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.

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