Can virtue be imposed on societies from above? What is the role of the state? What is a better model for modern societies, Athens or Sparta? Is there a place for idealism in politics?
The problem of idealism and pragmatism in politics can be studied is its purest form by analysing the French Revolution. The conflict between Robespierre and Danton is a battle of ideas, the manifestation of the clash of idealism and pragmatism which took murderous proportions. It led both protagonists to their deaths on the guillotine.
Maximilien Robespierre had no doubt that nothing was more desirable than a virtuous society.
In our country we want to substitute morality for egoism, honesty for honour, principles for customs, duties for decorum, the rule of reason for the tyranny of custom, the contempt of vice for the contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for well-bred people, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for pompous action, warmth of happiness for boredom of sensuality, greatness of man for pettiness of the great; a magnanimous, powerful, happy people for a polite, frivolous, despicable people.
Robespierre was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who in Social Contract unveiled a matrix for a harmonious society in which all possible virtues are being practised. Robespierre is a Rousseauvian par excellence:
I want to follow your venerable path, though I may leave nothing but a name of which centuries to come shall be wholly incurious. I shall be happy if, in the perilous course that an unprecedented revolution has just opened up before us, I remain constantly faithful to the inspiration that I have from your writings.
One could argue that the first phase of the revolution was the incarnation of the ideas of Montesquieu, exposed in De l’esprit des lois, while the second stage was the embodiment of Rousseau’s Social Contract. The revolution could have stopped at the first stage with France becoming a constitutional monarchy. Montesquieu was a pragmatist who was primarily interested in balancing competing interests of various social groups. He believed that such a balance could be achieved by the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers.
Rousseau had a completely different perspective on society. He advocated the total sovereignty of the state whose apparatus was the emanation of the will of the people. The general will was one and indivisible. Once properly recognised, there was no need for checks and balances in the political system because the realisation of the general will would lead to universal happiness of the people living in a harmonious society.
Norman Hampson writes in The French Revolution that Rousseau:
… was primarily a moralist and what distinguished his converts was crusading enthusiasm that looked like fanaticism to the unconverted … he naturally advocated for the republican type of society the opposite of what Montesquieu had thought appropriate to the monarchy. Everything should be so organised as to enhance the effectiveness of the moral will of the community as a whole …. his was an authoritarian democracy.
Is it still the Enlightenment or the beginning of Romanticism in politics?
Robespierre was a political maximalist, driven by the desire to shape the society according to Rousseauvian principles. The goal was the Republic of Virtue and there was no sacrifice big enough to divert Robespierre from this path. For him, ideas preceded reality which was moulded by visionary men of great will. Robespierre was a visionary politician – Manichaean and millenarist. Those who did not share his views were the enemies of the republic and had to be physically eliminated. During the revolution, the guillotine became a tool of political pedagogy.
Robespierre was a gardener. His garden was the French society, his ideas were seeds which had to be fertilised by blood, and dead branches had be cut off lest they poison the body politic. Only then the Republic of Virtue would blossom. Revolutionary violence was methodical, purposeful and impersonal. The fate of individuals mattered only as much as they acted according to the Zeitgeist. The bigger the goal of the revolution, the greater the acceptance of the means leading to it. Hence the ferocity and radicalism of the revolution.
Murder was a political necessity. King Louis XVI had to die because he was not only the monarch but the monarchy itself. For the institution to die, he had to die as a an individual. An then his wife, Marie Antoinette, had to die too. Their 10-year old son, Louis Charles, died in prison, officially from tuberculosis. The revolution eliminated those whom Parisian women called “the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s son” (because they meant to guarantee the supply of bread to the populace). Robespierre insisted that “Louis must die so that the nation may live”. The murder was necessary for subjects to be turned into citizens. Regicide cemented the Revolution by making those who voted in favour of the king’s death the accomplices of the murder – they knew well that the royalists would hunt them mercilessly if given the chance. This was the case of solidarity of murderers.
Regicide also created a point of no return. The dead king could not be liberated by royalists and restored to power. The murder of the divinely anointed monarch marked the beginning of a new world. Monarchy was first desacralised and then eliminated so the Republic could be sacralised. A new calendar was introduced. The year of 1792, when the Republic was proclaimed, was the first year of the new world not only for France but also for all humanity. There was no longer divine sanction for politics which was replaced by metaphysical sanction coming from the will of the people.
Robespierre was surprisingly open about the use of terror to institute the Republic of Virtue.
If the strength of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the strength of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror; terror without virtue is disastrous, virtue without terror is powerless. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue.
It seems that Robespierre sought God’s kingdom on earth. He was not an atheist – his vision was to seek secularised eschatology but he found little understanding for his attempt to elevate Reason to the sphere of metaphysics. Reason was celebrated in mass gatherings but without enthusiasm among the populace.
The revolution was a case of self-radicalisation at an ever increasing pace. For Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, stagnation meant decay and only a permanent and ever accelerating movement could prevent revolution from ossification and failure.
Robespierre was no doubt a monster … or was he?
Robespierre believed that his motivation was pure. He devoted his life to the well-being of the people. He sacrificed his personal life to the realisation of Rousseau’s vision of the General Will realising itself in politics and social arrangements.
Historian Marisa Linton believes that Robespierre was unfairly treated by history. He was not solely responsible for terror because France was ruled at that time by a collective body composed of nine, and later of twelve, members, the Committee of Public Safety. She stresses the fact that Robespierre was initially a humanitarian who even advocated the abolition of the capital punishment. In her view, the dynamics of the revolution forced Robespierre to behave like he did. The Republic was under existential threat from within and from outside and extraordinary circumstances required extraordinary measures. Royalists, noblemen, refractory priests and foreign powers – all conspired to kill the republican ideal. For the revolutionary leaders, it was the case of exterminating the enemies of the Republic or be exterminated by them. They saw themselves as defenders of the people. Linton’s revisionist plea is not entirely convincing because the terror reached its peak when the external and internal threats subsided. She also ascribes to Robespierre rational motivation while he could equally be seen as a Romantic hero in whose personality everything was in excess.
Robespierre longs for the unattainable. His excessive attachment to morality makes him ruthless and immoral. He wants to turn ordinary bread-eaters into angels even against their own will.
Stanislawa Przybyszewska also tries to rehabilitate Robespierre in her play The Danton Case. Robespierre is here a tragic hero. He sacrifices himself to a social and political project of such magnitude that individual lives matter little in the process of creating the Republic of Virtue. Seen from the perspective of later developments in Europe, one can indeed regret that the revolutionary leaders did not succeed in destroying feudalism.
The nineteenth century was to some extent the lost century, at least in some parts of Europe. Conservative and reactionary forces managed to restore many aspects of the ancient regime such as hereditary monarchies, aristocratic titles and rigid social divisions. The Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria usurped itself the right to act as a guarantor of the established order. That world collapsed during the First World War although even in the early 21 century many European countries are still hereditary monarchies.
In The Danton Case, Georges Danton says:
You are isolating the Revolution, Robespierre! Your inhuman demands are gradually alienating the most fervent enthusiasts! At your heights one cannot breathe! Take the terror. – I am not concerned with their stupid heads; heads are two a penny; but you are fighting thievery and corruption, and they are natural needs without which the state is dying\ It is as if you forbade people to digest! Do you know what you will destroy with your terror? Commerce and industry. You are bringing us to a bankruptcy the country is going to remember for half a century … bring the Revolution down to the level of human nature. To reduce demands – to the level of what is possible. To reassure financial circles. In a word – to make Revolution accessible.
Przybyszewska manages to present the problem of idealism versus pragmatism in such terms that one begins to sympathise with Robespierre. One may begin to read her play with the firm conviction that Robespierre was a monster and finish reading it with more sypathy to him and his plight. This is a proper tragedy, with both Robespierre and Danton trying to realise their diverging visions of a better world and both perishing in the process of doing so.
Robespierre’s relationship with Danton is also the subject of Georg Buchner’s play Danton’s Death (1835).
Andrzej Wajda adapted Przybyszewska’s play to cinema in 1983, with great success. The film can be seen here: