Robespierre: 200 years ahead of his time

Sometimes you come across a quotation from history which is so completely adapted to our times, that you find it hard to believe that it wasn’t said yesterday. But here’s a quotation from two hundred years ago which could usefully be reproduced and fastened to the wall of every office in every government of the western world.

I found it in, of all places, a new history of the French Revolution by Eric Hazan. If you can read French it’s well worth getting, because the book is written largely from sources of the time, and is a useful corrective to the current right-wing orthodoxy in France which sees the Revolution as a disastrous mistake, in which radicals, forerunners of Lenin and Stalin, hijacked a sensible attempt to create an English-style constitutional monarchy. By basing himself on documents and speeches of the time, Hazan largely dismantles this nonsense.

But back to the quotation I promised you. In 1792, a strange coalition of monarchists and liberal politicians dragged the country into unnecessary wars, initially against the Austrians. The monarchists hoped that military defeat would restore the full powers of the King, and enable the aristocratic exiles to return. The liberals hoped that military victory would  calm the revolutionary fervor in France, and would enable them to impose their own brand of constitutional monarchy with a limited form of democracy, on other countries. And so, not for the first time in history, and not for the last, a nation went to war for objectives that were wildly at variance with each other, and the result was a disaster.

Very few voices were raised against the war in the new Assembly. The most influential was Robespierre. Yes, that Robespierre, the bloodthirsty revolutionary terrorist, and this is what he said (my translation).

“The wildest notion that could ever cross the mind of a political leader is to suppose that all the people of a nation have to do is to fight their way into someone else’s country to make that country adopt their laws and their Constitution. Nobody likes missionaries bearing arms, and nature and common prudence means they will be resisted as enemies”.

A few years later, Robespierre himself was dead, and over the next generation the idea of fighting wars, ostensibly at least, to “free” peoples and change political systems went out of fashion. But goodness me, it’s back now with a vengeance (as it were), and Robespierre’s words appear almost supernaturally prescient, don’t they?


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