Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution. Saint Just's Projects and Robespierre's Policies

Saint Just’s Projects and Robespierre’s Policies

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française, Vol VI. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2011.

To lean towards peace, towards the reestablishing of normal economic relations was Saint-Just and Robespierre’s secret wish and policy. But either they didn’t dare openly formulate this or they didn’t know how to bend events and minds in this direction. The intrepid Saint-Just knew that the Republic couldn’t live on the Terror, that it didn’t bring out the necessary virtues and that in prolonging itself it no longer served to frighten vice and crime. He knew that the regime of assignats and the maximum could not indefinitely continue, but in the very notes where he spoke of the need for great changes he advised himself to temporize and be prudent. He at times also seemed to hope for the very excess of evil to be a remedy. After the disappearance of the Hébertists and the Dantonists, at the very moment when all that was left to him was to swoop up the Revolution’s victory of the Revolution, he wrote: “The Revolution is frozen; all principles are weakened. All that is left are the red bonnets worn by intrigue. The exercise of terror has made crime indifferent, just as strong liquors do to the palate. It is probably not yet time to do good: the individual good we do is a palliative. We must wait for a general ill that is so great that public opinion feels the need for measures capable of doing good. What the general good produces is always terrifying and appears bizarre when it is begun too early.”

Speaking of commodities, he denounced the systems of the assignat and taxation as foreign inventions.

“The foreigner, from vicissitude to vicissitude led us to these extremities. He also suggests the remedy. The original idea for taxation came from without, brought by the Baron de Batz. It would have led to famine. It is generally recognized today in Europe that they counted on famine to incite popular wrath and to destroy the Convention. And they counted on the dissolving of the Convention in order to tear apart and dismember France. The circulation of commodities is necessary wherever people have no property and primary materials. Commodities don’t circulate where taxes are levied [it is Saint-Just who underlines here]. The assignats must be taken out of circulation by placing an imposition on all those who have guided affairs and worked in the pay of the public treasury.”

But it is precisely a propos of these ideas that Saint-Just reminds himself of the law of prudence, which means to wait, to allow ideas to mature.

“We would have presented the hemlock to whoever would have presented these things eight months ago: it is an accomplishment to become wise through the experiencing of misfortune. May this example teach us not to mistreat stern men who tell us the truth.

“Good people should not be reduced to justifying themselves for working for the public good in the face of the sophistries of crime. It’s fine to say that they will die for the fatherland, but they shouldn’t die; rather they should live and may the laws support them. They should be sheltered from the vengeance of the foreigner. I thus advise [and it is again Saint-Just who underlines] all those who want the good to wait for the right moment to do it in order to avoid the notoriety that is obtained by doing it too soon.”

All of these formulas poorly hide an immense difficulty.

However great he was, Robespierre was lacking in the qualities necessary for the solution of the problems. To be sure, for months he had learned to assume the most direct and terrible responsibilities. Since May 31 he seemed to have renounced concealed forms, vague allusions. He headed straight for the goal, right at the enemy. But it should be noted that it was only when his preferred system was attacked that Robespierre revealed and completely committed himself. He saw after May 31 that the authority of the Committee of Public Safety and the Convention were the salvation of the Revolution, and he fought courageously against all the intrigues that threatened the Committee and the Convention. He feared that Hébertism would discredit and destroy the Republic. He attacked Hébertism head on. But as soon as there were no enemies, as soon as he was no longer obliged by the precision of attacks to have precise answers he returned to his vague and sly habits.

When after the elimination of Hébertism and Dantonism he was in reality the master of policy, responsible for events, he had only one means to govern, to rally spirits around him, and that was clearly saying where he wanted to lead the Revolution. But he didn’t say it and it happened that alongside him the proud and courageous Saint-Just, as if he renounced defying death, counseled silence and a wait and see attitude. Fatal temporization that allowed wide-spread uncertainty to be produced. Even more, after the great and bloody purges of Germinal Robespierre’s duty was to reassure the revolutionaries around him. The factions had been smashed and there was no reason to attack individuals, even if they were connected to these factions, even if they had carried out the most detestable policies. Robespierre knew this and he limited sacrifices as much as possible. He had saved the seventy-three Girondins. He had opposed including Boulanger, Pache, and Hanriot in the outlawing of the Hébertists. He hadn’t touched Carrier, despite the horror the crimes of Nantes inspired in him. He hadn’t had the Committee of Public Safety attack Collot d'Herbois. But it wasn’t enough not to strike these men; they had to be given confidence in the future. They had to be given the impression, and even the certainty, that their excesses would be imputed to the revolutionary fever, and that once this fever had fallen they would not be made to pay for the perhaps inevitable violence of the evil days. In addition, the fears of those like Tallien in Bordeaux who, with his beautiful friend Cabarrus, had surrendered to the attractions of power and pleasure, had to be taken into consideration, these men who saw in the oft repeated words of virtue and morality a threat to their very lives.

So either Robespierre condemned himself to a policy of the perpetual gallows or he had to announce – he had to practice – a large scale revolutionary amnesty for all the errors of the Terror, for both its sensual and bloody frenzies. And all the revolutionary energies that had momentarily been either overexcited by violent fanaticism or corrupted by a passionate and voluptuous intoxication should have hoped for a place in the calmer, more orderly, purer new revolutionary order.

Finally, the more powerful Robespierre was, the more important it was that he handle gently the pride of his colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security, that he include them in all his ideas and acts. He could he relax, pacify, and organize the Revolution without the collaboration of the Committee of Public Safety? And how could he bring over to an open policy fanatics like Billaud-Varenne and hysterical and compromised declaimers like Collot d'Herbois if he didn’t gradually draw them to him through confidence, frankness, and cordiality? Robespierre didn’t know how to impose confidence around him. In the bitter struggles where he had had to assume so many bloody responsibilities his pride had grown ever greater. He had cried out in August 1793, “The Revolution is lost if a man doesn’t rise.” He had risen, but was soon forced to strike out on all sides and become a dealer of death. He had contracted the habit of haughty sadness. He was little made for those cordial communications that at that time were the absolute condition for the success of his policies. He had suffered in his dignity, in his pride, and in his pure love of the Revolution from the atrocious violence that had dishonored the revolutionary government. He wasn’t able to forget it. He detested it all the more in that not having been able to prevent the violence he appeared to be in solidarity with it and he sought deep in his heart the means to break this solidarity in the eyes of history, a deplorable temptation inspired by pride and virtue. He desperately recalled everything at the very moment when he should have forgotten much. And sometimes those he held in contempt and hatred saw on his face the worrisome reflection of a profound thought.

Finally, and this is the terrible cost of the gallows, death had for months so often been the final expedient, the great solution, that it offered itself with an obsessive familiarity each time a problem occurred that troubled and overcame the intelligence. Either it would win out over the evil and corrupted men who sullied the Revolution, or it would open to virtuous men the asylum of immortality they aspired to. It sometimes occurred that a disquiet that resembled remorse struck Robespierre and Saint-Just. What? Vergniaud was dead, and dead by their hands? Desmoulins was dead, and dead by their hands? And quietly, in those hours of trouble, they offered themselves to death in order to absolve themselves for having so often appealed to it against comrades in struggle, against friends.

Saint-Just wanted to live; he understood that the politics of death was the negation of the Revolution itself, that even illustrious shades wouldn’t defend him. And yet, how haunted he was by the ghost of those who with a wave of his hand he had led to the gallows. And what a poignant mixture of melancholy and pride in the lines he wrote after Danton’s death: “I had the touching idea that a friend of humanity must one day be cherished. For the man forced to isolate himself from the world and himself drops his anchor in the future and holds posterity to his heart, innocent of current evils.”

It was Saint-Just himself who underlined these words, this appeal from a man already uprooted from life.

“God, protector of innocence and truth, since you led me among the evil it was certainly in order to unmask them.

“Politics had counted on this idea, that no one would dare attack famous men enveloped in great illusions. I left all these weaknesses behind: in the universe I love only truth, and I have spoken it.

The circumstances are difficult only for those who retreat before the grave [underlined by Saint-Just]. I call for the grave as a benefit granted by providence so I will no longer be witness to the crimes plotted against my fatherland and humanity.

“To be sure, leaving a life that is unhappy, one in which you are condemned to vegetate, the accomplice or the impotent witness to crime is a small thing.

“I detest the dust I am made of and which speaks to you. Let them persecute and kill that dust. But I defy them to wrest from me the independent life I gave myself before the centuries and the heavens.”

A somber and sterilizing exaltation. These men’s eyes were fascinated by the gates of death they had so often opened for others. And at the very moment when they had to give the revolution confidence in the goodness of life and to calm hearts obsessed with bloody memories, they themselves ceaselessly attempted, in thought, to lay themselves down in the grave.