It’s the job of historians to try to understand the past, not to predict the future. Normally we keep to our patch, to the stuff we know. So when I wrote my most recent book Choosing Terror, about the crisis of the French Revolution as it was experienced by its leaders, I had no thought of contemporary political resonances. Surely, I thought, in my naïve historian’s way, we’ve learned from the past. That at least won’t happen again. I can’t help being struck though with the parallels between the situation for the leaders of the French Revolution, and what I am witnessing every day in contemporary British politics: political leaders making catastrophic misjudgements about their country’s rightful relations with the other European powers – misjudgements that threaten to affect a whole generation of young people (in the case of the French Revolution a reckless declaration of war in 1792, in the case of the contemporary UK a political miscalculation to decide the country’s fate by referendum that is fast leading to an economic as well as a political crisis); a cosmopolitan outlook undermined by misguided patriotism swiftly leading to a rise of xenophobia and nationalism; ambitious leaders ready to destabilise politics for their own personal advantage – the very opposite of what a politician as a ‘man of virtue’ was meant to do; politicians plotting against one another, ruthlessly betraying their friends and allies; conviction politicians who refuse to be moved, who say they don’t do factional and party politics and think only of the common good; politicians so emotionally devastated that they weep openly at the impending collapse of all have devoted their lives to; a tense situation in which every day brings fresh crisis so that politicians are stressed, on edge, exhausted and afraid; and many ordinary people who feel a dangerous contempt for their politicians and the political process – though I guess we had that already. Of course, they haven’t set up a guillotine in Parliament Square as a way of disposing of political opponents. Not yet, anyway ….
Does anyone else see parallels that I’ve missed out here? Or do I just spend too much time with French revolutionaries?
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
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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06knkfs
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’.
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.
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
I am delighted to say that interest in Maximilien Robespierre continues unabated. A new generation of historians has been reassessing his life and political contribution. Gavin Jacobson, a DPhil student at Balliol College, Oxford, and a contributor to this network, has reviewed two new collections that bring together some of the current thinking on Robespierre. The review essay appears in The English Historical Review.