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Issue #1543      18 April 2012

Robespierre – Bourgeois Revolutionary

Part 1

Maximilien Robespierre is a name still reviled in polite French society today. It is difficult to find a memorial to him, or indeed the revolution in which he was so famously identified, in contemporary France. Many on the Left regard him as a significant figure of French revolutionary struggle, but few Marxists embrace him. Even now, as Sarkozy faces expulsion at the hands of a “socialist” candidate, many rightists and “moderates” live in dread of a revival of revolution, as well as the anti-rich “Terror” which Robespierre was supposed to have inspired.

Fatal Purity is Ruth Scurr’s biography of Robespierre, revealing much of his character and motives. Marxist it is not, having little or no class analysis, but there are insights into Robespierre’s actions which have till now remained obscure, especially his role in the infamous Reign of Terror, and now these can be more soberly assessed.

Early life

Maximilien Robespierre was born in 1758 in the northern border city of Arras. His family was associated with legal practice and his grandparents were reasonably well off, but his father was a dissolute who soiled the family name and lost its assets. After his mother had given birth to two girls, Charlotte and Henrietta, and another brother, Augustin, she died when Robespierre was six. The father promptly disappeared, and the Robespierre children were farmed out to other relatives.

Maximilien came to appreciate the critical place of privilege in society since, with his declining status, he could see his own advantages being frittered away.

So he studied hard at the local school and won a scholarship to the elite College Louis-le-Grand in Paris, once recently run by the Jesuit order. In 1762, Louis XV expelled the “subversive” Jesuits, allowing the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) to take over the running of the college and reinvent it for scholarship students “whose means do not allow them to enjoy the same advantages as others”. Some earlier alumni of the college were Moliere, Voltaire, and the Marquis de Sade, while some of Robespierre’s classmates were also high profile revolutionaries: Freron, Desmoulins, Petion. A unique curriculum, indeed!

JJ Rousseau

Despite scrimping to get by Robespierre grabbed the chance to regain his family’s prestige. He grew determined, withdrawn, stubborn, humourless, but diligent. He studied rhetoric in order to develop his speaking skills, and at some stage while at Louis-le Grand, he read Jean Jacques Rousseau’s sensational yet proscribed novel Emile: a book about a young man seeking liberation by living a “natural” life, unconstrained by socially imposed “habit”.

Rousseau’s famous saying: “Man is born free, but everywhere is in chains”, framed the ideological background to wholesale revolution, and Robespierre became one of his instruments, taking Rousseau’s abstract thoughts and forging them into revolutionary policy.

At the age of 23, after graduating from Louis-le-Grand with a law degree, Robespierre returned to Arras to build a legal practice: over the next decade much of his father’s debt had to be repaid. Developing a reputation as a “modern thinker” and champion of the underdog, he was appointed as one of five judges to the Bishop’s Court.

In one case, he was obliged to sentence a murderer to death. At this time, “death” meant being publicly battered on a wheel, then hanged. According to his sister Charlotte, Robespierre agonised over the decision. He could not eat or sleep, and became ill as judgement was to be passed. Nevertheless, his name was on the death certificate.

The Monarchy cracks

In 1789 Louis XVI summoned the Estates General because the creaking feudal economy was broke and could no longer cope on loans. This was a drastic move, because it involved the coming together, for the first time since 1614, of France’s three feudal Estates: Clergy (1st Estate, with 302 delegates); Nobility (2nd Estate, 289 delegates) and the Rest – bourgeois, “professionals”, artisans, shopkeepers, peasants, 95 percent of the population (3rd Estate, 576 delegates).

Robespierre campaigned hard to get elected, which wasn’t easy because it was a collegiate system, where assemblies for a town would elect delegates, who would then join other town delegates to elect regional delegates and so on.

He made it, and along with 1,167 other delegates from across France, came to represent the city of Arras at Versailles, the sumptuous “palace city” of the King, some 15 kilometres south west of the walls of Paris.

Robespierre went largely unnoticed during the early convulsions of revolt. More illustrious figures such as Necker, Mirabeau, Lafayette, Abbe Sieyes and Bailly stood out as first the 3rd Estate took the Tennis Court Oath to remain together, then demanded to be the National Assembly of France, and finally challenged the authority of the King to become the constitution-makers of a new state.

When Royal troops began to be assembled outside Paris, the people of the city stormed the Bastille prison-fortress and formed their own National Guard. The King was thus warned to keep his military out of the capital.

Later, a crowd of irate and radical women marched to Versailles with a cannon and insisted the royal family and the National Assembly come to Paris, where they could be observed and the foundling democracy could remain under the watchful eye of the people.

Robespierre — Friend of the Sans Culottes

As the power of the common people of Paris grew, so too did Robespierre’s profile. At first, the deputies of the National Assembly appeared united in their desire for a constitutional monarchy, the abolition of feudal privileges, the administrative reorganisation of France from regions into Departments, the declaration of the Rights of Man and the organisation of the forthcoming national elections.

Yet when it came to detail, divisions began to appear. Robespierre was appalled when the Assembly sought to categorise French citizens as “active” and “passive”. “Active” citizens would pay the equal of two days labour in tax; those who could not afford this were “passive” and thus could not vote. This amounted to 39 percent of the male population.

He was again outraged when he found that only active citizens were eligible to join the National Guard, and that a wealth qualification would apply to candidates for the new government.

The Assembly further sought to reorganise the radical districts of Paris into “sections” to elect the municipal Commune of the city. Georges Danton, spokesman of the radical Cordeliers district, saw this as an attack on the vanguard of the revolution and found an ally in the deputy from Arras: Robespierre. Their passionate opposition failed, but Danton formed the Cordeliers Club in response.

The real crunch came with the proposal to separate the functions of church and state, as in America, and to confiscate church lands (between one quarter and one third of all the landed property in France, to the value of 60 million livres, according to a mid 18th century account – a huge amount.) This was to pay for the reforms of the new government.

Robespierre was repelled by the Catholic Church’s opulent wealth, and his position was clear: “Church property belongs to the people; and to demand that the clergy shall use it to help the people is merely to put it to its original purpose.”

What this implied was simply that the new democratic state would soon assume responsibility over the education, health, and welfare of the nation. This might not have been good news to pious peasants in the far-flung provinces, still loyal to the local priest and Holy Father, but to the advanced Sans Culottes of the Paris sections this was music to their ears: no longer the entrenched poverty and privileges of the old regime! Now the state promised redistribution of wealth and a future of opportunity for the benefit of all, and Robespierre, along with Danton, Marat, Desmoulins, Saint-Just and a host of others, was their primary spokesperson.

From this point on, Robespierre’s die was cast: his fate was inextricably linked with the Sans Culottes. He was their hero, they were his acolytes, but he was the prisoner of their collective imaginations. In the surge and frenetic push-and-pull of revolution, all were jointly seized by the power of popular joy, fraternity, fear and excitement which, like a careering carriage, hurtled toward the unknown…

Who were the Sans Culottes?

Initially the Sans Culottes were portrayed as the half-mad, blood-crazed mob of street vagabonds who patrolled the streets of Paris hunting out aristocratic victims: a professional revolutionary crowd, so it seemed. Closer research by historians such as Rude has revealed a much more sophisticated mix. For Scurr, they are the ever-demanding backdrop of Robespierre’s anxiety.

Literally, the term “Sans Culottes” means “without pants”, more strictly “without the stockinged breeches” of the aristocracy and well-to-do. They are traditionally shown in working clothes, wooden clogs, and a red Phrygian cap with the revolutionary cockade attached. At one stage of the revolution, during the heady, topsy-turvy world of 1793-94 and the Terror, “Sans Culotte” clothing became the fashion and parading aristocratic attire became a risky business.

In reality, the Sans Culottes were the working people of Paris. Not the “working class” in a modern, industrial sense, since France at this stage had still not undergone an industrial revolution – yet still these were masons, plasterers, coach-drivers, smithies, washer-women, labourers, seamstresses, cabinetmakers, hairdressers. They comprised “respectable” trades such as tailoring, as well as unseemly ones such as prostitution.

Politically the Sans Culottes were the vanguard of the revolution. Being the poorer sections of society they had little to lose by launching into daring new policy that provided ever greater liberty and equality for themselves. They could read, as is evidenced by the wild popularity of the pro-Sans Culotte papers such as Marat’s L’ami du Peuple and Hebert’s Le Pere Duchesne as well as Robespierre’s more high-brow publication: La Defenseur de la Constitution.

Despite being short on rhetoric, they attended debates in the Cordeliers, Jacobin and Feulliant clubs and when they could, they sat in the galleries of the National Assembly/ Convention. They were no fools. They made their views loudly known. They were alert, conscious of their interests, and were stubbornly loyal patriots: defenders of the revolution.

Living in the second largest city in Europe (London was by far the biggest) the Sans Culottes were also dependent on supplies to the city for their survival. The staple of their diet was bread. The old regime had failed to guarantee a reliable supply of bread to the capital, and its price continued to fluctuate wildly.

This issue was a major stimulant to the militancy of the Sans Culottes. The revolution – and by implication, Robespierre – needed to address this simple economic dilemma, or face political annihilation.

The Jacobins

“The Jacobins” have often been referred to in the sense of a modern political party. They were not. The Jacobins were mainly a debating club formed when the National Assembly moved to Paris. The “radical” deputies who wanted to preserve the gains of the revolution rented some large rooms in a Dominican monastery near the Assembly meeting hall – the monks were called the Jacobins because their building was originally situated on the Rue St Jacques.

Robespierre played a major part in the formation and popularity of the Jacobins. Each day, after the debates and resolutions of the Assembly, the deputies would report and make speeches to explain their position. Observers, including many Sans Culottes, came to the club after work to boo the heretics and cheer their heroes.

Robespierre encouraged the spread of Jacobin Clubs across France, and tried to ensure that his speeches were printed and distributed throughout the country. In this way, Robespierre sought to spread the radicalism of Paris to the Nation and stave off counter revolution – his greatest fear.

Yet the class nature of the Jacobin Club was revealed in its very structure: it cost 12 livres to join and 24 livres annual subscription, a lot of money in those days (by contrast, Danton’s Cordeliers Club cost a penny a month to join), and it was restricted to males. Women and Sans Culottes could sit in the galleries surrounding the seated members and the speaking tribune and express their position – but they could not speak in any formal sense.

The Bourgeoisie fractures – 1791-1794

In the years following 1791 representatives of the bourgeoisie found themselves leading a revolutionary government. As the nation, and especially Paris, became radicalised the bourgeois leadership groped for its most powerful comfort zone in the new emergent society. Scurr details well the atmosphere as successive factions: moderates, “Girondins”, “Dantonists”, “Jacobins” and “Enrages” struggled for supremacy.

The French masses, confronted with issues such as the flight and execution of the King, the formation of a new Republic, the conflict between Church and State, the declaration of war on the tyrants of Europe and its dreadful rebound, as well as counter-revolution, drove the momentum of new policy, new extremes, and new measures.

Throughout, Robespierre, the “Incorruptible”, remained loyal to the principles of Rousseau and natural justice, and grew in stature as a prominent ally of the Sans Culottes.

When it came to the execution of the King, the man who a year before had argued for the abolition of the death penalty now sought justice swift and clear for Louis’ treachery: execution by guillotine. He judged it to be the popular will. When it came to war, Robespierre (in the minority) fought the Girondin faction to stop it, but when the conflict was declared and turned into debacle, he urged complete and utter commitment to victory: the arming of the common people, with pikes if necessary: “total war”, in fact.

Throughout the foreign invasion and counter-revolution, Robespierre argued an iron-clad logic: one cannot expect the common foot soldier at the front to risk their lives for a cause that was not pure, that did not guarantee rights, justice, equality, and total support. Any profiteering, any speculation, any soft dealing with the enemy, in short, any corruption would corrode the army’s morale and undermine the revolution.

During even the most desperate and dangerous times of 1793-94, however, Robespierre maintained his bourgeois appearance: his powdered wig, his natty blue satin vest and blue coat, his stockinged legwear, though he only maintained a dual change of the outfit. He remained rudely steadfast in not accepting money or gifts for anything whatsoever – even if offered in the most trivial or innocent situation. He continued to rent his room in a loyal cabinetmaker’s house near the Convention hall and ate simply. After an early affair, he denied the company of women.

Meanwhile, many of his compatriots in the government lived high on the hog, in extravagant mansions and fine livery. Danton was a passionate womaniser and people like Petion, the mayor of Paris, entertained luxuriously, despite the hardships being suffered across the country.

In the bitter struggle between the federalist Girondins and Paris-central Jacobins, the former attempted to prise Sans Culotte support away from Robespierre by accusing him of “tyranny”. Their gambit failed, and several thus came to face their fate on the scaffold.

Next week: The Guillotine  

Next article – WFTU International Campaign for Palestine – Political prisoners held in Israeli jails

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