Historical Notes: Give the people what is good for them

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The Independent Culture
LOVE HIM or hate him, it is impossible to be neutral about Robespierre.

Either he is the "incorruptible", the incarnation of the Revolutionary world and its martyr or, quite simply, he is the father of modern totalitarian government. That he was incorruptible is beyond dispute; no accusations of sleaze were made against him or his followers. At the height of his power - the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world - he lived in a bed-sitter overlooking the timber yard of his host, the jobbing carpenter Duplay with whom he lived en famille. Mme Duplay lavished white bread, jams and (his favourite) oranges on their distinguished guest. On calm evenings he would walk in the Champs- Elysees with the eldest of the Duplay girls, Eleonore, and his faithful spaniel, Brount, who had emerged together with his master from provincial obscurity in Arras on Robes-pierre's election in 1789 to what would soon become the National Assembly.

There are, however, more subtle forms of corruption than financial. Indeed when financial purity went hand in hand with sober bloodletting, the corruptibility of a Danton, who in the spring of 1794 tried to end the Terror, seems almost part and parcel of his essential humanity. Corruptio optimi pessima. Perversion of the highest ideal is the worst of all. And Robespierre perverted democracy. Or rather, he teased out the totalitarian implications of Rousseau's Du Contrat social of 1762.

Rousseau had the dark thought that when your views do not prevail in a vote, it is because you were wrong in your assessment of what was the "general will" of the people, the objective of the democratic process. This led to the notion that the people should be given not what they actually want but what they would want if properly informed and motivated; what, in the vernacular, "is good for them" - the basis of every dictatorship of the Left.

The process of determining the "general will" was a qualitative rather than quantitative exercise. Once, however, politicians are freed from the necessity of counting heads, the road to dictatorship is laid wide open. Robespierre and his imitators believed that though they were a minority, they stood for all the people. So, Robes-pierre argued, the activists who stormed the king's palace on 10 August 1792 "stood proxy for the whole people". So those who had signed monarchical petitions were excluded from elections because they were not the real people, only a load of counter- revolutionaries. This perhaps is what Robespierre meant when he said that he didn't just "represent the people but was the people".

The reductio ad absurdum of this was reached during his last stand at the Commune on the night of 27/28 July 1794. It was proposed to send a proclamation to the armies. "But in whose name?" Robespierre asked. "Why, in the name of the Convention (Parliament), the rest are just a load of conspirators." There were just five MPs at the Commune. After a pause, Robespierre replied, "it is my opinion that it should be sent in the name of the French people". There were at that moment less than 200 "people" at the Commune, many locked in from the inside to prevent them deserting. These were Robes- pierre's last recorded words. Minutes later, as the Greek gods' comment on such impiety, the Convention's troops stormed the building, Robes-pierre's jaw was smashed by a bullet and before the sun set he was carried to the guillotine.

The key to Robespierre's success was that he fused ideology with conventional 18th-century political management: the result was militant politics which he invented - the mechanism by which a minority of activists can impose its will on a lazy majority. Its fullest flowering was the Jacobin clubs, a national network of ginger groups, his most original creation.

John Hardman is the author of `Robespierre' (Longman, pounds 12.99) and `Louis XVI' (Yale, pounds 12)