Leading revolutions

David Andress’s review of Marisa Linton’s new book Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford UP, 2013) is just out.

Choosing Terror takes a new approach to the French Revolution by investigating how its leadership – men such as Robespierre, Brissot and Desmoulins, and women such as Madame Roland – experienced the events of 1789-94, and how their private and political worlds interacted with each other. Norman Hampson once argued that the lives of leading French revolutionaries ‘were politics’ – that the immense workload, lack of sleep, and enormous strains caused by the events of the 1790s left little room for personal matters. Revolutionaries such as Robespierre, he suggested, had allies, ‘rather than friends’, and their few and scattered correspondence leaves little insight into their emotional and private lives that were, in any case, almost completely put on hold for the republic’s sake. Linton’s study offers a somewhat different perspective. In painstaking research, the author has unearthed countless documents that illustrate the role that private emotions, friendships and hatreds played in revolutionary politics from 1789 to 1794. An example of the merger of personal and state matters is that many political negotiations in the early Revolution took place at private dinner tables – a practice inherited from the Ancien Régime and widely frowned upon by patriots, yet one from which even radical politicians such as Desmoulins could not entirely distance themselves. As they saw each other socially to conduct the business of politics, the revolutionaries’ personal affairs insinuated themselves into, and intervened in, their careers. In turn, their private lives became more and more politicised as the Revolution developed – every action, every uttering (public and, especially, private) took on political significance.

Adding to this difficult situation was the revolutionaries’ need and desire to appear as ‘men of virtue’, as politicians of transparency and disinterestedness, with no private concerns or patronage links to look after. Given that even resolute revolutionaries such as Saint-Just, however, felt obliged to look after their familial and social circles – to his friend Garot, who asked the young Conventionnel for a (political?) favour, he wrote, ‘Mandez-moi ce dont il s’agit, je vous servirai promptement. Je suis bien résolu de ne jamais perdre de vue les intérêts de ceux qui ont paru si sensibles aux miens…’ – this was an extremely difficult standard to uphold. In the Revolution’s climate of high moral expectations – as well as political contestation – the knowledge that leading revolutionaries possessed of each other’s personal shortcomings and indulgences could quickly be used to discredit the public images of ‘virtuous’ men and shatter political reputations. Former friends became bitter enemies as the Revolution radicalised, and lives and careers were destroyed as what Linton defines as the ‘Politicians’ Terror’ began to unfold – with terrible consequences for those directly involved, their friends and families, and republican politics as a whole.

Another interesting look at revolutionary leadership is currently offered by the research project ACTAPOL Acteurs et action politique en Révolution: les Conventionnels, under the direction of Hervé Leuwers, Philippe Bourdin and Michel Biard, and with the collaboration of Pascal Dupuy, Laurent Brassart and Karine Rance. This project reinvestigates, among other issues, the exact composition of the National Convention (no easy task, especially given the severe depletion of its ranks between 1793 and 1795), their members’ activities, writings, and civil statuses, and the toll that being involved in revolutionary politics at the highest level took on them.

Both Linton’s book and ACTAPOL, it seems, raise broader questions in regard to the challenges facing revolutionary leaders:

Why do certain people get involved in revolutions and what does it take to lead one?

What constitutes a revolutionary career and how beneficial is the rise of a revolutionary élite for societies wishing to achieve and consolidate regime change?

What can revolutionaries do to avoid their movement’s self-destruction through high expectations, personal hatreds and opposing plans for their country’s future?

Since revolutionary processes attack the established order, its participants not only risk their lives, but also have to rely on makeshift alliances, private negotiations and uncomfortable compromises. How can such circumstances be reconciled to revolutionary societies’ desire for transparent politics following previous experiences with corrupt and oppressive regimes?



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