Having recently finished Ruth Scurr’s biography on Robespierre, Fatal Purity, I have had my world turned upside down on the actions of Robespierre and the course of the French Revolution. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the French Revolution was a disaster, a massively overblown response to legitimate grievances against the ancien regime. But Scurr’s biography blew apart many preconceptions that I had about what the French Revolutionaries really wanted, the differences between the various revolutionary factions, and the conditions that lead to the infamous Committee of Public Safety that summarily executed thousands of innocent French citizens.

Like any biography, particularly one about a controversial figure such as Robespierre, Scurr’s biography is subject to different criticisms. She seems to me to try to be objective as possible, but of course, no history is perfect, and is always subject to different interpretations. This being said, the book seems to be generally favorably reviewed, and I am no expert on the French Revolution, so I am not going to review the book. Instead, I am just going to make some general observations about things I learned and what some valuable lessons from Robespierre’s life and role in the French Revolution could be.

I think the most important myth that Scurr’s book shatters is that Robespierre and the Jacobins were some kind of Proto-Socialists. This is a view held by both Robespierre’s admirers and detractors. There is even a prominent American socialist magazine entitled Jacobin. I also held this view, until I was proven wrong by Scurr. The Jacobins were not socialists at all, and in fact they staunchly argued for private property rights. It is true that as the Revolution progressed, the Jacobins argued for large welfare provisions for the poor and advocated for some restrictions on private property, but they never went so far as the radical enrages who argued for total communism. On page 270 of my edition, Scurr writes that Robespierre “was not a communist before his time. He did not oppose the very existence of private property.” He did argue for redistributive measures such as progressive taxation and price controls. In this way, Robespierre and the Jacobins had economic views closer to the modern American Democratic party, which argues for a basic capitalist system with strong redistributionist tendencies. They were not, however, socialists.

Neither were the Jacobins atheists. In fact, Jacobin executed many of his political enemies, including the radical politician Jacques Hebert, on charges that he was an atheist. Robespierre, by the way, was not making this charge up. Hebert contributed heavily to the DeChristianization of France under the Revolutionary Tribunal, executing hundreds of priests and creating his own atheistic religion called the Cult of Reason, culminating in a bizarre festival dedicated to Reason on the altar of Notre Dame. Robespierre vigorously opposed this cult, and pushed for Revolutionary France to worship God, although this was a deistic god called the Supreme Being. Robespierre frequently attacked atheism as “aristocratic” and elitist; he believed that religious sentiments were much closer the aspirations of the poor and downtrodden, and that a republic properly rooted in virtue could only exist based on the worship of god.

So Robespierre and the Jacobins were a broadly capitalist oriented political group with some redistributionist tendencies, while also fiercely opposing atheism and hyper-materialist conceptions of human nature.

So then, why do so many leftists, from Jacobin magazine to the Bolsheviks, hold up Robespierre as a Revolutionary hero, when there were so many other actors in the Revolution (such as the enrages and the Hebertistes) that were closer to their ultimate goals?

I think this video clip by famed Marxist Slavoj Zizek provides the answer:

In the video, Zizek admires Robespierre’s firm commitment to Revolutionary principles, even at the expense of bloodshed. Beginning with an acceptance of Robespierre’s infamous rationale that terror is needed to enforce republican virtue, Zizek goes on to say that he admires the Jacobins’ unwavering commitment to their egalitarian project. He goes on to chastise modern liberal politicians who criticize Jacobin fanaticism by calling them cynical. Sure, modern liberals promise equal rights for all, but they don’t really mean it, because if they did, they would be willing to accept the struggle and sacrifice that is necessary to creating a completely egalitarian society just like Robespierre and the Jacobins did. He points out that Robespierre knew that it required the killing of thousands to achieve his revolutionary ideal, and accepted this as a necessary price.

This, according to Zizek, is the power behind Robespierre’s chilling question to the National Convention on November 5, 1792: Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution?

And this is what so many leftists admire about Robespierre, his commitment to the Revolutionary cause. Even if the end goal is not exactly what the modern day disciples of Marx have in mind, it’s that zeal for starting the world anew, for tearing down ancient systems of oppression and recreating the human race, even if this recreation must take place in a christening of blood, that is what so much of the radical Left admires about Robespierre, and what so much of the Right despises about him.

There were other interesting things that I learned about Robespierre and the Jacobins, such as the rise of a certain left-wing nationalism that foreshadows that nationalistic socialism of Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba. Whereas before the French Revolution, any sense of French Patriotism stemmed from loyalty to the Church and the Crown, the nationalism that the Jacobins espoused was rooted in a vague sense of the general will of the French People. The lyrics to the national anthem of the French Republic, “Les Marseillaise,” are very nationalistic (Ye sons of France, awake to glory/Hark Hark! What myriads bid you rise!) , and hardly reminds one of the cause of international socialism that the Bolsheviks and their disciples fought for.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the French Revolution was that, at least by Scurr’s account, it clearly was a product of the Enlightenment. It was not, as many uncritical defenders of the Enlightenment posit, simply a product of Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment Philosophy. The Jacobins advocated for the abolishment of the monarchy, feudal titles, and a capitalistic meritocracy, ideals that (as an American) I myself hold to. In the beginning, much of what Robespierre wanted for France were reasonable and necessary critiques. He wanted to abolish unfair powers held by feudal nobles, such as their ability to throw French peasants in prison without trial, as well as the custom of bad blood, where a criminal’s family would be held in equal contempt with the criminal for the sheer unfortunate accident of being related to him. What is interesting, however, is that the more the Revolutionaries undermined the monarchy and the Church, the more radical they became. By the time they overthrew Louis XVI and condemned him to death, the most radical segments of the Revolution were calling for the complete abolition of private property, and many were attempting find a replacement religion for the Catholic Church. When Classical liberals and American conservatives study the French Revolution, they should ask themselves: Without conservative institutions to hold them in place, do the ideals of Classical Liberalism (the equality of every individual, the freedom of every citizen to pursue happiness) spiral out of control?