Robespierre – Bourgeois Revolutionary

April 21st, 2012

Published on The Guardian (Australia), the workers weekly, by Bob Treasure, April 18, 2012.

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: … //

… 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: … //

… 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.
(full long text).

Links:

Andrew Haldane: on the Arms Race in Banking, 20.28 min, published on nacked capitalism, April 20, 2012;

Frank J. Byrne: Becoming Bourgeois, Merchant Culture in the South, 1820-1865, 297 pages, University Press of Kentucky, 2006;

To be read online: The Democratic State, Critique of Bourgeois Sovereignty: Introduction and Chapters 1 to 10, by Karl Held and Audrey Hill, Ed. Gegenstandpunkt 1993.

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