The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre, by David P. Jordan. New York: The Free Press (a division of Macmillan Inc.). 308 pp. Illustrated. $22.95. Probably no event has had a greater impact on 19th- and 20th-century political thought than the French Revolution. It was the quintessential revolution, pitting the forces of liberty, equality, justice, and humanity against those of despotism, injustice, inequality, privilege, and exploitation. But also, alas, it furnishes the terrible paradigm of the revolution that devours its own.
Neither the complicated blend of evolution and revolution that had been going on in England nor even the more dramatically triumphant American Revolution seemed to present the issues as clearly as the French Revolution. This clarity, these sharp distinctions between liberty and tyranny, poor and rich, honesty and corruption, reason and superstition, made the Fench Revolution a model for the revolutionary spirit and may well have ensured the continuing history of revolutionary cures that turn out to be as bad as, or worse than, the political maladies that preceded them.
Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94), perhaps the quintessential figure of this quintessential revolution, considered Oliver Cromwell an ambitious dictator and Tom Paine a ``lackey'' of the moderates. A provincial lawyer, Robespierre was elected to the Estates-General in 1789, the first time that body had met in 175 years. Always proper in both dress and manner of address, diligent, austere, and forthright, he identified himself completely with the French Revolution and seemingly had no life apart from it.
He soon became the leading Jacobin, defending popular insurrections as politically justified violence, opposing (unsuccessfully) the Girondists' enthusiasm for war, and arguing that regicide was a revolutionary necessity. Later, he sought to ``purge'' the Convention by casting out and thus condemning to death all who had opposed regicide. (Jordan sees evidence of Robespierre's fine qualities in the fact that he alone spoke out against condemning an additional 73 who had protested the purge.) Elected to the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, a year later he suffered the fate to which he had with such equanimity consigned so many others.
But a fate far worse (and perhaps less deserved) than the guillotine was to overtake this man who had feared calumny more than death. Those who executed him later tried to lay most of the blame for the Reign of Terror at his feet. Outlandish stories were circulated to the effect that Robespierre had been a bloodthirsty monster (he was even said to have had greenish skin) who had schemed to become the dictator of France.
In this absorbing, highly analytical biography, historian David Jordan of the University of Illinois, Chicago, portrays a man who was neither bloodthirsty nor personally ambitious, but coldblooded, clearheaded, scrupulous, and utterly dedicated to the cause of revolution: Robespierre the Incorruptible, as he was known in his lifetime. Jordan presents Robespierre as a new type of person, someone for whom there was no distinction between his private existence and his public role as a revolutionary. Where
Robespierre's critics saw insufferable vanity, Jordan sees perfect transparency: Robespierre was self-obsessed only insofar as he considered himself the vehicle of historical forces that, he believed, would fundamentally alter human nature by creating a world where virtue would triumph.
Jordan's sympathy with his subject is not so much with Robespierre the person as for the abstractions he embodied. Reading this book, one is likely to be equally appalled, if not more so, at contemplating a Robespierre coolly assured of his own virtuousness than at the portrait of a bloodthirsty demagogue. What is still stranger to contemplate is that Jordan, providing us with this well-intentioned apologist for purgation via decapitation, seems to find him, on the whole, admirable.