A tale of two rolling heads


As a schoolboy, Maximilien Robespierre gave a speech of welcome for King Louis XVI in a 1775 coronation ceremony at his college in Paris. Eighteen years later, Louis was decapitated by Robespierre's revolutionary government. What, asks Ruth Scurr in her biography of Robespierre, had turned the dutiful student into a regicide, whose name in conventional history has left behind "no trace but terror"?

Born in 1758, the young lawyer with a passionate sympathy for the poor soon made his mark in the coffee houses and National Assembly as a leader of the radical Jacobins.

As "Old Regime" remnants (nobility, clergy, army generals) and many of the newly ascendant capitalists stewed in hate and fear of popular power, pinning their hopes on the foreign troops of royalist powers, Robespierre urged on the insurrections of the Paris poor against counter-revolution. Robespierre personified the most radical years of the revolution from 1792-1794 when there was a republic, universal-male suffrage, attempted price controls, free public education, social welfare and progressive taxation.

It was also the time of "the Terror", which is remembered almost exclusively as a blood-red spree of summary executions by the government's Revolutionary Tribunal. "The Terror", however, was one arm of an emergency war government, one part of a grisly civil war between the revolutionaries and their aristocratic enemies who promised rivers of blood.

With military victory against foreign armies in 1794, the revolution was saved, but Robespierre's usefulness also came to an end for the bourgeoisie, its alliance with the poor no longer needed against foreign-fuelled royalist reaction. Robespierre went to the guillotine, no insurrection coming to his aid after he had turned "the Terror" against the radical leadership of the Paris poor. The revolution swung hard right, with the Thermidor reaction — its popular phase over.

Although avoiding the extremes of the usual conservative denigration of Robespierre, Scurr's biography shares some common ground in seeing him as fanatical and paranoid, a man whose psychology turned the revolution into a charnel house. What we tend to get is a parade of individuals falling foul of Robespierre's paranoia with little sense that "the Terror", despite its violent and often unauthorised excesses, was truly popular while the revolution was under extreme threat.

Scurr's biography tries to be part-history and part-novel but falls between both. The psychology of one man and the manoeuvrings of political factions and leaders is somewhat privileged, leaving the popular movement, which powered the revolutionary dynamic, to languish in analytical limbo.

Robespierre was a flawed revolutionary. Marx, for example, was either cool or hostile towards him whilst recognising his value as the most radical of the bourgeois revolutionaries. Never interested in money or sex, Robespierre's heart was genuinely in liberty and the demise of oppression. This was his revolutionary strength, but he undid his own ideals when he wouldn't unreservedly "trust the people", mortally abandoning his political credo that had taken the French Revolution to its historically spectacular heights.

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