February the 4th, 220 years ago, the decree to end slavery in the colonies was issued by the committee. The same year, Robespierre wrote his defence of the use of terror.
History is always written for the present. This is not a novel idea, or a particularly exciting one, but it bears repeating. Which history books top the best-seller list is always a good indicator of our present woes. I can’t even count the times I’ve seen the “Don’t forget the Gulag!” as an injunction against radicalism, most recently in a Swedish newspaper editorial about Greece, with a picture of the Greek communist party, and a reference to Anne Appelbaum’s “Gulag”. Presumably we should “never forget the slaughter of Native Americans”, “never forget colonialism” or “never forget the Transatlantic Slave-trade” as a similar point against liberalism, yet I’ve never seen this, curiously enough. History is important to study because it’s so often abused and employed for spurious reasons.
The French revolution, once thought of as a fraternal brother to the American revolution, is these days considered a precursor to Stalinism, with Robespierre and the committee for public safety taking his place, and with some lazy reference to the Bonapartist crusades as the 19th century equivalent to the Bolsheviks. Simon Schama, a good historian, is a perfect illustration. His Citizens thesis is essentially a rehash of the proto-Stalinism case. The fact that the Jacobins placed such signs as “death is an eternal sleep” over graveyards is obviously where Mao’s cultural revolution came from.
I think the shift happened somewhere around McCarthyism. Before that, even liberal historians would praise the French revolution, embracing at least such safe figures as Danton and the original gang of ’89. Good historians like Albert Mathiez, or Jean Jaures, showed how the French revolution ended slavery in the French colonies, and that the Jacobins were an obvious inspiration for the Haitian slave-revolt and the anti-imperialism of Simon Bolivar. They often pointed out that the terror was perhaps a cruel necessity, and that the worst excesses happened as a consequence of invasion. Once it became clear how obsessed Trotsky and Lenin were with the French revolution, suddenly a shift happened.
The ideas which animated the Jacobins and the revolution in general served as a reminder to despots not to overstep the mark, and enshrined the ideal, if not the practice, of popular sovereignty.
So drink up, Citoyens! The struggle goes on. If I had a wig like Robespierre’s, I would wear it today as a mark of respect.