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Débats, chantiers et livres

A Response to Chappey and Missé

Jonathan Israel
p. 293-305

Texte intégral

1I would like to begin by thanking Jean-Luc Chappey and Blanca Missé for the time and care spent on their extended critique of my book and, especially, for drawing attention to what it tries to do and where and how it cuts across and challenges traditional interpretations of the French Revolution. “Cette histoire intellectuelle de la Révolution française,” they observe, “a pour ambition d’expliquer les origines des luttes et des combats qui ont divisé les partisans de Révolution et, surtout, de rendre compte du caractère aberrant—et finalement contre-révolutionnaire des positions défendues par Robespierre et de tous ses partisans.” They are quite correct, of course, that “l’ouvrage peut déconcerter tant il tranche avec les interprétations traditionelles” and that it defends “l’innovation politique d’une révolution dont l’auteur déplace la radicalité en amont et en aval de la ‘Terreur,’ montant ainsi une réelle originalité face à certaines interprétations classiques.” That was exactly the intention. Appreciated too is their remark that “l’auteur nous invite à rechercher les ‘radicalités’ en nous tournant vers les groupes politiques (Brissotins) et des courants intellectuels (les Idéologues) souvent disqualifiés dans l’historiographique jacobine ou marxiste française qui les ravale trop souvent aux formes de la modération”.

  • 1  Extended critiques rejecting my Radical Enlightenment thesis have been published by Antoine Lilti, (...)
  • 2  For a new collection of essays on the topic in French see, Marta García Alonso, ed., Lumières radi (...)

2Although Chappey and Missé are, thankfully, more accurate and objective in engaging with the central arguments of the book than many often much more polemical and hostile North American critics have been so far, nevertheless there are places where they too follow the mass of negative critics in one respect—demonstrating a startlingly inaccurate grasp of the intellectual side of the argument. Chappey and Missé rightly connect Revolutionary Ideas with my earlier volumes on the Enlightenment before 1789 but do so correctly only up to a point. Chappey and Missé point out that the “negative critique” rejecting the thesis that the materialist, one-substance “Radical Enlightenment” constituted a coherent tradition over generations and fundamentally divided the Enlightenment into opposing tendencies, “moderate” and “radical”, has become formidably impressive in size.1 This negative critique, the most developed and serious contributions to which are those of Antoine Lilti and Anthony La Vopa, broadly refuses to see any such fundamental dichotomy as the radical/moderate Enlightenment rift I describe. It does not agree that what has come to be called “the Radical Enlightenment” in recent decades is the key to understanding the inner dynamics and ultimate trajectory of both the Enlightenment itself and the main ideological positions dominating the great (and smaller) revolutions of the 1775-1848 era. However, Chappey and Missé neglect to add that this burgeoning rejectionist camp is matched by an equally large positive critique, the scholarly contingent acknowledging a basic division between “radical” and “moderate” as the Enlightenment’s primary category frame, both in terms of philosophical debate and clandestine opposition networks. The “positive critique” building on this new way of conceptualizing the Enlightenment with its long post-1789 phase lasting down to the mid-nineteenth century, has in recent years no less impressively expanded.2 This means two opposing intellectual reactions to the thesis need to be considered together and it is not very difficult, in my view, to see which of these two strikingly opposite and contradictory streams of historiography is the more significant and cogent.

  • 3  See Paul Vernière, Spinoza et la pensée française avant la Révolution (1954; 2nd ed., Paris, 1984)

3In this respect Chappey and Missé’s review is strikingly one-sided. A still more notable defect is their repeatedly referring to my attempt to establish “une filiation spinoziste chez une série d’auteurs” with the implication that I am equating “Spinozism” with “la philosophie radicale”. They describe the argument in the earlier volumes as essentially an “idéaliste” attempt to show that “les idées” can be the cause “des actions” and even that I supposedly suggest that “toute la série de crises politiques qui aggravèrent l’Ancien Régime dans la seconde moitié du xviiie siècle” was the “expression dans le monde de l’étendue d’un même mouvement de transformation qui s’exprime, dans le monde des idées, par la formulation progressive d’une philosophie radicale”. Here, they are allowing themselves to be misled by the other negative critics’ frequently polemical and often wild misreadings. First of all, I have nowhere stated that the “Radical Enlightenment” originated in the ideas of Spinoza or of any great philosopher—that is rather the regularly repeated construct of the critics, including now Chappey and Missé. Certainly it is one of my aims to show that Spinoza’s influence on the eighteenth century has been greatly underestimated (as Paul Vernière had already done much earlier),3 but my contention is that the Radical Enlightenment was first forged by a substantial group, the cercle spinoziste—with Franciscus van den Enden as the very first to combine the attack on religious authority with democratic theory—reacting to a specific political crisis—a crisis of republicanism—in the Dutch Republic.

  • 4  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 19-29, 71-7, 175-204; Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, (...)

4The argument is not at all “idéaliste.” It starts with actual political structures. During the 1650s and 1660s, the “mixed government” system combining the principles of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy (Stadholder, and Orangist oligarchies) in alliance with the public Church—precisely the system that captured England in 1688—threatened to overwhelm (and in 1672 eventually did overwhelm) what the Dutch republicans called the “True Freedom.”4 The urgent challenge facing Dutch republicans in the mid-seventeenth century was: how to defeat populism when most of the people think religion matters more than the political system? This was an imnexorable practical political problem as much, or more, than an intellectual issue. The solution the cercle spinoziste advocated to 17th century Dutch republicanism’s dire republican crisis was to broaden the support for republicanism while simultaneously weakening religious authority by tying together a democratizing tendency (even stronger in Van den Enden, Johan de la Court, and Adriaen Koerbagh than in Spinoza himself) with an unprecedented and comprehensive rejection of institutionalized religious authority.

5If Spinoza had never existed at all and was nowhere mentioned in my volumes that would only affect the outer wrapping paper not the essential thesis and content of my Radical Enlightenment account which would remain basically the same—Radical Enlightenment began in the context of Dutch political-religious crisis and was a political reality even before it was a set of ideas and its most important feature was linking its philosophical attack on religious authority with democratizing republicanism. After the 1688 British “Glorious Revolution” and the resulting escalation of the struggle over Louis XIV’s absolutism, what originated as a crisis of Dutch republicanism, became a British and European phenomenon—material, urgent and practical as much as intellectual. Talk of idéalisme is utter nonsense.

  • 5  Israel, Enlightenment Contested, 794-812.

6To affirm that “Diderot, La Mettrie ou d’Holbach ne sont pas simples imitateurs de Spinoza !” as if this weighs against my argument is not just wrong but reveals serious, far-reaching weakness in grasping the essential thesis presented in these volumes. Contrary to what to what Chappey and Missé state, La Mettrie is explicitly excluded by me from the Radical Enlightenment because—despite the pronounced Spinozistic element in his thought—there is (as with Goethe, or Sade) no coupling of the attack on religious authority with a democratizing tendency—the essential characteristic of the “Radical Enlightenment” as I define it.5 D’Alembert too is explicitly excluded because he aligned with Voltaire as the ally of kings and courts. Condorcet, by contrast, was a republican and democrat well before 1789 as his writings of the 1780s on the American Revolution clearly demonstrate. He undoubtedly combined philosophique rejection of religious authority with a democratizing republicanism already before 1789: thus he was a classic pre-revolutionary as well as revolutionary radical in my terms. The only fundamental criterion that I advance is the combining these two vital elements. At the core of the thesis, Spinoza is relevant only insofar as he combines philosophical rejection of religious authority and wide-ranging democratic theory more powerfully and incisively than other thinkers—nothing more and nothing less.

7One of the hostile critics most implicated in this sorry confusion into whiuch Chappey and Missé have leapt—the assumption that I am trying to establish what they term “une filiation spinoziste” linking Spinoza directly to such architects of the French democratic revolutionary republican thought- pointed out, cuttingly as he mistakenly supposed, that Spinoza is nowhere listed by name in the index of Condorcet’s key work, the Esquisse d’un tableau historique (1794). While highlighting this objection (which is really no objection at all), this critic, Keith Michael Baker, made no mention whatever of what is far more directly relevant, namely, Condorcet’s constant emphasis on the alleged universal rottenness of ancien regime institutions, laws, education, politics and religion, his insistence that “l’ouvrage des mauvais lois”—the impact of bad laws and legislators had everywhere generated universal oppression and tyranny. Condorcet dramatically reverses (in the manner of Diderot and d’Holbach) Montesquieu’s relativism, and was in fact, together with Spinoza, Diderot, and d’Holbach one of the four foremost radical enlighteners. He was undoubtedly the foremost of the revolutionary era, and would be not a whit less central, no less a leading representative of the Radical Enlightenment as defined in these volumes, had he never heard of Spinoza at all.

  • 6  Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit (...)

8Nothing was more characteristic of Condorcet’s thought, and of the Radical Enlightenment as such, than his attributing a key role to the churches in corrupting morality and the popular outlook to such an extent that the people had become incapable of understanding true morality and sunk into a condition—ignorant, superstitious, fanatical and credulous—rendering them not just impervious to reason but dangerous to human freedom and well-being, the common good, sound institutions, and true ideas. Condorcet here combines his philosophique attack on religious authority with outright rejection of aristocracy and monarchy while urging the need comprehensively to renew not just the whole existing framework of laws and institutions but also the entire moral order.6 The core theme of Condorcet’s account of humanity’s progress toward emancipation, democratic freedom and “happiness” is the idea that the whole human path to “perfectability” is driven by the advances of science and philosophy. This is Radical Enlightenment at its purest.

  • 7  Condorcet, Adresse aux Bataves, 3-5.

9To object that Condorcet does not refer to Spinoza—he was undoubtedly seriously impressed by d’Holbach—is therefore an extremely weak argument in the context of my account. Surveying humanity’s long, hard fight for freedom, Condorcet complimented the Dutch on commencing humanity’s cause by “enlightening your enslaved neighbours.”7 In his Adresse aux Bataves (1792) and again in the Tableau, Condorcet summons the Dutch to remember that it was they (followed by the English) who took the lead, in advance of the French and other peoples, not just in science and knowledge, but in the fight for human liberty and freedom of expression—but then unfortunately halted half way in their tracks, leaving it to the French to resume the work. One is perfectly free to assume, if one wants to—implausible though such an assumption is, that when Condorcet envisages the entire phenomenon of human progress as a social and political process as being headed and led by “les philosophes vraiment éclairés” he never had Spinoza in mind. It makes no difference to the basic point. Even if Condorcet never once thought about Spinoza, Baker’s objection would still be devoid of relevance to the basic social, political and ideological structures of thought, distinguishing moderate from radical Enlightenment, which are the prime concern of my Enlightenment account.

10Not only I am I not arguing that the French Revolution should be “réduit à des combats d’idées,” a charge I regard as wholly inaccurate, I do not think, as I have repeatedly said, that the Radical Enlightenment was ever a purely intellectual system. During the prolonged and intricate war of the Encyclopédie of the 1750s in France, and during the American Revolution (1774-83), just as during the 1650s, 1660s and 1670s in Holland, the Radical Enlightenment was always an urgent and actual political and material response to repression and coercive reaction, a response to specific structural social, political and religious factors, as much as an intellectual strategy. The overriding feature of the “Radical Enlightenment” as I define it and what chiefly distinguishes it from pre-1650 Renaissance Neo-Epicurean rejection of religious authority (and from Hobbes) is always and invariably the close linkage of the democratizing tendency (and later universal and equal rights) with outright rejection of religious authority and never any specific philosophy or set of ideas. Where the Neo-Epicurean clandestine philosophical literature was rather passive politically, the post-1650 Radical Enlightenment I am presenting was a double assault on, a clandestine campaign against, the existing status quo, which could never be a purely intellectual movement. A classic earlier French example of a radical enlightener rejecting religious authority while simultaneously assailing the existing political-social status quo who was certainly no Spinozist was Jean Meslier (1664-1729).

  • 8  Lilti, « Comment écrit-on l’histoire intellectuelle des Lumières ? », 197.
  • 9  Piet Stuurman, “Pathways to the Enlightenment”, History Workshop Journal 54 (2002), 227-35; H. Chi (...)

11This stress on an essential linkage of democratizing republicanism with eradication of religious authority from politics and law, pivotal to my argument, is something Antoine Lilti goes to some trouble to invalidate.8 It is a key element of the rejectionist strategy. Generally speaking, Lilti’s critique is systematic and to the point unlike some others. He enters into an honest debate and seriously engages with the main arguments. But when he and several other critics stoutly maintain that there is no necessary connection between Spinozistic monism and the democratic tendency, a key objection first advanced by Piet Stuurman in 2002, they surely go wrong. Their stance appears weighty to many who emphatically agree that there is no “necessary connection” between democratic republicanism aimed at equality and rejection of religious authority, no inherent link between democratizing political ideas and one-substance monism ruling out miracles, revelation and divine governance of history.9 But it is extremely difficult to see why such critics think this argument carries any intellectual weight.

  • 10  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 180-82.
  • 11  Chisick, “Review Essay”, in H-France Forum vol. 9 (issue 1, Winter 2014), 59-60; Green, History of (...)

12Before and after 1789, asserting divine governance of the world and the need for priestly intercession to interpret and explain that “governance” was the strongest buttress available to monarchy and aristocracy. During the French Revolution, the clergy routinely proclaimed themselves the aristocracy’s and absolutism’s best resource for generating popular counter-revolutionary resistance. As the conservative Gazette de Paris expressed it in January 1791, only through the Church’s “heroic resistance” can the aristocracy be rescued from the Revolution.10 The facts clearly show the pervasive role of officially-endorsed religion in sanctioning and upholding hierarchical social systems (as well as slavery and serfdom) and royal and aristocratic as well as ecclesiastical primacy. In claiming “no inherent connection” between materialist monism ruling out miracles and Revelation and espousing revolutionary political ideas, the “negative critique” adopts a sternly cutting tone as if it is delivering a significant blow but actually all it does is further reveal the extremely weak grasp and reasoning that underpins almost the whole negative critical approach to this debate.11

13It needs only a few moments careful thought to realize that the reality is exactly the opposite to what Lilti claims: instead of no necessary connection, the two components are always intimately linked together in the ancien regime context. Eighteenth-century laymen and churchmen in whatever part of Europe could only insist the prevailing monarchical and aristocratic social order, as well as the moral order, was what God intended and provided as long as society broadly accepted that divine providence governs the course of history and what happens in the world. If a benevolent God had willed the existing social and moral order then one could have no grounds for claiming it was fundamentally defective and wrong. The people were required to believe that the prevailing regime and status quo conformed, in broad terms at least, to God’s will. Here was a hegemonic teleology that could only be undermined and demolished by a monist, as distinct from a dualistic Lockean or Leibnizian philosophical system.

  • 12  Jonathan Israel, « L’Histoire intellectuelle des Lumières et de la Révolution : une incursion crit (...)

14Lilti is mistaken about this key issue and consequently, I object to the way Chappey’s and Missé’s compte rendu suggests to readers that Lilti’s critique should generally be considered a valid rebuttal of my thesis when it is actually nothing of the kind. They also neglect to cite my point by point rebuttal of Lilti’s criticisms nearly all of which—and not least what he alleges is the skeptical and fideist character of the philosophy of Pierre Bayle—appear to be wrong.12 But there is an even worse defect in Chappey’s and Missé’s approach. They state that “dès 1650, la philosophie radicale aurait été d’abord appropriée par un partie de l’élite intellectuelle et politique, qui à son tour aurait modelé, fixé les contours de la culture populaire : ces penseurs et théoriciens auraient progressivement diffusé et popularisé les éléments transformateurs du spinozisme radical pour arriver vers la fin du xviiie siècle à pouvoir mobiliser le peuple pour la cause révolutionnaire”. Affirming this, they then sternly criticize me for not showing how this was accomplished.

15But nowhere have I argued that the Radical Enlightenment had any vast or even significant impact on “popular culture”. On the contrary, I maintain that the Radical Enlightenment only mobilized elements of the population in 1789-93 in a very indirect way with political and social crises opening the door to the use of radical ideas by small revolutionary vanguards. Chappey and Missé fault me for failing to show how the Radical Enlightenment became part of popular culture when I argue instead that this loudly denounced stream of thought remained essentially a non-popular underground culture until around 1750, spreading only in very limited circles via the clandestine philosophical literature (often in manuscript). After 1750, it spread more widely among what we today would call the intelligentsia and very much as an opposition culture, certainly, but without making any significant inroads into popular culture until the Revolution. Here again, one of Chappey’s and Missé’s main arguments flows from paying too much attention to a large body of criticism which—carried away by hostility (which is understandable) shows a marked tendency to misrepresent and is mostly highly misleading—rather than to the thesis itself. The Radical Enlightenment did not diffuse widely in popular culture; what it did was a forge a revolutionary vanguard capable of mobilizing popular support of a kind which soon proved unreliable, precarious and short-lived.

16Nor is this is not the only case where Chappey and Missé descend into the inaccuracies loudly broadcast by Baker, Bell, Wright, Hunt, Jacob and Popkin in particular. Chappey and Missé refer to theirs as “very critical” reviews but it seems to me hardly reasonable to term “comptes rendus, souvent très critiques” polemical attacks that grossly misrepresent or wholly evade the main arguments making scarcely any effort to discuss the central points and the evidence. Where Chappey and Missé contend that my “argumentation caricaturale occulte le fait que ‘les idées’ ne sont pas les seuls moteurs de l’histoire et des dynamiques politiques,” I must insist that I have nowhere contended ideas were anything of the sort. In fact, like them, I would immediately reject and ridicule any such stance adopted by any author. Ideas are very far from being the sole motor of the historical process in general or the French Revolution in particular. Hence, I stress how much the financial crisis of 1787-9 contributed to triggering the Revolution and how vastly the economic slow-down in France caused by the turmoil and at least in part by the emigrés leaving the country complicated the picture in 1790-1 as did the pressures of war in 1792-1800. All kinds of economic and social factors were of immense importance—and what is more as far as most people were concerned always of greater importance than les idées!! My point rather is that popular discontent and grievance, however great—and there was oceans of such grievance, frustration and discontent—create forms of political pressure which are highly volatile in their nature and which can be captured and steered first one way and then another by competing revolutionary vanguards.

17Popular economic discontent, I contend, is good fuel for revolution, but can never shape and organize a revolution. It is essential to the picture I draw that considerable attention is given in the book to crowd behavior and popular reaction not just in Paris but also Rouen, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nîmes, Toulon, Bordeaux, Caen, Strasbourg and in Brittany. Far from creating “une vision totalement idéalisée et désincarnée d’une Révolution dont le moteur est réduit à des combats d’idées,” which is a total travesty of my argument, my approach emphasizes that the people’s anger and resentment was largely justified and the need to prevent vested interests preying on the majority quite rightly recognized as the Revolution’s highest priority. The role of the people is absolutely central especially to my detailed explanation of why the first revolution (moderate Enlightenment/constitutional monarchist), second revolution (democratic republican), and (from July 1794) the third revolution (authoritarian populist), the three “revolutions” making up the three sharply divergent currents within the French Revolution all briefly succeeded and then failed. It is a history of competing revolutionary vanguards and ideologies communicating and interacting with the people.

18The people’s role in breaking the political deadlock during the Revolution’s crucial moments (as well as their economic distress) was without any question always pivotal but also much connected to their shifting relationship to the elites and further complicated by the populace being deeply divided and frequently confused—which in the highly fraught circumstances was scarcely surprising (pp. 60-4, 89-94, 204-7, 246-62, 423-48, 454-64). Ultra-royalist and Catholic fundamentalist sentiment remained everywhere very formidable. Consequently, the people’s principal interventions in the French revolution, such as on 14 July and 5 October 1789, began fitfully, sporadically and, most importantly, hesitantly until guidance (or manipulation) were provided by rival leadership groups. My book is not intended to belittle or sneer at the actions of the masses but rather emphasize the pivotal role of ideologically mobilized revolutionary vanguards. What I try to do is sharpen our sense of the difference between the people on the one hand—always uncertain, deeply divided and seriously fragmented—and three incompatible, fundamentally divergent and competing rival revolutionary vanguards designing to capture their support on the other.

  • 13  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 30-52, 68-70.

19The fatal weakness of the Anglophile first revolution, the “moderates”—initially the monarchiens and later the bloc around Bailly, Barnave and Lafayette—is that they were far less successful in diffusing their message in society than their rivals, the democratic republicans on the one side and the populist authoritarians on the other. The moderates controlled some pro-Revolution journals, like L’Ami des Patriotes (1791-2) but these were few and rather marginal. Between 1789 and 1793, the radicals achieved a much more impressive impact through the press, theater and other forms of communication with the masses. How and why? Chappey and Missé say nothing about this part of my argument which occupies a large deal of the book and provides much of its detail. Far from turning “le dos à toutes données proprement historiques et contextuelles”, I was prompted precisely by Timothy Tackett’s excellent work which they cite, especially his point that there were very few philosophes in the National Assembly. I tried to show how the parti de philosophie nevertheless managed to steal the show (as many observers complained at the time) by exploiting their dominant position in the Paris newspapers from the fall of the Bastille down to May 1793, through their hegemony of the theatre, and through the Cercle social and other organizations supporting their stance convening large crowd meetings, lectures and in the case of the paper la Feuille villageoise even trying to influence the peasantry.13 The mechanics of all this makes the core of the book: the Montagnard populists gradually undermined the position of democratic radicals using local meetings and oratory, it is true, but mainly by strong-arm methods, controlling and purging club memberships and by using newspapers with a much more populist, strident, and intolerant tone, most notably Marat’s L’Ami du peuple and Hébert’s Père Ducheyene.

  • 14  Marc Belissa and Yannick Bosc, Robespierre. La fabrication d’un mythe (Paris, 2013), 255-68.

20“La grand faiblesse de l’ouvrage,” hold Chappey and Missé, “vient de la charge sans nuance et souvent aveugle menée contre Robespierre,” what they repeatedly call my “critique caricaturale de l’histoire de la ‘Terreur,’ de Robespierre et de son projet politique”. They may perhaps be right that on occasion I was deliberately provocative and insufficiently nuanced regarding the Montagne. But this was because very few French or other historians have been willing to recognize the striking fact that all the enlighteners of the late eighteenth century who welcomed the Revolution’s early stages abhorred and loudly denounced Robespierre and the Montagne. I want to show that as regards the democratic republican core of the French Revolution, Robespierre was in no way “La révolution incarnée”, quite the opposite. Obviously, my book clashes outright with the recent trend in French Revolution historiography, since 2000, that some now triumphantly designate the “retour de Robespierre.”14 Yet the approach to Robespierre and the Terror that I set out is not one historians can set aside simply by dismissing it as “caricaturale” and a “grande faiblesse.”

  • 15  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 437-43, 505-7, 584-5.
  • 16  John Keane, Tom Paine. A Political Life (London, 1995), 415.

21Belissa and Bosc construe the maligners and detractors of Robespierre as “contra-revolutionnaire” but that term scarcely applies to the radical enlighteners I am focusing on, men and women who all abhorred and publicly condemned Robespierre before June 1793, during the dominance of the Montagne, and after Thermidor. In their view, Robespierre deceived and cheated the sans-culottes—as Jean Varlet also loudly declared15—just as he did much of the rest of society. Thomas Paine, the only radical who participated actively in both the American and French revolutions, assured the French national Convention, after Thermidor, that Robespierre was “my inveterate enemy, as he was the enemy of every man of virtue and humanity”.16 Paine is not mentioned in the index of Herve Leuwers’s recent Robespierre (Paris, 2014) and it is this kind of omission and bias that I am trying to correct. This was not just Paine’s opinion but one shared by all the American radicals and all the prominent British supporters of the French Revolution—Priestley, Cooper, Jefferson, Barlow, Madison, Palmer, Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, Bentham and Godwin (practically none of whom are mentioned by Leuwers). It was shared too by all the radical Aufklärer—Herder, Klopstock, Forster, Wedekind, Lux, Hölderlin, Kant, Hegel, Fichte, Dorsch, Cramer. In fact, every pro-Revolution enlightener looked on Robespierre with horror as did the thoroughly radical editor of the Aachener Zuschauer, Dautzenberg. Paine’s judgment was shared too by all the Dutch radicals—Irhoven van Dam, Daendels and Paape, and the Italians, key publicists and revolutionary leaders like Gorani and Pagano.

  • 17  A. Muschik, “Die Ideen der Französischen Revolution in Schwedisch-Vorpommern”, Baltische Studien 9 (...)
  • 18  Adolf Beck, “Hölderlin als Republikaner”, Hölderlin-Jahrbuch xv (1967/8), p. 41; Laura Macor, “Fri (...)
  • 19  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 284-5, 292, 305, 500, 511.

22A passionate supporter of the Revolution from 1789 to 1793, the Swedish radical poet and publicist, Thomas Thorild, the very embodiment of revolutionary solidarity, styled Robespierre an “all-consuming crocodile”;17 the German radical republican poet, Hölderlin, an ardent supporter of the French democratic Revolution, loathing the Montagne, rejoiced when Charlotte Corday stabbed the “abominable tyran” Marat to death.18 Furthermore, contemporary close observers of the Revolution who were themselves at odds with the Brissotins, and disagreed with them about many things, such as Bishop Claude Fauchet, the writer Louis Sebastien Mercier and the Prussian-Dutch National Assembly member, the atheist and cosmopolitan egalitarian Anarcharsis Cloots (1755-94), nevertheless all shared the same view of Robespierre. Cloots, a radical intellectual who unlike the others did align with the Montagne (mainly because he hated Brissot)—until he too was guillotined—despised Robespierre as a base, dishonest, despicable and perverse “dictator.”19 If my analysis is “caricaturale”, then the entire radical Enlightenment’s denunciation of Robespierre is “caricaturale.”

  • 20  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 698.
  • 21  Jefferson to Mme De Stael, in 24 May 1813, in M. D. Peterson (ed.) Thomas Jefferson, Writings (New (...)

23All enlighteners, moderate and radical, without exception abhorred and repudiated Marat and Robespierre chiefly for their ferocious intolerance, populist anti-intellectualism, harsh bloodthirsty methods, and curbing liberty of expression and press freedom, their tyrannizing over everyone while exalting the “ordinary” over the “hommes des lettres” and philosophically-minded. Robespierre’s anti-intellectualism, ruthlessness, and public attacks on philosophes as foes of Rousseau were hence anathema to all enlighteners radical and anti-democratic. This reaction on the part of the post-1793 Radical Enlightenment is hardly surprising. Montagnard exaltation of the “ordinary” abundantly exemplified d’Holbach’s and Condorcet’s (and Spinoza’s) axiom that bloody tyranny, dictatorship and oppression feed chiefly on ignorance, illiteracy and gullibility.20 Pervading the Radical Enlightenment’s entire history was a deep apprehension regarding the ignorant multitudo, as Spinoza called it, a fear greatly intensified by Robespierre and the Terror. Montagnard branding of Paine, Brissot and Condorcet as “enemies of the Revolution” and the notion that ordinary folk are morally pure and the chief criterion of legitimacy in politics without need of being educated or enlightened, opened an unbridgeable rift between Montagnard revolutionaries and every enlightener, moderate and radical. What we are dealing with here is not caricature but profound ideological difference. The outright antagonism between Robespierre and Radical Enlightenment was one of principle and one of fact. My aim is not to malign the Montagne but to make modern readers more aware of the huge gulf between Montagne and the Enlightenment. To Thomas Jefferson, the most resolute among America’s Founding Fathers in endorsing the French democratic republican Revolution and always a friend of the French Revolution, Robespierre was as much a betrayer of its veritable principles and values as the post-Brumaire Napoleon. “Robespierre met the fate,” he wrote to Mme De Stael in May 1813, “and his memory the execration, he so justly merited.”21

24Besides Robespierre’s own speeches and his monarchist newspaper, La Défenseur de la Constitution, 1791-2 with which he persisted long after the Flight to Varennes gave republicanism in France a massive boost, many sources show the so-called “incorruptible” was persistently non-republican as well as corrupt politically. Further clear proofs are the viciousness of his public attacks on key revolutionary personalities like Condorcet and Desmoulins who had not been opponents previously, and whose republican and democratic credentials were exemplary, and his choice of police chiefs, chief agents and Paris mayors, during the dictatorship (1793-4), including Jean-Nicolas Pache (1746-1823) “elected” mayor in 1792, the nobleman Claude-François Payan (1766-94), another principal agent of Robespierre, and Jean-Baptiste Fleuriot-Lescot (1761-94), mayor of Paris in 1794, all readily shown to have been exceptionally corrupt and ruthless men. The latter (not listed in Leuwers’ index), guillotined with Robespierre at Thermidor, was an obscure Belgian revolutionary from Brussels unconnected with Paris whose sole qualifications for the job were total disregard for principle and obsequious subservience to Robespierre personally.

25There is a lot of evidence of Robespierre’s manipulation of the Jacobins, vote-rigging in the Jacobins, and use of criminal or semi-criminal types in key positions of power to enhance his own authority; there is no way to defend Robespierre without answering these highly incriminating empirically-based observations. If one wants to defend Robespierre and the Montagne, as Chappey and Missé do, then one must answer the concrete points that I make which are far from just echoing what is in hostile pamphlets. That is quite wrong . Instead of repeating that I have presented an “argumentation caricaturale” they must offer what contrary evidence they have to the actual arguments presented. Until they answer the main points set out on the basis of considerable evidence they are just slipping back into the absurdly wrong-headed distortions of Bell, Baker, Popkin, Wright, Jacob and Hunt.

26The whole point of my book is to demonstrate that insufficient attention to the ideological differences between the factions has led to the modern interpretations of the French Revolution being flawed. In a political struggle, one side, in this case the Montagne (especially the Robespierre, Marat and Hebert blocs), is often far more reprehensible in terms of ruthlessness and repressiveness than the other—even if the Brissotins and Danton factions (including the outstanding radical Desmoulins) had their failings too. While Enlightenment right-wing thinkers hating the Revolution’s democratic principles, like Burke and Gibbon, liked to smear the whole Revolution by claiming all factions embraced the same principles, no significant enlightener supporting the Revolution agreed with Bell (and Linton) that there was little to choose morally between Brissotins and the Montagne. It is an untenable position. Even some regular Montagnards who, under the Terror, accepted the regime’s pretexts for its repressiveness admitted at the time that the Brissotins were more educated and cosmopolitan than their adversaries, and that the Brissot-Condorcet faction alone were the true champions of the philosophes. The Montagne defeated the Brissotins in 1793-4, independent French revolutionaries and commentators regularly noted, chiefly because they were more ruthless, manipulative and dishonest than their rivals. Hence, far from being “impossible to accept” as Bell boldly proclaims, my interpretation will prove hard to rebut with genuine argument and facts.

27Central to my thesis are the debates surrounding the drafting of the world’s first democratic constitution (pp. 345-73), the emergence of universal human rights, freedom of the press, universal secular education, women’s rights, comprehensive religious toleration, and black emancipation (pp. 396-419) which, whether correctly analyzed by me or not, are all of vital importance for the study of modern French history, indeed modern history and philosophy generally. The republican revolutionary faction, “the Left”, led originally by Mirabeau and Sieyes, and later by Brissot and Condorcet, steered the Revolution toward these goals not because they were particularly admirable men (though Condorcet was) but because they were publicly (if not always privately) committed to the Radical Enlightenment principles of equality, republicanism, democracy, and freedom of expression. On ideological grounds, and in their own political interest, they happened to be the first to introduce universal human rights and the other fundamentally innovative concepts listed above.

28It was a shared sense of striving together for jointly-held principles that led Jefferson, Paine, Madison, and the American Revolution’s democratic wing unequivocally to side with the French democratic republicans and prophets of universal and equal rights against both the “first revolution” (the Anglophile moderates) and the third (the Montagne), as well as against the American Revolution’s conservative wing (John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, etc.- who in the French context supported the ‘first revolution’). This essential parallelism of the American and French revolutions, so much at odds with nearly all the previous French and American historiography, is another central theme of the book which unfortunately Chappey and Missé fail to mention. Thus Chappey and Missé erred badly and left a lot out. Nevertheless, and for this I am truly grateful, they represent a considerable improvement on the main body of detractors.

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1  Extended critiques rejecting my Radical Enlightenment thesis have been published by Antoine Lilti, Anthony La Vopa, Johnson Kent Wright, Keith Michael Baker, Harvey Chisick, Samuel Moyn, David Bell, Dale Van Kley, Ursula Goldenbaum, Darryn McMahon, Annelien De Dijn, Jeremy Popkin, Paolo Casini; Ann Thomson, Carolina Armenteros, Dan Edelstein, Vincenzo Ferrone, Theo Verbeeck, Helena Rosenblatt, Joanne Stalnaker, Lynn Hunt and Eduardo Tortarolo; the most substantial intellectually are Lilti, « Comment écrit-on l’histoire intellectuelle des Lumières ? », Annales. Histoire, sciences sociales 64 (2009), 171-206; A.J. La Vopa, “A New Intellectual History? Jonathan Israel’s Enlightenment,” Historical Journal 52 (2009), 717-38; Harvey Chisick, “Interpreting the Enlightenment,” The European Legacy, (2008), 35-57; for four particularly hostile contributions see H-France Forum, vol. 9 issue 1 (Winter 2014) no. 5.

2  For a new collection of essays on the topic in French see, Marta García Alonso, ed., Lumières radicales et politique, (Paris, Champion, 2016). Recently edited in Brussels is Steffen Ducheyne (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to the Radical Enlightenment (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2016). For the German debate see the essays in Jonathan Israel and Martin Mulsow (eds.) Radikalaufklärung (Berlin, 2014). Notable further recent contributions to the radical Enlightenment thesis include Philipp Blom, A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment (2010); Matthew Stuart, Nature’s God. The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (New York, 2014); Winfried Schröder, “Radical Enlightenment from a Philosophical Perspective” in Frank Grunert (ed.) Concepts of (Radical) Enlightenment in the Series: IZEA (Interdisziplinäre Zentrum für die Erforschung der Europaischen Aufklãrung, Halle), Kleine Schriften no. 5 (Halle, 2014) (2014), 44-51; Sonja Lavaert, “Radical Enlightenment, Enlightened Subversion, and Spinoza”, Philosophica 89 (2014), 49-102; and other recent essays by Martin Mulsow, Gianni Paganini, Silvia Berti, Wiep van Bunge, Antony McKenna, and Wilfried Schröder. Additional substantive contributors to the “positive critique” are by Richard Wolin, Wayne Hudson, Charles Devellennes, Maria José Villaverde, Landon Frim, and Anthony DeSantis.

3  See Paul Vernière, Spinoza et la pensée française avant la Révolution (1954; 2nd ed., Paris, 1984).

4  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 19-29, 71-7, 175-204; Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806 (Oxford, 1995), 595-609, 677-738, 739-806, 915-33; Jonathan Israel, “The Dutch Role in the Glorious Revolution” in J.I. Israel (ed.) The Anglo-Dutch Moment (Cambridge, 1991), 104-22.

5  Israel, Enlightenment Contested, 794-812.

6  Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, Tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain. Projets, Esquisses, Fragments et Notes (1772-1794), Jean-Pierre Schandeler and Pierre Crepel (ed.) (Paris, 2004), 355-86.

7  Condorcet, Adresse aux Bataves, 3-5.

8  Lilti, « Comment écrit-on l’histoire intellectuelle des Lumières ? », 197.

9  Piet Stuurman, “Pathways to the Enlightenment”, History Workshop Journal 54 (2002), 227-35; H. Chisick, “Review Essay”, in H-France Forum vol. 9 (issue 1, Winter 2014), 59-60; Karen Green, A History of Women’s Political Thought in Europe, 1700-1800 (Cambridge, 2014), 6-10.

10  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 180-82.

11  Chisick, “Review Essay”, in H-France Forum vol. 9 (issue 1, Winter 2014), 59-60; Green, History of Women’s Political Thought, 6-10; the argument recurs in Helena Rosenblatt, Piet Stuurman and others.

12  Jonathan Israel, « L’Histoire intellectuelle des Lumières et de la Révolution : une incursion critique », La Lettre Clandestine 19 (2011), 173-225.

13  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 30-52, 68-70.

14  Marc Belissa and Yannick Bosc, Robespierre. La fabrication d’un mythe (Paris, 2013), 255-68.

15  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 437-43, 505-7, 584-5.

16  John Keane, Tom Paine. A Political Life (London, 1995), 415.

17  A. Muschik, “Die Ideen der Französischen Revolution in Schwedisch-Vorpommern”, Baltische Studien 93 (2007), pp. 173-4.

18  Adolf Beck, “Hölderlin als Republikaner”, Hölderlin-Jahrbuch xv (1967/8), p. 41; Laura Macor, “Friedrich Hölderlin and the Clandestine Society of the Bavarian Illuminati”, Philosophica 88 (2013), 103-25, here p. 105.

19  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 284-5, 292, 305, 500, 511.

20  Israel, Revolutionary Ideas, 698.

21  Jefferson to Mme De Stael, in 24 May 1813, in M. D. Peterson (ed.) Thomas Jefferson, Writings (New York, 1984), 1271.

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Jonathan Israel

Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

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