When thirty-year-old Maximilien Robespierre arrived at Versailles to represent the Third Estate of Artois, he seemed an unlikely revolutionary. In his home town of Arras, he was known as a solid, though not particularly inspiring lawyer. His manner of dress was simple and conservative. His high-pitched, atonal voice placed him at a disadvantage as an orator (Jordan 66). He was not, however, entirely lacking in strengths. According to Jordan, Robespierre loved words and had a gift for stringing them together into stirring sentences (64). Furthermore, he was persistent, making speeches on a variety of issues in spite of his own fears and the jeering of hecklers (67). Finally, he carried in his mind and heart a glowing vision of a just, economically stable, democratic post-revolutionary France (34).
Through his speeches, Robespierre emerged as one of the more influential figures of the Revolution. This paper will examine Robespierre's evolving political, social, and economic beliefs. Robespierre's political career will be compared with the political career of Vladimir Lenin, another young revolutionary. Finally, the paper will examine whether these men are more appropriately called heroes, villains, or neither.
According to David Jordan, Robespierre went into his political career believing that "there is a providential scheme assuring success to just causes" (31). By this logic, of course, any successful cause must by definition be just. In holding this belief, Robespierre planted the seeds for his later justifications of bloodshed -- after all, it was done for a just cause. Along the same lines, Robespierre believed that politics was a "moral science" and should not be treated as a game or a quest for personal power (34). He himself lived a simple lifestyle and urged all other elected officials to ensure that their own behavior was, like his, beyond reproach (35).
Robespierre was perhaps a bit of an idealist in that he did not see the Revolution as a means to simply improving the quality of life for peasants or for installing a more just system of leadership. Rather, he saw the Revolution, and the politics surrounding it, as a way to reform human nature at its most basic level. This view was not popular, and Robespierre soon found himself classified as a dangerous radical (Jordan 46-47).
A few of Robespierre's other political beliefs are also worth investigating. In 1792, the Revolution was at a standstill. The country had directed its attention to international conflicts (strongly opposed by Robespierre (Jordan 92)). Slowly, Robespierre began to support the idea of "insurgence," an uprising of Parisian citizens to destroy the monarchy by force. Although not directly involved in the attacks himself, there is little doubt that his rhetoric urged the people of Paris onward when, on August 10, they marched on the Tuileries and imprisoned the royal family and Legislative Assembly. Afterwards, Robespierre praised the insurgents, claiming falsely that there had been no innocent casualties (Jordan 114). Later, Robespierre also supported Parisians in a "purge" against his opponents within the revolutionary Convention. However, Robespierre was not supportive of every citizen uprising. When riots over the high cost of food broke out in 1793, Robespierre publicly took the rioters to task. "When the people rise up, should they not have a goal worthy of them? Should they be concerned about a bag of groceries?" he demanded (qtd. In Jordan 136).
Robespierre's indifference to the people's plight in the matter of food prices speaks clearly about his views on economic and social matters. As far as he was concerned, these issues would take care of themselves once the monarchy was brought down and a just government took its place (Jordan 126). He believed that the privileged had a duty to protect the poor, but he never suggested the abolition of personal property or any redistribution of wealth (Jordan 35).
In 1793, in a Constitution designed to take the place of the one ratified in 1791, he wrote more clearly about his views of people and property, stating that individual citizens had the right to own property, but that these rights were limited by the need to respect the rights of others. He stated that any property or use of property which violated the rights of another citizen was "illegal and immoral" (qtd. In Jordan 153).
As far as social policies went, Robespierre's views seem to have changed over his years as a revolutionary. In his early years, Robespierre stood ready to support basic freedoms such as free speech and fair voting laws (Jordan 52-53). His sister reported that he was strongly opposed to the death penalty and agonized for days over having to sign a death warrant as a young judge (Jordan 20). He supported, and continued to support throughout the revolution, a national education program (Jordan 156).
Still, the Robespierre who emerged as the head of the Jacobins and the chief apologist for (if not instigator of) the Terror was a very different man than the unassuming lawyer of earlier days. After the insurrection of August 10, 1792, for instance, he not only supported a death sentence for the king, he also argued against giving Louis XVI a trial before his execution, claiming that Louis had already been tried and found guilty by the insurgence. Seeming to realize, perhaps uncomfortably, his own shifting ideals, Robespierre reminded his listeners and readers that the morals of a revolutionary society cannot be judged by standards created in a nonrevolutionary society (Jordan 125). Thus, although he despised the slippery logic of Machiavelli, he was making his own eloquent claim that, in matters of Revolution, standards of decent behavior no longer apply. In other words, the ends justified the means.
Years later, another revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, would praise Robespierre as an inspiration. In some ways, Lenin and Robespierre had much in common. Both were born to loving families and led relatively unremarkable childhoods. Both had backgrounds in law and both learned to reach out to the public with stirring, challenging orations. Both allied themselves with the radical branches of their respective causes and attacked the more moderate branches (Robespierre led the Jacobins and considered the Girondins his enemies; Lenin led the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks).
However, whereas Robespierre seems to have slowly become a revolutionary for intellectual and moral reasons, Lenin was abruptly politicized when his older brother was executed for plotting to murder the czar (Deutscher 65). Likewise, Robespierre despised the monarchy on principle but never seemed to bear ill will towards Louis XVI or the royal family as people (Jordan 28); Lenin, however, nursed an ongoing hatred for the Romanov dynasty which, in his view, had murdered his brother ( Service 364).
There were also some differences in the ways these men came to power. Robespierre, of course, began as an elected official. He continued to support the Revolution within France, gaining support from and eventually leadership of the Jacobins. After the two insurrections, Robespierre was eventually appointed as one of twelve members of the Committee of Public Safety, the highest official post he ever held (Jordan 174). Lenin, meanwhile, was arrested at least twice in Russia for his revolutionist views and served a three-year exile in Siberia. Afterwards, he left the country and traveled abroad, gathering support from other Bolshevik Marxists. When the people of Russia, rose up against the monarchy, Lenin returned home, and in October, 1917, he led his party to victory over the Provisional Government (Service 10).
Lenin and Robespierre used similar strategies for dealing with opposition. Both were quick on their feet and able to deliver blistering retorts to statesmen who opposed their causes. And neither shied away from encouraging or defending violence, again in the name of the cause. "The Revolutionary Government owes to citizens protection; it owes the enemies of the people nothing but death" Robespierre stated (qtd in Jordan 174). Similarly, in August 1918, Lenin urged the Bolsheviks of Penza to deal with a threatened insurrection in the following manner: "Hang (and make sure that the hanging takes place in full view of the people) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers" (qtd. In Service 365).
Politically, Robespierre and Lenin had some major differences. Robespierre felt that politics was about morality and that providence would grant success to just causes. He initially believed in a democracy with universal representation (Jordan 53), but later came to embrace the idea of a representative rather than a participatory democracy. "The people as a whole cannot govern themselves," he concluded (qtd. In Jordan 151). However, at no time did Robespierre show any interest in becoming a dictator or in establishing a dictatorship (Jordan 146). Neither did he ever suggest the abolition of personal property. Lenin, however, was a fan of Darwin and Machiavelli. He saw politics as a savage game to be won, and he favored a dictatorship as the second stage in Marx's establishment of a socialist government (Service 376). Moreover, there is little doubt that he longed to be the dictator in question and that he aggressively sought personal power whenever he…