Where Will it End? Maximilien Robespierre and the Politics of Purity
Political purity, in any form, is both impossible and undesirable. People who put their faith in an individual or an ideology that promises to remedy all evils and achieve an ideal society are not only setting themselves up for a disappointment, they are also guilty of a form of moral blindness, which prevents them from seeing either the good in their political opponents or the weaknesses in their own side.
“Maximilien was once a … child, and when children become adults they do not grow into saints and devils, but into men and women.”
(Peter McPhee, biographer of Robespierre)
The political career of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the most important and divisive figures of the French Revolution, provides a powerful illustration of the destructive effect of the politics of purity. Having given celebrated speeches in defence of freedom of speech and minority rights in the National Assembly, Robespierre was to use his authority on the Committee of Public Safety to advocate a purge of his political opponents, and the removal of a defendant’s right to a fair trial. The closer he came to believing that France required ‘purification’ in order to revive a lost spirit of civic virtue, the more he became, in McPhee’s words, “prone to understanding the revolutionary world in terms of a binary opposition: the good and the evil, ‘patriots’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’”.
“This man will go far: he believes everything he says.”
(Mirabeau on Robespierre)
However, Robespierre’s early political career offered little indication of his later willingness to act ruthlessly in pursuit of his ideals. A man of austere habits and strongly-held principles, Robespierre was no spittle-flecked ranter; instead, his oratorical style was measured and sincere. Before being drawn in to the maelstrom of Parisian politics, he had been a relatively unknown provincial lawyer, and this enabled him to present himself as an independent-minded and impartial voice above the political fray. This gave weight to Robespierre’s claim to speak on behalf of the ordinary people of France, rather than the gilded members of the aristocracy, clergy or bourgeoisie. Robespierre’s most celebrated early speeches to the National Assembly attacked privilege, upheld freedom of conscience and attacked the compromises made by the revolution’s self-appointed leaders. He criticised the death penalty and, later, the drive for war against France’s external enemies.
“In the midst of corruption, you have remained the unshakeable support of truth… you have fought to maintain the purity of a constitution dictated by philosophy for the good of humankind.”
(Speech in praise of Robespierre)
Robespierre’s idealism was founded above all on the work of two great writers, Rousseau and Plutarch, who both attacked the perceived corruption around them by sanctifying an earlier, idealised social order. Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that human society had once been based on virtue and brotherhood, but these principles had been eroded by the pursuit of ambition and material wealth. Centuries earlier, the Roman historian Plutarch praised the courageous and self-sacrificing defenders of liberty who had struck down internal enemies and would-be tyrants in order to preserve the Roman Republic. As the political crises facing the revolutionary state deepened between 1792 and 1794, Robespierre used speech after speech to set forth his vision of a purer, ennobled society that would truly meet the high-minded aspirations of 1789. To his supporters, he became ‘L’incorruptible’ — the deputy who could not be swayed by calls for calculation or compromise.
“Citizens, there is too much reason to believe that the Revolution, like Saturn, will progressively devour all of its children…”
(Pierre Vergniaud, speech to the National Convention, January 1793)
But almost from the moment that Robespierre began to articulate this powerful vision, he and his supporters were faced with a nagging problem. Purification is an all-encompassing process; half-measures are impossible, and there is no place for small doubts or sceptical analysis. Any challenge to Robespierre was interpreted as an attack on his integrity and, since he was the courageous truth-teller who was liberating France, such an attack was also aimed at destroying the revolution as a whole. Cautious, detached critics who warned about the radical pace of change were no better than the most ardent conservatives, indeed they were in practice worse, since they disguised themselves as radicals only in order to prevent a true transformation from taking place, and thus to protect their own positions. As the revolution radicalised, so the apparent conspiracy worsened; more of Robespierre’s former colleagues and allies expressed doubts and urged caution. All traitors, all hypocrites, all, one by one, destined for the scaffold.
“He has all the characteristics, not of a religious leader, but of the leader of a sect.”
(Condorcet on Robespierre)
You do not have to search far to find the same kind of political dynamic working itself out in contemporary politics (even if most of the violence is now online). The champions of ‘anti-politics’ are, in one form or another, descendants of Robespierre: not all are great orators, nor as austere, nor as astute, but all claim to speak on behalf of the marginalised and ignored, envisaging a society in which corruption can be defeated by the force of their idealism. Their devoted supporters will seize on the merest scraps of evidence to legitimise their political programme, and use personal insults or violent rhetoric to trash anyone who challenges them. The purification of politics ensures that there can be no compromise with the status quo and no room for doubt. Complex questions are simplified into a binary choice, and those on the wrong side of the debate are vilified and purged.
In the end, the trouble with the politics of purity is that everyone ends up covered in filth.
Joe Skeaping is Head of History at Brighton College. This piece was originally written for his History blog A Brazen World. Check it out http://abrazenworld.blogspot.co.uk/