Review of 'Fatal Purity', Ruth Scurr, Chatto & Windus £20
Ever since Louis XVI lost his head on the Place de la Révolution in Paris, Maximilien de Robespierre has been seen as the evil, green-eyed genius of the French Revolution.
Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution aims to provide an accessible biography which presents Robespierre as a human being rather than as the monster of legend. Much of the critical response has been to accuse her of being too sympathetic to her subject. The French revolutionary Terror of the 1790s is always recalled with the attached warning, "Try to make a revolution and this is what you get."
In fact, after centuries of total exclusion from power, a whole population found itself trying to control its own world. Undoubtedly there was vengeance, excess and, in a few cases, pure criminality. But the French Terror, whatever its mistakes, was a movement from below responding to a wholly new historical situation.
The atmosphere of universal suspicion and vigilance of the Terror years was not the irrational paranoia of Robespierre and the radical Jacobin party he was part of. The displaced ruling elite were constantly plotting to reverse the gains of the revolution, ready to do anything to regain power. The revolutionaries had to be quite ruthless to stop them.
Robespierre is usually attacked for icy sadism. Yet, as Scurr underlines, he was always a champion of the poor and, far in advance of his time, advocated redistributing wealth through progressive taxation. He also supported welfare measures to guarantee the basic necessities of life to all.
For Robespierre, democracy consisted of what the people would ideally wish for once all their selfish passions were purged. The problem was that until they were sufficiently educated to discern it, ran the argument, what they needed was incorruptible, inflexible guides to encourage them in civic virtue and protect them from their enemies.
The rise and fall of different factions in the French Revolution are often presented as clashes of personalities and struggles for power for its own sake. The groups were all conditioned by attempts to mollify the counter-revolution. They all fell because of the determination of the revolutionary forces to defeat these attempts internally and externally.
In this context the Jacobins became, in effect, the political party of the most determined of the bourgeoisie. The Jacobins relied on the support of two different class sections, the small bourgeoisie and the artisans on the one hand, and the day labourers and journeymen - the "sans culottes" - whom they employed, on the other.
They were able to deal with their aristocratic enemy, in part by granting the popular demand for a law setting maximum prices for essentials (and also for wages). On the day Robespierre fell from power, protests were taking place against the law of maximum wages. The Jacobins could not allow an economic programme which limited the bourgeoisie.
There is a long and successful history of looking at how the class forces of the French Revolution shaped its development. Unfortunately, Scurr disdains this approach and is left with no real understanding of Robespierre or the earth changing events he was involved in. In the end her account has more in common with the right wing historians of the revolution than she may want.