The French Revolution, philosophically unsteady at its conception, erupted into fascistic Terror on the 5th of September 1793. Four years into the revolution, a consistent level of compromise came to an ugly conclusion.
The Terreur lasted until the death of Maximilien Robespierre on the 28th of July 1794. It became bona-fide on the 29th of September 1793 when the Loi des Suspects (Law of Suspects) was put into place, with a mobilisation of a revolutionary army to follow. The systems put in place to suppress enemies of liberty (which is oxymoronic in itself) reinforced the same compromises as before: for example, one of the chief tasks of the Armée révolutionnaire was to enforce price controls on grain and other goods. These price controls had been tried a few years earlier in a smaller capacity and with disastrous effects to national economy. This time, in 1793, it’s reaches had been made bolder – and the effects were even worse. The Sans Cullotes, effectively the working population, were expected to take a significant pay cut in the towns and in rural areas. Farmers had to pay more than they could afford. A state, supposedly conceived on a foundation of Liberty, was now deep in the throes of coercion and control. Things would only get bloodier.
It is estimated that arrests would have been about 1.8 percent of France’s total population with around 5 percent of adult males. Although the national government was weak and in crisis, a national network was established of 20,000 police committees. Figures derived from Greer (1935) show that 16,594 individuals sentenced to death during the Terror only represents a part of the total number of victims. There is an estimate that there were 10,000 – 12,000 deaths in prisons and those who were executed without trial account for another 10,000 – 12,000 deaths. The numbers, in themselves symbolic, can be supplemented by another symbolic element: the former Queen, Marie-Antoinette, was guillotined in October 1793 (on grounds of high treason) along with 21 Girondin members to follow.
The ‘Revolutionary Government’ itself is not said to have been one adhering to a robust constitution, but rather one that was provisional and had been in place since the 10th of August 1792. The Terror itself had gone through phases before reaching ‘The Great Terror’ in 1793 and the foundations were political: the Girondin faction were being purged, signposting that authoritarianism was fully in view. Power was to become more and more concentrated – again, with the flag of ‘liberty’ being flown in front of it.
Up until his death, Robespierre had become increasingly inclined to totalitarian practice. On the 7th May 1794, he declared officially the Cult of the Supreme Being. The famed painting depicts the papier-mache mountain built for him; an unquestionable, explicit tableau.
Something from the outset was amiss. The push for a committee to investigate treason and function as a political police force started with the Constitutional Assembly in 1789, before being given legislative backing on the 25th of November 1791 with the establishment of the Comitée de surveillance and a high court for enforcement. Throughout 1793, the Montagnards (led by Robespierre) and the Girondins were in fierce competition for majority in this committee.
The achievement of the revolution, practically, should have been magnificent. To overthrow feudal authority and give liberty unquestioningly was a desirable end; a vital end for human flourishing. The conception, however, was rotten at the core – the theory and the practice were incompatible, compromise set in and the intentions of the revolution collapsed with no philosophical net to fall into.
And by a philosophical net I mean one with the suitability to truly protect liberty. That is, a philosophical framework to protect individual rights. As we shall see, the French Revolution was carried forward with something quite antithetical to this and fundamentally flawed.
A key intellectual influencer of the French Revolution was Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his 1762 text The Social Contract. A key concept of his is that of the General Will. I’ll take a quote here for analysis, which is demonstrative of this:
“So long as a number of men gathered together consider themselves as a single body, they have a single will also, which is directed to their common conservation and to the general welfare. All the mechanisms of state are strong and simple and its maxims clear and luminous; there is no tangle of contradictory interests; the common good is obvious everywhere, and all that is required to perceive it is good sense” (The Social Contract, Book IV, Chapter 1).
There are three key fields pertaining to this theory’s incompatibility with political liberty: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics.
Rousseau here rests a political concept on a metaphysical error. Men do not act in a single, collective body, nor do they think with a collective brain which could determine a single will. Man can only properly act within how he physically relates to the world; in his capacity as an individual.
With a flawed metaphysics comes a flawed epistemology; the ‘common good’, Rousseau asserts, is obvious – one just needs ‘good sense’ to perceive it. The ‘common good’ is an abstraction: it doesn’t, epistemologically speaking, exist as a concrete. Rousseau in some sense defaults to the only compromise available to him here: to integrate this, one just simply needs to sense it, to feel it. This is the only option left when clutching at an unperceivable straw.
The ethical implications here are incompatible with liberty too. The ‘common good’ doesn’t unite one in an impossible, universal ‘will’ – it binds him to his fellow men by force. It assumes that man exists only in his capacity to serve others, stripping him of his right to volition. Liberty, in its fullest sense, is long by the wayside at this point.
Imagine the contradictions inherent in trying to assert a general will, and how politically this would lay the groundwork for authoritarianism – and in the case of the French Revolution how it exacted authoritarianism. The ‘general will’, this half-cooked abstraction, is the kind of intellectual groundwork that lays justification for, say, convicting a suspected royalist with no evidence – or even if with evidence such a thing is justifiable. They fell foul of the group requirement by default, answerable only to a messy code of ethics.
To demonstrate this in practice, take this quote from Robespierre’s Report on the principles of Revolutionary Government, published December 25th, 1793:
“The purpose of a constitutional government is to preserve the republic; that of a revolutionary government is to set it up… Under a constitutional regime, it is almost enough to protect individuals from abuse by public authorities; under a Revolutionary regime, the public authorities themselves are obliged to defend themselves against all factions which attack them… These ideas are enough to explain the origin and the nature of the laws which we call revolutionary. Those who call them arbitrary or tyrannical are stupid or perverted sophists who seek to confuse their opponents” [bold highlights mine].
For the flaws in its philosophical framework, the revolution started to rebuild that which it tried to destroy. This was made possible by political practice naturally resulting from a changeable code of values. This is exemplified here by Robespierre who formerly held democracy in high regard, now denying its very integral working – that public authority can be criticised. With this kind of analysis, by his books I am stupid and a perverted sophist.
Political outcomes are a corollary of philosophical premises. The kind of philosophy displayed by Rousseau – one that deems the mind of the individual as impotent and only acting within a collective framework – is one that is common to other overtly statist systems, particularly of the twentieth century. Readers may like to listen to our podcast on this, addressing the philosophical premises of Nazi Germany through a discussion of Leonard Peikoff’s book The Ominous Parallels.
This turbulent period in France’s history proves that theory and practice are inextricably linked, and moreover that they need to be consistent in order to exact good ends. The French Revolutionaries certainly had a gargantuan task to contend with; to deconstruct one system and move to another. Due to contradiction and confusion they experienced bloody failure along the way.
–‘The French Revolution – From Enlightenment to Tyranny’ by Ian Davidson. Published by PROFILE BOOKS LTD (2017), copyright Ian Davidson 2016, 2017
–‘The Longman Companion to The French Revolution’ by Colin Jones. Published by Longman Inc. (1988), copyright Longman Group UK Limited, 1988
–‘The Social Contract’ by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Published by Oxford University Press (reissued 2008), copyright Christopher Betts, 1994