French Revolution

Peggy Noonan “Don’t Know Much about History”

One Thing after Another has been quiet these past few months because the primary author of this blog has been doing research, preparing for classes, doing some work around the house, and, yes, vacationing with the family. This blog’s gentle readers understand, then, that it must have required an extraordinary event to rouse One Thing after Another from its mid-summer reveries. That event was the publication of an article by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal entitled “What Were Robespierre’s Pronouns?”:

Noonan starts by describing the French Revolution as a “moral and political catastrophe” that was essentially a “nationwide psychotic outbreak” dedicated not merely to “regicide but suicide.” “For 10 years,” she writes, the French people “simply enjoyed killing each other.” She quotes Simon Schama’s Citizens (which she describes as “heroically nonideological”) to the effect that violence was not incidental but central to the French Revolution: “It was what made the Revolution revolutionary.” Why all the violence? Noonan’s answer is that the revolution was “largely run by sociopaths” like Maximilien Robespierre, a self-appointed “messianic schoolmaster,” who sought to change French culture to make it more congruent with the new revolutionary regime. Accordingly, “there would be pageants, and new names for things.” Noonan trots out the story of the revolutionary calendar which organized the year along decimal lines (i.e. 12 months each consisting of three ten-week days) so as to erase memories of the Gregorian calendar with its saints’ days and Sundays.

Why this clumsy yet robust assault on the entire French Revolution? Because, Noonan argues, Robespierre was just like the “social and sexual justice warriors who are renaming things and attempting to control the language in America.” In other words, for Noonan, the sociopathic leaders of the bloody French Revolution resemble the people today who would have us use gender-neutral pronouns.

Noonan’s argument is vulnerable to counterattack on numerous grounds, but since One Thing after Another is interested primarily in history, it would like to counter Noonan’s two most important assertions about the past. First, there is her egregiously simplistic and inaccurate description of the French Revolution. A historical analogy only works if the event or development which forms a basis for comparison is accurately rendered. Noonan’s depiction of France in the 1790s, however, is profoundly ahistorical.

  • It refuses to recognize that the revolution passed through various phases, some far more conservative and less violent than others. The National Assembly (1789-1791), for example, was loath to rid itself of the king, and sought to prevent the sans culottes—that is, the radicals in the streets of Paris—from violently hijacking the revolution. Later, the Directory (1795-1799), corrupt as it was, curbed the excesses of the Terror (1792-1794), as it sought to preserve the republic from extremists on the left and the right.
  • It neglects context. It refuses to see that though violence was employed excessively at times, it was often applied for rational political ends. For example, the Terror with which Robespierre has been indelibly associated was an attempt to save the republic from foreign invaders and domestic enemies. The irony of this situation was that Robespierre had opposed the foreign war that his less radical opponents in the Legislative Assembly had started.
  • It displays no understanding of contingency and neglects the fact that each step of the revolution was dependent on previous decisions and developments. For instance, the rise of the republic and radicalism was based very much on Louis XVI’s unwillingness to work within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. This is the reason that, pace Noonan, the French could not “have done what England was doing” and reformed their way to liberalism and democracy (more on that anon).
  • It shows no interest in causality (if Noonan is right, why and how did a generation of sociopaths come to power in France?).
  • It does not seem to understand that violence is one of the key elements that make all revolutions revolutionary. In other words, the French Revolution was not exceptional because force was central to the struggle for its aims. Has there ever been a true political revolution that did not employ violence?

The facile nature of Noonan’s presentation irons out all the complexity of a major historical event and is utterly dismissive of the nuance required to describe the past. Noonan’s analysis reminds One Thing after Another of that friend—we all have that friend—who, instead of seriously analyzing the failure of his last relationship, simply declares that his ex-girlfriend was a “psycho.” There is no empathy here and therefore no sense that had we been raised in France under the Old Regime and confronted with the kinds of challenges faced by leaders of the revolution many of us might have acted in much the same way.

That attitude extends to Noonan’s comparison of France with England. The latter state, she claims, experienced a “long nonviolent revolution, a gradual diminution of the power of king and court, an establishment of the rights of the people and their legislators.” Such an assertion resembles the Whig history that triumphed in the 19th century and began to fall out of fashion about a century ago. It conveniently ignores the high body count of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the 1640s. It also refuses to recognize that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was achieved through force and thereby created a political situation that was unstable for decades (think of the Jacobite threat that hung over the United Kingdom for the first half of the 18th century that exploded in violence during “the Fifteen” and the ’45).

The foregoing brings us to the second point. In the same way that she claims the French Revolution was uniquely awful and violent, Noonan presents Robespierre’s attempt to shape French culture as uniquely evil. She seems especially appalled by his policy that stipulated “there would be pageants, and new names for things.” What Noonan does not seem to realize is that this process is an essential part of nation-building and has influenced all nations in the modern era. The point of pageants and new names for things was captured by Massimo d’Azeglio’s famous declaration shortly after Italy was unified: “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” In other words, new nations require new myths, holidays, and vocabularies to forge bonds among the people and generate support for a new regime. Both the state and various private organizations participate in this act of creation which is intimately connected with what historians call “the invention of tradition” (after Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s book of the same name). This dynamic continues today in America as it does elsewhere. Take, for example, the Pledge of Allegiance which was first written in 1892, partly to bolster overall national feeling, partly to assist in the assimilation of immigrant children in American schools. In other words, it is a small, daily ritual meant to forge the nation, and it has become an important tradition only recently. It was adopted by Congress in 1942, and it has been revised four times over the span of its brief life to adapt to changing attitudes (the phrase “under God” was not added until 1954). Perhaps the greatest irony of all here is that the original author, Francis Bellamy, was a Christian Socialist who seriously considered inserting “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the famous slogan of the French Revolution, into the pledge. Eventually, he decided the phrase would incur too much opposition, and all that remained of the original formulation was “liberty and justice.”  Of course, this is not to say that Robespierre was just like Bellamy. Rather, what is important here is that Robespierre and Bellamy were engaged in similar types of work, albeit employing different tools and operating under different circumstances.

In this particular case, one gets the sense that Noonan does not object so much to Robespierres’s presumption in taking on the task of teaching the French as she does to the content of that teaching. Then again, since Noonan evinces no clear grasp of what Robespierre was about—aside from the idea that he was a sociopath who enjoyed killing people—it is difficult to discern what she thinks on this score. You might believe the advocates of gender-neutral language are ludicrous or heroic, but what they have to do with Robespierre (and the other sociopaths of Noonan’s imagination) or the real French revolutionaries of the past is unclear.

One hopes that Noonan is perhaps better than her piece indicates; One Thing after Another understands that it is hard to crank out one opinion piece after another. But one cannot lament the degraded state of national discourse while contributing to its degradation at the same time. One suspects that the real problem here is that Noonan presents the French Revolution in the blackest terms because she is so intent on blackening the name of “social and sexual justice warriors.” “All history is contemporary history,” Benedetto Croce wrote years ago, but in Noonan’s article, we have an especially crude example of that phenomenon.

NOTE: Since there are several excellent, recent, and accessible biographies of Robespierre available in English, there remains no reason for misunderstanding this figure of great historical importance. Check out Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006) and especially Peter McPhee, Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). Anyone interested in further investigating Robespierre’s beliefs should read his famous speech of February 5, 1794 (17 Pluviôse, Year II) on political morality. In Twelve Who Ruled, his classic work on the Terror, R. R. Palmer described this oration as “not only the best expression of Robespierre’s real ideas, but also one of the most notable utterances in this history of democracy” (p. 275).

Very Short Reviews: Ruth Scurr’s _Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution_

Fatal Purity

The 222nd anniversary of Maximilien Robespierre’s execution is coming up (July 28, 1794 or 10 Thermidor Year II, according to the French revolutionary calendar), so One Thing after Another thought it would be appropriate to resurrect the Very Short Review series this summer with an excellent biography of Robespierre.

Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Holt, 2006).

  1. Scurr is primarily interested in delineating the relationship between Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution; as she puts it, “At what point exactly did the lawyer from Arras begin to believe in the image that the Revolution reflected back to him” and “Why did that image become so dangerously hypnotic, for him personally, for his contemporaries, and for posterity?”
  2. Like other biographers, Scurr detects the heavy influence of Rousseau in Robespierre’s thinking, particularly in the desire to create a virtuous society (which was not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself) and a belief in the supremacy of the General Will (not what the majority wanted but rather what was in the best interest of society as a whole).
  3. Scurr also emphasizes the impact of Robespierre’s religious ideas—while he saw the Catholic Church and its priests as enemies of the revolution, he was a man susceptible to religious feeling, who believed in God, and felt that religion would facilitate the development of virtue (which is why he supported the cult of the Supreme Being).
  4. Of course, Robespierre’s strange and paradoxical personality—he was aloof, principled, sensitive, incorruptible, dogmatic, paranoid, idealistic, and ambitious—shaped his political strengths (a capacity to stay “on message,” an ability to obtain tremendous moral force, an uncanny knack for detecting his opponents’ vulnerabilities, and a dogged perseverance) and weaknesses (a suspicion of other and a susceptibility to abstractions that divorced him from the messy reality of the French revolutionary politics and life in general).
  5. Robespierre saw no further into the future than others (e.g. in 1789, he had no inkling the monarchy would be overthrown in 1792, nor did he dare suggest such a thing), but he had a very good sense of how to seize the moment for political advantage.
  6. Robespierre’s great strength was as an articulator of ideas (the Comte de Mirabeau said of him, “He will go far because he believes everything he says.”) who could dominate an assembly, not as an executive politician who always knew how to navigate the complicated and overlapping Parisian centers of power: the chief executive (the Committee of Public Safety), the legislature (the National Convention), the factions within the legislature (Hébertistes and Dantonists), the municipal authority (the Commune and its many sections), and the various political clubs (the Jacobins and the Cordeliers).
  7. We see Robespierre’s strengths at work when he defeated Brissot and the Girondins on a number of issues (e.g. the execution of Louis XVI, the erection of revolutionary tribunals, and the trial of Marat) before literally destroying them.
  8. At the same time, though, Robespierre’s obsession with virtue and his conviction that conspiracies threatened the revolution that sought to implement that virtue led to a madness that revolved around the following question: “How can you tell a sincere man in politics?”
  9. Another important component in Robespierre’s destruction was his self-identification with the revolution that he believed had to be protected at all costs—it a) reinforced his unwillingness to compromise with others and, b) in the eyes of many, tainted him with its excesses.
  10. Calmly and without rancor, Scurr concludes that Robespierre was sincere and honest, but even a sincere and honest man can lack a sense of proportion, become detached from reality, and commit terrible crimes (the Law of 22 Prairial, to name one example).

Hugh Dubrulle

Assassin’s Creed, Robespierre, and the French Revolution

Assassin's Creed Unity

The following post is dedicated to Professor Dubrulle’s History 226: Modern Europe class. They know why.

Although not a gamer, One Thing after Another knows that the latest edition of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, just came out on November 11. Set during the French Revolution, the game has already attracted much attention and some controversy, as this article from The Atlantic indicates:

More than anything, it has been Jean-Luc Melénchon’s comments that have drawn attention to the game. A former Socialist who founded the Left Party in 2008 (and later became a major player in the Left Front, a coalition consisting of the Communist Party, the Left Party, and the Unitarian Left), Melénchon ran in the French presidential election of 2012, finishing in fourth place. Melénchon has complained that the game portrays the “treacherous” Louis XVI and his wife, the “cretin” Marie Antoinette, as innocent victims of the revolution. Meanwhile, it depicts the French people as “bloodthirsty savages.” Furthermore, according to Melénchon, Maximilien Robespierre, who headed the Committee of Public Safety, the National Convention’s executive body during the revolution’s most radical phase, the “The Terror” (1793-1794), comes out looking like a “monster.” For more details about Melénchon’s comments, take a look at the following article from the Daily Telegraph:

The Atlantic is spot on with a number of observations. To start with, the controversy does raise the much-debated question of what responsibility the media bears for representing past events “truthfully.” Le Monde produced a list of seven ways Assassin’s Creed: Unity gets history wrong:

Ubisoft, the maker of the game, has mounted a variety of defenses, none of which are mutually exclusive. First, it has argued that Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a game, not a history lesson. Second, Ubisoft has asserted that it did hire historical consultants to create an accurate period feel. Third, and most interestingly, it has claimed that it compromised historical accuracy in the game for the sake of enhancing the experience of gamers. For example, Ubisoft made conscious decisions to have the tricolor flag appear in 1789 and the “La Marseillaise” sung in 1791–even though these artifacts of the revolution did not appear until later–because gamers would have found it strange to see historically accurate flags and not hear “La Marseillaise.” For more information on what Ubisoft was thinking, see Le Monde‘s interview with Antoine Vimal du Monteil, one of the game’s designers:

Of course, all of these defenses do not necessarily counter the argument that contemporary media ought to get the past right lest it warp perceptions of great events. Certainly, Melénchon and Alexis Corbière, the secretary general of the Left Front, suggest that there is, perhaps, a sinister political plot behind Ubisoft’s portrayal of the revolution.

One need not subscribe to conspiracy theories to see that various versions of history are linked to different political positions. As The Atlantic points out, Assassin’s Creed: Unity has revived a 200-year-old political debate over whether or not the French Revolution, particularly its radical phase, was a good or bad thing. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the revolution knows it sparked a great deal of resistance within France itself among those who sought to preserve different elements of the old regime. It also led to the emergence of modern conservatism: Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which was extremely critical of the revolutionaries, is widely considered one of the founding texts of this political movement. The Left, and this would include people like Melénchon, sees the revolution in a very different light. From this perspective, the revolutionaries, particularly Jacobins like Robespierre, appear as heroes and models of virtue. The political debate between Right and Left has found their way into the historiography of the French Revolution. It should come as no surprise (and One Thing after Another generalizes here) that French historians are somewhat more forgiving of the revolution’s excesses than the “Anglo-Saxons”–that is, English-speaking scholars from the United States and Britain. After all, Americans have tended to be somewhat forgiving of their Founding Fathers even if these men had flaws of their own.

This blog must admit that it has a small soft spot for Robespierre: One Thing after Another‘s great-great-great-grandfather was born in the same parish of Arras within a year of Robespierre’s birth. One Thing after Another, however, is not blind to Robespierre’s faults. Moreover, One Thing after Another suspects that contemporary left-wing French politicians have fallen into a tradition of invoking  “the Incorruptible” for the sake of burnishing their socialist credentials. This invocation can make one sound edgily revolutionary without demanding too much in the way of concrete action. In this context, The Atlantic‘s quote from Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being is quite apposite:

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no-one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.

In other words, it is easy to refer to Robespierre as a hero because such a reference is ultimately meaningless; he died over 220 years ago, and his days will not come back. In all likelihood, politicians like Melénchon would shrink from the acts that Robespierre committed. Robespierre invested himself in The Terror; Melénchon is whining about a video game.