The Jacobin Enlightenment

Jacobinism was not a betrayal of the Radical Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It was a historically necessary effort to defend both.
  • Doug Enaa Greene and Harrison Fluss | 
  • August 9, 2020

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[The sansculottes] certainly helped push the Revolution leftwards: without their intervention the Jacobins could never have come to power; there would have been no “democratic dictatorship of Year II”; and it is doubtful if the monarch would have been overthrown…They also won important concessions for themselves though they proved to be short-lived: the Maximum Laws, for example, with a ceiling placed on food prices: and the right to vote and to sit in local government.
— George Rudé

The Idealist History of the French Revolution

When it comes to the French Revolution, Jonathan Israel sees ideas and not material factors as its primary cause. In Revolutionary Ideas, he states that the revolution’s “fundamental cause” was the Radical Enlightenment itself: “Radical Enlightenment was incontrovertibly the one ‘big’ cause of the French Revolution. It was the sole fundamental cause because politically, philosophically, and logically it inspired and equipped the leadership of the authentic Revolution.”1Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, 708.

Although Israel discusses material and popular struggles from below, that is not his main focus. Even though his pages can capture social unrest and protest, his books starkly separate mass actions from the intellectual realm. Of course, he does not argue that Spinoza invented the French Revolution. But because he lacks a Marxist framework, cause and effect tend to reverse themselves in his writings. He not only grants intellectual ideas pride of place but also depicts them as the determining factor in the revolutionary process.

Such an overemphasis on the causal power of ideas makes for a one-sided history. As significant as the ideas of Helvétius and Holbach are, these philosophers never wanted a social revolution; indeed, before 1789, virtually none of the French Enlightenment philosophes dreamed of breaking with monarchism, much less wanting to establish democratic republicanism.2As the Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci points out, no one was a republican before the French Revolution. Events, however, made them so: “A prejudice. People say: ‘In pre-revolutionary Paris, in all of France there were no republicans.’ They should say: the French revolutionaries did not have the creation of a republic as their immediate aim. Their aim was more distant, more general; fundamentally it was an international aim. Their revolution was economic…They wanted the bourgeoisie to regulate production. They wanted the producers of that time to create their future and their life with their own hands.”

Antonio Gramsci, “July 14th,” in Selections from the Political Writings (1910-1920), ed. Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1977), 14.
It goes without saying that the philosophies of Helvétius, Holbach, and Rousseau did not directly cause the storming of the Bastille, the overthrow of the monarchy, or the downfall of Robespierre.

Like many contemporary liberal historians, Israel distinguishes between what he calls the “authentic Revolution” and its “going off course” in Jacobinism. This approach is similar to the revisionist histories of François Furet. Yet, Israel has his own unique set of dates that demarcate the authentic and inauthentic phases of the French Revolution.3This demarcation between the “authentic” and “inauthentic” revolution echoes Marx’s observation on France in 1848. While the moderate liberals cheered on the “nice revolution” of February, where class struggle was muted, they were horrified by the “ugly revolution” of June, when the class struggle fully revealed itself.

The February revolution was the nice revolution, the revolution of universal sympathies, because the contradictions which erupted in it against the monarchy were still undeveloped and peacefully dormant, because the social struggle which formed their background had only achieved an ephemeral existence, an existence in phrases, in words. The June revolution is the ugly revolution, the nasty revolution, because the phrases have given place to the real thing, because the republic has bared the head of the monster by knocking off the crown which shielded and concealed it.

“The June Revolution,” in MECW, vol. 7, 147. According to him, the authentic revolution lasted from the storming of the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, until the Jacobins took power. Then, he says, “on 2 June 1793 when the democratic republican revolution was overthrown, freedom of thought, expression, and the press ended, and the steps that led to the suspension of the democratic constitution initiated. A very different kind of French Revolution then rapidly evolved during the summer and autumn of 1793 into the unconstitutionality, repression, horror, organized popular coercion, and bloodshed of the terror.”4Jonathan Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775–1848 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 281 What started as a more or less pristine revolution of the liberal mind ended as a revolution of the tyrannical will. As noted previously, Israel does not shy away from depicting the Jacobin revolution as a proto-fascist triumph of the will.

Israel’s Liberal “Blanquism”

Israel reduces the politics of the revolution to a three-way intellectual-political struggle: “The French Revolution, we may conclude was really three revolutions — a democratic republican revolution, a moderate Enlightenment constitutional monarchism invoking Montesquieu and the British model as its criteria of legitimacy, and an authoritarian populism prefiguring modern fascism.”5Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 695. But again, it was only in 1792 — after the overthrow of King Louis XVI on August 10 — that going beyond monarchy became a real possibility. Hence, a moderate and nonradical Enlightenment predominated until the masses stormed the Tuileries. Ironically, if Israel’s French philosophers simply had their way without any mass pressure, the nation would not have transcended its own moderate Enlightenment phase.

For Marxists, social revolution is defined as “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”6Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 1, The Overthrow of Tzarism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1937), xvii. Marxists do not deny the need for leadership, organization, or what Lenin called a vanguard party. But as Gramsci stressed, “In the development of leaders…the objective [is] to create the conditions in which the necessity of the existence of this division [between leaders and led] disappears.”7Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed., Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 144.

In opposing the Marxist approach toward the masses, Israel remarkably adopts a kind of liberal Blanquism, in which liberal intellectuals make the revolution without popular participation. There are only vanguards in Israel, either composed of the best and the brightest, or composed of the worst and the benighted:

Exactly as with Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism later, all directing very different kinds of revolutionary upheaval, guiding ideologies, often fanatically championed and propagated by revolutionary leaders, far more often mold and exploit than derive from social or economic pressures. Revolutions, then, are not shaped by sociability or general attitudes but by organized revolutionary vanguards marshaling their own distinctive political language and rhetoric, including apt slogans, as a means of capturing, taking charge of, and interpreting the discontent generated by social and economic pressures.8Israel, Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, 14.

This idea of history is almost theological. It is a story of angels and demons battling for the soul of humankind. But contra Israel’s interpretation of the French Revolution, there was no disciplined vanguard force waiting in the wings to bring Enlightenment. If history is led only by fully conscious intellectual forces, then, as Plekhanov said, history is akin to an elite struggle or conspiracy rather than a more mundane social process.

There was no organized, disciplined, “Enlightenment” vanguard that started the French Revolution. Depending on the phase of struggle, different ideas were marshaled by different political currents to justify everything from the Rights of Man to the Thermidorean Constitution. No one followed a philosophical manual or blueprint to govern their actions, including the revolutionary leaders Brissot, Danton, and Robespierre.

Materialism contra Idealism

Israel’s main historical division is that between two camps of revolutionaries: the Girondins, who were anti-Rousseauians, and the Jacobins, who were fanatical Rousseauians. But this is a false opposition, since Rousseau was used piecemeal to justify both Girondin and Jacobin agendas. For example, one of Israel’s most beloved Girondin leaders, Brissot, was a fan of Rousseau; other famous Girondins such as Madame Roland and Olympe de Gouges were devotees of Rousseau as well. If ideas matter in the monocausal way Israel insists they do, then one cannot explain why one group of Rousseauians violently fought the other.

For all his praise of Spinoza’s materialism, Israel finds himself trapped in an idealist position: either he insists that ideas are the primary causes of history, or he concedes that reality and consciousness somehow go together.9“Theoretically, as Marx himself admitted before arriving at his more dogmatic formulations of dialectical materialism, it is by no means obvious why a thoroughgoing materialist and naturalist account of the world should be unable to accommodate a balanced interaction, or two-way traffic, between physical reality and human consciousness.” Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670–1752, 21. But aa seesaw-like reciprocity between ideas and social being is not materialism or determinism; it does not properly explain where ideas come from or how they become a driving force in history.

The common denominator of the French Revolution’s various phases is not the Radical Enlightenment. We acknowledge the importance of ideas, and it would be absurd to talk about the French Revolution without Enlightenment, just as it would be nonsense to talk about the Russian Revolution without Marxism. But neither the Enlightenment nor Marxism caused these revolutions to directly break out, consolidate themselves, or decay. Enlightenment and Marxist ideas, such as determinism, materialism, class struggle, and modes of production are vital for historical understanding. But to turn Enlightenment into an ideological demiurge abstracted from real historical processes is a form of idealist superstition. In the case of the French Revolution, Rousseau’s ideas did not “cause” Jacobinism as much as give Jacobinism its ideological justification.

Instead, the common denominator of all social revolutions is the conflict between forces of production and relations of production. Without that material conflict, mass shifts in consciousness, ideas, and political practice are unintelligible. Of course, one cannot reduce Spinoza’s Ethics to a mere epiphenomenon of Dutch history. Spinoza’s philosophical arguments still need to be dealt with regardless of his historical context. But without that context, his philosophy would have never been written, nor would Spinoza have ever advocated democratic republicanism. Thus, insofar as he does not grasp the mediations between social reality and philosophy, Israel’s histories are incomplete.

The Jacobin-Marxist Tradition

Israel rejects the long-standing tradition of Jacobin and Marxist historiography of the French Revolution. New research, he claims, has made these approaches obsolete:

Eventually new research proved Mathiez, Lefebvre, and Soboul mistaken in supposing unavoidable massive external and internal threats drove the Terror. Great historians though they were, by building their interpretation around the unsustainable myth that Robespierre and the coalition making up the Montagnard dictatorship of 1793-4 saved the Revolution, they engendered a potent but utterly false myth that rendered their overall class-based interpretation more vulnerable.10Israel, The Enlightenment That Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830, 477.

This conclusion is neither warranted nor well argued. In Israel’s dismissal of historians such as Jean Jaurès, Albert Mathiez, Georges Lefebvre, and Albert Soboul, we lose crucial resources for understanding the revolution’s social reality. These authors, however different from each other, understood the revolution in terms of its social being and material struggles; most importantly they interpreted it as a bourgeois revolution. Together, these historians constitute a powerful tradition of Jacobin-Marxist historiography.

Israel invokes no pertinent research that refutes these historians’ main claims. For all the thousands of pages written in various books, he provides no real engagement with the evidence, arguments, or concepts of this Jacobin-Marxist tradition. In contrast to these authors, Israel offers a Manichean view of history; he does not take class struggle seriously and papers over the social contradictions at the heart of the Enlightenment and the revolution. This blinds him to the Girondins’ and the Jacobins’ divergent class interests, which Mathiez and Soboul painstakingly analyzed. Without the dimension of class, we cannot ultimately understand what motivated these political factions to fight to the death.

A Bourgeois Revolution

Before we can grasp the philosophical and political battles, we need to ground the French Revolution in its material class reality. Recently, the Marxist historian Henry Heller has persuasively demonstrated the bourgeois character of the revolution. In terms of sheer numbers, “it is estimated that the size of the [French] bourgeoisie grew from 700,000 to 800,000 at the beginning of the 18th century to perhaps 2.3 million in 1789, vastly outnumbering the 120,000 or so nobles.”11Henry Heller, The Bourgeois Revolution in France 1789–1815 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), 55. In certain regions before the revolution, we see the introduction of machinery, wage labor, and other proto-capitalist relations.12Ibid., 32–60. See also Henry Heller, The French Revolution and Historical Materialism (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 54–79. This dramatic growth of the bourgeoisie inevitably shaped the composition and attitudes of the Third Estate, which in turn created irreconcilable conflicts with the aristocratic members of the General Assembly.13Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787–1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon (New York: Vintage Book, 1973), 128.

Revisionist historians are quick to point out that these members of the bourgeoisie were typically lawyers, and not proper businessmen or capitalists.14Heller, Bourgeois Revolution in France, 75.

One’s class origin does not necessarily equal one’s class stance or position. An example of how someone from the middle class could represent capitalist interests would be Antoine Barnave, a member of the National Assembly who played an important role in supporting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Though a lawyer by training, Barnave came from a family of silk manufacturers and merchants. There is also the example of Pierre Louis Roederer. The Roederer family had noble status, but they were also lawyers, connected with wealthy glassworks businesses near Metz. Roederer himself was a member of the National Assembly, a supporter of bourgeois economic interests, and a political democrat. See ibid., 75–76.
They assume that the people who run the state must be capitalists who also own the means of production. But it was the political activity of these same bourgeois lawyers that helped to found the First Republic. In some of their policies, they may have gone beyond the short-term interests of French capitalists, but they did not undermine the long-term interests of French capitalism itself.

Because the French revolutionaries — particularly the Jacobins — were not tied down by parochial concerns, they built an alliance between the bourgeoisie and the sansculottes. Such an alliance with the masses made particular bourgeois interests appear universal. As Marx and Engels explained, “Every new class, therefore, achieves its hegemony only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously, whereas the opposition of the non-ruling class against the new ruling class later develops all the more sharply and profoundly.”15The German Ideology, in MECW, vol. 5, 61.

The Sansculottes

Against Israel’s emphasis, the French masses were essential for the development and radicalization of Enlightenment. Their material struggles should not be sharply counterposed to ideological gains. In The Crowd in the French Revolution, George Rudé analyzes how the seemingly crude material concern for bread actually caused changes in ideological consciousness. The price of bread, Rudé explains, drove the masses to challenge the bourgeois sanctity of private property and free trade:

The most constant motive of popular insurrection during the Revolution as in the eighteenth century as a whole, was the compelling need of the menu peuple [i.e., common people] for the provision of cheap and plentiful bread and other essentials, and the necessary administrative measures to ensure It. We have already observed that, on more than one occasion, this preoccupation, being at variance with the ideas on free trade and property held by all bourgeois groups, was apt to put a strain on their alliance with even the most advanced of the political leaders.16George Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 200.

In such coarse demands for bread came revolutionary challenges to property. Not only that: if one argues that no one should be hungry, and takes such a proposition seriously, then the necessity for a new social order presents itself. Thus the demand for bread was pregnant with philosophical and social meaning. It was the Jacobins who discovered this new logic for happiness and for the right to exist. Saint-Just, for example, announced to the National Convention in 1794 that “happiness is a new idea in Europe.”17Quoted in Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon, 1975, 396. In contrast to the liberal Girondins, the Jacobins were the only faction willing to establish price controls on bread. Robespierre was clear in his speeches that the right to existence outweighed the right to property: “The primary right is that of existence; the primary social law is therefore that which guarantees to all members of society the means for existing; all others are subordinate to these laws.”18Quoted in Albert Soboul, The Sans-Culottes: The Popular Movement and Revolutionary Government 1793-1794 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 59.

Israel’s framework renders the masses passive; they can only wait and receive the grand ideas of liberty and equality from their enlightened superiors. Rudé, though, reveals a much more dialectical relationship between the masses and the bourgeois leadership. In fighting for their interests, the masses adopt Enlightenment ideas, making them their own as they struggle for existence.

The masses participated in all kinds of riots, especially food riots. These also included the Thermidorean riots against Robespierre. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the Thermidorean reaction was falsely cast as a rebellion from the Left against Robespierre’s so-called despotism. Even the future communist revolutionary Gracchus Babeuf initially fell for that illusion. In 1795, during the Thermidor period, popular revolts against the Directory government had two main demands: bread and the restoration of the Jacobin Constitution of 1793. As one sansculotte put it, “Under Robespierre, blood ran and we had bread; today blood does not run and we don’t have any bread, and we ought to make some blood flow in order to get some.”19Quoted in ibid., 44-45.

Moreover, Rudé and Soboul show that revolutionary ideas came to the masses through participation in sectional clubs and by way of popular oratory, newspapers, and pamphlets. Most of the sansculottes could not read (nor did they have much time to read if they could), but this lack of literacy did not translate into a lack of thinking. The sansculottes assimilated new ideas quickly, ideas that illuminated, motivated, and further justified their material struggles. Since Israel denigrates the role of the masses in the process of Enlightenment, it is worth quoting Rudé at length again here:

There is therefore little doubt that these revolutionary crowds enthusiastically supported and assimilated the objects, ideas, and slogans of the political groups in the National Assembly, Cordeliers, and Jacobin Clubs whose leadership they acknowledged and in whose interest they demonstrated, petitioned, or took up arms. These were the objects, ideas, and slogans of the liberal, democratic, and republican bourgeoisie (according to the stage reached by the Revolution as it moved leftwards), which the active elements among the Parisian menu peuple, from whom the great bulk of these insurgents and demonstrators were drawn, adopted as their own, because they appeared to correspond to their own interests in the fight to destroy the old regime and to safeguard the Republic.20Rudé, Crowd in the French Revolution, 199. This is echoed in Soboul’s work on the sansculottes:

Debates, speeches and petitions that have come down to us were produced by the minority of militants who were sufficiently educated to draw up programs; although numbers of them had no direct knowledge of the philosophical thinking of the era, they were nevertheless imbued with it. The ideas of Rousseau in particular had spread among the popular clubs and societies well before reaching the people. Muffled echoes of these ideas are to be found in documents coming from sectional organizations. As many of these show, numbers of militants who held political positions in the sections could not read or write. The vast majority of sans-culottes were moved to action by their miserable living conditions rather than by the power of ideas.

Soboul, The Sans-Culottes, 63.

The Girondins

Let us look more closely at Israel’s heroes of the French Revolution, the liberal Girondins. Israel celebrates these politicians as the true Enlightenment vanguard. They were highly educated, and they fought for liberal freedoms, such as freedom of the press, freedom of conscience, women’s emancipation, economic regulation, and the abolition of slavery. They were not clericalists, and they privileged secularism above superstition. They were also not populists, and they favored cool reason over the passions of the mob. They were steadfastly committed to democracy and republicanism. Indeed, anything genuinely democratic about the Jacobin constitution of 1793 was stolen from the Girondins: “The 1793 democratic Constitution…was not the work of the Montagne but the democratic republicans whom they so basely supplanted.”21Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 601. “Montagne” refers to the Jacobin Mountain, so-called for those radicals who sat in the highest benches of the National Assembly. They were the members opposed to the moderate Girondins.

One of the heroes of Israel’s Girondins, Jacques Pierre Brissot, comes in for vigorous defense against Jacobin-Marxist criticism. According to Israel, Brissot demanded more popular representation and for checking the undue influence of financial interests. He also advocated against economic inequality. This leads Israel to push back against the Marxist claim that Brissot was essentially aligned with bourgeois interests.22Ibid., 156. But here, Israel’s frequent problem of privileging intentions and ideas obscures the Girondins’ social role. Even though Brissot’s proposals did not transcend bourgeois horizons (liberals typically advocate economic regulation without becoming socialists), his faction recoiled in practice from expanding popular sovereignty or instituting price controls. The Girondins, also known as the Brissotins, condemned the revolutionary overthrow of the Bourbons in August 1792, as Israel himself admits: the “Brissotins preferred not to infringe upon the basic principle of economic freedom by imposing sweeping price controls, or taking the draconian measures against hoarders and speculators urged by Marat and Hébert.”23Ibid. 310.

Mathiez notes that Brissot opposed calls for a republic and the popular actions that led to the storming of the Tuileries:

As early as July 25 Brissot was fulminating anathemas against the republican party. “If,” he said, “there are any persons inclined to set up a republic now on the ruins of the Constitution, the sword of the law ought to strike them just as much as the active partisans of two-chamber government and the counterrevolutionaries…”

Albert Mathiez, The French Revolution (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964), 156.

In Israel’s narrative of events, the Girondins were the last bulwark against Jacobin tyranny and terror. If only the revolution had stuck with the Girondins, all the horrors of Robespierre and Saint-Just would have been avoided. Hence, Israel affirms that the Girondins were the authentic revolutionaries of 1789: “in terms of the philosophique values of 1789, and eagerness to champion freedom of press, individual liberty, and racial and gender equality, it was the Brissotin Jacobins [i.e., the Girondins], not the Maratiste or Robespierre Jacobins, who were France’s democratic radicals and republicans.”24Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 216.

Israel’s coalition of true Enlightenment also includes other notable figures, such as the Marquis de Condorcet, François Xavier Lanthenas, and foreigners such as Thomas Paine. While there are many laudable things to say about these figures, they were on the wrong side of events when it came to the main conflict between the Girondins and the Jacobins. It was not the commitment to Enlightenment that doomed the Girondins but their elitist commitments to property and their hostility toward the masses. When it comes to Paine in particular, Eric Hobsbawm explains that foreign supporters of the revolution — even radical ones — did not comprehend that it was a social revolution:

[The French Revolution was] a mass social revolution, and immeasurably more radical than any comparable upheaval. It is no accident that the American revolutionaries, and the British “Jacobins” who migrated to France because of their political sympathies, found themselves moderates in France. Tom Paine was an extremist in Britain and America; but in Paris he was among the most moderate of the Girondins.25Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 54.

While one can admire many of the ideals of the liberal Girondins, one needs to understand the reactionary role they finally played during the revolution. Their political limits were dictated by the sociology of their faction. However enlightened their sentiments, this faction included many property owners, whose economic interests determined the Girondins’ repugnance for mass democracy. Despite Israel’s claims to the contrary, the Girondins were the political representatives of the propertied middle class, “the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.”26Soboul, French Revolution, 276. The Girondins reflected those interests, and they sought “to defend property rights and economic liberty against the restrictions demanded by the sans-culottes.”27Ibid.

In April 1792, the Girondins recklessly started a war against Austria that they could not finish. Like Bush-era neoconservatives during the second Iraq war, the Girondins believed victory would be a cake walk. Brissot told the Assembly that French troops would be greeted as liberators and that the spirit of the revolution would march effortlessly across the Continent. Robespierre famously countered that no one loves armed missionaries and that freedom could not be spread easily at the end of a bayonet.28Mathiez, French Revolution, 144. Disregarding these admonitions, the Girondins instead started a war to avoid social conflict at home. As the historian Samuel Bernstein argues, “The Girondins, mouthpieces of the commercial bourgeoisie, who suffered from the business crisis caused by the Revolution and who wished to pursue a bourgeois policy without alienating the lower classes, advocated war on the ground that it would destroy feudalism in Europe, unmask the treachery of the king, and solidify the bourgeois gains of the Revolution.”29Samuel Bernstein, “Robespierre and the Problem of War,” Science & Society 4, no. 4 (Fall 1940): 405. Rather than securing victories, however, the Girondins managed to secure only ignominious defeats. A significant blow to their war enthusiasm came with the treason of General Dumouriez, who was strongly associated with the Gironde. He defected to the Austrians in March 1793.30Mathiez, French Revolution, 301–2.

In conducting the war, the Girondins pursued the wrong political and economic policies. Ignoring domestic troubles and failing to centralize power left them politically vulnerable. Around the time of Dumouriez’s treason, the reactionaries in the Vendée province of France launched a counterrevolutionary insurgency, and the Girondins had no strategy to combat such subversion. These lapses in political judgment were not accidental; they followed from the Girondins’ own material position. The opposition to centralization and mass mobilization stemmed from their fear of the masses and their attachment to federalism. Local federalism was an effective tool for blocking popular power, and it also undermined the defense against both foreign invasion and royalist insurrectionism.

The conflict between the Girondins and the masses was unavoidable. Albert Soboul sums up the material contradictions as reflected in the Girondins’ political line:

In economic matters, the Girondins were closely tied to the commercial bourgeoisie and distrustful of the ambitions of the people; they were passionately attached to the idea of economic freedom, freedom to undertake trading enterprises and to make uncontrolled profits, and they showed their hostility to economic regulation, price controls, requisitions, and the forced use of assignats, all measures which were, by way of contrast, strongly advocated by the sans-culottes.31Soboul, French Revolution, 277.

Thus, owing to the Girondins’ class position and their laissez-faire ideology, they were largely indifferent to the demands of the sansculottes. Like Soboul, Mathiez pointed out the essential elitism of this politics:

They regarded the rights of property as absolute and sacrosanct; they believed the people to be incapable of government, and reserved the monopoly of it to their own class. Anything of a nature to hamper the free action of the property-owning middle classes seemed to them an evil. Like Roland, they professed a thorough-going economic liberalism. In their eyes the most perfect State was that which put the least check upon the individual.32Mathiez, French Revolution, 212.

In light of Israel’s discussion of the young Marx as a liberal Enlightener, it is worth mentioning that Marx in 1844 rigorously criticized the Girondins and rejected their politics. In his notebooks on the French Jacobin Convention, Marx aligns himself with the popular movements, and writes that the “Girondists…do not oppose any effective means to the popular movement. Their theories are limited in practice to speeches and declamations, which make their unpopularity almost universal without having the slightest effect on developments.”33“From the Mémoires de R. Levasseur,” in MECW, vol. 3, 366. What the Girondins saw as mere anarchy, the Jacobin Mountain saw as the only possible avenue for action. The sansculottes created their own institutional framework in the 1792 Commune of Paris, which constituted “the only power of resistance externally and internally.”34Ibid.

In these notebooks, the young Marx damns the Girondins historically. He pronounces them guilty of being unable to defend the revolution: 

The majority of the Girondists were not traitors, but there were traitors in their ranks; the ruin of the Republic was not their aim but the consequence of their theories; the few Royalists in the Convention therefore joined forces with them. They were the attackers; the Mountain was on the defensive for a long time; the Girondists were unable to sacrifice their egotism for the public cause.35Ibid., 368.

The Jacobins

Nonetheless, Israel remains scathing and uncompromising in his condemnation of the Jacobins. In dark and apocalyptic language, Israel describes Robespierre’s ascension to power as the twilight of reason itself: “As the Robespierriste Jacobins gained ground, the Revolution of Reason receded.”36Israel, Democratic Enlightenment, 946. Israel writes that the Jacobins had no real base of support outside of the capital. They needed to use terror to clamp down on all real or suspected resistance to better impose their “Counter-Enlightenment” tyranny:

With its slender support base outside Paris, the Robespierriste leadership needed the Terror to retain its grip on power. There was no other way such a tyranny, obsessively antimonarchist, antirepublican (without admitting it), and in practice even antisansculotte, could survive. Equally, the dictatorship required its powerfully leveling ideology of equality to provide a rationale for the Terror and ferocious crackdown on all opposition and dissent.37Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 507.

Not only were the Jacobins proto-totalitarians in his schema, but they were ferocious and xenophobic demagogues unconcerned with democracy, universalism, and abolishing slavery. For Israel, it was not material circumstances that motivated the Jacobin’s actions but solely their bigoted Rousseauian philosophy: “But if radical ideas dominated the opening stages of the Revolution down to early 1793, and then the post-1794 phase, it is arguable that the darker side of the French Revolution, the Revolution of 1793–1794, was chiefly inspired by the Rousseauist tendency.”38Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 231. So the Jacobin Terror was not only Rousseauian but, until its overthrow, marked the end of the Radical Enlightenment.


This demonic caricature of the Jacobins has been refuted by many different authors. When it comes to Robespierre himself, Nick Nesbitt has taken Israel’s vilification to task.39Nick Nesbit, “Which Radical Enlightenment? Spinoza, Jacobinism and Black Jacobinism,” in Spinoza beyond Philosophy, ed. Beth Lord (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 149–67. Robespierre believed in the Rights of Man; unlike the dechristianization campaign of the Hébertists, he championed religious tolerance instead of force. Further, unlike Rousseau, Robespierre thought it was absolute madness to condemn people for atheism, and, unlike the Hébertists, he felt no need to persecute others for wearing crosses in public.

Robespierre did criticize the French materialists, but his criticisms were less philosophical than political. One does not have to endorse Robespierre’s destruction of Helvétius’s bust at the Jacobin Club, but one can endorse his rejection of Helvétius’ superstitious attitude toward the masses. What Robespierre rejected above all was the philosophical contempt for popular sovereignty; this contempt was not only metaphysically but also politically wrong, which is why Robespierre condemned Helvétius and Holbach’s atheistic liberalism as “aristocratic.”40“Atheism is aristocratic; the idea of a great Being that watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is altogether popular.” Quoted in John Morley, Robespierre: An Essay (New York: Macmillan, 1904), 83.

Like the French materialists, however, Robespierre believed in the essential goodness of people and that civic institutions should be stripped of superstition. This was affirmed in Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being, which was a modification of earlier republican cults of reason. As Mathiez put it, Robespierre’s Supreme Being resembled nature itself, and other Jacobins interpreted the Supreme Being Spinozistically: “[Robespierre] predicted the approaching end of all priesthoods, and the reconciliation of all Frenchmen in the pure, simple worship of the Supreme Being and Nature; for, in his eyes, God and Nature were one.”41Mathiez, French Revolution, 475. See also Harrison Fluss, “Revisiting the Cult of the Supreme Being,” Jacobin, January 16, 2016.

Robespierre distinguished himself as a political democrat; compared with the Girondins’ representatives, he consistently advocated the expansion of popular sovereignty. As even the revisionist Furet admits in his 1965 study The French Revolution,

Only [Robespierre] voted against the introduction of martial law, and only he voted against the laws depriving “passive” citizens and the negroes of the West Indies of the rights of full citizenship. He was one of the few to object to the proposal that the people’s rights be limited to presenting petitions to the Assembly. He was one of the very few to understand right at the beginning that the strength of the Revolution lay in the alliance between the bourgeoisie and the people. His isolation in the Assembly and the hatred and sarcasm he aroused there, merely served to enhance his prestige among the Parisian populace.42François Furet and Denis Richet, The French Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 198.

Terror: Left and Right

The French Revolution was not merely a political revolution but a social one. The Girondins were unwilling and unable to fulfill these social tasks, which demanded not simply lofty speeches and intellectual debate, but what Marx and Engels called the “plebeian methods” of destroying feudalism.43“The revolution of 1789 (at least in Europe) had as its prototype only the [English] revolution of 1648; the revolution of 1648 only the revolt of the Netherlands against Spain [1566]. Both revolutions were a century in advance of their prototypes not only in time but also in content.

In both revolutions the bourgeoisie was the class that really headed the movement. The proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the middle class had either not yet any interests separate from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not constitute independent classes or class sub-divisions. Therefore, where they opposed the bourgeoisie, as they did in France in 1793 and 1794, they fought only for the attainment of the aims of the bourgeoisie, even if not in the manner of the bourgeoisie. All French terrorism was nothing but a plebeian way of dealing with the enemies of the bourgeoisie, absolutism, feudalism and philistinism.”

“The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution,” in MECW, vol. 8, 161.
These methods were dictatorship, price controls, the levée en masse, and the Jacobin Terror.44Plekhanov justifies the levée en masse as follows: “After the Montagnards had called to arm the entire French youth, without being able to supply the newly formed armies even partially with arms and food out of the slender means flowing to them from taxation, they resorted to requisitions, confiscations, forced loans, decreed rates of exchange for the assignats — in short and in fine, they forced upon the scared possessing classes money sacrifices, all in the interest of an imperilled country for which the people were sacrificing blood.”

Georgi Plekhanov, The Bourgeois Revolution: The Political Birth of Capitalism, trans. Henry Kuhn, 1949 [1926], Marxists Internet Archive.
Without such methods, the revolution would have been defeated by enemies who had proved that they would show no mercy if victorious.45For instance, the Brunswick Manifesto, issued by the First Coalition on July 25, 1792, promised retribution upon the people of France if the royal family were harmed. According to Arno Mayer, the manifesto had the opposite effect and “radicalized the radicals.” It contributed to the storming of the Tuileries and helped to gather the French population around the revolutionaries:

This ultimatum by old-regime Europe — “a milestone in diplomatic Impertinence” — enraged and provoked more than it unnerved or terrified the temperate revolutionists who, though fearful of true believers, were not prepared to knuckle under and risk a return to the status quo ante. Besides, the thunder of the Brunswick Manifesto was so undiscriminating that throughout the land even the champions and architects of radical reform — of revolution without revolution — feared that the impending lightning might strike them as well.” 

Arno J. Mayer, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 556.

Marx and Engels argued for the necessity of the Jacobin Terror; that there were “empirical grounds for the cutting off of heads — grounds which were based on extremely worldly interests”46The German Ideology, in MECW, vol. 5, 178. Contra Israel, Marx and Engels in The German Ideology invoke Spinozistic determinism to justify the Jacobins; for them, to understand the actions of Robespierre and Saint-Just without reference to material reality is to simply embrace historical ignorance. They even quote Spinoza directly against Max Stirner’s distortions of the Jacobins, writing that “ignorance is no argument.”47Ibid., 179.

If the Girondins wanted the First Republic to survive, they could not have acted much differently than the Jacobins. The Girondins would still be forced to put down royalist insurgencies, uphold centralizing methods, and mobilize the masses against foreign invasion. In a time of dire national emergency, whether in the case of the Union during the American Civil War, or the Soviet Republic during the Russian Civil War, it is impossible to do away with dictatorial measures.48Victor Serge, the anarchist-turned-Bolshevik revolutionary, coined the phrase proletarian Jacobinism to note this continuity between the Montagnards and Bolshevism.

“Lenin’s ‘proletarian Jacobinism,’ with its disinterestedness, its discipline in both thought and action, was grafted upon the psychology of cadres whose character had been formed under the old regime — that is to say, in the course of the struggle against despotism.” Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York: New York Review of Books, 2012), 156.
But since the Girondins’ base of support was exclusively confined to the “lukewarm” middle classes, nothing substantial could be accomplished. As Plekhanov put it, “The moderate and liberal Girondin never would have been able to rescue France from the critical condition in which she found herself enmeshed in 1793.”49 Plekhanov, Bourgeois Revolution. Only by leaning on the masses, that is, the sansculottes, could the Jacobins defend the revolution.

When it comes to the Jacobin Terror, charges of bloodthirstiness are unwarranted. First, the majority of the Terror was carried out in areas of active counterrevolution and in war zones.50Mayer, Furies, 364–67. Second, the end of Jacobin rule did not put an end to violence, since Robespierre’s “permanent revolution” was replaced by the “permanent war” of Napoleon.51The Holy Family, in MECW, vol. 4, 123. One Napoleonic battle more than compensated for the Jacobin Terror.

Israel’s focus on Robespierre’s so-called bloodthirstiness is put into perspective with subsequent examples of terrorism wrought by bourgeois liberals against the working class. Throughout the 19th century, French liberals showed their teeth as class struggle turned against the bourgeois status quo. This liberal violence against the proletariat reached its crescendo with the Paris Commune of 1871. The Thiers government based in Versailles sent French troops into Paris to crush the Communards and to massacre the workers. As the conservative historian Alistair Horne admits, the “Bloody Week” of May 21–28 saw more people killed than during the entire “Reign of Terror.” The numbers range wildly from 6,500 to 40,000, but whichever “set of statistics is accepted, the total is still staggering.” 52Alistair Horne, The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870–71 (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 418.

Plekhanov draws out the difference between red and white, or proletarian and bourgeois terror: “The terror practised by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat overshadows by far the atrocities of the Jacobins which, by the way, have been greatly exaggerated by the reactionaries. Robespierre, when compared with Thiers, looks like a veritable angel, and Marat, put side by side with the bourgeois press cossacks of the bloody May week [of 1871], appears like a mild, benevolent being.” Plekhanov, Bourgeois Revolution.
Compared to the liberal butchers of the Paris Commune, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Marat look like saints.

Robespierre was not a “blood-drenched tyrant.” Nor was he the nefarious dictator that Israel casts him as. Eric Hazan refutes this picture: “All the major decisions of the Committee of Public Safety were taken collectively. Even those in which Robespierre’s personal role is most conspicuous bear the signatures of those members of the Committee who were present. When Robespierre found himself in a minority on the Committee, he withdrew his proposal (for example with the justice committee that he proposed against Camille Desmoulins’s clemency committee).”53Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolution (New York: Verso, 2014), 377. Perhaps Robespierre exercised a “moral dictatorship,” but this was not an instance of strongman authoritarianism. Indeed, if Robespierre truly was the absolute dictator Israel makes him out to be, he would not have been overthrown so easily. Unlike Robespierre, a true dictator, “a Bonaparte, would have behaved rather differently.”54Ibid.

The Jacobin dictatorship fell not because it was bloody or despotic. Its measures won the war and saved the republic. Robespierre gave theoretical and political justification to revolutionary government, a concept that is absent in the works of Rousseau. Nonetheless, Robespierre lacked a sufficient understanding of the social realities of his era. Basing themselves on capitalistic social relations, the Jacobins could not resolve the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the masses. Robespierre’s own political ideal of a republic of small property holders united in simple virtue was incompatible with the actual dynamics of French capitalism.55Soboul, French Revolution, 412.

Marx and Engels also note that Robespierre and Saint-Just mistook their illusions of a Republic of Virtue for the cold cash nexus of bourgeois reality:

Robespierre, Saint-Just and their party fell because they confused the ancient, realistic-democratic commonweal based on real slavery with the modern spiritualistic-democratic representative state, which is based on emancipated slavery, bourgeois society. What a terrible illusion it is to have to recognise and sanction in the rights of man modern bourgeois society, the society of industry, of universal competition, of private interest freely pursuing its aims, of anarchy, of self-estranged natural and spiritual individuality, and at the same time to want afterwards to annul the manifestations of the life of this society in particular individuals and simultaneously to want to model the political head of that society in the manner of antiquity!

The Holy Family, in MECW, vol. 4, 122.

Thermidor’s Counter-Enlightenment

In a previous article, we quoted Robespierre’s last speech, in which he claimed that the counterrevolution was based in “political economy.” It is true he lacked a sophisticated Marxist position on class. But his final words proved prescient and showed that Robespierre had an inkling of the class struggle to come. He decried the rich and signaled to his listeners the coming end of revolutionary government. A new species of cynical and unvirtuous bourgeois politician would arise and supplant him. The heroic poetry of Jacobin struggle would make way for the unheroic prose of bourgeois interest.56Remaining true to Robespierre’s political spirit, the Polish playwright Stanisława Przybyszewska gave dramatic and poignant expression to his final thoughts:

Robespierre: The big swine have so enriched themselves on innumerable calamities that they now strain their fat brains by thinking how to use their oceans of money. Soon even they will realize that in their coffers they have locked the greater power on earth. In that soul are the roots of the nineteenth century. The seeds have sprouted already. And the God of that future century is born too: it is called Capital…I see man being robbed of his spirit, his right to exist … [by] Capital. The monster lies pink in its cradle, while preparing to cheat the Revolution out of all her achievements. In a hundred years it will change the face of the world, transform man and his intellect into a well-oiled machine; with murderous vitality it will devour the whole universe, and — choke. Capital!

Stanisława Przybyszewska, The Danton Case and Thermidor: Two Plays (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), 286.

Przybyszewska based her interpretation of Robespierre on Louis Blanc’s Le Terreur and Mathiez’s La Révolution française. See Jadwiga Kosicka and Daniel Gerould, A Life of Solitude: Stanisława Przybyszewska: A Biographical Study with Selected Letters (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989), 41–42.

What Robespierre dreaded, however, Israel celebrates. For the latter, the Thermidorean reaction was not the overturn of Enlightenment progress but the proper return to “Radical Enlightenment.” The Girondins were back to rule France: “These men, battered and deeply traumatized though they were, slowly reemerged and, with growing resolution from early 1795, strove to piece together again the principles and the decimated but not altogether destroyed remnant of the democratic republican Left.”57Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 554.

Even though Israel hails the Constitution of 1793 as a true expression of democratic republicanism, he also hails the Thermidorean Constitution of 1795 as “an embodiment of modern democratic and egalitarian principles.”58Ibid., 612. But this constitution is nothing to celebrate. Thoroughly bourgeois, it ended universal male suffrage and replaced it with property qualifications to vote and hold office. One of the Constitution’s architects, Boissy d’Anglais, justified these antidemocratic measures in terms of the social contract:

We must be governed by the best men; those most suited to govern are men of good education and endowed with a great concern for the maintenance of order. You will rarely find such men outside the ranks of the propertied. … A country governed by the men of property belongs to “the social order” whereas one governed by men of no property reverts to a “state of nature.”59Quoted in George Rudé, The French Revolution: Its Causes, Its History and Its Legacy after 200 Years (New York: Grove Press, 1988), 118.

Boissy deployed Rousseauian themes such as the general will throughout his writings, both before and after Thermidor; along with other Thermidoreans, he used Rousseauian terminology to justify the post-Jacobin regime.60According to Keith Baker, the Thermidoreans “were Rousseauian in the sense [and to the extent] that they cast the constitutional problems facing the National Assembly in terms of a strong version of the language of the general will… They were Rousseauian in the sense that they saw the purpose of such a constitution to be ensuring the continuing exercise of national sovereignty on the basis of the general will.”

Quoted in Keith Baker, “Constitution” in François Furet and Mona Ozouf, eds., A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 486-7. See also John R. Ballard, Continuity during the Storm: Boissy d’Anglais and the Era of the French Revolution (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 112.

Israel also denies the impact of Rousseau on the Simón Bolívar, “El Libertador,” who led the struggle for Latin American independence from Spain. In fact, he says Bolívar’s conceptions of the general will and republicanism were very distant from those of Rousseau. Israel, The Enlightenment that Failed, 864–65. But not only was Bolívar’s beloved mentor Simón Rodríguez a devotee of Rousseau, but Bolívar’s 1819 Angostura Address was filled with Rousseauian themes on virtue and freedom. The speech even invokes Rousseau himself!

An ignorant people is the blind instrument of its own destruction. Ambition and intrigue exploit the credulity and inexperience of men totally bereft of political, economic, or civil knowledge. They mistake pure illusion for reality, license for freedom, treason for patriotism, vengeance for justice. Like a robust blind man deluded by his sense of power, they march forward as confidently as the most clear-sighted, and bouncing from reef to reef, they are unable to find the way. A corrupt people can indeed attain freedom but lose it at once. We endeavor in vain to show them that happiness consists in the practice of virtue, that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of tyrants because the former is inflexible and everything must yield to its beneficent rigor, that good habits, not force, are the columns of the law, and finally that the practice of justice is the practice of freedom. Hence, legislators, your task is all the more difficult in that you have to reform men perverted by the illusions of error and unhealthy desire. Freedom, says Rousseau, is a succulent food but hard to digest.

Quoted in El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar, trans. Frederick H. Fornoff (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 34. Strangely, while Israel condemns the Jacobins’ Rousseauian philosophy as antidemocratic, he makes excuses for the Thermidorean-Rousseauian rationale to end democracy. According to him, the Constitution of 1795 was not “an unprincipled retreat.”61Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 610. Rather, democracy needed to be limited to the enlightened bourgeoisie in order to “check popular unruliness” and save the Republic.62Ibid. Hence, Israel has a problem only with the Rousseauian justification for suspending freedoms when Robespierre does it, but not when the liberal bourgeoisie uses the same rationale.

As Nesbitt argues, Thermidor was not the inheritor of Radical Enlightenment but the “name we have inherited for all counter-revolutionary terror, the reimposition of order and privilege after the attempt to restructure society in the name of justice and equality…Thermidor names not a beginning, but the systematic destruction” of popular hegemony.63Nick Nesbitt, “Which Radical Enlightenment? Spinoza, Jacobinism and Black Jacobinism,” in Spinoza Beyond Philosophy, ed. Beth Lord (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 160. In the Thermidorean constitution, the oligarchy of property triumphed. The revolutionary Philippe Buonarroti criticized the 1795 Constitution as a tool for preserving “opulence and misery — such is the spirit which pervades every sentence of it.”64Philippe Buonarroti, History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality, trans. James Bronterre O’Brien (London: H. Hetherington, 1836), 44. Poll taxes, political gerrymandering, reactionary terror, the end of price controls, and general starvation are the Thermidorean legacy. By whitewashing its antidemocratic and anti-enlightened politics, Israel affirms this legacy as part of the “Radical Enlightenment” tradition.

Part VI of this series on the Enlightenment will appear next Sunday.


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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian, who is the author of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution and a forthcoming biography of DSA founder Michael Harrington.
Harrison Fluss

Harrison Fluss

Harrison is a philosophy professor who lives in Manhattan



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