previous part
next part



Saint-Just and the Problem of Heroism in the French Revolution

Miguel Abensour

Translated by Frank Philip

De La Nature . . .: Late 1791–1792

In 1947, Professor Carnot, a descendant of the great Carnot, presented to the Bibliothèque Nationale a collection of Saint-Just's unknown manuscripts, De la nature de l'état civil, de la cité ou les règles de l'indepéndance du gouvernement ("On the Nature of Civil Society, the City, or the Rules of the Independence of Government"). Albert Soboul first published them as "Un manuscrit inédit de Saint-Just" in Annales historiques de la Révolution française (vol. 23, 1951); a second edition followed in a bilingual collection of Saint-Just's writings published in Italy under the title Frammenti sulli Istituzioni repubblicane seguito da testi inediti (Einaudi 1952).[1]De la nature . . . is fundamental in the strictest sense of the term: it is Saint-Just's first, incomplete expression of the principles of his political philosophy, one in search of a foundation. These writings throw new light on the enigma of Saint-Just, who shines through his myth. His intentness of mind, his dawning philosophical development, and his will to base revolutionary action on truth, demand that we consider an often overlooked aspect of Saint-Just as theorist. This is important even though certain figures like Brissot, Marat, and Dezamy, who compared him to Billaud-Varenne, and Edgar Quinet, who compared him to Fichte, as well as Lucien Febvre, recognized him as a thinker. Can we still cling to the classic interpretation of Saint-Just as embodying the contradiction between the theory of Social Contract and revolutionary practice? Thanks to this discovery of one of the most coherent theoretical formulations of Jacobinism in the making, should we not rather perceive the continuity between Saint-Just's theory of nature and his action, or better yet, by taking "the force of circumstances" into account, inquire about the actual political effects of what seems to be a dogmatic conception of nature and the state of nature? Up to


what point may we see the failure of the Jacobins (admitted by Saint-Just in the formula, "The Revolution is frozen") as reflecting the inadequacies, the blind spots of their theory? Rather than taking to task the divorce of theory from practice, viewed as an irremediable fate, would it not be better to discern what is at fault in the theory?

First we need to date the manuscript. Albert Soboul, the first publisher, proposed three possible dates of composition: first around 1790–1791; then the first few months of the Convention, between September 1792 and April 1793; finally between April 1792 and 9 Thermidor. Based on an internal critique of the manuscript, we have proposed another dating that seems to have gained current acceptance.[2] Taking as our point of reference the issues of slavery and divorce, we maintain that the manuscript must have been written between 24 September 1791 and 20 September 1792, the date slavery was abolished in France and divorce introduced. De la nature . . . would thus date from midway between L'esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution de France (1791) and Fragments sur les institutions républicaines , probably written in Year II. This is an important point, for as we note the repetition of certain themes characteristic of De la nature . . . in the Discours sur la Constitution de la France (24 April 1793) and in the second Fragment des institutions républicaines , we can better appreciate the distinctiveness of Saint-Just's political style. Unless we take De la nature . . . as a philosophical starting point from which the young revolutionary leader's thoughts and actions flowed, we shall inevitably be dumbfounded by the continual interaction between his political theory and his practice, and between his actions and his principles, where his concern focused on not letting action distort principles. For the inner rhythm of this movement depends on the periodic recurrence of a philosophy of nature, which serves as a kind of springboard for each new plunge. Hence the central role that De la nature . . . occupies in Saint-Just's development, and thus, regarding this kernel of his doctrine and vital representation, we need to grasp the modulations of meaning that punctuate Saint-Just's story.

Reconstitution of the De La Nature . . . Manuscript

For Saint-Just the state of nature meant, in the usage of the political theory of the time, "the state of man before civil governments were instituted." He describes this state as social, for society, a natural given and a fundamental and historically prior phenomenon, precedes the individual and not vice versa. The individual only appeared when the social body began to disintegrate. This natural human society accounts for a universal phenomenon manifested on every level on the scale of creatures, with certain differences of intensity varying from species to species, depending on the intelligence and sensitivity of those subjected to the society. Man, the most sensitive and intelligent creature, is born for an enduring society, for he is born to possess an ensem-


ble of natural relations originating in human needs and affections. There are two kinds of possession, personal possession, which originates in man's affections—including the relations arising from the ties between person and person—and real possession, which originates in needs and includes relations arising from the self's occupation, the exchange of goods, and business in general.

Apart from this, from man to man, everything is identity. Identity, the affective and psychological underpinning of social life, has a fundamental place in Saint-Just's political thought, and an analysis of this concept helps us define the societal state and provide a diversified picture of it. Saint-Just's first proposition describes the societal state as a harmonious alliance between independence and life in society. The basis of this complementarity is membership in a species: "Everything that breathes is independent of its species, and lives in society in its species."[3] Identity of origin, the precondition for this state, and its corollary, equality, make it possible to rid social life of every instance of domination caused by some difference in power. Unflagging vigilance is needed to preserve identity and equality, and thus to maintain the harmony of the societal state. Inequality of any kind destroys the original identity and introduces into the species or society a heterogeneity that is necessarily a catalyst of dissolution and which fractures the unanimous society into so many distinct and hostile groups. As a result, otherness is the source of an antisocial state, namely, the "savage" or "political" state. In fact, the social state disappears when we are thinking not of the relations between creatures of the same species but the relations between species, for the emergence of difference breeds rivalries and the will to dominate. Every social body thus presents two aspects, depending on whether it is viewed from the inside or the outside. Within a homogeneous society, independence is allied with sociability. But when this society confronts a different society, the societal state vanishes, giving way to the law of politics or preservation, along with its characteristic phenomena of resistance and force. Saint-Just expresses this in a second proposition: "Everything that breathes has a law of politics or preservation against what is not its society or species."[4]

Thus, the two different states coexist. The localization of each of the states depends on which group one envisages. According to Saint-Just, up to the level of the group "people" (peuple), all groups, family, the tribe, are recognized as more identical than different. Thus they live in the societal state. We find the point of transition from identity to otherness at the level of the people, and that is where the solution of continuity intervenes to create the political state. Saint-Just makes the following terminological distinction: "The societal state is the relation between men and men. The political state is the relation between one people and another."[5]

This contrast gives rise to a fundamental idea: force or constraint is to be proscribed, for it destroys social unity. When we replace a relation of identity


and equality with a relation of constraint or domination, the prior unity breaks up, giving way to a conflict between those using force and those they oppress; the binary category of master and slave appears. This is why the definitions of the societal state and the political state are transformed. In ridding themselves of any precise content, they lose their original meaning and become general and theoretical concepts, with the aid of which Saint-Just defined relations other than those between men and the state of nature, or between peoples. The societal state becomes a normative or regulative concept, and the political state a descriptive category. Saint-Just clearly affirms the autonomy and specificity of the social by contrasting a society , an immanent and internally experienced unity, with an aggregate , which is an apparent society and a purely formal unity, an externally imposed and not internally experienced cohesion. The political state designates every relation based on force, inequality, and constraint. And Saint-Just unhesitatingly equates so-called civilized life with savage life. He describes history as the disappearance of the social under the impact of the generalization of the political, which, not restricted to the relations between peoples, has also ruled those between cities, and eventually destroys the relations between men.

This evolution involves two orders of causes: the theoretical causes, and the more specifically historical causes. Humanity has reached the savage state because of two fundamental errors. In the first place—and this is the main cause—men have ignored the distinction between the internal and the external relations of a society, the former being destined to unanimity, the latter to division and war. Men have confused social right and political right. As a result, the city (civitas) has been based on principles that are foreign to its kind, and its internal structure has approached that of the general society of people, separated by a quantitative difference instead of, as in the beginning, a qualitative difference. Ever since, men have lived among themselves in the relation of a people to another people. The primordial phenomenon of participation has faded away; we only see an order of juxtaposition. The principal manifestation of this confusion between the social and the political is the creation of the complex forces of government. The second and more moral cause of this development has to do with man's increasing estrangement from nature, first through ignorance, then through the systematic will to denaturalize man. The leading role in this disfigurement of man's image is played by religious law, which lent its support to all the encroachments of domination and bondage.

The historical description is much more concise. In the earliest societies—Saint-Just is thinking of the Franks and the Teutons—the people had no magistrates; acting as both their own princes and their own sovereigns, the peoples had only chiefs to ensure external preservation. The political state emerged with the divorce of the roles of prince and sovereign from the people, and with the creation of the magistrate, who never ceased to oppress the


people. This separation came about when the people lost their penchant for assemblies and turned away from the life of the city to dedicate themselves to commerce, agriculture, or conquest. It was then that the political contract, which Saint-Just conceived as a twofold convention, intervened in history, including a pact of union by the citizens among themselves and a pact by the citizens to submit to power.

Saint-Just envisaged the reconstruction of the legitimate city (civitas) from a theoretical viewpoint and a political viewpoint. From a theoretical point of view, we need to reverse the course of history and recover for the social the domain that rightly belongs to it, and thus limit the political to the relations between peoples. Social right must inform the reconstruction of the "city," basing it on nature, that is, on integration and participation in an organic totality, as contrasted with coordination and, a fortiori , subordination. That is why Saint-Just denounces the idea of a social contract at the origin of society. By its very structure, the contract is just a means for achieving a compromise between various antagonistic forces. Furthermore, to enact a contract is bad in itself, for it is an attempt to constrain nature and ignore the natural harmony that rests on the reciprocity between, on the one hand, sociability—the basis of possession and ownership of the national territory—and, on the other hand, property and possession, the most certain guarantees of society's preservation. This natural harmony is, however, the fruit of hierarchical laws according to the relations engendered by the society. At the top of the hierarchy Saint-Just places social relations—the direct relations of men in the simple quality of being human—and their more complex relations as citizens. The laws of these relations are independence and ownership, which means that each man is the owner of his body, his will, and himself. These two most abstract laws constitute the fundamental norms with which all legal rules must be consistent. Thus, the civil laws governing possession must follow the rule of equality that translates on the civil plane as the norm of social right. Because of certain matters of fact, Saint-Just grants the lawmaker a latitude in the practical arrangement of the conformity between the social state and the civil state in a somewhat more concrete manner. When this harmony is respected, society regenerates and perpetuates itself, and there seems to be no need for external and authoritarian intervention. And Saint-Just emphasizes the possession that progressively becomes the surest catalyst of social spontaneity as it reveals how decisive civil relations are in strengthening or crushing the social body if they are not based on independence and equality. The anthropological and legal notion of possession issues in a nonantagonistic and harmonious solidarity whose primary source is affinity, and which finds itself confirmed in the set of natural and necessary mediations deriving from the needs and affections of men. From a political viewpoint, the very title of the manuscript, whatever the grammar suggests, indicates how the rule of independence from the government should


be based on "nature," which is understood in the narrow Rousseauistic sense.[6] Saint-Just's mistrust gives rise to a solution as direct as it is negative: the "city" must have no separation between the magistrate and the sovereign; it is enough to exclude the magistrate from the "city" forever. This, however, is more a matter of logical and ideal conclusions than of real political solutions. Saint-Just formulated other negative imperatives like the creation of a public force that is not an organ of oppression or division. The government must be limited to the exercise of one function only: external preservation. Thus, it involves an ad hoc military leader more than a genuine government.

From a strictly political point of view, De la nature . . . is decidedly unsatisfying. Positive solutions are lacking, and here Sain-Just's ideas reflect the incompleteness of the manuscript. This incompleteness, however, is not alone responsible for the lacunae. We need to reckon with the deeper proclivities of the young and doctrinaire Jacobin. Torn between the demands of the social law that "does not tolerate either the elevation or the abasement of anyone" and the necessity for self-preservation, Saint-Just affirmed his resolute opposition to the domination to which, in his view, politics was in the main reduced. Several times over, in lapidary phrases, he condemns the phenomenon of power. Social right imposes a ban on the distinction between the governing and the governed, which damages the original cohesion and builds the city on the disastrous opposition between the weak and the strong. This radical critique, revealing that Saint-Just belonged to a minority in the tradition that knew how to separate the being of the social from the division into masters and subjects, is not aimed at any particular political form. Nevertheless, he absolutely rejects politics as such, including the rule of force. Ignorant of the creative spontaneity of the social state, politics institutes violent ties instead of natural ties. Political law is to be proscribed, for within the city it separates, while social law unites. Surprisingly, the reader senses a genuine hatred of politics in someone who aspires to appear on the world's political stage, as though he were judging politics only on the basis of the monarchical experience. Saint-Just writes, "I'll speak of political law no more, I have struck it from the state."[7]

Naturalism, Primitivism, and the Theory of Social Right

Now that we have reconstructed his thinking, what is its overall significance? Saint-Just uses a collective tool: he thinks in terms of the idea of nature. What is his conceptual field? What are its harmonic elements?

Saint-Just is clearly aware of the topicality of the theme and its ambiguity. Rather than calling the very concept of nature into question, however, he asserts its primacy and atemporal character. "Sovereign nature is the chief right, it is for all time!"[8] Determined to establish the unequivocal and ahis-


torical truth of this concept, Saint-Just meant by nature "the point of exactness, justice, and truth in the relations between things or their morality," which exists outside of any human intervention, in contrast to the artificial. An objective moral order is implied here into which convention does not enter. Society should be based on nature, for it is not the product of artificial creation, the work of man, but a natural given that exists prior to man and exists independently of him. Saint-Just considers that this social order or "natural morality," which exists parallel to the physical order, is ruled by laws producing not necessary relations but intelligent relations that provide some purchase for human action, even though this nonautonomous objective order is not foreign to a divine order. Nothing, then, is more foreign to this idea than legal voluntarism, and it is more akin to classical natural right than to individual or revolutionary natural right. The human mind should content itself with "reading" the laws of the natural order that are imposed on it from the outside; however, the faculty is granted to it to arrange its different elements and to project the arrangements between the social law and the practical exigencies of the civil state.

Saint-Just pushed his social naturalism quite far; society finds not only its basis in nature, but also a solution to the complex relations it begets and the guarantee of its robustness, no matter what its stage of historical development. The spontaneous harmony of nature is the opposite of force, the real basis of contemporary societies. On the note of a studied idyllic optimism, and an even more rigorous and coherent naturalism, Saint-Just excluded reason, an artificial faculty, from the conceptual field. At the end of De la nature . . ., we observe a clear drop in tension; after pitting himself against common conceptions and aggressively reversing their usual meanings almost entirely, "savage state" meaning for him "civil" or "political state," and "social state" meaning "state of nature," Saint-Just returns to the standard terminology of his time: "In nature men love each other. In social life they take care of each other . . . . I have called social life the life of men united by a written contract, not to be misunderstood."[9] Saint-Just denied that reason was a natural faculty, maintaining that in the state of nature it virtually did not exist and emerged in history only as a substitute for and as a degenerate form of the earliest intelligence. Thus reason, a mere a posteriori to the accident by which humanity proceeded from the social to the savage state, is the only tool left to man for working out the political contract and organizing society on relations of force. This conception of reason as generator of political or savage life, a tool for constraining nature, shows how far Saint-Just distances himself from rationalism, even if his writings seem not to altogether exclude some good use for reason. The precedence given to the original intelligence over reason betrays a tendency toward a quite radical primitivism.

Indeed, in Saint-Just's thought, novelty is synonymous with error. He chose the attitude of regret; his mind, his awareness, are irresistibly turned


toward what is no longer. His is an essentially chronological primitivism: the perfect state of humanity existed at the origin of the human race; history is merely a long decline. This is why Saint-Just rejects history, for history is evil and alteration is a key word in his philosophy of history. Every society turns corrupt as it gets away from its earliest state. Though he professess a theory of decline, Saint-Just is convinced of man's natural goodness. What is actualized in the change from the social to the savage state is not a defect in human nature; there was no fall owing to some innate corrupting passion of human nature, but merely an accident, for which the sole factor responsible was theologico-political subterfuge. There is therefore an antinomy between the deterioration of the human soul and its original innocence. This contradiction can be resolved only by the discovery of a socially created unreason at the base of contemporary societies. Thus a kind of temporal breach opens between the social and the savage states; we necessarily rediscover the latter if we move in the opposite direction. The result is the prescription of static imperatives, without any search for a dynamic means that would point a way to the social state. No vision of the future appears in De la nature . . . . Both the word and the idea of progress seem unknown to Saint-Just; historical time seems to be unfamiliar.

Historical indeterminism at least does not preclude hope; nature is associated with the earliest society, which does not prevent nature from ordering and ruling the current society. Nature was not created just for the wilderness. Cognizant of a certain growing economic complexity in the society of his time, Saint-Just still asserts that it must not be concluded from "some relations that business, agriculture, and industry have established among men, that they cannot be governed naturally."[10] Men are thus free to return to a natural social form and, if present society is based on nature, "relations will arise from each other, and business and industry will again find laws in nature."[11] A clear cultural primitivism—the rejection of a form of civilization—takes on and enriches itself with Saint-Just's social values. In the face of nascent capitalism, which he opposes, Saint-Just exalts the earliest society where men did not suffer from greed but achieved happiness by rest and the meeting of primary needs.

In the face of this radical repudiation of every form of power and authority within the city, are we warranted in thinking Saint-Just is arguing for anarchy? This interpretation ignores the still rough idea of rights that permeates De la nature . . . and culminates in the idea of a necessary harmony between social right and civil right. Saint-Just himself explicitly denies the charge that he is a theoretician of anarchy: "Where there will be no powers, there will be no anarchy."[12] At first blush this answer seems specious, but it puts us on the right track; we must dissociate right and power, and we can conceive of a legal order free of constraint and authority. Saint-Just's political ideas belong to the stream of social right that George Gurvitch defined as follows: "The


autonomous right of communion in which each active, concrete, and real totality embodying some positive value is integrated objectively."[13] The analogy is not merely terminological but involves the form of sociability and the essence of right that Saint-Just advocated as the basis of the city. This is confirmed by the critical aspect of Saint-Just's thought. The form of sociability Saint-Just is arguing against as the rule of political law clearly contains the obverse of the one for which he was striving. The political tie results in a sociability via interdependence where essentially distinct individuals are reciprocally delimited and have merely an external connection. When political law enters the civil state, most natural relations are experienced as conflict, and relations of union are replaced by those of dependence. Because in this society others are seen as impediments and one's relations to them as antagonistic, the city becomes a mere assemblage of hostile and divided citizens, caring for one another in terms of the balance of forces and connected only through the state, which superimposes itself on them from the outside.

It follows that the legal expression taken by this form of sociability must be an order of coordination, namely, the contract, the necessary tool of mediation between separate individuals. Conversely, the desirable form of sociability is spontaneous. Its distinguishing sign is the network of union, all the more intimate because the whole precedes the parts, and each person lives for all. Interpersonal relations are experienced as friendship or love—because it is a form of sociability by interpenetration in which, despite differences, identity prevails and generates a resolutely anticontractual right of integration: social right.

It thus seems that Saint-Just's contrast between social right and political right exactly matches the contrast between social right (right of integration) and individual right (right of coordination) and, in terms of specific legal expression, between statutory right and contractual right. By placing Saint-Just in the stream of social right, we get a clearer view of the main features of his thought: doctrinaire naturalism, anti-individualism, and opposition to any theory of the contract.

Let us pursue this analysis a bit further and get a clearer view of the theory of social right. After questioning the city's need of civil laws and concluding in the affirmative, Saint-Just writes: "The city will thus have its laws, so that each, following the rule of all, is connected to all, and for the citizens to have no connection to the state, but only between themselves, they form the state, and the source of the laws will be possession, not the prince or the convention."[14]

This sentence expresses principles essential to the overall interpretation of Saint-Just's thinking: first, the principle of the distinction between society and state, and the assertion that the state is based on society and not vice versa. The state, the contractual mediation of wills, does not create society; society, the relations of affections and needs that are concretized in posses-


sion, creates the state. Society is conceived as an organism, an organic totality: "The social body resembles the human body, all its mechanisms contribute to harmony."[15] The social body spontaneously secretes a common social right, the end result of the relations of human needs and affections, of Hegel's "civil society." "In all engagements the civil rule should be copied from the social rule. Because they are confounded, the social nexus is tightened and, as I have said, all parts of the society that subsists of itself by a natural principle is connected by the civil rule."[16] The social order thus exists as autonomous, independent of the statist order that merely disturbs the initial spontaneous order.

Finally, and above all, the main function of social right is integration. The totality, the "social body," is immanent; it does not externally transcend the members of the city but emanates from the experienced reciprocity of needs and affections, from possession, which begets union—a concrete, dynamic, endlessly renewed participation from the whole to the parts and from the parts to the whole. "The right of man to nature or independence, the right of citizen to citizen, is possession, the right of a people to people is force. In these relations and in the correspondence of these things we find the unity of the social body. The social body preserves itself because in these relations it is united ."[17] Any individualism is thus clearly excluded: the man who is bound in a network of natural and nonviolent bonds lives spontaneously for all, and with all the greater ease when the community to which he belongs has a task to perform, that of its own preservation and defense from outsiders.

Hence Saint-Just's radical opposition to a contractual and artificialist conception of society and to any theory of individual right. In this respect the theory of law in De la nature . . . is symptomatic. Any voluntarist basis for right is to be forsworn; thus the law expresses not the general will but nature. And the role of expressing nature falls to the lawmaker, sage, or philosopher, but not the prophet.

Finally, Saint-Just conceived of possession as a defective right (the jus abutendi is missing), checked, harmonized, relative, functional—in short, a social property. It is the prototype of the theory of social right according to which the needs of the community guide the regulation of possession, quite unlike the property born of Roman right. Saint-Just's conception of man's owning himself does not come under the category of possessive individualism, for the individual is conceived as part of a larger whole whose organic unity he must strengthen by his economic or affective projection.

We cannot fail to be struck by an almost systematic anti-Rousseauism at the three successive levels of the philosophy of history, the theory of society, and the basis of rights. And above all, like Billaud-Varenne in his Éléments de républicanisme (Year I), Saint-Just criticizes Rousseau for rejecting the thesis of natural sociality.


The Paradoxes of Saint-Just: From the Revolution as Restoration to the Revolution as Abyss

How does De la nature . . . shed light on Saint-Just's action, his revolutionary development? His conversion to the Terror and his anguish in the face of the glaciation of the Revolution?

Charles Nodier, the enthusiastic publisher of Institutions républicaines (1831), perhaps best described the paradox of Saint-Just: "The unfortunate Saint-Just . . . was not a heartless man . . . he had tenderness and even convictions from which our improved civilization recoiled in contempt . . . he believed, which is much stronger, in respect for one's forebears and in the cult of emotion . . . . He was an extremely backward philosopher compared to the age we live in ."[18] The Archangel of the Terror made a fetish of ancestors: "Age is what our country worships," he wrote in Institutions républicaines . Let us try to unravel this paradox.

The first element is that this young man, the very embodiment of the Revolution, based his action, strange as it may seem, on classical natural right. Though invoking nature may be in a critical relation to tradition, the idea of limitation peculiar to classical natural right, teleological thought, and an idea of right not based on subjective foundation makes this idea incompatible with the modern idea of revolution. With the logic of a philosophy of freedom and not of virtue, the modern idea of revolution involves a subjective conception of right while also aiming at an emancipation seen as infinite movement.

Now the assertion of natural sociality, positing an objective ahistorical order in the name of nature, the declared mistrust of the individual or general will, the repeated rejection of the contract as a model, the theory of the lawmaker—all these features put Saint-Just, a crafter of the modern world, in the ranks of the ancients. So his appeal to virtue takes on a certain sense. Though Saint-Just associated the revolution with the people, he uncoupled the founding of the Republic from the popular will and assigned the job and the monopoly to the lawmaker, the elected interpreter of nature. This is an odd doctrine in that Saint-Just professed an idea of natural right that tended toward egalitarianism and hence was more Christian than classical in inspiration. This paradox resulted from Saint-Just's anti-Rousseauism; claiming, unlike Rousseau, that "the Golden Age is behind us," and thus making himself vulnerable to Fichte's critique, Saint-Just could not have access to the dialectical view of history in Rousseau's second Discourse ; furthermore, he altered the idea of nature that in Rousseau had served as a critical hypothesis in the affirmation of a past reality that asserted itself as the truth of the earliest society. Dogmatizing Rousseau in this way, Saint-Just took away the


conflictual tension because, for him, the return to the "city" and the return to nature had to be merged.

The revolution is thought of more on the model of astronomy—which implies the idea of a return to an earlier position—than within the strictly political field, from the classical concept of stasis or of modern thinking about the upheavals leading to an idea of conflict and social division.[19]

But is this idea of revolution a modern idea? Doesn't Saint-Just fatally lack the muse of perfectibility? Divorced from the idea of freedom and married to nature, revolution is directed less at liberation or the invention of a new social order than at "renaturalization," the restoration of a natural order effaced by centuries of monarchical decay that is denounced in the judgment of the king as "a crime against nature." The aim of the revolution is to redirect society into the orbit of nature, returning to an order seen as natural, away from the new, and to set limits that are all the more constraining for they are seen as objective. "I do not sever the bonds of society, but society has severed all those of nature. I do not seek to institute novelties, but to destroy novelties."[20] This orientation to the past, this hatred of novelty, this "misoneism," helps explain the fundamentalist climate of this idea, which goes along with the Jacobin puritanism oscillating between the images of the hero and the saint. This does not appreciably change the image of the revolutionary; he appears less possessed by a passion for freedom than irresistibly attracted to the founding of an order that, although proclaimed in the name of the revolution, still displays all the features of a generalized codification of the forms of existence.[21]

There appears an even more striking paradox: not content to associate the revolution with a plan to restore nature, Saint-Just calls for the revolution to be accomplished without politics, even to be opposed to politics. "We should not be afraid of changes, the peril is merely in how they are affected, all the world's revolutions are part of politics. That is why they have been steeped in crimes and calamities. Revolutions that are born of good laws and that are conducted by skilled hands would change the face of the earth without shattering it."[22] Good laws? He means laws resting on nature.

Must we see in this surprising declaration of the young and doctrinaire Jacobin a resurgence of the Augustinian doctrine that identifies politics with evil? This would imply that Christianity's hold on Jacobinism—the distinctively Christian ways of thinking about politics—is more crucial than has usually been thought. Referring the cohabitation of men to a spontaneity of the social with, moreover, a placing of the polis beneath the societas , leads to the disparagement of politics. This lowering of the political sphere shows how much Saint-Just, despite his reference to classical natural right, fails both to acknowledge the dignity of politics and to recognize an uncircumventable constitutive dimension in the plural existence of men.

As demonstrated, the contradictions are numerous, but the essential con-


tradiction involves making the modern practice of revolution serve a premodern idea of rights and society.

Can we see here one of the roots of the Terror? The evils ascribed to politics must entail a downgrading of political mediation, even if Saint-Just declared, in his Sur la Constitution , that "natural polity" was not his aim. What else if not a twofold rejection of politics (the rejection of mediation or confusion with the logic of another order) was Saint-Just asserting when he wrote: "The principle of a republican government is virtue; the alternative is terror. What do people want who want neither virtue, nor terror?"[23] He called for a return to nature, and not humanity, as the destination of the city, and his conception of the revolution as the way to bring about this return fosters the illusion in which politics is confused with morality. It is important not to expose politics to an "overload" or to derail it by giving it a mission beyond its capacities—in this case, the reform of conscience or the diminution of selfishness. This was Kant's warning in 1793, when he distinguished between the political community and the ethical city, explicitly describing the dangers of a politics of virtue:

We may call a union among men with simple laws of virtue following these prescriptions, an ethical society; and, to the extent that these laws are public, we may call it order, that is, an ethical civil society (in contrast to a legal civil society) or an ethical community . . . . Every political state doubtless desires to exercise domination over minds according to the laws of virtue, for in cases where its means of coercion are insufficient, because the human judge cannot see into the minds of men, virtuous intentions could secure what is wished. But woe unto the lawmaker who wants to use force to secure a constitution for ethical ends, for not only would he thus create the opposite of this constitution, but he would also weaken his political constitution and remove all its solidity."[24]

Thus when Saint-Just initiated what seemed to us to be "a new march" with the plan of Institutions républicaines , an outbreak of Terror, and, one might say, a critique of Jacobinism from within, he does not elude the movement of a return to a prepolitical state of nature.[25] The idea of institution, in relation to a critique of the law—"obeying laws, that is not clear," wrote Saint-Just—again points to nature, to the will to reestablish a natural order with access to objectivity. But we cannot fail to observe a hardening in this Jacobin lawmaker determined to shape republican institutions so that an orientation to nature would be combined with an enduring mistrust. Hence, along with the enthusiasm for creating institutions goes the appeal to heroism, to "the soul of the republic": "The day when I am convinced that it is impossible to give the French people manners that are gentle, energetic, sensitive, and implacable against tyranny and injustice, I shall plunge a dagger into my heart."[26] The suicide of the hero opposes the death of nature.


A new and paradoxical movement is formed: starting from a fundamentalist plan to reestablish the city on natural foundations, Saint-Just couldn't deny himself an act of foundation or, more precisely, of self-foundation. The issue of the French Revolution becomes the issue of heroism. Viewed from political philosophy and not from romanticism, heroism is a constitutive dimension of the Revolution. Heroism is the Revolution's magnetic field. For want of recognizing the existence of the "central sun" (G. Bûchner), of measuring its energetic effects, the magnetization of consciences, according to Chateaubriand a "redoubling of life," the interpreter may fail to understand or even to think of the revolutionary. A modern Brutus, a regicide with the halo of his youth and his name, appearing suddenly on the public stage at the king's trial, Saint-Just exhibited the heroic experience par excellence, that of a rebirth.

Jules Michelet, who had read his Plutarch as well as Vico, had a political understanding of the Revolution. Furthermore, he did not separate this way of understanding from a consideration of heroism. Thus he knew better than anyone how to uncover the logic of heroism as an active, autonomous force in the Revolution. That is why he insisted on emphasizing the incessant commotion that Saint-Just's intervention provoked at the time of the king's sentencing. "This speech had an enormous effect on the trial . . . . Immature or not, exaggerated or not, it was powerful enough to set the tone for the whole trial. It determined the pitch; one continued to sing to the tune of Saint-Just."[27] It was the experience of a beginning, the start of the Republic, an appeal to the unknown, but also a beginning for Saint-Just, torn from the obscurity of a private citizen and suddenly propelled into the light of public space. "Who was to wield the sword . . . . A new man was needed, unshackled by any philanthropical precedent," wrote Michelet.[28]

Reading Saint-Just's speech, we see how this event indissolubly mingled the experiences of birth and founding, both necessarily connected with the death of the king. "The same men who will judge Louis have a republic to found: those who attach some importance to the just punishment of a king will never found a republic . . . . For me, I see no middle way: this man must reign or die . . . the mind that judges the king will be the mind that founds the republic. The theory of your judgment will be the theory of your magistratures."[29] Or again, "the revolution begins when the tyrant ends."[30]

But a question immediately arises concerning what Michael Walzer, drawing on the work of E. Kantorowicz, has rightly described as "public regicide," which he sees has the special feature of an attack on the inviolability of the monarchy, a transgression of the "sacred terror" of theologico-political origin which attaches to the twofold body of the king, both mortal and immortal.[31] Can we change the face of the earth without shattering it? Doesn't revolutionary action involve uncontrollable effects, all the more so as, in Saint-Just's case, it was not a matter of judging the king but of fighting


him and bringing him down like an enemy? Can one still cherish the illusion of returning to good laws, dependent on nature? Is not the revolutionary experience as a beginning, at the same time an exposure to unpredictability? Saint-Just himself did not fail to compare the revolution to birth: "We have opposed sword to sword, and freedom is founded; it has emerged from chaos and with man who cries at birth . . . . Everything begins thus under the sun."[32]

Did not the public regicide, an unprecedented rupture owing to the radicalness it required, ruin the very idea of nature? The revolution would leave the comforting shores of a return to the natural order and brave the tempests of freedom to take on the unknown of a new experience of freedom, as freedom to do good and evil. This is the change from a revolution of restoration to a revolution of the abyss. At the same time Saint-Just was seeking the point where the revolution must stop , "at the perfection of happiness and of public freedom by law." He voices his anxiety about the identity of the Revolution which from now on is problematic, that is, disguised, and about the vertiginous movement of freedom, for it is a movement toward the infinite. "We speak of the height of the revolution, who will fix it? It is movable."[33] Testing the impossible?

In the face of this gap, heroism in turn becomes a paradoxical experience. Though Saint-Just gazes with melancholy at "the beauty that is no longer" (Rome, Sparta), he still confesses to a metamorphosis of heroism, and very consciously draws on what P. Lacoue-Labarthe described concerning Hölderlin as a general crisis of imitatio , following the collapse of a tradition. "The disappearance of every rule and every model, of every codification in art."[34] And the poet, no stranger to revolutionary disorder, consumes himself "in the practically ex nihilo creation of a pure work or of a new art." On 25 April 1794, Saint-Just announced, "Have no doubt of it, everything around us must change and end, for everything around us is unjust; victory and freedom will cover the world. Scorn nothing, but imitate nothing of what has gone before us. Heroism has no models . It is thus, I repeat, that you will found a powerful empire with the boldness of genius and the power of justice and truth."[35]

In exactly the same speech, "Sur la police générale, sur la justice, le commerce, la législation et les crimes des factions," Saint-Just limns the portrait, the model of the revolutionary man, "the hero of good sense and honesty," meaning the privileged interpreter, perhaps even the guardian of the Revolution. "As his goal is to see the Revolution triumph, he will never find fault with it, but he condemns his enemies without involving himself with them, he does not violate the Revolution but illuminates it, and jealous of its purity, he is circumspect in speaking of it, out of respect."[36] With furious speed the cutting edge of the word regicide is followed by an homage to revolutionary exemplariness. This change of tempo displays the paradoxical trajectory of


heroism; the energy of the beginning, propelled by the initium , reverses itself and becomes testimony and force for stopping, becomes a limit imposed on revolutionary élan. A new image is drawn of the custodian of the criteria for good and evil, the judge of moderation and exaggeration. Heroism has no models; when the ground of nature is revealed, exposed to this vacuity, the hero immediately transforms himself into a model, into a force of impossible "modeling."

At this nodal point, the logic of heroism encounters the logic of democratic invention so well elucidated by Claude Lefort.[37] Deprived of the canon of nature, how can we then determine the line between liberty and license? After the unprecedented dismemberment of the social in and by the king's death—a proof of the vertigo vis-à-vis the unknown of a society that no longer turned to nature but was confronted by the new—after the loss of reference points, how to recodify, remake the criteria of the reference, redraw the identifying frames of reference, remake the body (Claude Lefort), if not by offering the body of the revolutionary hero as the incarnation of a new sacred thing, as the support for an identification, if not by connecting the power to an exemplary body?

The more Athenian than Spartan Camille Desmoulins, who loved to chortle at the gods and idols, said of Saint-Just that he "carried his head like the Blessed Sacrament." The echo comes back to us of Lucile Desmoulins's cry in Danton's Death , "Vive le roi!" hailed as the word of freedom by Paul Celan, who grew up with the writings of Pierre Kropotkin and Gustave Landauer.[38] Though Saint-Just, by creating his own myth, took part in the invention of what Stendhal called the "beautiful modern," and at this distance still exerts fascination, we should keep in mind the final lines of Michelet's 1869 preface to Le Tyran : "Happily, time passes. We are a bit less dim-witted. The rage for incarnation, carefully inculcated through Christian education, messianism, passes. At length we understand the counsel Anacharsis Clootz left when he died: 'France, be cured of individuals.'"

Violence in the French Revolution: Forms of Ingestion/Forms of Expulsion

Brian Singer

Like all writings, this chapter has a varied provenance. But the one "gestative line" that I should like to pursue by way of introduction concerns the difficulties in thinking about violence. Acts of violence immediately raise a number of moral issues, which tend to determine the direction of enquiry. To speak of violence, it is feared, is to justify violence—unless such speech is explicitly directed at its condemnation. But to condemn violence is to place it under a subtle (but no less strict) form of censure. And in order to break the censure, and thereby open up violence as a topic of discussion, violence must be tamed theoretically, as well as restricted practically. Generally, this is done by binding violence to the modes of instrumental rationality, even as violence by itself appears as what is most threatening to rationality in all its forms.

No less a thinker than Hannah Arendt has claimed that the essence of violence, its very substance, lies with its instrumentality.[1] Violence is a means to an end. Thus violence will receive the right of entry into a utilitarian calculus. Too little violence, and the end may not be achieved; but too much violence is morally wasteful, when not simply counterproductive. Violence may be one of several means to the realization of an end, in which case its costs must be measured against those entailed by the use of the alternate means. Or it may be only means to the realization of that end, given the character of the resistance of those opposed to that end. Here the investigation of violence is limited to its uses, its effectiveness, its necessity. It is a matter of the establishment of a calculus to establish the judicious (if not the just) use of violence. An instrumental rationality brackets—though only partially—the question of ends in order to produce a morality of the means. When "good" violence can be separated from "bad" violence, violence can be rendered, at least to some extent, acceptable.


Of course, the investigation does not stop here. The discussion of the "rational" employment of violence soon moves to consider the "rationality" of the actors and their motives. The "rationality" of the actors: their social background, their institutional affiliations, their relation to the law—in short, their "respectability." The "rationality" of the motivations: Are the actors consciously striving for concrete goals worth attaining?—here the question of ends returns, but in the more manageable form of (material) interests. And again, in both cases violence can be justified, if not necessarily legitimated, in the name of pragmatics.

In truth, the attempt to establish rules for the rational use of violence has a long history, dating back at least as far as Machiavelli. After all, such an enquiry does have eminently practical implications for the practice of politics. And it enters, almost necessarily, into our most casual judgments when confronting violent events. Yet the instrumentalist calculus of violence is fraught with all kinds of problems—even should the delicate balance between means and ends not be upset (when either the means—the violence—are judged unacceptable independent of the ends, or the realization of the ends is considered so imperative that all means employed on their behalf are condoned).

Suppose, however, that the balance is maintained. There remains the problem that violence can enter a utilitarian calculus only in a stable, narrowly circumscribed situation. Numerous suppositions follow: at the very least, the ends must be limited, the consequences foreseen, and the contingencies held at bay. And one will want to argue that such suppositions can never be met in toto, that the "virtues" of violence can never be entirely ensured in the face of fortuna . And what applies in general, applies with far greater force to the type of situations that we shall be examining: a revolutionary situation. For in the latter, as we shall see, the violence is not always directed at a well-defined enemy who poses some clear and immediate threat. Nor is the violence, ultimately, directed at some limited, short-term end, but to the creation of a new regime, a new humanity. And above all, revolutionary situations entail a state of continuous and extreme flux: it is not just that circumstances are always changing, or that the rules of the game are constantly being rewritten; the fact is the very definitions of what is real and unreal, possible and impossible, true and false, are all being shifted from their moorings.

But beyond the question of whether the instrumentalist perspective can deliver an adequate portrayal of the reality of violence (and without considering whether the actors understand their violent acts in purely instrumental terms), there are the moral questions raised by this perspective. In truth, the latter does not really seek to provide a pure description of reality and will admit as much in rare moments of self-reflection; on the contrary it attempts to describe violence not as it is but as it ought to be when "ration-


ally" applied. And yet at the same time, in the name of a certain "realism," it would denude that realm of the "ought" of its utopian dimension. The result is that an ideal violence is substituted for the ideals that violence sometimes claims to serve.[2] In the attempt to be at once "realist" and "idealist," the perspective proves neither realistic nor, to be sure, idealistic: at worst, the artificially perfected image of an imperfect world with which to construct a morality for the amoral.

This is not to mention those discussions of the uses of violence which shift the terms, slipping from an analysis of the instrumentality of violence to an analysis of its "functionality." Here, where one speaks of the symbolic uses of violence in terms of cathartic release, social solidarity, or boundary definition and maintenance, or in terms of its regenerative powers, violence becomes an end in itself, opening up a possible whirlpool of apologetics.

To consider violence as, essentially, an instrument is not, as is so often hoped, to render it morally neutral. It does, however, tend to make violence theoretically transparent. Instrumentalized, violence appears without any interest in itself outside of the means/end context in which it is inserted. It is reduced to purely quantitative terms, a medium of action whose only content is the degree of force it embodies. As a tool, violence lacks any expressive capacity; as the result of a rational choice, violence, even if employed by institutions, cannot itself take on an institutional character. Within such a perspective, violence is denied any relation to culture. There can be no concern with the forms of violence, with the possibility that certain forms of violence are characteristic of certain kinds of society. In a word, to treat violence instrumentally is to choke off the possible elaboration of what might be termed a sociology of violence.

Now the elaboration of such a sociology is no easy matter. It will, relative to the commonsense understanding of violence regarding "the logic of the social," appear to engage in a number of paradoxes. For just as violence first appears opposed to rationality, violence also appears contrary to society, or more precisely, to its existence in terms of institutions, forms, and expressions. Let me explain. First, violence as the negation of form: generally speaking, violence is seen as either the primordial chaos out of which form develops, or as the final chaos in which form is to be engulfed. Second, although violence may not necessarily be opposed to expression, it does appear as opposed to communication: either it appears as prior to language, expression without articulation, the utterance of a brute subjectivity, or as posterior to language, where communication, exhausted of its resources, breaks down. Finally, violence as contrary to institution: where the latter supposes not just form but the continuity of form, violence appears as the disruption of routine, a rupture in the temporal continuum, the introduction of an unstable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable element threatening the social order.


To elaborate a "sociology" of violence, then, is to restore to violence, or at least to some violence, its character as institution. It is to understand violence as form, as a "cultural" form if one will, as a social "ritual" as well as a collective instrumentality. And it is to examine the different forms of violence as instituted in different societies as, in each case, telling us something about that society, as expressive of that society, and of its "self-understanding." One might wish to see such a sociology as providing a hermeneutics of violence through which the larger "social text" can be interpreted. Alternately, the remainder of this chapter may be read as an introduction to a possible history of violence.

The discussion begins with a brief examination of George Rudé's well-known work on popular violence, The Crowd in the French Revolution . This book may be considered as representative, though not in any rigorous sense, of the instrumentalist approach. My own, more "sociological" approach will emerge out of a critique of this work. Because I am following here on the heels of Rudé, and because of limitations of time, space, and research, my analysis will be based almost exclusively on Parisian events. However paradigmatic the Parisian case, I recognize this as a limitation, and all conclusions should, therefore, be treated tentatively.

Rudié's Populist History

George Rudé begins his book by proposing that the revolutionary crowds cannot be treated as abstractions. Though the abstractions of the left are criticized, that is, the image of the popular movements as embodying the "People," it is soon obvious that it is the abstractions of the "right" which are his real target.[3] Here he is speaking of the image of the revolutionary crowds as "inchoate mobs," anarchic and blindly destructive, "drawn from criminal elements or the dregs of the city population." Or to quote the rhetoric of one Edmund Burke, "bands or cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with . . . blood" and embodying "all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell."[4] George Rudé seeks to undermine these "abstractions" ("stereotypes" seems the more appropriate word) by pursuing, at least implicitly, three lines of enquiry: the first is concerned with who commits the violence, their quality as social actors; the second with their motivations and intentions, the reasons for the violence; and the third with the uses of violence, its instrumentality as a means for the realization of the ends posited by the intentions and motivations. These "lines of enquiry" then can be considered as forming the book's underlying "theoretical" framework. Though in truth, this is not a theoretical work, and the underlying framework hardly constitutes its originality, let alone its importance. If we must be eternally grateful to Professor Rudé and his travails, it is for having brought empirical


data to the discussion of popular revolutionary violence, and thus proof positive to his counterdemonstration.

Consider then the more concrete lines of investigation that, roughly speaking, correspond to the above lines of enquiry. Again we can speak of three lines. In the first place, throughout the book, while relating the history of the crowd's actions, George Rudé provides a body count, showing that the revolutionary crowds did not engage in large-scale, uncontrolled bloodletting. Generally speaking, the number of victims during the journées révolutionnaires —and by victims, one understands the unarmed and defenseless, and not the Swiss Guards killed in pitched battle—were few, rarely more than a handful, hardly the stuff to fuel the fires of counterrevolutionary nightmares.

In the second place—and this in many ways is the core of the book's research—he demonstrates that the revolutionary crowds were not composed of the unemployed, the underemployed, the petty criminal, the marginal, the vagabond, those who were called, in a language still resonating with the feudal past, les gens sans aveu (literally, those who had not taken an oath, and thus had no clear place within the social order, however lowly, those therefore who were the very embodiments of a social dis-order). This "underclass," it seems, were hardly major participants on the stage of the Revolution in any real sense. The revolutionary crowds were largely composed, to be sure, of sans-culottes (literally, those without breaches, that is, those who wore trousers—the wearing of stockings up to the knee being a major mark of the social divide of the time). But what George Rudé demonstrates is that it was the most stable, most law-abiding elements of the sansculottes who participated in the revolutionary events, those whose remnants some fifty years later would be considered petty-bourgeoisie or, if one will, lower middle class. Though participants from higher classes—that is, bourgeois, rentiers , merchants, civil servants, and professionals (breaches and all)—as well as participants from the lowest classes, were not entirely absent, it was the workshop masters, craftsmen, shopkeepers, petty traders, journeymen and, more rarely, wage earners who predominated.[5]

Lastly, the author considers the motives for participation in the revolutionary crowds. It comes as no surprise that he finds that "bribery and corruption," or "the quest for loot," were not "major factors stimulating revolutionary activity."[6] Nor does he consider the revolutionary crowds to be acting from the irrational instincts posited by the crowd psychology inaugurated by Gustave Lebon.[7] Such right-wing shibboleths are quickly dismissed. He does admit that the revolutionary crowds acted, in part, out of political motives, having "enthusiastically supported and assimilated the objects, ideas, and slogans of the political groups in the National Assembly, Cordeliers, and Jacobin Clubs whose leadership they acknowledged and in whose interest they demonstrated, petitioned, or took up arms."[8] But it is not simply a matter of the sans-culottes passively following the initiatives of the republi-


can bourgeoisie. The sans-culottes had their own reasons for engaging in street action, reasons that were foreign to the interests and experience of their erstwhile bourgeois allies, and which account for the force and continuity of the social ferment of the revolutionary period. The sans-culottes' primary concerns, Professor Rudé asserts, were with more basic issues: those dealing with the provisioning of cheap and plentiful food in the face of shortages and high prices. And he goes on to note that the reasons for their actions were continuous with a long history of popular disturbances, dating back at least several centuries. These were not new struggles, seeking the establishment of a new, hitherto unknown order. "[T]he sans culottes intervened" he states, " . . . to reclaim traditional rights and to uphold standards which they believed to be imperilled by the innovations of ministers, capitalists, speculators, agricultural 'improvers,' or city authorities."[9] These were defensive reactions, or in the words of Charles Tilly, "reactive struggles"; they sought to defend tradition and community against the threats posed by the newly emergent state and economy. They were the type of popular struggle that prevailed during the period prior to the consolidation of the nation-state and capitalist economy, after which new struggles of "proactive" character would arise.[10]

Without delving, into this last point, which, despite its considerable interest, is not germane to my discussion—and which, in fact, is not central to George Rudé's discussion, being the horizon to which the latter points toward its end—let us very briefly summarize his argument. The revolutionary crowds, he seems to be saying, were largely composed of the lower classes to be sure, but of their more respectable elements. These crowds engaged in revolutionary actions for reasons that were reasonable, if somewhat archaic. Lastly, respectable and reasonable, these actions, as measured by the level of violence, were relatively moderate. This is a sympathetic portrait. The three lines of investigation lead, both implicitly and explicity, to a defense of the sans-culottes' revolutionary actions. The book is meant to be a history from below; and indeed the bulk of the book is composed of a chronicle of the Revolution's history as presented by a history of the journées révolutionnaires. The villains of the piece are those located above. Notably, the first two estates, that is, the aristocracy, the clergy, and other counterrevolutionaries. But also, if to a slightly lesser degree, the republican bourgeoisie and their state. George Rudé follows here the historiography of Albert Soboul wherein the sans-culottes and the revolutionary bourgeoisie are posed as, depending on the period, the best of allies and the worst of friends. The Jacobin state, in particular, is condemned for completely eliminating the sans-culottes' capacity for autonomous action, thus cutting itself off from its popular base of support, and mounting a Terror that was excessive and arbitrary. In short, this is a history of popular movements that would also be a populist history.[11]


Now, my problem with the book lies not with its populism, nor with the morality tale hidden therein. What I find difficult to accept is that the "popular" actors must, in order to be rended historically acceptable, be made into rational actors. With the exception of their context, they would be like us, or like we would like to believe ourselves to be. One would hardly think that they came from another time, let alone another culture. For them violence would be a mere resource, something to be mobilized, in itself neutral, transparent.

This is to say that it is not my intention to criticize Professor Rudé's characterization of the social composition of the revolutionary crowds. Nor will I dispute his characterization of their motives, at least directly. My intention is not to attack Professor Rudé on his chosen terrain but to shift the terrain and open up new areas for discussion.

The September Massacres

Let me begin with a brief comment concerning the images of popular violence against which George Rudé directs his argument. This imagery was not invented by right-wing historians after the revolutionary events; the perception of the revolutionary mob as composed of the lowest, least-stable elements of the population was common to the time. And it was not just the wealthy and counterrevolutionary who feared the vast underworld of the desperately poor and criminal. As George Rudé is not unaware, almost all sectors of society, including the revolutionary, and the revolutionary sansculotte, shared the same fears relative to les gens sans aveu; and almost all sectors were equally willing, when confronted with social disturbances contrary to their perceived interests, to blame the same people. In other words, the stereotyped images of the revolutionary mob constitute less a historical argument, or even a political argument, than a widely shared social prejudice, both then and now and in times intervening. As such, this prejudice must be considered part of the reality it purports to describe; for it is part of the motivations and intentions of the Revolution's actors; indeed it seems to have a social dynamic of its own, almost independent of the multiple uses to which it was put. On more than one occasion, it was rumors, almost always false, concerning the least favored part of the population, that set the popular movements in motion. What historians refer to as the Great Fear, the peasant insurrections of the summer of 1789 which swept away the old rural order, was precipitated by rumors that Paris was expelling its surplus population, casting into the countryside a confused and hungry mass that would pillage farmer and farm alike. And again it was "lesser fears" that were the catalyst of several of the journées révolutionnaires in Paris, the sans-culottes rising in self-defense against imaginary threats posed by the same desperate elements, presumed in the pay of some counter-


revolutionary conspiracy. In truth, as we shall see, this most unfortunate sector of the population was more likely to be the victims of popular violence than its perpetrators. As a target, the object of George Rudé's critique is simultaneously weak and resilient: weak in the sense that no great imagination is required to see that the stereotypes are largely false, the result of what is generally known as scapegoating; and resilient in the sense that for this very reason they will always be with us.

There is another point that must be brought out here. How can Professor Rudé speak of the revolutionary actors as reasonable when those he would defend hold the very prejudices that he would attack? Or better, how can one speak, whether implicitly or explicitly, of rational actors, when the grounds of their actions lie within a social imaginary composed, at least in part, of rumors and hearsay?[12]

Beyond all questions concerning the actors, their social composition, their "rationality," what can be said about their violence? George Rudé as suggested, leaves an impression of moderation, but only by neglecting, if not entirely ignoring, what are known as the September Massacres of 1792. The ostensible reason for his neglect has to do with the paucity of evidence relative to those who participated in the massacres. No one wanted to admit their participation after the event for, unlike the other journées revolutionnaires, there was little to gain and much to lose in any such admission.[13] The only real data comes three years after the massacres, and one year after the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobin party, when judicial proceedings were brought against thirty-nine persons for alleged participation in the massacres—and then all but three were acquitted for lack of evidence.[14] However, despite the lack of hard data relative to social composition, the character of the event remains clear. And the character of the September Massacres was so exceptional, that it must be considered in some detail.

What immediately strikes the observer about the September Massacres is the extent of their violence. The number of victims—again among the unarmed and defenseless—exceeded by far anything that had occurred previously. George Rudé provides a maximum estimate of 1,400 executed, and this figure has not been exceeded by more recent estimates.[15] Admittedly, the September Massacres occurred under exceptional circumstances. Paris, it then seemed, was threatened with foreign invasion, the leaders of the invading forces had threatened widespread reprisals against the revolutionaries, and the Parisian populace was, understandably, affected by a nervous ferment. And yet the massacres appear not to have been a panic reaction. They appear to have been, at least in part, premeditated, and they unfolded in relative calm. The ostensible reason for the massacres was the presence in the prisons of numerous counterrevolutionaries, many of them rounded up during the last journée révolutionnaire, August 10, when the monarchy had fallen. There were rumors of a complot des prisons , a conspiracy amongst the


prisoners against the Revolution,[16] and on the second of September the prisons were invaded by the revolutionary crowds. However, it must be said that the massacres were not limited to the prisons, or by what one usually understands as prisons, and the largest number of the victims was not counterrevolutionaries. At least 70 percent of those executed were common-law prisoners: common thieves, prostitutes, forgers, vagrants, and the like—that is, precisely, the gens sans aveu, the eternal scapegoats discussed above.[17]

In this regard, it is perhaps surprising that George Rudé seeks to serve the September Massacres with reasons—reasons, one might add, not far removed from those given by the septembriseurs themselves. For he writes that "[u]nsavoury as the episode must appear in itself, the massacres . . . completed the destruction of the internal enemy some weeks before" the defeat of the external enemy at Valmy.[18] One wonders in what sense most of the victims were enemies of the Revolution, and in what sense those who were enemies of the Revolution, being in prison, were threats to the Revolution. Even if there was a complot des prisons—for which there is no evidence—it should hardly have to be said that it would have been highly unlikely that these prisoners could have (1) escaped the prisons, (2) armed themselves, and (3) successfully confronted an armed and vigilant, revolutionary populace. Born in fear, fueled by rumor, and directed at a wide, imprecise array of victims, this journée révolutionnaire, perhaps more than any other, cannot be reduced to the terms of a means-end rationality, let alone justified in such terms. The violence was, in a sense, "too total."

Now George Rudé is not a "rational-choice" theorist in any rigorous sense. He does not seek to demonstrate that the massacres resulted from the rational pursuit of the self-interests of the massacreurs , nor that the means chosen in the pursuit of these interests were perfectly adequate to the designated ends. He does, however, implicitly believe that the revolutionary actors were reasonable and that their actions are to be understood as such. And this belief results in some rather blatant revolutionary apologetics.[19] In claiming the "utility" of the massacres, George Rudé is perhaps justifying less the rationality of the events than the "rationality" of the Revolution itself, or at least of the "popular Revolution," understood as a whole that must be rescued from the taint of ambiguity and defended in all its peripeties. Here, most definitely, I must part company with Professor Rudé and let him continue to fight, some two hundred years later, the Revolution's battles, and with almost the very same arguments.[20]

The importance of the September Massacres does not simply lie with the number of its victims. Many historians see the massacres as marking the beginning of the end of popular violence. Already several weeks prior to September, Danton, then the minister of justice, had declared: Que la justice des tribunaux commence, et la justice du peuple cessera .[21] And after the massacres, almost all parties with influence on the government agreed that a special


apparatus had to be established to carry out revolutionary justice and monopolize the violence carried out in its name. Accordingly, the events of September are seen as marking the last important outbreak of what is sometimes called the Popular Terror, which was to be replaced by the official Terror of the Revolutionary Government. As such, a line is drawn after the September Massacres, distinguishing popular violence from state violence, the latter being explicitly presented as a means to stop the "popular executions," while satisfying the sans-culottes' desire for "prompt justice."

My account is going to be somewhat different. I will not situate the rupture after the September Massacres with the construction of a governmental apparatus specializing in "revolutionary justice."[22] Without denying the value of the more common account, I shall place the September Massacres themselves at the point of rupture. For my rupture concerns not those who carried out the violence, but the forms of that violence.

Forms of Violence

I shall try to give some idea of what I mean by "forms" by briefly describing the crowd violence that accompanied the previous journées révolutionnaires, as compared with the violence of the September Massacres.[23]

Popular violence prior to the September Massacres made a spectacle of the victim and his mutilation. Examine the typical course of events: the sansculottes are in a state of insurrection. Crowds form on the street. Someone who, by position or reputation, excites popular hatred, usually a priest or aristocrat, is seized and threatened with being lanterné , that is, hung from the nearest lamppost. At this point someone tries to intervene, usually an agent of the government, displaying the symbols of his office and of the government's revolutionary legitimacy. This person (or persons) attempts to reason with the crowd and remove the potential victim from the clutches of his or her tormentors. While admitting the possible culpability of the object of the crowd's wrath, he speaks the language of the Law, claiming that the forms of due process must be followed and a proper trial held. This discourse is often shouted down, in any case ignored, and the person who gave it is forced to withdraw. If it was an agent of the government, a report will be written up, relating the efforts of the authorities and the failure of these same efforts—a report that can then be presented in the case of a judicial enquiry. Once the law, and those who speak in its name, have been explicitly rejected, the crowd makes good its threat. The poor wretch is indeed strung up from the nearest lamppost and, once dead, the head is separated from the body and placed at the end of a pike. An evisceration then takes place, with various organs also finding themselves at the end of pikes. These will then form the front of a somewhat macabre procession. A rope will be tied to the foot of the body, which will be dragged behind. This procession will tour the major


streets of the city, visiting key public places, as well as, on occasion, places of particular significance to the victim. The procession will be accompanied with much rejoicing, gallows humor, and threats to do similar things to similar people. Witnesses to the procession will join in, shout words of encouragement, turn away, vomit in doorways, and some women will faint. Once the procession is over, the various pieces of the corpse will go on semipermanent display, usually near the gates to the city or section, or some other public place.

At this point, one might remember that George Rudé had spoken, relative to the violence of the revolutionary crowds, of their moderation. And he is right, if one speaks of the violence in purely quantitative terms. However, what little violence there was, was maximized as spectacle. Indeed, one suspects that it was because the choreography was so violent, that its quantity was, relatively speaking, restrained.

Consider now the character of the September Massacres. Again, one speaks of the "typical" case. The massacres did not occur in the street, they were not public, in the above sense. The objects of the crowds' wrath were the inmates of the prisons and other "total institutions" of the period; and the violence was restricted to the confines of these institutions, their courtyards, and immediate vicinities. It was not simply a general slaughter, conducted in complete anarchy, or at least not as the slaughter proceeded. Again the authorities, municipal and national, sent deputations to calm the crowds and to either stop or moderate the butchery.[24] And again they failed and were forced to retreat, sometimes under the threat of physical violence. At about the same time, however, persons who are described as strangers to the sans-culotte milieu,[25] but who were not agents of governmental authority, and without any mandate, stopped the executions, installed themselves behind a table, and organized "popular tribunals." In effect, justice was improvised. Juries were formed, judges named, a prosecutor established, the prison records obtained. The prisoners were then brought before this tribunal one by one, their identities and the reasons for their institutional confinement verified. A short interrogation followed, after which the prisoner would be declared either innocent or guilty. If declared guilty, there was but one penalty: the prisoner would be pushed beyond the threshold of a doorway, whereupon he or she would be bludgeoned or hacked to death with whatever instruments were available. The bodies of the victims were left to accumulate in a pile. A short while after the butchery had ended, the authorities carted the bodies to the outskirts of Paris, where they were buried in pits covered with chalk.

The contrast between the September Massacres and the outbreaks of popular violence that preceded it are striking. Two points stand out: the absence or presence of the mutilation and display of the corpses, and the role of the law. Let us consider the second of these points first.


We saw that during the acts of popular violence someone, usually someone official, would seek to have the crowd respect the due process of law, and that his demands would, inevitably, be rejected. Indeed, so often does the discourse of those who speak of the law get repeated and with always so few results, that one suspects that its real purpose lay elsewhere. Rather than being an attempt to save the victim, or to have justice served (in its forms at least), one suspects that this discourse served as a ritual of exclusion whereby the authorities separated themselves from the crowd and washed themselves of all responsibility for its actions.[26] Such a course of action, or more precisely, nonaction, is not without its uses, but the result is an explicit demonstration of the law's impotence and an implicit admission of the government's unofficial tolerance for the ensuing events. And neither could be tolerated by many of the revolutionary leaders, particularly those of a more radical persuasion. They sought—and indeed, they believed one of the Revolution's central aims to be—to reduce the distance between the law and the people; and this meant not only making the law an expression of the sovereign will of the people, but bringing the people under the sovereign authority of the law. And not the least of the implications of this conjoining of law and people was the placing of all violence committed by the people in the name of the Revolution under the authority of the Law. An imperative made all the more necessary in their minds by the increasing demands on the part of sansculotte spokesmen for the execution of the Revolution's enemies, and by the increasing likelihood of more and more extensive outbreaks of popular violence.[27] Now, as noted, during the September Massacres the "people" would deny the law as represented by the duly constituted authority of both the National Assembly and the Commune. And yet, they would not reject the authority of the law per se, as witnessed by the establishment of improvised tribunals with their makeshift justice. One might say that they rejected the official representatives of the law but not the law itself. In effect, what one is witnessing with the September Massacres is the transformation of popular violence into "popular justice."[28] And as an act of justice, the massacres would not differ all that much, as regards their form, from the acts of an official justice, which would also have its tribunals, juries, prosecutors, and its examination of written documents, and so on. It is in this sense that the September Massacres, rather than marking the culmination of popular violence, introduced a rupture that anticipated the official Terror to come. And as the anticipation (and reflection) of a new, more regularized form of violence, the September Massacres can be said to mark the end of popular violence. Not the least of the Jacobins' claims to legitimacy was their promise to end the outbreaks of crowd violence. And in fact, the Jacobin insurrection of 31 May 1793 was the first journée révolutionnaire not accompanied by popular executions.[29] The cadavers would mount under Jacobin rule, but what were called the scènes de horreur , "the scenes of horror," had ended.[30]


This brings us to the second point of comparison: the mutilation and display of corpses. During the September Massacres, although the dismemberment of corpses was not entirely absent, nor was it the rule. Nor was there the parade of dismembered and mutilated bodies which had accompanied the earlier journées révolutionnaires. In short, the spectacle of violence was absent.[31] In fact, the Parisian populace only became fully aware of the extent of the executions once the carts, carrying the bodies of the victims to the city's outskirts, threaded their way through the city streets—and it was at that point that popular opinion began turning against the massacres.[32] In truth, one suspects that had the violence of September taken the earlier form, there might have been fewer victims. Violence as spectacle is public, and the public, it seems, while not adverse to a certain frisson , would have balked at too many corpses. Besides, the execution of large numbers of people requires a more efficient use of time than allowed for by the dismemberment and display of body parts. In this regard too, the official Terror follows the pattern set by the September Massacres, where spectacle was abandoned for efficiency.[33]

Now this, admittedly, might appear contrary to general impressions. One often thinks of the public executions of the Terror as a spectacle. Books like The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Tale of Two Cities have filled our minds with images like those of the tricoteuses , those old hags who knitted beside the guillotine, cackling with glee as the heads rolled. But although the manifestly gruesome aspects of these executions are not to be denied, this is to miss something of their historical significance. The guillotine was invented by the good doctor Guillotin as an efficient and painless method of execution and, compared to the earlier practices of the Ancien Régime, it was.[34] Moreover, though the guillotine first operated in the central square of Paris, as the state Terror proceeded, it was moved to the outer suburbs, and finally, during the last days of what has come to be known as the "Grand Terror," most of the executions took place, like those of the September Massacres, within the prisons or their courtyards.

There is more to this change in forms, however, than merely the introduction of a more efficient, instrumentally rational mode of public execution. These two forms involve not just a relation to collective violence but a relation of "society" to that violence—a relation that reflects back on that society and can tell us something about it. For such violence is of a given society, and is thus expressive of that society, of its order, and of the modalities by which that order is affirmed. In order, then, to express something of this relation, and of the difference in this relation between the two forms, I am going to resort to two contrasting metaphors: a metaphor of ingestion and a metaphor of expulsion. In the one case, the anterior form, it is as though the social body seeks to devour its victims; whereas in the other, it is as if the victims are to be expelled from the social body.


In the first case, the violence is visible to all and thus engages the entire social body, at least vicariously. Again, the victims are cut up and cut open, the pieces mounted on the ends of metal implements and made to circulate through the major arteries of the city, with the entire populace being made to partake, if not necessarily savor, the repast. Moreover, whenever such violence is described, whether by the Revolution's sympathizers or detractors (though almost always by the literate and respectable classes, who were appalled at the "savagery" of the popular classes), the descriptions are couched in the terms of a vocabulary of digestion: those participating in such acts are inevitably called "cannibals," "anthropophagi," or buveurs du sang (blood-drinkers); and they are described as threatening to "bite off the head of an aristocrat" (or sometimes of a "bourgeois"), or to "eat their liver," "open up their stomach and eat the intestines," and so on; and, to be sure, particularly nasty sans-culottes are rumored to have actually carried out these threats (though such rumors are probably all apocryphal).[35]

The second form of violence, by contrast, employs a vocabulary of expulsion (but note: not of excretion, the polar opposite of ingestion). Here one finds a language of exclusion, with reference to either the ancient practices of ostracism or the newer language of the contract: one is pushed "outside the city," or "outside the protection of the law," or one is "returned to the state of nature"). Or alternatively, one hears the language of the purge, often supplemented by a whole panoply of medical metaphors that speak of the need to cut off gangrenous members or surgically remove diseased tissue.

Now, this second, more sanitized vocabulary has to be related to the language of Enlightenment, by which I understand something different from but not entirely unrelated to the Enlightenment as philosophical movement. Although there is still much argument about the Revolution's relation to the philosophical Enlightenment, there can be no doubt about the Revolution's constant, and constantly reiterated, use of the language of Enlightenment.[36] In a million and one speeches, texts, and theatrical representations the same message is repeated: society is to be enlightened; light is to shine on all society, and thereby eliminate all the areas of darkness; the entire topography of caves and crags, mountains and valleys, where shadows are cast, dark deeds committed, and diabolical plots hatched, is to be leveled. Accordingly society will form a single, smooth surface, where everyone will be visible to everyone else and where conformity to the law will result from continuous, mutual surveillance.[37]

And beyond the language of Enlightenment, there lies the horizon of an institutional project. For this was the period, broadly speaking, of what, since the work of Michel Foucault, has been termed the "Great Enclosure," when what had come to be perceived as "deviances" were removed from society and placed within an increasingly differentiated series of enclosed institutional spaces. A point not without relevance to the September Massacres and


their tendency to confuse political with social deviancy. For not only, as noted earlier, were the victims common-law prisoners, as well as political prisoners, but with the invasion of the Bicêtre and the Saltpetrière (which were hospices as well as prisons), unemployed beggars and vagabonds, abandoned and delinquent young adolescents, as well as the insane, also found themselves before the bar of the revolutionary tribunals. In effect, the massacres tended to encompass almost all the newly emergent institutions of individual sequestration. It is as though a mechanism was being constructed which pushed the logic of social exclusion ever deeper. As though everwidening circles of those who had been excluded from the visible realms of social intercourse were to be expelled from even the invisible realms of social separation; while the violence that purged those who had been excluded was itself to be expelled from the realms of general social visibility. As if the snake could swallow its own tail.[38]

Law and Society

It is at this point that I wish to conclude, though in another sense I have only just begun. There remains the question of the larger significance of the changes that I have sought to articulate. The violence of which I have spoken was neither a mere tool, whose only significance lies in its effectiveness relative to the purposes it was meant to serve; nor was it some sort of preinstitutional chaos out of which a regularized social life would be shaped, and which, as such, escapes interpretation, because without shape itself. To speak of the forms of violence is to speak of violence as part of society, and as expressive of the society of which it is a part. Indeed, to speak of the forms of violence may be to provide a unique perspective on society, here on both a society in eclipse and a society emergent. In what follows, I will restrict myself to some brief and very general comments, which, it is hoped, point in the direction of further enquiry.

1. One is tempted to claim that popular violence, as regards the mutilation and display of corpses, merely reflected the practices of the crown under the Ancien Régime. For the latter also made a spectacle of the dismemberment of those it had condemned to die—and in manners that could be quite extravagant. (In this regard popular violence was relatively "humane," the victim not being made to die a "thousand deaths" under torture.) Where popular violence most clearly differed from the violence of the crown, was in its relation to the law. Yet here too, one might argue, the crown's violence conformed to the principles of the Ancien Régime. According to the latter, since the law proceeded from above, only those closest to its source, that is, only those in the upper reaches of the hierarchy, could be the law's representatives; the general populace, being mired in a profane reality, was by definition incapable of participating in the formulation, pronouncement, or


execution of the law. As such, popular violence could not but be a rejection of the law. Only with the September Massacres, with what I called the transformation of "popular violence" into "popular justice," did the general populace begin to assimilate something of the modern conception of the law and its "egalitarianism."[39] Only in a Republic, Montesquieu had said, can the people be imbued with the "spirit of the laws." In this sense, it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the massacres occurred only weeks after the fall of the monarchy.[40]

2. One does not want, however, to assimilate completely the violence of the revolutionary crowds to the principles and practices of monarchic justice (which, one should add, underwent major changes during absolutist rule). Popular violence did not simply reject the law, it inverted the law, turning the hierarchical order upside down in a carnival-like atmosphere. And as a carnivalesque inversion, one is tempted to see in such violence the signs of a separate popular culture. (The existence of the latter being suggested, not least of all, by the mixture of incomprehension and disgust with which such violence was greeted by its "bourgeois" critics—critics who, it must be remembered, often condoned the equally sanguinary movements of the "national razor.")[41] Here a brief reference can be made to the book on popular culture by the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, entitled Rabelais and His World . In this work the carnival is perceived as a truly popular festival, for unlike, say, the "ceremonies of the Law," it is not offered by, or with reference to, any external, transcendent source of power or truth. And in a hierarchical society, where all order is perceived to proceed from above, the carnival, by virtue of its "immanence," can only proceed in accordance with a certain, albeit welcome, disorder. For the duration of the festivities, the sanctity of the existing forms of the coercive sociopolitical organization are mocked, its rules and injunctions suspended and, in an atmosphere of terrible gaiety, carnival "rights and freedoms" reign supreme.[42] Furthermore, in this atmosphere of carnival violence, as Mikhail Bakhtin writes, "the kitchen and the battle meet and cross each other in the image of the rent body."[43] Images of culinary anatomization and dismemberment are common, and the dismemberment of individual bodies is clearly related to the dismemberment of the social body, the latter being literally turned inside out, with what Bakhtin calls the "material bodily lower stratum" acquiring ascendancy over the more heady realms of the upper strata. Finally, the individual body of carnivalesque imagery is portrayed as "grotesque," composed of exaggerated protruberances reaching out to the world, and equally exaggerated orifices through which all bodily transactions with the world pass. Mikhail Bakhtin contrasts this grotesque body to the classical image of the body which was revived in the high culture of the early modern era. With the latter, the body was presented as formed of smooth, impenetrable surfaces that "contained" it, closing it off as a separate completed phenomenon:


All signs of its unfinished character, of its growth and proliferation, were eliminated; its protruberances and offshoots were removed, its convexities . . . smoothed out, its apertures closed. The ever unfinished nature of the body was hidden . . . . The accent was placed on the completed, self-sufficient individduality of the given body . . . . The inner processes of absorbing and ejecting were not revealed.[44]

One is tempted to transpose here the image of the individual body to that of the social body held by the revolutionaries who were, in this as in all else, very much classicists.

3. This brings me to a third point, one that concerns what might be called the delineation of the social body or, more precisely, of society.[45] I am not speaking here of a geographical or territorial delineation, though a few words about the latter may serve to illuminate what I am speaking of. In the Ancien Régime, the geographic extent of the kingdom stretched as far as the monarch's authority; the latter, however, tended to become weaker the further removed it was from the monarch's original domain, till it faded into a sort of no-man's-land at its farthest reaches. In a similar manner, it was held that the force of the law weakened the further removed its point of application from its point of origin.[46] Which is to say that as the law moved from its source in divine principle, through its terrestial representatives in the first two Estates, and down to the lower reaches of the social hierarchy, it was supposed that its hold became ever more tenuous, men's actions being impelled by appetites increasingly removed from the ideals embodied in the legal order. What this suggests is that, even as the legal order defined the societal order, the order thus defined was necessarily much narrower than "society" or collective existence, particularly in its more profane aspects. With the Revolution all this changed. The law no longer moved vertically, down a hierarchy, but "horizontally," where it was to apply to all, with equal force and in an equal manner. One consequence of this "horizontal" positioning, which should be noted, was that the law, and the societal order that it was to establish, could no longer be inverted, only overthrown. The extension of the law in this sense, with its egalitarianism, its universalism and seriousness, was opposed to carnival forms and "their whole psychology of two worlds."[47] In this sense, the law was the perfect instrument of revolution.

Another consequence, a more significant consequence for our present purposes, was that the legal order was held to define not just a societal order but "society" itself. In the utopian longings of the revolutionaries, law and society were to be coequivalent: the law was to constitute society, the pure product of a legislative project; while the society thus constituted was to be so designed as to uphold the "sovereignty of the law" and its rigors. To be sure, this revolutionary apotheosis of the law could not last. For the law retained a trace of its transcendence: by its very rationality and visibility, by the very fact that it demanded obedience, it could never be identical to society.[48] And


as it became all too obvious that the hold of the law was (necessarily) weak, the imperative was to discover the "real" society, the society beneath the laws, constituted of a deeper order barely visible to the social actors, an order located, at least in part, outside the self-conscious workings of their rational faculties.[49] But even as the legal order was, relative to the definition of social reality, to be replaced by either a "natural order" (variously defined) or a nonrational, normative order, the law still served, without remaining identical to society, to trace the limits of behavior in society. An exoskeleton of the permissible, failure to conform to the law placed one outside society, depriving one of the rights the latter guarantees and the protection it affords. And it is only when the boundaries of society are thus demarcated, that the logic of exclusion discussed above can begin to operate.

4. The last point: by drawing a line separating social from antisocial behavior, the law establishes what, ideally, lies outside society as well as within. And not the least of the things is to be pushed beyond the societal frontiers is all violence that originates outside the law and its application. We are faced here with what Max Weber considered one of the defining characteristics of the modern state: its monopolization of the legal use of violence (along with its corollary, the pacification of society). But what of this legal, or better, legalized, violence that establishes the boundaries and banishes the criminal and his crime outside the "gates of the city"? Is it to be part of the order it enforces, with full rights of visibility? Or do the means of enforcement belie the order to be enforced, and not just because of the resemblance of legalized violence to its illegal counterpart? Within the Ancien Régime things were clear. The violence of power was presumed necessary, the very reflection of its strength. As power moved ever deeper into the lower regions of the hierarchy, the recourse to violence was deemed increasingly necessary to enforce what could only be a minimal, grudging obedience. Moreover, power made itself visible through its violence; it had to appear spectacular and arbitrary (capable of terrible deeds, but also of acts of grace) if it was to mark its distance from common mortals. It was only when the nation was sovereign and power was said to emerge from society at large, that its violence, at least when directed internally, would appear as weakness, the sign of a division internal to its source. It was only when the law was the supposed expression of a general will that the (frequent) recourse to legalized violence would suggest that the law was not general and the people were far from infused with its spirit. At worst, the violence of the law might indicate the existence of an undeclared civil war, itself the possible sign of governmental tyranny.[50]

Now it would be difficult to assert that the modern state had been more, or for that matter, less violent than that of the Ancien Régime. But where modern states have been violent, they have almost invariably sought to cover the extension of their violence with the simultaneous removal of that violence from the sight of, and more generally, intercourse with, society. Indeed, one


might read the history of state violence since the French Revolution as continuously attempting to improve on this logic.[51] In this regard, the twentieth century, with its concentration camps and gulags, has been particularly fertile, with perhaps the most recent refinements coming from Argentina, that piece of Europe in Latin America. With the desaparecidos of the 1970s, not only was there an attempt to render the violence invisible (it was officially denied; those slated for execution being picked up by police and soldiers in civilian uniform). Not only was there an attempt to render the identities of the victims invisible (their identities were removed from official records, their bodies buried in unmarked graves or dropped over the ocean), as well as those of their persecutors (they gave themselves false names, sometimes false identities; the law under whose authority they operated was, when not ignored, made into an official state secret). But there were, as well, attempts to make even the sites of violence "disappear." For not only were the sites where victims were held, interrogated, and executed closed to public view, there were, apparently, attempts to render these sites mobile, lest, by virtue of the evidence of geography, they be susceptible to public exposure. This must all count as a significant improvement in the logic of exclusion; beyond the acts of incarceration, and of death by incarceration, it is the traces of such acts that are systematically eliminated.[52]

We are here, to be sure, far removed from the events of September 1792. But something began in that month, another history, different connections, with unexpected and unrecognized lines of descent. It would, of course, be absurd, during the bicentennial of the French Revolution, to establish a separate anniversary for the September Massacres. What perhaps began with the latter is too deeply buried in our modernity, too far removed from questions of political partisanship, and too dark in its character and implications to admit of the prestige of an inaugural event. In something as epochal, total, and complex as the French Revolution, it is its deepest, most obscure aspects to which we remain the most tightly bound.

The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Limits of the Secularization of the Political

Ferenc Fehér

Representative Interpretations

In two centuries of history writing, perhaps the most contentious aspect of the history of the French Revolution is the domain of explanations concerning the conflict of the Revolution with the church and religion. Not only are the explanations sharply divergent as far as conclusions and interpretive terms are concerned, but, more importantly, the explanatory schemata are not even coextensive. Some of the pertinent theses regard the relationship of the consecutively dominant revolutionary groups to the church and to the "religious issue" as an interconnected and continuous process, a relationship that gradually developed or degenerated from mutually tension-laden but earnest attempts at cooperation into terror and civil war. For others, there is absolutely no connection between the fiasco of the efforts to reform the church by the new nation-state on the one hand, and the new revolutionary cult of the Supreme Being on the other.

Given the primarily political character of the issue, conspiracy theories quickly surfaced on both the right and the left. In the very period of the revolutionary storm, the famous Abbé Barruel set the dominant tone[1] for the two-centuries-long debate by flatly denouncing the gloomy drama as the end result of the plot of the philosophes, the freemasons, the men of the Enlightenment. Although over the next century, research methods matured from mere puerile accusations to academically respectable techniques, ultramontanism even in de la Gorce's magisterial work[2] remained fundamentally committed to the thesis of a premeditated and orchestrated leftist conspiracy. In the nineteenth-century republican narratives written in the style of Hugo, the similarly dubious story of a "counterconspiracy" of priest and nobleman in


alliance with the barbarously ignorant and bigoted peasant of the bocage , inevitably emerged.[3]

An incomparably more serious approach, one which constitutes a venerable tradition of interpretations from Madame de Staël to Jean Jaurès[4] and which is still present on the academic scene,[5] detects dilemmas where others only discover sheer manipulation, ill will, and factional spirit. These mention mistakes, sometimes of tragic magnitude, instead of deviously hatched plots. However, the different versions of this type of theory have one problematic feature in common: they are atomistic readings of the religious drama of the Revolution, a drama that has a thoroughly interconnected plot, a tightly interwoven texture, and a continuous structure.

Edgar Quinet,[6] the representative theorist of a third schema, refers to the "missed historical opportunity" of the alliance between religious and secular democracy. With certain modifications, his theory is an organic continuation, as well as a revision, of the aspirations and illusions of Le cercle social of Fauchet, Grégoire, and Bonneville. This debating club of the most democratic stream of the future Église constitutionnelle tried to create a new and plebeian Catholicism, and, so at least its founders believed, it was destined to become the religious center of the Revolution.[7] Quinet expands the confused overtures of Le cercle social into a world history of radical Christianity.

Aulard misreads Quinet's position as one recommending Protestantism for a panacea to the French Revolution.[8] In fact, Quinet interprets the story of Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic) as humanity's great "novel of education" to political democracy. According to Quinet, the genuine spirit of Christianity had resided not in the papacy but in the councils, the "hermeneutical conventions" of equals who had, beyond the work of the free interpretation of the text, created the first system of a representative spiritual government.[9] The devastating inroads of the barbarians were needed to erode Christian democracy and to usher in, with the pope as an adequate primus inter pares , centuries of a degenerate aristocratic rule over the Church of Christ which were also long periods of a total religious decay.[10] But the "eighteenth of Brumaire" of Gregory VII, this revolutionary absolute monarch, overthrew the rule of a dissolute oligarchy and, in putting "morals on the order of the day" and demanding that popes should become saints, guided Christianity into a "social pact" with the world.[11]

The results of Gregory's revolutionary coup were in turn dissipated by both Catholic and Protestant church bureaucracies. It could have been one more powerful reason for the French Revolution, the this-worldly heir of Christian democracy, to assist the slender but surviving forces of democratic Christianity instead of tinkering with the bureaucratic rebuilding of the old edifice. The tragedy in the event was due to the historical circumstance that France was the only major country that lived its political revolution prior to


its religious revolution.[12] Therefore the spirit of the Revolution, despite the secular language, remained deeply Jesuitic and inquisitional in its vituperative rhetoric and coercive measures against both the old and new Gallican church. The great historical opportunity of an alliance between secular and religious democracy was thus missed.

Without doubt, Quinet's story is one of the representative grand narratives of the conflict between the (official and oppositional) church and the Revolution, and it is one recounted with great persuasive force and verve. However, the premise, the reconcilability of church democracy and the democratic nation-state as equal political partners, is, in my view, a premodern conception, and one that has been correctly criticized by H. Maier.[13]

The most celebrated debate in French historiography on the conflict between the old and new church and the Revolution, on the character and appraisal of both the dechristianizing movement and the Cult of the Supreme Being, is the Aulard—Mathiez controversy.[14] Despite the clamor of the mêlée, the factual disagreements between these doyens of revolutionary historiography are minimal, although their evaluations of the story are sharply divergent. In addition, neither side draws the philosophical consequences of their own respective positions. In his early, major book on the issue, Aulard indeed believed that dechristianization as a popular movement had started only with the Jacobin dictatorship, that it had had hardly any antecedents, and that it had taken but very slender roots. Mathiez, in contrast, spotted the beginnings of the movement already in the 1790 Feast of the Federation. He also marshaled considerable supporting evidence of a ceremonial and ritual culture that grew out of the Revolution and outside of the church, one that became a competition to both refractory and constitutional Catholicism. This new ritual served as the basis and the raw material for the popular movement of dechristianization and the Cult of Reason or (and this was in Mathiez's opinion a mere change of name) the Cult of the Supreme Being. However, Aulard frankly admits in his later book on the same issue that he had initially underestimated the deep religious indifference of the French (above all the peasant) masses. Thus their factual statements, if not their assessments, drew considerably nearer. At the same time, Mathiez ought to have made a philosophical argument to prove his major point, namely, the identical character of the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being, since this is a theoretical and not an archival issue. And what is the most painful feature of this famous, tumultuous, but in the last analysis not particularly rewarding controversy, is the fact that neither Aulard's comprehensive books, which cover the whole story, nor Mathiez's writings on the issue provide an integral theory of the conflict between the church and the Revolution.

The postwar research on this classic topic has been characterized by a


revealing ambivalence. On the one hand, the impetus given to historiography by social and cultural anthropology and by the Annales movement has yielded significant results in exploring the subterranean world of popular religious imagination and habits and the survival of pre-Christian rites and their transformation in the revolutionary storm. Beyond providing a wealth of data, this has enriched us with new insights.[15] On the other hand, we face a telling lacuna whenever we try to address the revolutionary policies on the church and religion on the basis of more recent narratives.[16] This time, the cause of the silence is not embarrassment in the teeth of a "delicate" problem, but rather universal ennui. The postwar world of technological and social rationalization seems to be convinced that both fanatical and quasireligious anticlericalism as well as a redemptive politics with its revolutionary substitutes for transcendental beliefs belong irretrievably in a vanished world.

This chapter is based on a diametrically opposed conviction. The writer believes that the fiasco of the revolutionary reform of the Gallican church and the story of the subsequent reaction, of the attempts to create a revolutionary religion in an all-out critique of political reason, together write a drama in two acts, the second act of which cannot be understood without the first. They together recount a paradigmatic fable about the dogmatic fury of rationalization and secularization in the early days of what seemed to be the ultimate victory of the Enlightenment, about its necessary fiasco, about the backlashes of an overzealous rationalization, and about the limits of political secularization.

The Fury of Rationalization and the Revolutionary Fiasco

One of the very few consensually shared opinions by historians of the French Revolution is that the Gallican church was ripe for reform on the eve of the Revolution and that this was a widely held goal at the end of the Old Regime both within and outside the church.[17] The historians' general perception of the near-universal recognition of the need for rationalization in the age may create the illusion that it was an easy task. In fact, as the Revolution had to learn very soon, and at a heavy price, rationalization is not a homogeneous term but an umbrella word. In the mouth of the advocates of the internal reform of the church, the term meant streamlining, modernization. In the interpretation of the philosophes and their political successors, it simply implied the application of the uniform principles of reason to society as a whole and therefore, by implication, also to the affairs of the church. The homogeneity and uniformity of the catchword "rationalization" was a common but dangerous illusion of the prerevolutionary Enlightenment. The


stumbling blocks involved in the issue can be identified in very simple questions: What kind of rationalization, uniform or sphere-specific? Rationalization by whom? And, finally, Rationalization on behalf of whom?

Once these questions are posed, the almost inextricable complexity of the situation that had developed already before the Revolution[18] becomes apparent. For almost two centuries a trend had been emanating from the court "to rationalize" the inherent contradictions of Gallicanism on its own behalf. After eliminating the authority of Rome, the monarchs also intended to destroy the representative system of the church as a competitive political authority within the absolutist rule.[19] Absolute princes could not be satisfied even with the decaying representative system that was reigning supreme within the church, in part because it was a bastion against royal inroads and in part because it could have served as a dangerous example. Nor could they ever accept the claim of the church to maintain an independent legal system parallel to their jurisdiction. The much discussed issue of appel comme d'abus , a common device of the court and parlements against the church, is telling proof of this incessant and irreconcilable conflict of parallel legal systems.[20] The "royal rationalization" of the church was therefore a strong option. At the same time, however, it was never implemented, nor even seriously attempted, and for good reason. Without the sanction of an independent, authoritative, and wholly spiritual power, the absolute monarchy would have been reduced in the eyes of an ever more influential public opinion into common tyranny or oriental despotism.[21]

The attempts on the part of the parlements to rationalize the church were even more self-contradictory. Their famous and much discussed "egoism" was not a moral but a sociological category. The parlements constituted a professional corporation within the system of Estates. And a corporation cannot reform another corporation under the sign of universalistic claims notwithstanding the high degree of formal rationality of the parlements' demand for a unified legal system. The victory of the parlements would have resulted either in the total monopoly of a legal aristocracy over the legislature and the administration of justice or in the further strengthening of the absolute rule of the prince.

"Society," or "the public opinion," an entity that until the Revolution had no sociologically perceivable body, regularly proposed its own versions of rationalization for the whole social world, including the clergy. Philosophical theses (of "tolerance," of an education based on "reason" and not "prejudice," of civil or natural religions) were widely advertised. Bereft of public forums of deliberation, however, the future liberal and radical actors of the revolutionary assemblies, who were to have a prominent role in shaping the church policies of the Constituent Assembly, had no opportunity to conduct discussions on the future political options of the sweeping reform of the church. The frequent statements of historians concerning the total unpre-


paredness of the revolutionary politicians for dealing with this enormous task merely describe the result of precisely this political lacuna.

Future reformers and revolutionaries frequently boasted about the "supreme rationality" of their ideas. But in fact, they were of the worst schools of rationality. They were imbued with the dominant spirit of étatisme . As a considerable contingent of them (Treilhard, Durand de Maillane, Martineau) had served as legal experts in the parlements, they brought a badly needed expertise on the issue of the clergy into the revolutionary legislation. This expertise, however, was at the same time inextricably interwoven with factionalism and the spirit of tit-for-tat. Some others, for example Camus and Lanjuinais were either surviving vestiges of a long-suppressed Jansenism, Protestants like Barnave, or professed libertines like Mirabeau. Their masterplans of rationalization could, at least, be suspected by friend and foe alike of being less than an expression of impartial justice and coolly inquisitive reason.[22] Beyond this far-from-negligible moral consideration, the future experts on church issues for the Revolution never even explored the following fundamental issues, without which no blueprint could be termed rational. First, what status were they going to grant to the church: that of a reformed corporation, a separate and independent association, or a state agency? Second, it was a foregone conclusion of some, and the increasingly prevailing option of others, not to declare even a reformed Catholicism as the national religion. But were they not thus undermining Gallicanism and opening the door to the influence of Rome from which no radical social transformation could expect beneficial results? Third, if they were to reduce the church to the role of a state agency without integrating its dogma into the founding principles of the state, could the result of this decision be anything but the creation of a rebellious servant rather than a useful spiritual arm of the state?

Paradoxically, the drive for reform within the church was motivated by the very fact that the church was the best-organized and the most streamlined of all three Estates. The need for reform grew out of the needs of an already existing but defective internal rationalization, not from the total absence of systemic rationality. The church had a representative "political" system of its own, one that could be termed an aristocratic parliamentary republic within an absolute monarchy. It had its own judiciary system, which, though constantly threatened by the court and the parlements, was powerful enough within its own walls. While enjoying exemption from taxation and making only "voluntary contributions" to the royal budget, it had its own enormous wealth and system of taxation. The church employed huge and separate bodies of (political, fiscal, theological, and educational) bureaucracies and, although submitting to the political hegemony of the court, it enjoyed a virtual independence from Rome and had a political representation in the court as well as a wide influence over secular affairs.

At the same time, the whole elaborate and highly rationalized system suf-


fered from maladies that were surprisingly similar to those of the Ancien Régime as a whole. As a result of exactly the same principles of selection and appointment, the caste of the prelates became an aristocratic network to the same degree as did the clique of commanding officers in the royal army. The church went through the same process of unstoppable and irreversible fiscal crisis as the court, and basically for the same reasons (the luxury of the upper layers combined with the structural impossibility of financial modernization). The church also had its own rebellious Third Estate, the curés, the priestly democracy with their strong "Richerist" ideology, Christian egalitarianism, gestures of defection, and explicit political demands for the democratization of the "parliamentarianism" of the church.[23]

The modernizers of the church, who lent moderate support to rationalization both internally and to "society at large," were suffering from the same delusions as their secular counterparts when they assumed harmony between the various options of rationalization. From a sweeping rationalization of France as a whole, they could only expect to lose, not gain. For at least one consequence of a general rationalization must have been predictable: the demise of the Gallican church as an independent and impenetrable corporation. Furthermore, there were different and conflicting strategies of rationalization—modernization even within the church. What seemed rational for the haute clergé meant the betrayal of the interests of the Richerist curés and vice versa; the Richerist dreams of a renewal of the church on the bases of a primordial, poor but moral Christianity, was for the episcopal aristocracy tantamount to a total abandonment of the institutional past and present of the church, and thus not only treason but also total irrationality. Clearly, each and every scenario of rationalization was on a collision course with each and every other.

It is common knowledge that within a year after the elections to the Constituent Assembly, the rationalizing program of the Third Estate transpired as victorious and irrevocable, literally wiping out all other alternative approaches to rationalization. The confiscation of the wealth of the church and the introduction of the Civil Constitution of the Gallican church comprised everything the political elite of the Third Estate was to say and legislate on the issue. And once the Constituent Assembly confiscated the wealth of the clergy, it practically excluded both options of an intrachurch rationalization. Only two alternatives remained: the separation of the church, no longer an Estate, from the state, that is, "laicization" or the merger of the church and the state; that is, the reduction of the new church to the rank of a state agency.

When the Civil Constitution decided in favor of the second option, this fundamental document transformed priests into state agents, the Gallican church into a clergé salariée . It brought greater social equality into the church by considerably raising the income of the curés and allocating to the episco-


pate salaries that, though high, no longer provided for a lifestyle comparable to the aristocratic luxury of prelates under the old regime. The Civil Constitution imposed a kind of work discipline on the clergy which was in harmony with their new identity as fonctionnaries . It demanded "job training" and the introduction of meritocratic principles in ecclesiastic appointments. It solved the internal fiscal problems of the church in the most radical fashion: the once enormously rich corporation ceased to be an independent economic unit.

A great rationalizer of the territorial organization of France, the Constituent Assembly also drastically reorganized the dioceses, transforming them into units basically coextensive with the new départements . Thousands of church positions were either abolished outright or slated for extinction once the incumbents died or retired. An overwhelming majority of religious corps and orders of century-long standing were dismantled overnight as ones not fulfilling a "socially useful" function. The ultimate act was the formal destruction of the internal parliamentarism of the church together with its separate corporative legislation. Once all internal political mechanisms of the church, including the councils or church assemblies, had been abolished, it seemed perfectly "logical" to the Comité Ecclésiastique , as well as to the majority of the Constituent Assembly, that the priests of the Catholic church should be elected by the citoyens actifs irrespective of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, as well as of their denominational affiliation. Finally, the Civil Constitution completed the work of centuries of Gallicanism in a form absolute monarchs had never expected and church leaders had never wanted. It severed all relations between the Church of France and Rome apart from the empty gesture of recognizing the pope as the "visible head" of Catholic Christianity.[24]

Despite the deserved ill-reputation of the church policies of the Revolution, it would be unfair to describe the Civil Constitution as merely a document of doctrinaires. On several points, the drafters were backed sometimes by the majority, sometimes by a considerable minority of the cahiers ,[25] and, above all, they were propelled by their own firm principles of a general and uniform social rationalization. Their first principle was that the emancipation of "society," which was for them tantamount to making the Third Estate general, be dependent on the political homogenization of the "national body." They were equally convinced, and on this point posterity has never questioned them, that the abolition of the prerogatives of the church (its position as a corporate feudal landlord, its exemption from taxation, its special system of jurisdiction and administering justice) was a precondition of transforming the confused network of privileges into the homogeneous system of universal rights. Finally, it was also self-evident to them that rationalization equaled modernization and that the latter was tantamount to functionalism . Defining a function as socially useful was naturally a public issue


pertaining to the competence of the sole authority in which the national will was invested: the Constituent Assembly. Generally jealous of associations, it never occurred to these radical rationalizers that an association may have either the authority or the competence to define its functional utility within its own borders.

From this dogmatic belief in the necessary homogeneity of ratio , a tyrannical spirit in the church policies of the Revolution immediately transpired. Together with the estate or corporation, they also abolished the association, a framework in which "society" could freely organize itself in various (not necessarily political) forms. By combining the system of election of church functionaries with the general political system of elections, they not only showed unmasked contempt for a millennial tradition, they also demonstrated that, for them, the new agency could only serve political purposes. As a result of this gesture alone, the church, reformed or unreformed, lost its raison d'être. It was therefore more than a passionate polemical invective, but indeed the truth of the matter that Camus, a Jansenist, threw down as a gauntlet in front of the reluctant or oppositional members of church representatives in the Constituent Assembly: a sovereign (i.e., the nation) not only can give orders to a religious agency, it can also change the religion of a nation by decree.[26]

"Rationalist fanaticism" crowned its work with the famous issue of imposing the obligation of an oath on the clergy. There is no point in rehashing here this well-known episode that made the breach between the church and the Revolution final. The important aspect is its overtly tyrannical and inherently absurd character. The oath, in itself a quasi-religious gesture that attested to the slowly emerging political fundamentalism of the new nationstate even before the Jacobin takeover, was imposed on Catholic priests in the name of a new sovereign, the nation. This sovereign was not Christian (it regarded itself as secular); it had refused earlier to declare Catholicism the national religion, for tactical reasons certainly, but also for reasons of principle.[27] And yet, at the same time, it felt it had a prerogative to legislate on all issues of religious doctrine.

Was the breach, at least in the early period of the conflict, reparable? In other words, was the conflict merely tactical in character, a matter of the revolutionaries' lack of prudence? The alliance of church and Revolution was undoubtedly a fact for a very short period, and sustaining this alliance seemed on the surface to be one of the feasible options. I am convinced, however, that the idea of a long-term alliance between church and Revolution was illusory right from the start, and the clash concluding in violence and terror was necessary, at least by the then-existing premises of the revolutionaries. The rift had firm roots in the very structure of the revolutionary ideology, most particularly in the idea of popular sovereignty as it then transpired.


Popular sovereignty started to emerge as a theroetical problem at the very moment it ceased to be a polemical concept used against a monarch whose existence as a sovereign could never be in doubt.[28] Arendt called it an outright tautological concept (over whom can the people be sovereign? she asked). She suspected that the term had only been preserved in order to activate occasionally the inherent totalitarian features of democracy: the oppression of a dissenting minority in the habitual fashion of sovereigns.[29] The undeniable tension in the very structure of the term stems from the fact that it had indeed retained the duality that was so brilliantly analyzed by Kantorowicz concerning the "King's two bodies." One of these bodies is natural; the other is transcendental—supernatural. The first can be the vessel of a criminal, tyrannical, or sick soul. Yet the other body is sacred in a dual sense: it is inviolable, barred from sacrilegious hands because it is annointed by God, and it is the repository of the Christian ideas inherent in sovereignty.

In the new concept of sovereignty, borrowed from the monarch by the victorious peuple , a similarly dual body of the new ruler was incarnate. The "natural part" was embodied in the empirically existing citizens and their elected agencies which together constitute the "body politic." This body had both the advantage and the disadvantage of being a body only in a metaphorical sense. It had the great pragmatic advantage of being imperishable; for example, it could not be decapitated like the king in his natural person. On the negative side, in the merely metaphoric body of the collective sovereign, its will was never unequivocal. It invariably transpired as the awkward aggregate of individual volitions and opinions which could only be summarized by a clumsy political arithmetic. In addition, the collective body politic had at least as many sources of "erroneous functioning" as the single body politic of the monarch. Le peuple could just as easily have a poor judgment in the selection of its agents and could thereby alienate its own inalienable rights just as the prince had. It could get entangled in internecine strife that made the body politic ungovernable. It could be possessed of various kinds of political furies that made it its own worst enemy, driving the citizens into the collective political hysteria of nous ne voulons pas être libres . It might easily become a menace to other collective body politics as well as the tyrant of its own dissenting minority.

For this reason, another supranatural—metaphysical body politic is needed as a principle of correction. In addition to the actual—empirical rule of the people, the idea of the popular sovereignty is necessary. It is no exaggeration to call it supranatural. It is meant to be immortal in the sense that it was not supposed to vanish even if every single member of the empirical body politic rejected it in a moment of political hysteria or if the people's representatives ruled as tyrants and banned the use of the term. Furthermore, in this metaphysical domain, the dispersion of pragmatic wills no longer presented a problem; here general will ruled and legislated.


It is small wonder, then, that the newly conceived idea of sovereignty was irreconcilable with the old Christian idea of the sovereign's supranatural body as a copy of the hierarchical character of the Christian universe. Nor is it surprising that in moments of political exaltation and "enthusiasm" (the latter was to become a key concept of Robespierrism), the new sovereign was regularly blown out of all proportion, even sacralized in the new political metaphysics. For the sacralizing of the political or the project of "redemptive politics" is inherently present in the dualistic structure of popular sovereignty, as is, of course, the idea of the constitution, an entirely rational answer to all enigmas of the "empirical body" of the collective sovereign.

The rationalizing fury of the first revolutionary wave intended to homogenize the whole social and political body under the sign of the metaphysics of la nation . It recognized no deviations (or to use the Weberian term, spheric rationalities) not only because it perceived them as so much stubborn and resistant irrationality in disguise, but also because it suspiciously sensed in them the hydra of corporatism and the relapse into the presocietal condition of estates. The rationalizers had to sanctify, and thus mystify, the new sovereign to such an extent that, by their tyrannical overrationalization, they also prepared the ground for the most irrational type of politics: the redemptive one. The end result of doctrinaire rationalization and tyrannical functionalization was the complete fiasco of the church policy of the Revolution.

The term fiasco has to be qualified in several aspects. True enough, the outcome of the clash between church and Revolution was a major disappointment on both sides; not just for the revolutionaries, but also for the counterrevolutionaries. A nationwide civil war with one side under the banner of a humiliated Catholic church never broke out. Instead, the civil war was restricted to the Vendée. In the heat of the clash, however, an irreconcilable schism between left and right was created in France which lasted for almost two centuries. Experts unanimously agree that almost until the late 1970s—early 1980s (when the pattern began to change), a Catholic vote was a rightist vote and vice versa.[30] Furthermore, the revolutionaries very soon came to realize that they had paid a heavy price in creating a state agency that was useless for them on all counts. This applied even to the "plebeian" or democratic wing of the reformed and nationalized church. The constitutional church never succeeded in embracing the majority of the believers and, instead of defusing the religious opposition, its very existence brought back the atmosphere of the religious wars in France together with the category (and the concomitant passion) of heresy. The religious schism undermined Gallicanism, the work of a long line of monarchs (which the Revolution had actually planned to bring to fruition) and brought back an unexpected protagonist absent from the French political scene for two centuries: the pope. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fury of rationalizing dogmatism activated that aspect of the new order which has been termed by Talmon


"totalitarianism in democracy" or "totalitarian democracy."[31] When Treilhard silenced the opposition during the debate on the Civil Constitution by saying that, when the sovereign deems a reform necessary, no one can oppose it,[32] it was the language of Louis XIV and of future totalitarian dictators. It reduced the citizens to the status of mere subjects.

The result of this fiasco transpired, both in the political elite and at the social bottom, in the form of a deep disillusionment with rationalization and political secularization. Tyrannical rationalization and functionalism, acting on the belief that it was crowning the venerable tradition of the Enlightenment, had created a political and spiritual vacuum that came to be filled by violent dechristianization, an anarchist scenario, and a new political religion that was an explicit critique, as well as a partial rejection, of political reason. This is why, in my view, the story of the Cult of the Supreme Being has to be understood as not merely related to the fiasco of the revolutionary church policy but also as a direct response to it.

The Cult of the Supreme Being and the Critique of Political Reason

Was the "religious revolution" a popular movement to which Robespierre, the Jacobin Club, and the Convention added nothing apart from some terminological polish and a legally binding form, or was it a manipulative campaign of the political elite? As is well known, the first is Mathiez's position (which also inherently condones the whole movement). The second, the Aulard thesis, establishes a diametrically opposed explanation. In terms of the latter, it was the ominous représentants en mission (symbolically: Fouché) who initiated the turmoil.

Both of these one-sided interpretations face several unresolvable difficulties. In the Mathiez version, the radical novelty of the Cult of the Supreme Being has disappeared. Had the whole work already been done by the anonymous activists, his own hero's philosophical efforts to introduce a "moral world revolution" would be, by implication, reduced to empty rhetoric. Nor can the vehemence of Robespierre's political campaign against at least certain contingents of the movement be accounted for on these premises. In the Aulard scenario, the popular movement, of which he was the great historian, either remains an irrelevant symptom of the general upheaval or, at the very best, is reduced to an easy excuse for the introduction of Robespierre's new state religion, the function of which remains, for Aulard, on the whole mysterious.

I propose a third approach to the issue, the methodological bases of which I have set forth in The Frozen Revolution . It is modeled on the Jacobin elite's attitude toward the policy of the maximum général . The idea of a terroristic economic policy was equally promoted by (sometimes the same) popular


activists; it was similarly expropriated and, in a modified form, declared the official policy of the dictatorship by the political elite.[33] The maximum général was a nihilist scenario precisely in the sense that it displayed an enormous destructive power without the capacity of creating anything durable. At the same time, it was a popular initiative of great strength, especially in the very power bases of the dictatorship, the Parisian districts, which suffered most from the collapse of the economic policy of the Revolution.

The power center, the Montagne, the Club of the Jacobins, and Robespierre himself, were watching the new movement with utmost suspicion and jealousy. They were convinced, in a manner similar to the famous dictum of Saint-Just, that no positive legislation on economy, on this almost natural domain within society, is possible. Even the most resolute radicals, Robespierre above all, hated anarchism. In certain aspects, they always remained statesmen of the Enlightenment who wanted to usher in the era of the rule of reason. At the same time, they shared at least one feeling with the suspicious demagogues of social turbulence: an increasing disillusionment with the supposedly self-regulatory rationality of the market. But they were not prepared to relinquish even a part of their authority. When it turned out to be impossible to control the popular thrust for maximum général with fine speeches, they expropriated the main demand of the movement, made it state policy, thoroughly transformed it, and used the modified result as a powerful weapon for, among other uses, crushing dangerous agitators. Something frighteningly similar happened in the case of the Cult of the Supreme Being.

Right from the beginning, there had indeed emerged several, and widely heterogeneous, trends and motifs on the lower echelons of the revolutionary process which prepared the ground for the final showdown. A number of eminent scholars, old and new, have proved how a system of symbols and ceremonies had been accumulating during the revolutionary events, anniversaries, and festivities from the Feast of the Federation in 1790 onward. These symbols and ceremonies were initially only instinctively profane and political, instead of religious, but they gradually paved the way for a new cult.[34] Perhaps the philosophically deepest observation concerning the sociopolitical vacuum that needed to be filled with this new cult, a crucial testimony about the strong need for a new political religion, reaches us through centuries from the most unexpected quarters: from Madame de Staël. Her premise is that "Representative monarchies cannot succeed absolute monarchies but through the change of dynasty, republics cannot succeed monarchies but through the change of religion."[35] And although her final considerations were dictated by the experience of "the socail question" after Thermidor, at least certain sections of her thought would have found unhesitant support from the man whose head fell in Thermidor and who had always been a suspicious observer of the antipatriotism of the rich. Here is the conclusion drawn from the premise:


The unique interest of people in France is to acquire a sum of available money. They act with such agitation as those on a shipwrecked vessel would grab any plank that would bring them to the shore regardless of what happens to the crew. One defies the other, and no one offers assistance . . . . There is no longer even a hypocrisy of language in personal relationships. Personal interest is so highly exalted by all sorts of fears of which it is composed that mentioning virtue, sacrifice, devotion would, in a manner of speaking, produce the effect pedantry did in other times . . . . Under the reign of the Terror a sort of passion inhered in the barbarism that was exercised. Those people were ferocious animals who satisfied their instinct rather than greedy men who offered sacrifice to their interest. Whoever commits cruel acts these days in France is solely inspired by calculating what the gamble of this or that agent of the power can be. It is better to bail out your life than defend it . . . . No one listens to reason of any kind for the issue is invariably one of selfish motives . . . am I wrong therefore to believe that we have to look for aid in the religious ideas?[36]

It is not civil religion (whose best-known champion in the French Revolution was, typically, an American, Thomas Paine) that is at issue here, but the religious underpinning of the Revolution in the face of the destructive atomization by an unrestrained free market, which erodes all republican virtues and leaves only sheer, and in bad times ferocious, egoism in the arena. The common feature in Robespierre and Madame de Staël is that they both drew a surprisingly similar conclusion from the rationalizing fiasco of political reason as well as from the new problems unleashed by the very process of the Revolution. Both gradually came to realize that tinkering with new editions of the old religion is futile. Both believed therefore that, in contrast to the mere change of the forms of monarchy, what they called the "Republic" needed a change of religion. However, both knew that the free state is in reality linked with the free market, that the citizen is also an egoistic man. Will the Republic be anything else but the constant battlefield of egoistic interests if reason, whose other name is calculation, is the sole guide? Are egoists, ordinarily full of contempt for "spiritual powers" and "higher principles," capable of sacrifice, devotion, justice? Both asked the question, and they answered it in the negative. In addition, neither believed, for different reasons, that egoistic man can be altogether eliminated from the social arena. At this point, because Robespierre added the power of the terroristic state as a restrictive—protective measure against the uncontrollable fury of unrestrained egoism, whereas de Staël remained for her entire life a passionate enemy of the Terror, their ways parted. But their dilemma remained valid for the whole lifetime of the French Revolution as well as for other revolutions and for "republics" functioning in "normal" times. Their fundamental and irreconcilable difference on "the socially useful function of the salutary terror" had the further consequence that while de Staël made efforts to devise a


new religion for the Republic, but one which operates in the private sphere, Robespierre decided that the terroristic state is the adequate locus for a "religious revolution from above."

Robespierre faced an enormously complex problem during the months the idea of a religious revolution must have gradually been taking shape in his thoughts. As a young deputy of the Constituent Assembly, he had been in the forefront of the drive for the Civil Constitution. Although, as he was to admit later, he was always a bad Catholic and influenced by a philosophy whose Protestant dimensions were not particularly hidden, he still believed that the old religion, once sufficiently broken and humiliated, could be streamlined and used by the Revolution in a subaltern position. However, his illusions totally evaporated under the impact of Vendée and the evident uselessness of the constitutional church in channeling the counterrevolutionary sentiments. When the dechristianizing movement, both in spontaneous and organized forms, emerged in late 1793-early 1794, he immediately smelled anarchism and his term of accusation was atheism .

Robespierre emphasized several times, most emphatically in his crucial speech in Floréal on the Supreme Being, that he was not a metaphysician but a statesman with philosophical intent.[37] For him, every social trend that tended to destroy the old belief without creating a new one transpired as anarchist atheism, because it created a dangerous political—spiritual vacuum that, Robespierre firmly believed, would be filled with the spirit of Vendée. This is why the genuinely atheist Cloots and the anti-Christian but religiously mystical-minded Chaumette were uniformly accused of atheism, a charge which, if erroneous on philosophical grounds, was completely consistent in terms of a terroristic logic.

Although perhaps Rousseau's thunderous invectives against the idle disbelievers, the enemies of humanity, reverberated in Robespierre's charges of atheism with counterrevolutionary intent when he committed his list of accusation to paper, the atheist—anarchist (whose epitome was the despised Fouché) appeared to him as a modern type, one not identical with the aristocratic libertine.[38] Robespierre, who hated Diderot but who was to a degree familiar with his writings, could have encountered such a specimen in Rameau's Nephew . This new type of atheist was a gambler with ideas and commitments. His republican virtue was pure affectation or hypocritical theater behind which lurked either corruption (as in the case of Fabre Églantine) or a criminal lust for power. At any rate, the haughty atheist's superhuman challenge to God and the immortality of the soul was more than the attitude of a virtuous citizen and, as such, it was suspect.

The venture of expropriating the results, channeling the destructive energies, and reshaping the options of the popular movement in the positive form of the Cult of the Supreme Being could find very few constructive elements to build on among the debris left behind by the dechristianizers. It


shows Robespierre's mettle, indeed his tyrannical genius, that he extracted from this meager material, as well as from his own amateurish philosophical erudition, the project of a religious revolution. Mathiez believes otherwise. His thesis is that Robespierre added nothing but a new name to what had already been created by anonymous militants, namely, the Cult of Reason.[39] I will try to prove, first, that names do count and that the "Cult of Reason" was inadequate for Robespierre's own purposes; and second, that the "Supreme Being" was the only overarching term that could serve the Robespierrist "republic of virtue."

As we now see from the end result, the following principles were leading Robespierre in the masterplan of the new cult. First and foremost was that the Enlightenment, with its spirit of unshakeable trust in the omnipotence of reason, had proven inadequate in the storms of revolution. There had been just too many areas where reason's promises were self-confident but its actual performance catastrophic. Although reason remained one of our guides in Robespierre's view, it has an in-built penchant to be perverted into mere calculation; therefore it must be closely supervised. Furthermore, reason is lame without enthusiasm, which cannot be generated from rationality alone. The explicit ban on the mainstream of the Enlightenment in the speech of Floréal, the outburst against Diderot's more rational-than-enthusiastic patriotism, bears out the truth of this interpretation.[40]

Robespierre's second guiding principle was that the new religion must be political, not just civil (an idea he had inherited from Rousseau), and therefore that it must be a cult enforced by the Republic of Virtue. Political religion and "Republic" reciprocally presuppose each other. Without the republican power, the new cult could not maintain itself against the wave of anarchy. This is why in a special decree that was pushed through in the Convention, "the French people recognized the existence of the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul" in the same manner as parliaments recognize the existence of a new state.[41] On the other side, the Republic of Virtue would be lacking in moral foundations without the legally decreed idea of the Supreme Being. Robespierre provided a laconic maxim of moral politics or politicized morals: "Immorality is the basis of despotism, as virtue is the essence of the Republic . . . . "[42]

The third ground rule of the new cult was that it was not allowed to infract the organizational monolithism of démocratie dirigée . As far as we can ascertain from the interpretation given to it by Payan (who in the last period of the dictatorship following the fall of both ultras and citras emerged as the major translator of Robespierre's implicit intentions), it was a categorical decision of the center that the new political religion should have neither priests nor a separate institutional existence.[43]

Finally, the new cult was not meant to be the continuation of any traditional belief, dogma, or religion; it was arbitrarily created. This fact alone (of


which the new prophet was proudly aware) attested to the growing selfconfidence of the new revolutionary in handling the social world as an artifact, instead of a natural, and therefore unalterable, order.[44] The "artificially" created Cult of the Supreme Being had a single, explicitly political, task: to solve all the unresolved problems of the Revolution, the Republic of Virtue. Its functions can be derived from this assigment alone.

The first and overarching function has already been mentioned: to provide a moral grounding for the "Republic," which was never a technical term in Robespierre's vocabulary. Although for him both constitutional monarchy and aristocratic (Girondist) republic were variations on the same old theme, Republic writ large represented a completely new phenomenon in the moral and political history of humankind. This novel creation could not possibly rest on tradition (because the latter was one of servitude), nor could it be based on the self-interest of those who find the Republic more profitable than the rule of the prince. In fact, Robespierre's almost general suspiciousness toward his own former comrades-in-arms in the last months of the dictatorship, his growing obsession with the hydra of an internal counterrevolution, was rooted precisely in his experience (or perception) that the majority of them served the Republic for their own selfish interests. Mathiez, who endorsed his paranoid vision without reservation, provides a good summary of Robespierre's attitude:

Robespierre . . . showed that all the crises of the Revolution had been caused by more or less avowed agents of despotism—that is to say, of crime : by Lafayette, "who invoked the Constitution in order to restore the royal power"; by Dumouriez, "who invoked the Constitution in order to protect the Girondin faction against the National Convention"; by Brissot, who desired to turn the Constitution into "a shield to parry the blow which menaced the throne"; by "Hébert and his accomplices, who demanded the sovereignty of the people in order to slaughter the National Convention and annihilate the republican government"; by Danton, "indulgent to every crime, involved in every plot, promising protection to villains and fidelity to patriots; adroitly explaining away his treachery by the pretext of the public weal." . . . Robespierre examined into the means of putting an end to these crises, and defined the principles which ought to guide the Convention, and with which it ought to imbue the souls of Frenchmen, so that they might at last become insensible to the snares of despotism .[45]

"To imbue the souls of Frenchmen" and to make them "insensible to the snares of despotism" are terms of indoctrination the functions of which are manifold. But all of these functions can be grounded and fulfilled by the sacralizing of the political authority from which indoctrination emanates and which, in turn, draws its legitimacy from the end result of this indoctrination process.

For Robespierre, "the happiness of the people" was the major item on the political agenda. And without having ever heard the name of Immanuel


Kant, he was on this point, as on so many others, in a surprising harmony with Kant (of course, only within an overarching disagreement), who contended that while freedom unites, the quest for happiness divides.[46] Robespierre discovered the roots of this divisive impact of the quest for happiness in "egoism," and he was prepared to apply the sword of the Terror to the egoism of the rich, and even to restrain the poor with coercive measures. But he was too great a statesman to miss the point that force cannot survive on its own premises nor can it bring cohesion where division reigns supreme. State terrorism always needs a cementing doctrine that is religious or quasireligious in the sense that it is above criticism, not only in the public space but preferably also in the hearts of the people.

The moral and political corruption of a growing number of leading functionaries raised a new dilemma. It transpired for Robespierre not just as a morally dangerous phenomenon but also as a potential political threat because he, correctly, believed that the nouveaux riches could easily forget their youthful enthusiasm and make a quick compromise with one or another form of restored monarchy. But the moral purifier needs a great supervisory eye that sees into the hearts and spots the seeds of corruption before they become public acts. In an atmosphere of institutionalized political paranoia, it is very difficult to decide where enthusiasm ends and hypocrisy begins. Like all prophets, Robespierre also identified himself with his newly found deity and was increasingly convinced that he had the capacity of seeing into human hearts. He might therefore have honestly believed in his mission to establish a new cult. He might have also assumed that the new cult would make the virtuous ones, who for ontological reasons are eternally in minority, capable of such insight. At the same time, acting as the "great supervisory eye," he deliberately manipulated the apparatus of the revolutionary government and the Convention. Fanaticism and cynicism mingled in this system of political fundamentalism.

For the Cult of the Supreme Being was the crowning act of a long-term strategy initiated by Robespierre almost from the very beginning of the dictatorship. Its ultimate end was the creation of strictly defined moral maxims for a political establishment by making moral prescriptions into binding legal decrees, which is precisely the definition of political fundamentalism.[47] This is why I believe, in contrast to both Mathiez and Aulard, that the new cult was neither an improvisation by Robespierre nor a simple rebaptism of the inchoate initiatives of the popular movement that had given to itself various ad hoc apellations. Rather, it was the final act of the long-term strategy growing out of Robespierre's deep philosophical and political dissatisfaction with the rationalizing trend of the Constituent Assembly. Aulard sums up, in my view correctly, the major change introduced in the speech of Floréal (which was in fact an amendment to the never-enacted Montagnard Constitution of 1793). The speech, which grounded the decree on the Supreme


Being, left no right for the citizen other than "the right to goodness," that is, a uniform behavior strictly defined by the Supreme Being and its pontifex maximus .[48] This is tantamount to the elimination of the liberal heritage of 1789 insofar as it no longer tolerates the diversity of political and moral behavior. The famous gesture, pinpointed by Robespierrist and antiRobespierrist historians alike, of setting the allegorical statue of atheism on fire in the festivity of the Supreme Being was almost a quotation from the days of the Inquisition.

The second function of the new cult well reflects the carrot-and-stick nature of Robespierre's thought. On the one hand, the decree of the Convention by implication made religious skepticism punishable under the law. On the other hand, the new deity appeared in its prophet's own presentation as a utilitarian fiction: "[I]f the existence of God, if the immortality of the soul were but dreams, they would still be the finest of all the conceptions of human intelligence . . . . In the eyes of the legislator, truth is all that is useful and of practical good to the world." Mathiez then adds a highly revealing comment to these words: "Robespierre held to the idea of God; but he did so because this idea has a social value ."[49] The crucial question here reads as follows: What was the social value of the Supreme Being?

The inauguration of the Cult of the Supreme Being was meant to be the festivity of a covenant between the Supreme Being and the Republic of Virtue which, ironically, bore strong resemblances to a commercial contract with ironclad guarantees for the this-worldly partner. This combination of devotion and benefits had eminent pragmatic advantages. It provided the answer to the difficulties stemming from Robespierre's anthropological pessimism combined with political activism. Insofar as human beings, with the exception of a saintly minority, are irredeemably egoistic, the new religion can "imbue their hearts with virtues" if, and only if, it guarantees rewards for a virtuous life. There must be a mirror symmetry between "the only right to goodness" (which is, in actual fact, an imperative beyond appeal) and the absolute guarantee of the rewards of goodness, else the tyranny of goodness would become unbearable. The Supreme Being thus appeared as the god of distributive and retributive justice. What Foucault termed a "pastoral state" negotiated here a full circle: state-guaranteed rights and state-imposed penalties (actually, only one kind of penalty) appeared in a perfect metaphysical symmetry. The only loser was moral and political freedom.

The great political metaphysician solved a serious internal tension of his own vision of the world via the third function of the Cult of the Supreme Being. Put in the language of a later age that learned its lesson from him, the inauguration of the new cult meant the "end of prehistory," the onset of the "real history of humankind." Here is again his own testimony: "All has changed in the physical order; all must change in the moral and political order. One half of the world-revolution is already achieved, the other half has


yet to be accomplished."[50] The term world revolution must not of course be interpreted in the sense of a proto-Comintern. It is common knowledge that Robespierre was a rabid nationalist and an avowed enemy of the revolutionary crusade proposed by the Gironde. However, the nationalist streak of his own thought posed a very serious problem for the statesman living in the dawn of a universalist era. Unlike Cromwell, whose shadow he constantly dreaded, Robespierre could not possibly regard his nation's revolution as a domestic affair. His new political religion seemed to have provided him with an answer to this problem as well. France, the domicile of the Republic of Virtue resting on the Cult of the Supreme Being now emerged in his vision as the country of the elect, as an eternal paradigm. Once the great example had been set, it was a matter of other peoples' virtue and intelligence to imitate it. Both national pride and universalist aspirations seemed to have been satisfied in one stroke:

The French people appear to have outstripped the rest of the human race by two thousand years; one might even be tempted to regard them as a distinct species among the rest . . . . Yes, this delightful land which we inhabit, which nature favours with her caresses, is made to be the domain of liberty and happiness; this proud and sensitive people is truly born for glory and virtue. O my country, had fate caused me to be born in a foreign and distant land, I should have addressed to heaven my constant prayers for thy prosperity; I should have shed tears of emotion at the story of thy combats and thy virtues; my eager soul would have followed with ardent anxiety every movement of thy glorious Revolution; I should have envied the lot of thy citizens, I should have envied that of thy representatives.[51]

The Cult of the Supreme Being remained eternally buried under the debris of Thermidor. The European observers of the French Revolution, friends and foes alike, had enough of a task to interpret other aspects of its colossal heritage. This self-restraint seemed to be all the more appropriate since "the great teacher of the philosophy of state," as Hegel described Napoleon, for once untied the Gordian knot instead of cutting it. The paradigmatic solution of the problem, namely the separation of church and state , was first implemented by the Napoleonic concordat. But since the French Revolution could neither impose itself on Europe nor even consolidate itself on the domestic scene for almost a century, among its many unfulfilled promises, the one concerning secularization also remained an eternally postponed hope for much of the European world.

And this particular postponed expectation developed into a crucial political dilemma. For when people in sufficiently great numbers prove incapable of coping with the "alienness" of their self-created artifact, the free political state, they often take refuge in the sacralizing of the political. Our century, teeming with leftist and rightist scenarios of "redemptive politics," is almost


a textbook case of these trends. All of these attest to the existence of very strong limits set to the great hope of the Enlightenment: the absolute secularization of the political. But none "proves" that the very trend is futile. For this writer, the answer to the dilemma is the difficult combination of stubbornly maintaining and expanding the process of political secularization and simultaneously deflating the exaggerated hopes invested into such efforts. This is the philosophical and political "moral" of the story of the Cult of the Supreme Being.

previous part
next part