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.

One thought on “Jeremy Corbyn and Maximilien Robespierre”

  1. In answer to your question, yes, I have been thinking exactly this, and I too was wondering if anyone else had noticed the parallels! I think that the strongest similarity has to be, as you point out, Corbyn’s unshakable integrity and commitment to his principles.

    I think that this commitment is going to be both a blessing and a curse for him politically when the next election comes around. On the one hand, it is this integrity that has allowed him to be elected as leader on the back of a movement of people disillusioned with politicians who lack ‘virtue’. However, it leaves him open to some of the same criticisms that Robespierre’s rivals pinned on him – the idea that he could perhaps be /too/ attached to his principles, to an extent that could in fact damage his country. In Robespierre’s case, after Thermidor he was often portrayed as cold, harsh, and imposing Terror for ideological purposes; in Corbyn’s case, already he is being portrayed by the Conservatives as threatening due to his wishes to cut down the armed forces and abolish Trident. I think that the idea of Corbyn as a ‘threat to national security’ is, like many portrayals of Robespierre, a false and overblown attempt to scaremonger. Nevertheless, it is a narrative that is made available to his opponents by the very same ‘virtue’ that has made him so popular with his supporters.

    It will be interesting to see if Corbyn sticks to his left-wing principles over the next few years, or if being the Labour leader and having to compromise with other, more centrist sections of his party changes him. Personally, I hope that he keeps his authenticity and integrity – if anything, to prove that there is a place for ‘virtue’ in modern politics, after years of instances of politicians betraying those who elected them.

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