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Book Reviews : A Sympathetic View of the Incorruptible Robespierre

April 16, 1986|EDWARD BERENSON | Berenson is the author of "Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France, 1830-1852" (Princeton University Press: 1984). and

The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre by David P. Jordan (Free Press: $22.95)

For nearly two centuries the French have been fighting their Revolution through the subsequent events of a turbulent history. And at the center of the war of words raging since 1789 is Maximilien Robespierre, the subject of David P. Jordan's admirable new biography.

No other Revolutionary figure--not even Napoleon--has provoked more rhetorical fire. For Robespierre has come to personify the Reign of Terror, that bloody moment of French history whose emblem is the guillotine.

Beginning with Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France," down through the works of Tom Paine, Balzac, Carlyle, Dickens, Hugo, Michelet and Tocqueville, our most distinguished writers have tried to comprehend the legacy left by Robespierre and those he was deemed to represent.

As Saint or Devil

These authors and others less well-known have created, says Jordan, a legend of Robespierre as saint or devil, a legend that has made it difficult to assess the revolutionary's actual goals, beliefs and motivations. Rather than weighing the elements of this legend or leveling yet another moral judgment, Jordan has done his best to peel away the layers of past judgment to look at Robespierre the way he saw himself.

The great revolutionary talked about himself almost obsessively, and by taking what he said seriously, Jordan has been able to make a compelling case for why Robespierre acted the way he did.

The historian shuns psychological explanations, for little is known about Robespierre's pre-revolutionary life. Robespierre never talked about it, nor, it seems, did anyone else. He was a provincial lawyer, modest in his ways, and nothing appeared to foreshadow the notoriety to come. Nothing, except perhaps for his devotion to Rousseau.

Jordan lays great stress on Robespierre's reading of Rousseau, not the "hard"--some would later say, the totalitarian--Rousseau of the "Social Contract," but the sentimental and moralistic Rousseau of the "Confessions."

In Moral Categories

This intensely personal and autobiographical work taught the future revolutionary to view the world in terms of moral categories, not political and social antagonisms. Good battled with evil, virtue with vice, and this moralistic rendering of the social order would form the basis, Jordan shows, of Robespierre's revolutionary vision.

For Robespierre, the Revolution would regenerate a morally corrupt world through the example of leaders who held, in Jordan's words, "the belief that politics is a moral science whose undertaking is fit only for the pure." And after 1789, Robespierre practiced what he preached.

Unlike Mirabeau and Danton, Robespierre did not use his political power for financial gain. He regularly sacrificed political honors for the sake of principle, and he maintained unpopular positions in the face of ridicule and scorn.

Catapulted to Power

Ultimately, this unbending devotion to a personal code of political ethics, a code he believed everyone would have to adopt, earned him a level of popular respect that no other revolutionary leader could achieve. It was Robespierre's reputation as the Incorruptible, says Jordan, rather than the widely feared specifics of his political program, that catapulted him to political power in the fall of 1793.

Robespierre did not, Jordan shows, quest for dictatorship. And though he often spoke for the ruling "Committee of Public Safety" during the Reign of Terror's fiercest moments, he never dominated the Revolution in the way Lenin and Stalin would later dominate theirs. His principal contribution was to explain and justify, to provide interpretations of events that would build support for even the most extreme of measures. He did not so much make the Revolution as make sense of it, sense at least for a certain constituency.

By achieving a kind of sympathy with Robespierre, Jordan has been able to show us how the revolutionary understood himself and his world. And even if sympathy shades at times into identification, allowing Robespierre more than his due, still Jordan provides a fresh and intelligent approach to one of modern history's most controversial figures.

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