The Fall of Robespierre
Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution, 1911
The Fall of Robespierre
When the Hébertist and Dantonist heads had fallen; when a few days later, in a sinister liquidation those accused of fomenting the prison plot, Chaumette, Gobel, Arthur Dillon, Hébert’s widow and the unfortunate Lucile [Desmoulins], already dead though Camille before herself climbing the gallows, climbed it in their turn; when this cartload had emptied its heads into the basket; when Hébertism and Dantonism as factions were nothing but a memory, it was then the decisive test for Robespierre and the Revolution.
The road was clear before Robespierre, but what was he going to do?
The Revolution was no longer threatened either by a demagogic organization that would have drowned it in an abject and ferocious anarchy or by a half-hearted conspiracy of the indulgent who, by their impatient and sulking policies would have delivered the repentant Revolution to the reawakened boldness of its enemies.
The opposing forces of demagogy and moderantisme — between which Robespierre balanced his policies — had fallen, he now had to find his equilibrium in himself, in his own ideas, in his own policies.
The extreme tension in all the revolutionary springs, in all the forces of life and death could not last. The Terror couldn’t be a normal regime; war couldn’t be an indefinite regime. The maximum wasn’t a law eternally appropriate for a society based on private property and private production. Finally, the quasi-dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety could not be definitive. Now that there was no longer an Hébertist party to sustain the tension of the springs of terrorism, now that there was no longer a Dantonist party to carry out so sudden a relaxation of revolutionary energy that the revolution risked collapsing, one policy was possible, and one alone.
It was necessary that the revolution, while inspiring fear in its enemies, in conspirators and traitors, in tyrants and their armies, prepare the nation’s return to normal life. It was necessary to loudly proclaim that revolutionary France, heroically stubborn in defending its independence and pride against the entire universe; resolved to complete through its decisive victories those victories that already demonstrated its genius, was also ready to make peace with all governments that would recognize the Republic and the French nation’s right to liberty. It was necessary to announce that as soon as peace was possible that assignats would quickly be removed from circulation and that the vigorous functioning of taxation would finally dispense the revolution of devouring the substance of the future. With the assignat, either completely removed from circulation or its value maintained at par through a partial removal, the crisis in prices would come to an end and the economic terrorism of laws regulating merchandise and supplies would gradually be resolved, as would political terrorism.
As soon as these policies proclaimed and adopted by the Committee of Public Safety, by the Convention, by the popular societies, and by the revolutionary nation would have taken on body and authority; as soon as the new victories it was possible to count on would have allowed it future opportunities, the Committee of Public Safety should then have asked the Convention if the moment had not come to put an end to the revolutionary government and to apply the constitution.
How can one doubt that the country, receiving from the splendor of victory the hope of peace and vigorously defended against any counter-revolutionary attacks from within and without, but reassured as well against the indefinite continuation of the revolutionary regime, would have sent an assembly passionately won over to the new order?
Yes, in Germinal and Floréal of the year II (1794), after the crushing of the extreme and rival factions; after the crushing of the rebels of Lyon, Marseilles, Toulon, and the Vendée; after the prolonged prestige of the victories at Hondschoote, Wattignies, and Alsace; after the reestablishing of the assignat virtually at par; after the immense and glorious efforts of a Committee of Public Safety invested with immense prestige, yes, this optimistic and confident policy was possible. The virtually criminal error of the Dantonists was that of compromising this policy at the moment when people began to get a glimpse of it. They compromised it by turning it into a means of intrigue against the Committee of Public Safety without which it was impracticable. They compromised this policy by giving it an air of disavowal and mea culpa.
But now the triumphant revolutionary government could affirm this policy by regulating it. It could proclaim it not as a final disavowal of the revolution, but as the effect of its victories. If this policy was possible, it was all the more necessary.
Outside of this there was nothing but the disquiet of overworked spirits before which no doors opened. The systematic continuation of the war, devouring the country’s resources, gave rise to new forms of discontent prepared by new reactionary forces. And the Terror, after having crushed the clearly established factions, frantically pursued vague will-o-the-wisps and incoherent plots. A diffuse, frightening menace enveloped all lives, and the revolution, like an exasperated blind man, struck out at itself until exhaustion.
The policy of revolutionary pacification, practiced not against the Revolution but for it, not against the revolutionaries but for them, was the sole way out. I see that it was necessary; I believe it was possible. I add that it was infinitely difficult. When in order to defend itself a revolution has been forced to fight against the universe; when in order to protect itself during a crisis it has created a political regime like the Terror, an economic regime as violent and paradoxical as the assignat and the maximum, when it has given rise to the prodigious unleashing of energy and thrown 1,400,000 men into war, almost the entire ardent soul of the country , it is difficult for it to moderate and defend itself without weakening. The Revolution bore in its soul and its flesh the original sin of war, and it was deformed by it.
How is it possible to wholeheartedly carry out a war, a war necessary and sacred for liberty, while at the same time dangling the still uncertain political hypothetical of peace? How is it possible to announce that a normalized revolution will immediately withdraw the assignat while at the same time reserving the right to the new issuing of them to which they would be condemned to by the prolongation of the conflict with Europe. If the public isn’t informed of the sought after goal it will understand nothing of the politics of the Committee of Public Safety. It will take the apparently contradictory attitudes — dictated for some by concern for the immediate threat, for others by calculations based on long-term possibilities — for incompetence and treason. If they are told of this in advance how can their enthusiasm their be maintained which is, in great crises, a vital necessity. How could the armies, which were beginning to feel a sublime professional enthusiasm that was already dangerous, maintain their vigor and élan if a peace policy were to suddenly limit the limitless dreams of combat, danger, and glory which are the delight of revolutionary patriotism and the secret calculation of ambition? Even if it could be foreseen that the maximum, that the policy of requisition and taxation would end when the war was terminated or scaled back, when the circulation of the assignat would be reduced, couldn’t be immediately abolished, and as long as this policy continued it developed in keeping with its own logic, and the very difficulties it ran up against forced it to ceaselessly overtake itself.
And now the citizens clamored against the bothersome, sometimes harmful effects resulting from the unequal application of the maximum based on regions and industries. There were some who sold at the maximum and bought at competitive prices, an intolerable system. The maximum had to be applied everywhere with the same precision and rigor or it should not have been applied at all. But for it to be applied everywhere with precision and rigor would it not have been safest to constitute, under the immediate surveillance of the nation and the Commune, vast storehouses to which producers would bring all their products and where distribution would take place in accordance with the law and at prices fixed by it?
This is precisely what was demanded by the Jacobin Society of Montereau. And one of Robespierre’s closest friends, his childhood friend in Arras, the very man who warned him of Joseph Lebon’s cruelties, Antoine Buissart, wrote to him that commerce should be confided to the communes. How would it be possible to return to the regime of free circulation and free markets when it was impossible to abolish in one day the law of the maximum and when the latter, by its very functioning, suggested systems even more all-encompassing?
The political and economic problems to be resolved were singularly difficult and were perhaps even superhuman. I mean by this that it not only was beyond the strength of an individual, but also beyond the strength of a nation. This application of calculus to moral forces, which according to Condorcet was the supreme progress of science, had not yet been realized, and no one knew if it was possible to regulate the enthusiasm and passion of an entire people without bringing them down, or by what transition the passing from the revolutionary to the normal state could be carried out. It is thus not surprising that on the day after the crushing of those factions that aggravated the problem but also masked it, Robespierre and his friends were seized by hesitation and worry.
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