Verso’s slim edition of Maximilien Robespierre’s speeches, Virtue and Terror, proves itself to be a doubly invaluable contribution to Romantic studies. Not only do Jean Ducange’s 15 selections (of which 6 are excerpted) provide readers with a brief yet comprehensive view of the revolutionary theory of the perceived leader of the Terror, but also Slavoj Žižek’s introduction alone is worth the cost of the book. We are treated, in only 141 pages of Robespierre’s words, to discussions not only of minority rights, property, and finance, but also to the major moments of his career: the trial of the king, the wars, and, at last, Thermidor. In total, the text provides a necessary companion to related classics, Burke’s Reflections, Paine’s Rights of Man, and Wollstonecraft’s two Vindications, all of which have long been readily available in inexpensive formats and excerpted in the major anthologies. The selections flesh out Robespierre’s thought avoiding any caricatured monstrosity, taking us beyond over-simplifications about the Terror, and complicating the Revolutionary debate in England. Reading Robespierre’s own words, experiencing his rhetorical ticks, we are able to see how thoroughly he straddled the Enlightenment and Romanticism. While obviously fixated on the power of reason to remake society, “The Incorruptible” also reveals a fascination with the personal, with spontaneity, and with the downtrodden that bridges the gap we might otherwise expect to see between him and the British Romantics. Over and over, for example, he stops to ask, “But what am I saying?” creating the sense that he must pause to look within to his own will for the best possible direction for the Revolution, a movement that makes him Wordsworth’s cousin in the broader descent from Rousseau. Contrary, perhaps, to Burke’s assertion in his Reflections that “[t]his sort of people are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgot his nature,” Robespierre appears intent on testing all his beliefs against his own representative nature, never losing sight of the human in the face of the theoretical (64).
Indeed, these selections should prevent anyone from so easily dismissing Robespierre as Burke had previous dismissed Revolutionary thought as “barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is void of solid wisdom” (77). Nor can any reader simply equate Robespierre to the guillotine, despite the stylized image of the instrument on the cover. Instead, for example, the editor chooses to begin with three speeches from the Constituent Assembly that show the future unofficial leader of the Committee for Public Safety to be personally invested in expanding the French “public” to be the most inclusive and democratic such body in human history. In “On the Voting Rights of Actors and Jews,” he asks, “[h]ow can the persecution [Jews] have suffered at the hands of different peoples be held against them? These on the contrary are national crimes that we ought to expiate” (4). Similarly, in arguing against granting slavery constitutional protections, Robespierre reverses the debate, exclaiming, “Perish your colonies, if you are keeping them at that price” (21). In both cases, he accepts a universal equality of all men, and he implies that inequality is not the fault of the marginalized but a result of the injustice of political systems and artificial social hierarchies. This faith in equality he makes explicit in his speech, “On the Silver Mark,” where he gives the most succinct version of this portion of his philosophy, stating simply, “There will never be a lasting constitution in any country where it is, in some sense, the domain of one class of men; and to the others only an uninteresting object, or a subject of jealousy and humiliation” (16).
It is, of course, Robespierre’s “incorruptible” sense of the universal that binds this freedom-loving portion of his philosophy to his belief in Terror as a necessary tool of liberty. The majority of the speeches in the volume fall into the second part, “In the National Convention,” and, at the heart of these speeches, is his intractable opposition to whatever he deems to be counterrevolutionary, including, in what may be a surprise to readers who know him only as a sanguinary monster, going to war with France’s neighbors. It is for the victims of tyranny, he suggests, that Revolutionaries reserve their sympathy, and misplaced sympathy presages counterrevolution. In arguing at once against the death penalty and for the execution without trial of Louis, he concludes coldly, “I utter this deadly truth with regret, but Louis must die, because the homeland has to live” (64). Even the Incorruptible, he suggests, is powerless before the higher truths of Revolution and must set aside his own personal distastes. In this sense, Robespierre has successfully returned to his two central themes: the truth and himself.
None of his frequent rhetorical questions, however, as clearly force us to take a position on Robespierre’s Revolutionary vision as those posed in his “Answer to Louvet’s Accusation,” where he asks pointedly, “Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains?” (43). It is largely the swirl of issues that these questions invoke that Žižek explores in his extraordinary introduction. Though his essay overlaps a good deal with other of his recent works, most glaringly his introduction to a companion volume of Mao’s essays and a recent longer discussion of Lenin’s 1917 writings, nonetheless, his is a defense of revolutionary terror that should force Romanticists to add another side to what too often boils down to a Burke/Paine debate. As he suggests at the start of his essay, the French Revolution is typically seen from those two perspectives (though he does not cite them by name), with conservatives rejecting it from its start, and liberals abandoning it as it loses its way, if you will, between 1789 and 1793. He posits that “those who remain faithful to the legacy of the radical Left” must recognize the Terror “as ours” even as they “do the critical job better than our opponents” of accepting or rejecting Terror as a tool of revolution and a corollary of virtue (ix).
Žižek unpacks Robespierre’s distinction of revolution without revolution by exploring the difference between the “momentary democratic explosions which undermine the established order,” and, using Alain Badiou’s term, “Fidelity” to the explosion. It is in this extension that we arrive at the necessity of Terror – indeed, “the more ‘authentic’ the rebellion is, the more ‘terrorist’ is this institutionalization” (xxxv). Terror is not the perversion of Revolution, but its final stage, the stage at which it makes itself permanent. Žižek similarly critiques ruthlessly another established liberal dichotomy, dictatorship and democracy, arguing that less the antitheses they are too often seen as, the former is merely the latter’s “underlying mode of functioning” (xxvii). In modern, liberal democracies, the daily functioning of government is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Indeed, he writes, “even the ‘free-est’ elections cannot put into question the legal procedures that legitimize and organize them” (xxvii). Thus, liberal democracies, like any other order, will allow the minority voices, the marginalized, to seek reform, but only to a point, only as far as the hegemonic forces are willing to go. Additionally, this suggests that personality politics are illusory insofar as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie allows only so much range of free play for any elected official. Once elected, no matter what a politician promises, he or she must conform to the duties prescribed to him or her – duties that serve the interest of the dictatorial class.
Hence, revolution without revolution becomes a charade in which the powerful appear to submit to, merely to wait out, the “democratic explosions,” then reassert themselves, something Robespierre was acutely aware of. Thus, his insatiable quest for purity and virtue. In too many revolutionaries (Danton comes to mind), the seeds of counterrevolution were merely waiting to sprout. The very existence of the king, more than anything, was the continuing threat of that reassertion of the counterrevolutionary powers. Even to try him was to accept the possibility that the Revolution was not based on eternal principles and could be swept aside. Rather, he argued, “[w]hen a nation has been forced to resort to the rights of insurrection, it returns to the state of nature in relation to the tyrant” (59). In that state of nature, survival depends on strength, and Terror must have its moment. Similarly, in a contemporary dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the question becomes, shockingly, “how to reinvent this terror for today?” (xxxvi). Reform will yield little; “democratic explosions” (one might think of the WTO protests in Seattle) are ephemeral; only Revolution armed with Terror can make permanent structural change to society, sweeping the current dictatorial class away and ushering in broader democracy. Žižek writes that “nowhere is the dictum ‘every history is a history of the present’ more true than in the case of the French Revolution” (vii). In that case, in restoring the voice of that Revolution, this volume not only reinvigorates our study of the most important context of Romanticism, but it also provides us with a startling – even frightening – new way to consider our present. Rediscovering Robespierre, we find a thinker capable of being paradoxical without being hypocritical, one who can (pace Burke) provide a great deal of wisdom. One wonders at times how to take the master of the guillotine who abhorred the death penalty and war, but we can hear – more so perhaps than ever – the resounding truth in his solitary exhortation against the latter:
The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for a people to enter, weapon in hand, among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced.Jordan 86
- Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. L.G. Mitchell. New York:
- Jordan, David P. The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. New York: New