Has anyone else noticed the uncanny resemblance between Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party – and Maximilien Robespierre?
(Robespierre, that is, before the Terror, I don’t mean to imply that Jeremy Corbyn is going to support the guillotining of counter-revolutionaries!).
Jeremy Corbyn is known as a man of authentic principle. He is a committed democratic. He states his key principles are justice, freedom (liberty), equality, and solidarity (fraternity). He has never held a significant public office, always in opposition, until the moment when people – tired of political leaders who mouthed their commitment to the public good, but who so often fell short in reality – turn to a man who means what he says, and abides by it. A man who is frugal – not to say austere – in his private life. At least one of Corbyn’s supporters has spoken of him being a man of ‘virtue’ – not a word one often hears in connection with politics now, but its meaning – integrity and commitment to the public good – is as potent now as it was in 1789. And of course, Corbyn is ‘incorruptible’. It emerged during the MPs’ expenses’ claims scandal of 2009 that Jeremy Corbyn had claimed the least public money of any of the 650 MPs. Oh yes, and Jeremy Corbyn was adamant and very vocal in his opposition to an international war launched by a man on his own side, a war that had consequences Blair (like Brissot in 1792) never imagined.
There are differences though. Jeremy Corbyn makes jokes. Robespierre didn’t have much of a sense of humour. This is not as frivolous a point as it sounds. It doesn’t do to take oneself too seriously in politics.
Corbyn’s spectacular success in becoming leader of his party on an overwhelmingly high popular mandate, and against the wishes of many of the professional politicians in his own party, has other resonances with the French Revolution. It shows the importance of emotion in politics, of authenticity, of the need to believe that politics has the potential to change people’s lives for the better.
As to the consequences of Corbyn’s election – like the consequences of the French Revolution, it is too soon to tell. But a change is coming.
The success of the BBC’s dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has inspired it to dramatise her earlier novel, A Place of Greater Safety, on Radio 4. I’ve just noticed that the dramatisation starts on Sunday 6 September. I am curious to hear how Melissa Murray (who wrote the radio dramatisation) has dealt with the demands of conveying fast-moving politics, and whether she has managed to breathe life into the complicated characters. Mantel has a very particular take on her heroes – most of all Camille Desmoulins. In the light of the previous postings on this network about evidence for Desmoulins’ ‘vice honteux’ I wondered if anyone had views on the accuracy of Mantel’s portrayal? It would be fascinating to hear what people make of the dramatisation once it begins. I have to confess to a particular interest in all this as I am currently writing a book about four of her leading revolutionaries: Robespierre, Desmoulins, Danton and Saint-Just. BBC History Magazine commissioned me to write an article to coincide with the dramatisation, which is out in the current (September) issue under the title Circle of Terror.
A new colleague joins us at the Revolution Network, and introduces himself below: welcome, Jacob!
Laughter as a Political Strategy in the National Convention
My name is Jacob Zobkiw and I have recently been awarded a PhD for my thesis entitled ‘Political Strategies of Laughter in the National Convention, 1792-1794’ at the University of Hull. Having just discovered this fascinating blog thanks to Marisa Linton, I thought it might be appropriate to introduce my work to the community and offer a few thoughts regarding the motivations behind laughter in the Republic. Continue reading What was there to laugh about during the Terror?
Two-hundred and twenty-one years after the coup of Thermidor brought about the deaths of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and 106 others, the reasons behind it are still subject to debate. For many commentators the politics, personality, and foibles of Robespierre himself are central to how we interpret these events. I have a strong interest here, for understanding Robespierre has long been an obsession of mine. Back in July 1994, on the two-hundredth anniversary of Robespierre’s death, I spoke at a conference (in Winchester, of all unlikely places), dedicated to the Incorruptible. For some reason (perhaps grounded in English academic culture), few women in the UK at that time were specialists in French revolutionary politics, and I was one of only two women (along with Annie Jourdan) to be deemed sufficiently knowledgeable about Robespierre to be invited to take part. Continue reading Understanding Robespierre, Choosing Terror, and the Road to Thermidor
Adriana Sisko of the University of Kentucky, who works on same-sex relationships in the French Revolution, gives an extended response to the debate opened in the previous post:
This is fascinating, and I’m happy to see a discussion of this nature amongst scholars I admire.
I’ve never read the ‘des bains chinois de Saint-Just’ reference before so I’m very interested to hear more on that. My initial thoughts are that Danton’s claim relates to both 1) the preexisting rumors of Saint-Just having ‘noble blood’ and therefore aristocratic habits…some amusingly mocked Saint-Just by calling him ‘Le Chevalier’; and possibly 2) an insinuation of the sexual debauchery some attributed to public bath houses, as well as the linkage frequently made between aristocratic monetary greed and sexual greed that ‘exceeded’ the bounds of the natural. After all, earlier during the 18th century police monitored public bathhouses based on the fear and assumption that indecency was more likely to take place there. There were of course several bathhouses in Paris. Even during the Revolution there were multiple bathhouses in Paris. I would be interested in confirmation in this, but I’ve read in secondary sources that the history of public baths as places of sexual debauchery and even sodomy dates back to the Middle Ages in France (Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600, by David Higgs). Fun fact, earlier during the 18th century Diderot wrote the following in a confessional private letter of his: “In the public baths among a number of young men, I noticed one of astonishing beauty, and I could not help drawing near him”. Continue reading Private and Shameful Vices – the debate continues
When on 31 March 1794, at the height of the French Revolutionary Terror, Saint-Just denounced Danton, Desmoulins and other deputies, detailing a long series of ‘crimes’, one accusation stood out as rather curious. Saint-Just said that Danton had been a ‘faux ami’ to Desmoulins when he spoke of him with contempt and attributed to him ‘des vices honteux.’ Saint–Just took the accusation from notes made by Robespierre who declared that Danton had attributed Desmoulins’ waywardness to ‘un vice privé et honteux, mais absolument étranger à la Revolution.’ Does anyone have an idea of what this shameful vice of Desmoulins may have been? We have come up with a number of possibilities, but we wondered if anyone else had ideas. Possibly on a similar note, Danton at his trial spoke of ‘des bains chinois de Saint-Just’. We wondered what may have lain behind these allegations and counter-allegations, and particularly whether they might be code for sexual allegations and/or dodgy political deals, aristocratic luxury or an alarming combination of all three? We have found some intriguing information on the Chinese Baths on the Boulevard des Italiens, in the late eighteenth century.
Thanks for any help you can give with this.
Marisa Linton and Mette Harder
David A. Bell has been keeping busy lately fanning the flames of revolutionary contention. See the updated post below for Eric Hazan’s response to a recent review, and this forthright exchange about a very different interpretation of what the French Revolution all really meant.
Popular sociability as a concept and a problem in revolutionary Paris, 1789-1791.
Given at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Montréal, Canada, October 2014.
The precise contours of popular sociability in distant periods are, like crime, one of the so-called ‘dark figures’ of history. We know that the lives of ordinary people were full, self-evidently, of interactions, and we can glimpse through the historical record a qualitative flavour of many of them, but a synthetic overview can only come by piecing together a few limited fragments. There were somewhere in the region of half a million people of the labouring and artisanal classes in late eighteenth-century Paris, and we can say an extraordinarily great deal more about many of them than we could half a century ago. Continue reading A conference paper on revolutionary popular sociability
… not that they have much to say about it, except for a baffled tone & a suggestion of those crazy French, caring about politics…
The Atlantic was a bit more thoughtful a few days earlier…
According to the French leftist standard-bearer Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the act of turning the events of the 1790s into the backdrop for Assassins Creed Unity, the latest instalment in a successful first-person adventure game series, is “a dirty business of instilling more self-disgust and declinism in the French,” adding that it risks leaving the nation with nothing but religion and skin-colour to unite them – with evidently reactionary implications.
While one might be tempted to remark that historians of the French Revolution are now finding out how medievalists have felt all these years, there is no doubt that this game has occasioned lively debate – even before anyone had the chance to actually play it. Continue reading The existential horror of reducing the Great Revolution to a video game…