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Shant Eghian

Robespierre’s Radical Liberalism: Reflections on Ruth Scurr’s Fatal Purity

Were Robespierre and the Jacobins Proto-Socialists?

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.