.

These same Enrages conducted protest campaigns to destroy religion and install Reason as the sole ideology of the revolution. It was a logical step beyond the dismantling of a corrupt church structure and its bankrupt set of beliefs, which was all “superstition”. This was simply too much for Robespierre’s Republic of Virtue. His own background could not allow the elimination of God, the notion of a superior judge and an eternal life.

Robespierre’s policies cleaved apart from extremist Sans Culottes. He turned on their militant leaders: Hebert, Roux and others. They were denounced, tried and executed and the capacity of the Paris sections to meet and organise was suppressed.

In an attempt to re-unify the nation behind his own thinking the Incorruptible organised a massive “Festival of the Supreme Being”. Almost all of Paris (half a million people) attended the celebrations on the Champs De Mars, roughly where the Eiffel Tower now stands. Here a huge mound of earth covered in papier-mache represented the Mountain (Jacobin) deputies, led by Robespierre. They processed up the Mountain and sat beneath a Tree of Liberty. There were speeches and music and songs and dancing, and then athletic events along the lines of the ancient Olympic Games. It was the peak of Robespierre’s triumph – he still had the support of the French masses ... .


On the very day following the Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre sponsored the infamous “Law of Prairial”, which introduced a new and decidedly modern category of criminal: “enemies of the people”, who could now be condemned before the Revolutionary Tribunal from “moral proofs”.

Combining this with previous laws, it’s clear that practices such as hoarding and black marketeering could lead to shopkeepers and suppliers being denounced. Citizens were now arrested, tried and executed within days for crying “...a fig for the nation”, for producing sour wine, or for attempting to communicate with other “enemies of the people.” Old scores could be settled. The political terror merged with economic terror: the charges, arrests, trials and jailings increased, and so did the work of the Guillotine.

Between June 10, 1794 (Law of Prairial) and July 27 (the arrest of Robespierre during Thermidore), 1,376 people were guillotined in Paris. During those 47 days, more people were sent to their deaths than in all the months since Danton established the Revolutionary Tribunal in March 1793.

The reasoning behind Prairial has perplexed historians, especially since, by this time, the counter revolution had been crushed and the battle of Fleurus had established complete ascendancy of French arms over their Coalition enemies. Most have argued that the terror of Prairial was unnecessary; that it was proof of Robespierre’s madness and bloodlust. Scurr is right in saying that Prairial and the Republic of Virtue were two sides of the same coin and that both were expressions of his “puritan” vision.

Both, however, were also the consequence of dreadful political mistakes brought on by Robespierre’s bourgeois political perspective. In the weeks and months prior to Prairial he had isolated himself from the masses. He had increasingly become remotely individualist and failed to practise his own democratic principles: his attendance at Convention, Commune, Public Safety Committee and even Jacobin Club meetings had become increasingly spasmodic. He was no longer mixing with “the People”. Despite increased political power, the economic situation of his most logical allies, the Sans Culottes, had not improved.

Even a rudimentary class strategy might have tempered his blinkered subjectivity and saved him, as well as the militant-humanist direction of the revolution, but Robespierre did not have such tools.

What drove the Incorruptible into further paranoia was the fact that he had assumed management of Saint-Just’s Police Bureau during his accomplice’s absence at the Front. This led him into reams of files and reports supplied by agents whose sole purpose was to seek out traitors, saboteurs and corruptibles. It confirmed all the worst in humanity. According to Robespierre, “The guilty complain of our rigor – the country, more justly, complains of our weakness.” This role now consumed him. It drove him to continue the Terror and aroused suspicion and panic among his political rivals.

Thermidorean reaction

In the days prior to his famous final speech in the Convention, Robespierre’s demeanour reflected the pressure of his political isolation. His personal sense of justice was driving him to denounce Convention notables such as Tallien and Fouche, Representatives on Mission who had committed excesses in the suppression of counter-revolution in the Vendee and Lyon. They had gone “too far” and had killed too many innocents – Fouche was an avowed atheist – shouldn’t they be punished, even though some considered them to be heroes of the revolution?

He had quarrelled with Carnot, in charge of the army. Now Carnot had removed troops from Paris who had been staunch supporters: they were “needed at the Front”. Robespierre must have sensed danger.

In the event, he did not name specific individuals during his address to the Convention, but merely hinted at a list of suspects. It was enough for the plotters to demand an end to the “tyrant”, and his arrest. He was duly grabbed, but managed to get free and reach his allies in the Commune, who rang the tocsin and closed the gates to Paris. The crisis had come to a crunch, yet again.

But this time, the Sans Culottes did not come, at least not in the numbers to save Robespierre. Armed supporters arrived at the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), but only 13 of the 48 sections of Paris sent men to help – most disobeyed the call of the Commune, and several sections went further and supported the troops of the Convention, who burst past the loyal guards and into the room containing Robespierre and his radical colleagues. This was when he was shot in the jaw – some say from an invading trooper’s musket ball, some from a foiled or failed attempt at suicide – either way his jaw was now shattered and he bled profusely, and now he was the prisoner of the Convention.

It was to be the same Convention that ignored that most democratic constitution devised by Robespierre and his allies, the same confused bourgeoisie that slid into the reaction, decadence, corruption and retreat so feared by the Incorruptible, that surrendered so many gains of the revolution and which ultimately led to the dictatorship of Bonaparte.

The End

Next day, Robespierre and his fellow radicals, brother Augustin, Saint–Just, Hanriot, Lebas and Couthon, along with 17 others considered to be indelible Robespierrists, were bundled into tumbrils, paraded through the insults and spittle of the crowd that had gathered en route to the Guillotine, and beheaded.

Robespierre was the second-last. As he was strapped to the plank the executioner ripped the bandage from his jaw causing him to let out a blood curdling scream, heard across the Place de la Revolution, and shortly afterwards the blade fell...

So ended Ruth Scurr’s admirable account of Robespierre’s rise and fall, Fatal Purity. Its main strength is in her refusal to make some kind of sanctimonious moral judgement of his life, with all the wisdom of hindsight, as so many others are wont to do. Instead, rather like a moving camera over his shoulder, we share Robespierre’s experience and see the logic of his steps, limited only to the knowledge of previous history, stumbling toward some vague vision of a better society. As we all learn from past errors and continue to engage in the quest for a classless society, it is important to acknowledge our debt to revolutionaries like Robespierre.

As he himself famously said in his last speech, “Death is the beginning of immortality,” we might add, “ ... but only guaranteed in the cause of social justice.”  


Next article – Poem – A Worker Reads History

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