Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr

Terror wears a sea-green coat
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The Independent Culture

It is tempting to take sides for or against the characters in history. It is usually just as much fun, afterwards, to go back and revise these judgements: to find the flaws in the heroes and to achieve some understanding of why the villains behaved as they did. But where do you start with Maximilien Robespierre? Ruth Scurr takes on one of the most enigmatic of historical figures, in this thoroughly researched, well-written biography.

Carlyle's famous description of her subject, "the sea-green Incorruptible", highlights the dilemma. On the face of it, Carlyle is doing no more than to manufacture a soubriquet out of the colour of Robespierre's favourite coat; "The Incorruptible" was the title given to him by his contemporaries. Most politicians would be proud to bear the name "Incorruptible" (though it would be tempting fate today); but adding the epithet "sea-green" has, as Carlyle intended, a slyly subversive effect: it evokes something from the depths, something slimy, something reptilian. And since Robespierre presided over the most bloodthirsty period of the French Revolution, the idea of him as The Incorruptible comes to suggest, not so much the decency of a politician who could not be bribed or deflected from his goals by self-interest, but other, quite different extremes: implacable, immovable, inflexible, inhuman... This is the "fatal purity" of Ruth Scurr's title.

It was not that he enjoyed killing; indeed, one of the mysteries of the man is knowing what he did enjoy. His private life, as far as anyone can tell, was a pretty barren region. As for the mass executions of the Terror (around 2,200 heads in Paris in the five months of Robespierre's ascendancy) seem to have made him, quite literally, sick: there were episodes of illness, especially in the last year of Robespierre's life, which can be read as a psychosomatic reaction to events, particularly the factional struggles at the height of the Terror, in 1794. The only time he got close to the guillotine itself was when his own turn came to go under the Instrument, so in that respect he resembled Heinrich Himmler, who also personally found mass murder distasteful. The difference is that ideals that drove Robespierre were fine and genuine: ideals of democracy, human rights and social justice. Admittedly, they were couched in the language of his time, with much talk of virtue overcoming vice, of le peuple, la nation and la patrie. But there is no doubt about the essence of Robespierre's political programme or its sincerity, for example, when he proclaimed that he wanted morality in place of egotism, honesty in place of an aristocratic concept of honour, behaviour governed by principle rather than convention and the rule of reason rather than the tyranny of fashion. Many politicians have said that they seek power, not for its own sake, but in order to achieve some great goal; Robespierre, as far as one can tell, actually meant it.

Of course, this doesn't exonerate him, any more than his own justification of the Terror: "If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is disastrous, and terror, without which virtue is powerless... Terror is merely justice, prompt, severe and inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue and results from the application of democracy to the most pressing needs of the country." Heard it before? When he talks of "enemies of the people", the analogies with Stalinist Russia and other 20th-century regimes are so glaring that you have to keep reminding yourself that the French Revolutionaries were having to make everything up as they went along, against a very different background from that of the 20th-century tyrannies.

Apart from virtue and fear, religion was the force that Robespierre considered most essential to the progress of the humanity. He was neither an atheist nor a freethinker: He attacked the atheism of some of his fellow revolutionaries with the same zeal that he directed against other deviations (because he also had a fundamental belief in the need for unanimity). The Cult of the Supreme Being, which he instituted, seems now like a fudge (as well as a pantomime), a way of not have to choose between this God or that; but it is clear that Robespierre believed in his religion, as a rational response to humanity's need for a higher power. There is something sublime and ridiculous in the idea of this ardent Rousseauist, dressed for once in a sky-blue coat, inaugurating the first Festival of the said Being on what, Scurr says, was the happiest day of his life. In just over seven weeks' time he would be dead, accused by some in the Convention of being too lenient with the enemies of the Revolution, and his groping towards democracy would be replaced by military dictatorship.

No wonder he has always been a hero to some on the Left, despite the cold nature, the self-righteousness and the inevitable comparison with Danton - who said, mockingly, that real virtue was what he showed his wife every night. The clash between Danton's ebullient, no doubt corruptible humanity and Robespierre's chilly idealism was dramatised by Georg Büchner in the play Danton's Death (1837) and Andrej Wajda in his film Danton (1982). Ruth Scurr gives a good account of the politics; but where does she stand on the key question? In her Introduction, she remarks that her subject's house in Arras could be "the kind of shrine that Robespierre's remaining friends would still like to have", then she adds: "I hope one day we get it." If that is an admission, it is an ambiguous one, and the book ends, not with a summing up, but with an odd reflection on Robespierre's final scream, as the executioner ripped off the bandage supporting his wounded jaw. Hero or villain? Neither, in fact, but a fascinating product of remarkable times.