In Defense of Robespierre

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I will assume that the reader is familiar with the history of the French Revolution for this post.

I recently saw a barrage of comments on a documentary on the French Revolution attacking Slavoj Žižek for his defense of the Jacobins and Robespierre. Do you not understand that in order to establish the fundamentals of democracy from a feudal monarchy, that you have to go through this zero level of Jacobinism? These things do not happen in a vacuum, and, as such, cannot be judged from timeless standards of  universal morality.

In a society in which 90% of the population were de facto slaves to their feudal lords, where the ideas of feudal privilege, divine right, and social hierarchy trumped those great enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, could you stand by and fall into a process of gradual change through bourgeois parliamentarianism when the revolution was under attack by the reactionists and monarchists, when virtually all of Europe declared war on the French Republic?

I for one, could not. Reason tells us that the ideas of liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy trump those scandalous, putrid ideas of social hierarchy, privilege, divine right, and monarchism. When a significant portion of the population with influence, believed that they had a divine right to rule over the peasant due to their bloodline, had an entitlement to what others produced, had a disdain for the ideas of democracy, liberty, equality, and fraternity to such an extent that they made war against the revolution and went onto the side of the European invaders, I do not think most people today would have hesitated to suppress them for the greater good.

I don’t think most people today would’ve have been so tolerant of those who clung to absurd notions of feudal privilege and social hierarchy, anti-human rights, and birth right. I think most people today would have resorted to violence against monarchists and feudal lords far sooner than Robespierre ever did. I think most honest and freedom loving people would say they could not tolerate such ideas. I think most people would, in a love of humanity, stand against those reactionaries and French conservative monarchists who got in its way. In the words of Danton, the committee was “to be terrible as to spare the people the need to be so”. The demand for the terror came from below, it was not some “evil plan” hatched from above. It came as a result of the explosion of counter-revolutionary violence and riots that had swept through revolutionary France. Robespierre acted in accordance with the will of the revolutionary people. He did what was necessary to defend the gains of the revolution, even if by todays standards, we sometimes say he may have gone too far.

Jacobinism is not ideal, it is not nice, it is not happy or pleasant. It is, however, in times of extreme social change and under specific circumstances, a necessary evil.

Žižek said of the liberal critique of Jacobinism,

“What I don’t like in the critics of Jacobinism is that on behalf of rejecting their so-called proto-totalitarian excesses, what lurks behind is, for me, this cynical liberal wisdom: ‘You see, the lesson of the Jacobins is, we should, yes, talk about equality and so on, but secretly we should be aware that it doesn’t really work.’ If there were politicians who were not in any way cynical or with this ironic wisdom and so on, it’s the Jacobins. Maybe we need this today.” -Slavoj Žižek

I think this is the attitude we ought to have today.

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