Robespierre: a child of the Enlightenment, a tragic misunderstood figure, or a forerunner of modern dictators?
The first thing I will say is that there is no understanding Robespierre without Rousseau. There is the famous apocryphal story that he slept with the Social Contract under his pillow. But Rousseau is best understood as a transitional figure between the Enlightenment proper and Romanticism, it is in this light I think we must understand Robespierre. Today we remember Rousseau as a political philosopher, or for Emile and his educational theory, but if you want Rousseau as his contemporaries (and Robespierre) knew him look more closely at Julie or especially his Confessions. What emerges is an immensely sentimental philosophy, which considers man as largely subject to passions, passions which are beyond morality and can only be measured by the intensity of their feeling. The astonishing trick of Rousseau’s Confessions, on his audiences and many of us today, is that it consists mainly of his admitting terrible, even unconscionable things, but throughout he has such pure, consistent, and appealing sentiment that you cannot help but love him more for it.
Robespierre’s entire career is animated by a similar overwrought emotion. It fuels his success until it takes him to martyrdom: the single-minded refusal to compromise, unlike a Mirabeau or even Danton, it is his strength before it unites the multitude in guilty fear of him.
The second thing I will say is that for Robespierre Terror is a revolutionary doctrine, a republican doctrine, necessary in every respect to the Revolution in the time of its most pressing need. For Robespierre a revolution must be ‘something more than a noisy crime to distract from previous noisy crimes’ (from his penultimate speech.) What more is it? The Revolution is a total refoundation of society, a new social contract, liberty from the old regime means the opportunity for radical reformation into a new model for humanity. Of course in Rousseau’s formulation what happens to enemies and refusers of the social contract? They are exterminated or exiled. They threatened no less against the revolution. When a revolution is in peril (as it was in 1793) it must either realize itself through violence against the threatening reaction or perish.
Robespierre was never misunderstood in his own time; he is misunderstood now as being bloodthirsty. This is ignorant of the record, Robespierre was the leader of the anti-war faction when the Brissotin were declaring preemptive war, and it was his attempt to reign in the corrupt terror of Fouché that was the immediate cause of 9 Thermidor. He is tragic in that it was his absolute devotion, his incorruptibility, the very qualities that made him a champion of liberty, that brought about the downfall.