Conspiracy and Terror in the French Revolution

Conspiracies – both real and imagined – played a major role in the shifting dynamics of revolutionary politics. The Year II was the crisis point of the Revolution, a year overshadowed by external war and civil war. Revolutionary leaders feared many external enemies, from the foreign powers, royalists and émigrés, to lone assassins, successors of Charlotte Corday. Yet the people they came to fear the most were other revolutionaries. One of the most traumatic features of revolutionary politics in the Year II was the denunciation and elimination of a series of political factions said to be ‘the enemy within’, in league with the foreign powers and working to overturn the very Revolution to which they claimed to be devoted. Why were the trials of revolutionary leaders so ruthless? In part it was a consequence of mutual fear on the part of the protagonists, both accused and accusers. The revolutionary leaders who dealt out terror were also themselves subject to terror – both as an emotion and through their own vulnerability to the laws that enabled terror.

This unsettling phenomenon may also say something more universal about human nature and the nature of politics. It is a scenario with many parallels in the modern political world – though thankfully without the guillotine as the denouement. As David Cameron can attest, in politics your worst enemies are all too often those who sit behind you, your trusted colleagues and – most dangerous of all – your former friends.

In the following film Marisa Linton talks about the process whereby revolutionary leaders used the narrative of conspiracy to ‘unmask’ a succession of revolutionary leaders, many of whom were former colleagues and friends, as traitors against the Revolution.

Her talk was given as a public lecture at Cambridge University, on 19 April 2016, for the Conspiracy and Democracy Project at CRASSH.

Maximilien Robespierre on the BBC

Dear All,

Maximilien Robespierre on the BBC

The latest episode of the BBC Radio 4 series, ‘The Invention of France’ presented by Misha Glenny, is dedicated to the controversial figure of Maximilien Robespierre. It airs at 11am on Monday 9 November, but is already available to listen to via a new service from the BBC at:

By the way, if when you listen to the programme you are wondering which voice is mine and which is Ruth Scurr’s (and I admit it puzzled me at times) I’m the one who says ‘The Revolution made Robespierre and the Revolution destroyed him’.

Marisa Linton

Jeremy Corbyn and Maximilien Robespierre

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.

A Place of Greater Safety

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.

What was there to laugh about during the 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?

Understanding Robespierre, Choosing Terror, and the Road to Thermidor


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

Private and Shameful Vices – the debate continues

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

Revolutionary transitions from the eighteenth century to the present