Robespierre: the Social Democrat with an Edge

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A contemporary French satirical cartoon engraved by an unknown artist. Having executed everyone in France, Maximilien de Robespierre is depicted personally executing the executioner with the guillotine. Behind him is a monument with the inscription ‘Here lies all of France’ and he is pictured trampling the revolutionary Constitutions of 1791 and 1793.

Robespierre was just a social democrat with an edge. (Pun intended.)

Raise the Parisian’s wages, he said; control grain prices; abolish feudalism (eventually)! Never at any point did Robespierre propose that the mills and fields be put under the control of the peasants, or that the workshops and factories be placed in the hands of the sans-culottes. A planned economy is not inherently socialist, no matter its ostensive ultimate, distant goal. Nor can this be said of a moderately regulated market, when regulated by the state and not the labourers.

Robespierre proposed little more than rapid reforms. Perhaps it can be argued that, since free market capitalism was so new to France and features of feudalism had remained, Robespierre was somewhat revolutionary. However, he did not in his lifetime in any of his attempts, not even by his most extreme methods before his inevitable downfall and demise as head of the Committee of Public Safety and effective dictator, dramatically transform the sociopolitical system in post-1789 France. He did not, moreover, achieve or come close to achieving socialism in France or even just Paris, and the glaring divide between socioeconomic classes remained, the propertied classes retaining their privilege. Whilst the power of the First and Second Estates waned, the French population was not free of its oppressor, even after the abolition of the monarchy; rather, its oppressor was replaced by another. The bourgeoisie readily assumed the position formerly occupied by the clergy and aristocracy. And the inequality continued. This was why Gracchus Babeuf attempted his communistic ‘Conspiracy of Equals’, well-intentioned but ultimately futile, to overthrow the government and social order, and redistribute wealth. It is true that the highly organised Paris Sections, coordinated by the insurrectionary Paris Commune, became instruments through which the sans-culottes practised localised direct democracy and some semblance of socialism, growing to become hugely influential. But leadership of this programme did not belong to Robespierre, who was not heavily involved in this movement. That the Paris Sections became politicised, class conscious and revolutionary was largely a spontaneous occurrence. Robespierre for a time championed the working class movement, yet never promised to give ownership of the means of production to the nascent French proletariat.

As can be seen later with Lenin in post-tsarist Russia, with whom Robespierre shared many characteristics, Robespierre made the Revolution synonymous with his party, the Jacobins or Montagnards, as Lenin did with the Bolshevik (or later Communist) Party. An opposition to the Party was an opposition to the Revolution. Counter-revolution was punishable by death, but counterrevolution was vaguely defined. Criticism of the ruling party, a lack of enthusiasm and apathy were each in themselves enough to bring a citizen under suspicion. This perceived dissent would be silenced by the guillotine. Very few of those accused were spared, many of them dying in prison awaiting trial. Thousands were executed within the space of a few years. Even architects of the Terror and close friends of Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton, famous for his iconic and apparently prophetic last words, ‘you will follow us, Robespierre’, could not escape the accusations of Robespierre. When they called for a deescalation of the Terror, Danton, Desmoulins and their followers, actual or alleged, were branded ‘Indulgents’ and put on trial. The Terror, its ideological basis provided by Robespierre, came to consume its own, and they were found guilty and executed by the guillotine.

Today, social democracy is almost the norm, as it is supported by ‘centrists’ who see it as the ‘Third Way’ and the only way to maintain a healthy balance between capitalism and socialism, by liberals who recognise that without it it may become impossible to defend capitalism, by pseudo-socialists who hold faith that there can be justice and equality under the current system, and by some socialists who support it in the meantime until arises the opportunity for mass revolt, as nothing more than harm reduction and temporary relief. For Robespierre defending such a position was far more difficult. For Robespierre it meant authoritarianism, centralisation, creating a dictatorship, a police state and what he defined as ‘nothing but justice, prompt, severe, inflexible’ but himself called ‘terror’. In late 18th century France, this may have been the only way, in the face of political conservatism, counterrevolution and more economically liberal tendencies within certain factions within the government, most notably the Girondins. But the fact remains the same.

Robespierre, whom his peers detested for his self-righteousness, lost in his utopian idealism and committed to his vision of a future ‘Realm of Virtue’, perhaps felt isolated, challenged and rushed. Ahead of him, achieving his goals, must have seemed a formidable task. Indeed to reach the society he dreamed of would require something close to a miracle, if he was to see things fit how he pictured it in his mind within his lifetime. His policies, nonetheless, were nothing but aggressively enforced social democracy.