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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘revolution’


In which we try to justify a one-line description

I recently said that Maximilien Robespierre was, well, one of the villains of the French Revolution. And – well, he is and he isn’t. He’s also someone who, in many ways, I admire: that’s not really a way you can describe a villain. But, having thought of the handy “for some people he’s a hero, for others he’s a villain” line, I couldn’t bring myself to call him a hero.

“Apologia”, incidentally, doesn’t mean the same as “apology”. It’s something more like “justification”. It’s possible to justify almost anything, of course;* but I think there are good reasons to say that Robespierre couldn’t really be called anyone’s hero.

Admirable, he was. For people who don’t know much about him: he was a fairly dull provincial lawyer who suddenly had a chance to thrust at power. When the King of France decided to call the Estates-General – the closest thing ancien regime France had to a parliament, but lucky to get convened once a century – he strained to get himself elected, then strained to get closer and closer to power on a platform of radical equality and socialism. He wasn’t a typical-looking revolutionary, though: always carefully-dressed, never a sans culotte and refusing to wear the red cap of liberty, he set up a new Deist state religion at the same time as trying to introduce state education. Identifying himself as the revolution personified, he became obsessed with purging France of anyone he considered counter-revolutionary: people could be executed on a rumour that they’d told a joke, with no right to defence. After one final blood-soaked month,** he was purged himself, by the other members of the National Convention, ostensibly on the grounds that he was too lenient to his friends. He was never a dictator, despite his enemies’ claims: if he had been, his death would hardly have happened in the way it did.

So why is he admirable? He started off from a point of principle – particularly, the works of Rousseau – and he never, ever compromised. It caused him problems: he refused to ever admit his mistakes, even when executing someone who had earlier been an ally. But he was the sort of politician who it’s impossible to imagine nowadays: one who said what he believed, who stood by what he believed, and could never consider compromising a policy to further his personal career. His nickname was “the Incorruptible”, and it was used as both a compliment and almost as an insult.

I could never call him a hero, though. Admirable, but not a hero, and for precisely the same reason. Although he was perfectly willing to sacrifice himself for France, he was all too willing to sacrifice other people too. If a friend disagreed with him, however close a friend, then they would end up purged for the good of the country. For the Incorruptible Robespierre, being pure and incorruptible was more important than any personal loyalty; and any form of dissent was seen as treasonable behaviour. Dissent against himself, that is, meaning the same as dissent against the Revolution itself.

Heros, I’d say, should be people you want to adore close-up. Robespierre might be admirable, but he is somebody I’d always want to stay at arms’ length from. He’s not, never could be, a black-and-white person; but if it comes down to hero or villain, then he could never ever be my hero.

* especially if you have access to a word processor.

** during which the guillotine had to be moved further and further from the centre of Paris, as the bloodflow was contaminating the water supply

On the telly

In which we read ahead in the schedules

Regular readers might recall that, a few months back, I produced a few posts referencing the French Revolution, partly because it seemed relevant to events, and partly because it was on the top of my head at the time. To be honest, I thought I’d mentioned it more than, looking back, I actually have.

Well, if you enjoyed those, you might be interested in something else I noticed. Browsing through the BBC’s websites the other day, I noticed that the new series of Mastermind has started. And one of this week’s specialist subject is, it says, “The Life And Times Of Maximilien Robespierre”. It’s on Friday at 8pm,** if you’re interested in French Revolutionary things, and if you’d like to watch.

* to be honest, I thought I’d mentioned it more than I actually have

** That’s the 4th of September 2009. Unless you live in Wales, in which case it will probably be on some time the following week


In which we discuss differences between Britain and France

Politics seems to have become a bit of a grind at the moment. The same stories, over and over, over and over until all the details get confused; the government pushing on grim-faced against public opinion, and the Tories trying to jump onto the election-calling bandwagon on the grounds that they expect to win the election and want it to come along ASAP. It might be the sort of politics that needs doing; but it’s not the sort of politics that stirs the imagination. It’s hardly another revolution.

Jeremy Paxman announced on Newsnight tonight that the Prime Minister had announced a National Convention on Democratic Renewal. Either Paxman made a slight mistake or my ears did, because elsewhere on the Internet it’s described as a National Council on the subject. I was slightly disappointed. I liked the sound of a National Convention, possibly because I’ve been reading about the French Revolution a lot lately. By the time the French called elections for a National Convention, to create a French Republic, the Revolution had already been revolving for three years or so, through a succession of failed democratic structures one after the other.

Those democratic structures had different names, over the years, and differences in detail; but at heart they all derived from one concept: that the nation’s elected representatives are a sovereign body, because they represent the will of the people. They became France’s de facto sovereign body in June 1789, a few weeks before the Bastille fell; and its de jure sovereign body over the following months as they created that country’s first written constitution.* The National Council on Democratic Renewal, though, doesn’t sound like any of these French assemblies. Rather, it sounds like an earlier French assembly from 1788: the Assembly of Notables, a handpicked crew gathered to debate ways to save the country from ruin. In one sense, they failed, because their recommendation was for a democratic and representative body to meet in their place. I doubt whether the National Council on Democratic Renewal will come up with any recommendation quite so revolutionary.

Then again, that’s probably a good thing. You’ve probably heard about the actress and TV presenter Lynda Bellingham, who, a couple of months back, called for a revolution along French lines. I’m not sure if she realises quite what the French Revolution involved: that it wasn’t just a quick riot followed by a bit of workaday guillotining of the king and some aristocrats. Indeed, the king stayed on his throne for the first three years; the mass guillotining of “counter-revolutionaries” started a year after that, by which time France had provoked a major European war.** All in all, revolutionary government lasted for about 12 years in total; think back from today to the election of Tony Blair. That’s how serious a revolution is.

* After the fashion of the American one which, ironically, had partly led to the French Revolution. It was the French who saved America in the American Revolutionary War; and it was the American Revolutionary War which bankrupted the French royal government.

** which the British were heavily involved in, even capturing one of France’s main naval ports at one point.