“I saw, with pain, that you are persuaded that any intelligent person who thinks differently from you...is not a good citizen.” One would be forgiven for thinking that the line comes from a conversation overheard last week in Washington D.C. It doesn’t. It is what Madame Roland (Marie-Jeanne Roland de la Platière), one of the important figures of the French Revolution, told Maximilien Robespierre more than two centuries ago. Not that the reproach helped the architect of the Reign of Terror change his mind; if anything, such criticisms made him even more impatient. For he was convinced that the Revolution needed terror as fire needs fuel. “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible,” and for him the Revolution was above all a matter of historical justice. It didn’t help Madame Roland either: she would end up imprisoned and, eventually, guillotined. She had been a genuine, enthusiastic child of the Revolution, but as Pierre Vergniaud famously put it, the “Revolution, like Saturn, devours its own children.” (Vergniaud himself would be devoured in October 1793.)
Parallels are plentiful between Robespierre’s time and ours. When he pushed his fellow Jacobins to “fall on all the odious journalists” whose “existence becomes more pernicious to society every day,” one cannot but be reminded of the way journalists are sometimes treated today as “enemies of the people,” disturbers of the social peace whom we could do well without. Under the excuse of a “need for unity,” disagreement and dissent can easily be presented as treason. Even before the Reign of Terror started, as Jeremy Popkin observes in his excellent A New World Begins, revolutionary groups in France “increasingly saw their opponents not just as misguided but as traitors to the country who needed to be physically eliminated.” And once you have got rid of someone in your mind, doing so in practice can be a very simple affair.
As Popkin shows, the “French Revolution was the laboratory in which all the possibilities of modern politics, both positive and negative, were tested for the first time.” It’s not just the philosophy of human rights, freedom, and equality that we share with those who made the French Revolution; we also owe to them much of the way we think about politics and society, social transformation and political change. To an important extent, we still employ the categories formulated by the French revolutionaries; we use their language to understand our political realities, and even ourselves. And it’s from them that we have largely learned how to dream politically: the phantasm of a radically new beginning that would cut us off from a shameful past, the intoxicating vision of a world made anew—this was all formulated and rehearsed in France more than two centuries ago. That’s why a closer look at the French Revolution might teach us something important about our own political imaginary. And also about how dangerous such revolutionary dreaming can become when it gives itself permission for terror.
The French Revolution was, at its core, a project about radical novelty. The whole system of social and political institutions the French had been using for centuries was now suddenly found to be both oppressive and irrational. Together, these two sets of institutions constituted l’ancien régime (“the old regime”), something now to be ashamed of and replaced by new, rationally designed, forward-looking institutions. Newness became the Revolution’s first demand: everything had to be re-made from scratch—ironically, sometimes even the things brought forth by the new regime. Georges Danton, before his turn came to be devoured, put it best: “We have to look again at everything, recreate everything.” The Declaration of the Rights of Man, he said, “is not without faults, and it deserves to be reviewed by a truly free people.” Only a permanent revolution was sufficiently revolutionary.