More than 180 years after the event, China's then-premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked to identify the main consequences of the French Revolution. "Too early to say", was his terse, droll reply. Zhou might have been ignorant (implausible), ironic (characteristic), muddled (thinking of Left Bank student riots in 1968 rather than the Bastille in 1789) or self-protective (given how contentious judging the consequences of China's Cultural Revolution had become).
Zhou was not fortunate enough to read Colin Jones' new account of one day in the midst of the French Revolution (The Fall of Robespierre, Oxford). He would likely have relished the bare-knuckle, still topical lessons about power and pressure which Jones' narrative reveals.
The overthrow of Robespierre and his radical colleagues on July 27-28, 1794 (for them, the month of Thermidor, Year Two) critically altered the course of the Revolution, of French history, and quite possibly of European and global events as well. Drawing on a remarkable multiplicity and diversity of contemporary sources, Jones turns political controversies and conspiracies into the stuff of thrillers. Those sources are so rich that Jones can re-create a 24-hour news cycle.
In summary, a myopic, natty lawyer from Arras had come to dominate the Convention (a surrogate for parliament), promoting himself as "father of the people", ruthlessly disposing of his enemies, instituting the reign of terror, replacing organised religion with a Cult of the Supreme Being, then warning - the day before he was deposed - of another purge.
For those who found the Australian election campaign interminable or inconsequential, Jones demonstrates just how much action - intense, dramatic, critical action - can be compressed into 24 hours. As Ecclesiastes counselled and Thermidor confirmed, time and chance are the masters of us all.
We are impressed when our political leaders manage to travel to different states, talk to ordinary folk, win a staged debate or avoid gaffes on any given day. Take Robespierre's day by comparison. After, yet again, threatening and denouncing his enemies, he was bemused when a few prospective victims assailed and indicted him. Denied any right to speak in his own defence, Robespierre was condemned by unanimous vote, carted off to a jail which refused to admit him, detained, freed, declared an outlaw, entangled in an insurrection, captured once more, shot in the jaw, imprisoned, then executed. What a day for grace under pressure.
For Robespierre as for his putative victims and prospective executioners, each action in the day was taken knowing his own life was at stake. "Anyone [Robespierre] has looked at askance in the recent past is fingering his collar apprehensively."
Most political lives end badly. No leader should confuse themselves with the nation.
If we fret about predicting the behaviour of independents, consider otherwise inconspicuous representatives who rose to the occasion on Thermidor. The counter-conspiracy was instigated by a man (Barere) who, in Jones' opinion, was supremely gifted at being vague, nowhere more comfortable than on the fence. One deputy (Vadier) deployed ridicule as a weapon, another (Freron) the law, while a third (Tallien) was merely hoping to rescue his mistress. One deputy (Lecointre) summoned unknown reserves of courage to shout at Robespierre: "I despise you as much as I hate you".
Independents are meant to be concerned about integrity but the 1794 crop were more worried about keeping their heads on their shoulders. Fortunately, in constituting themselves as an ad hoc Independent Commission against Conspiracy, they did uphold the rule of law and depose a tyrant.
As for Robespierre, who cast himself as "an outsider looking in" as well as "the conscience of the Revolution", he critically under-estimated his enemies. A leader with "next to no managerial or practical skills", unable to boil an egg, "little more than a dunce in matters financial", foolishly identified himself with "the people". They had other ideas. The way ordinary Parisians scoffed and jeered at the arrested Robespierre demonstrates yet again that most political lives end badly. No leader should confuse themselves with the nation. Anyone disdaining the politics of politics has a guaranteed short shelf life. Actually meeting and knowing the people is a salutary corrective to abstract theorising.
Those lessons endure. So too does recognition of the necessity of surrounding yourself with an entourage prepared to talk back and change course. For his part, Robespierre trusted a 26-year-old ascetic (who notoriously "carried his head as though it were the holy sacrament"), a military commander who had never seen battle and his feckless brother. Front benches should be built from sterner stuff.
In September 1792 the people of Paris massacred half the prison population. "Every citizen now carries arms as well as rights". On Thermidor, virtually no blood was spilled. In search of public opinion, Jones busies himself with "the moral economy of the bread queue and the banter of the coffee houses", as dutifully recorded by spies and informers. Those reports probably supplied the powers that be with a more accurate and timely gauge of thinking on the street than do robo-calls or opinion polls.
In particular, Jones emphasises the crucial importance of disseminating your message more quickly than your opponents could. The base of Robespierre's support, Paris' Commune, had no printing shop near at hand. Proclamations stuck up on walls gave credibility and legitimacy to political argument. Despite Robespierre's loathing for journalists, Paris' 51 newspapers were not censored nor closed.
Discombobulated and flailing, Robespierre (and any would-be Robespierre) should have heeded advice from Danton, murdered and mourned. "Audacity, once more audacity, and always audacity."
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