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Robespierre: Critic of Rousseau

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Andrew Levine*
University of Wisconsin, Madison


On 5 Nivôse of the Year II (Christmas Day, 1793), addressing the National Assembly on behalf of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre declared: “The theory of revolutionary government is as new as the revolution that has brought it about. It should not be sought in the books of political writers, who have not foreseen this revolution, nor in the laws of tyrants, who content to abuse their power, are little concerned to investigate its legitimacy.” It is tempting to suppose Robespierre is exaggerating. Whatever the relation of revolutionary government to “the laws of tyrants,” Robespierre's ties to the republican tradition in political philosophy, and especially to Rousseau, are striking and nearly everywhere acknowledged, not least by Robespierre himself. However, I am not concerned here with the question of Rousseau's influence upon Robespierre, but with the rather different question of conceptual affinity. Even if Robespierre's intent were just to put The Social Contract into practice (if need be, by despotic means), it is still appropriate to ask whether Robespierre is a Rousseauean.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1978

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1 Robespierre, M.Rapport sur les principes du gouvernment révolutionnaire,” Oeuvres de Maximilien Robespierre,vol. 10 (Paris: 1967), p. 274.Google Scholar

2 Nowhere is this view expressed more colorfully than by Heine, Heinrich in Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834, LondonGoogle Scholar: 1882): “Mark this, we proud men of action; you are nothing but unconscious hoodmen of the men of thought who, often in the humblest stillness, have appointed you your inevitable task. Maximilien Robespierre was merely the hand of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the bloody hand that drew from the womb of time the body whose soul Rousseau had created.”

3 M. Robespierre, “Rapport sur les principes de morale politique qui doivent guider Ia Convention nationale dans I'administration intérieure de Ia République,” Oeuvres, vol. 10, pp. 353, 357.

4 See The Spirit of the Laws, Book II, chapters 3 and 9. Robespierre is perfectly aware of the paradoxical character of this formulation. He had commented on these passages of Montesquieu's two years before in his journal Le Défenseur de Ia Constitution, and the passage just cited continues: “It has been said that terror was the mainspring of despotic government. Does yours then resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that glitters in the hands of the heroes of liberty, resembles the sword that is wielded by the satellites of tyranny …. The government of the republic is the despotism that liberty exercises against tyranny.” Oeuvres, vol. 10, p. 357.

5 C.f. The Social Contract, Book IV, chap. 6. Rousseau's account draws extensively on Machiavelli's views of the dictatorship in ancient Rome in The Discourses, Book I, chapter 34.

6 The argument is as follows: “if the danger is such that the formal apparatus of law is an obstacle to our security, a supreme head is named, who may silence all the laws, and suspend for a moment the sovereign authority. In such a case, the general will is not doubtful, and it is clear that the primary intention of the people is that the state should not perish. In this way the suspension of the legislative power does not involve its abolition; the magistrate who silences it can make it speak; he dominates it without having power to represent it; he can do everything but make laws.”

7 Particularly Rousseauean in tone are the debates around the adoption of the Law of 14 Frimaire (December 4, 1793), vesting full executive power in the Committees of General Security and Public Safety, thereby suspending the constitution adopted only six months earlier. See, especially the intervention of Saint-just, Rapport sur Ia necessiteé de déclarer le gouvernement révolutionnaire jusqu'à Ia paix,” speech of October 10, 1793, Oeuvres de Saint-just (Paris: 1946), pp. 174-84.Google Scholar

8 By today's standards, the Terror seems relatively mild. Approximately 40,000 people were killed and many more imprisoned or detained. But, of these, the majority of executions took place in the Vendée, Lyons, and other provinces in open rebellion. The intensity of the repression varied greatly, coming to a head only at the very end, during the so-called Great Terror of June-July 1794. At all times, the Terror was directed only against persons in insurrection; never against members of a particular class or race. But however jaded we may be by more contemporary horrors, the Terror, at the time and for many years after, represented the unthinkable itself. It is in this role, indeed, that the Terror entered Western philosophy; see The Phenomenology of Mind (C,BB,III), “Absolute freedom and Terror.”

9 The Social Contract, Book II, chap. 12 (italics mine). It is noteworthy that Robespierre echoes not just the sentiment, but the very words: “What is the end we seek? The peaceful enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice whose laws are engraved not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of men …. ” “Sur les principes de morale politique,” Oeuvres. vol. 10, p. 352.

10 Op. cit., Book 1, chapter 8.

11 For details of these measures and an account of their relation to Rousseau's, theory of political right and obligation, see my Politics of Autonomy: A Kantian Reading of Rousseau's Social Contract (Amherst: 1976),Google Scholar esp. chaps. 4 and 5.

12 On the notion of virtue in the eighteenth century, see the magisterial study of Mauzi, Robert L'ldée de bonheur au 18e siècle (Paris: 1960),Google Scholar chap. 13. Mauzi sums up: “Sur Ia définition de Ia vertu, le siècle est unanime. Elle consiste à accorder un avantage au bonheur d'autrui sur notre bonheur propre. Elle désigne exclusivement une aptitude sociale. Vauvernargues assure: ‘La préférence de I'intéret général au personnel est Ia seule définition qui soit digne de Ia vertu et qui doive en fixer 1'idée.’ D'Holbach confirme: ‘La vertu n'est réelement que Ia sociabilité.’ La vertu est done un désaisissement de soi au profit des autres” (pp. 580–81).

13 More exactly, for Rousseau, failing the existence of de jure political institutions, a non-political, but still social, kind of virtue is feasible. This “second best” virtue is, in effect, a central thesis of the Emile. In this connection, see Shklar, Judith Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau's Social Theory (Cambridge: 1969).Google Scholar

14 M. Robespierre, “Sur les principes de morale politique,” Oeuvres, vol.10, pp. 353–54. The word sens means both “meaning” and “direction” or “tendency”. In both ‘senses’ the meaning is entirely Rousseauean: the de jure state is a form of equality among persons; and it tends to create that very equality.

15 On Robespierre's ties to the popular masses, see A. Manfred, “La nature du pouvoir jacobin,” La Pensée, n. 150 (April, 1970). It should not be forgotten however that Robespierre, on a number of occasions, bitterly opposed popular movements—particularly the left opposition, the Hébertists, during the period of the Terror. For a balanced account of Robespierre's social views, see Rudé, George Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat (New York: 1975), pp. 129-55.Google Scholar There is a substantial literature attempting, from many different vantage-points, to portray Robespierre as a socialist or proto-socialist. See, for example, Mathiez, AlbertLa corruption parlementaire sous La Terreur,” Études Robespierristes (Paris: 1917), pp. 265-93.Google Scholar However this position is clearly anachronistic and, in any case, socialism is not egalitarianism.

16 For Rousseau, equality of income and wealth (and even of power, insofar as unequal power is a consequence of unequal wealth) is neither feasible nor even desirable. Equality in the economic sense is incompatible with the division of labor and private ownership, institutions Rousseau indirectly defends. The most he would do is set limits on admissible inequalities; for fear that too great disparities will undermine the solidarity of the body politic. See The Social Contract, Book II, chap. 11, and my The Politics of Autonomy, pp. 188–92.

17 See The Social Contract, Book II, chapter 6, where Rousseau advances these theses by insisting, somewhat obscurely, that for an enactment to count as law, it must be general in its source and general in its object.

18 Op. cit., Book I, chapter 6.

19 It should be evident that, allowance made for the important conceptual differences that distinguish The Social Contract from other republican writings—for example, Rousseau's distinction of sovereignty from government—this position “translates” Montesquieu's thesis, cited above (see note 4), that virtue is the “essence” of republican government.

20 Rousseau insists that any intrusion of private interest destroys the generality of the will, and thereby sovereignty itself. See, inter alia, The Social Contract, Book IV, chapter 2. So far from being literary hyperbole, this requirement is a clear and unavoidable consequence of Rousseau's account of sovereignty.

21 Strictly, each person's interest is the general interest only in the particular circumstance, depicted in Book I, chapter 6 of The Social Contract, where the state of nature has evolved into a generalized state of universal opposition where “men have reached a point at which the obstacles that endanger their preservation in the state of nature overcome by their resistance the forces which each individual can exert with a view to maintaining himself in that state.” However, for Rousseau, as for Hobbes, this state of universal opposition is our situation, unless we succeed in establishing a general will. See The Politics of Aùtonomy, pp. 20–29.

22 It is noteworthy that Lenin attributes to Robespierre and the Jacobins the discovery of “revolutionary and democratic dictatorship.” In other words, for Lenin, Robespierre is not, strictly, a forerunner of socialism, but of the political practice proper for the implementation of socialism. See, for example, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,”Collected Works, vol. 7 (Moscow: 1965), pp. 410–15.

23 Lenin, V. I.The State and Revolution,” Collected Works (Moscow: 1964), vol. 25, p. 387.Google Scholar

24 I am grateful to the University of Wisconsin Graduate School for research support during the summer of 1976, when this paper was written. I am particularly grateful for comments from E. J. Hundert, Michael Teitelman, Jeffry Kaplow and Gerald MacCallum.