Great America

The Jacobins of Our Time

In essence, this is what we’re seeing in the streets today: people who see things in black and white—not just in a racial sense—and who are certain of their own purity, certain that whatever gods may be are smiling on their works.

Not long ago, it was all #MeToo, all the time. All men were potential rapists; all women, potential victims. All men are perpetrators or potential perpetrators. The world was patriarchy, where men had oppressed women from the beginning of time.

But that’s behind us now. Now the war is between black and white, and the message is that racial oppression is everywhere.

Every week, to be sure, there are more violent black-on-white crimes in the United States than violent white-on-black crimes. The number of blacks killed by other blacks is many times higher than the number of blacks killed by whites. Yet millions of people around the world have been persuaded to mourn a previously unknown career criminal who died on May 25 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

George Floyd’s death appears to have been a crime. The officer has been arrested and will be tried. But this hasn’t kept cities from burning. In this man’s name, and in the name of the value of black lives, groups of left-wing radicals, often majority white, have destroyed the homes and businesses of black people.

They’ve vandalized statues of Washington and Churchill and Kościuszko and others who helped give them the freedom to protest. In Boston, they desecrated a statue memorializing black soldiers who fought to free slaves in the Civil War. On social media, rich celebrities in their gated communities have cheered on the destruction of poor black people’s homes.

It’s utterly irrational—but few in positions of authority dare to say so.

Instead, powerful whites have gotten on their knees to apologize for their own supposed racism and for that of their ancestors. They’ve either played down the violence or cheered it on.

“Please, show me where it says protesters are supposed to be polite and peaceful,” said CNN’s Chris Cuomo, apparently unaware that the Constitution explicitly protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” not the right to commit mass violence.

New York Times staffers exploded over the paper’s publication of an op-ed calling for a military response to the rioting, leading to an abject apology by the paper’s bosses and the forced resignation of the editor responsible. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, a veteran editor also issued a mea culpa and quit his job after running an opinion piece critical of the rioting.

Even cops have gotten down on their knees. In many jurisdictions, cops have been ordered not to arrest rioters; in others, perpetrators have been released because state attorneys general share their radical politics—or because rich celebrities have bailed them out.

It looks very much like a revolution. Indeed, it looks like the mother of all modern revolutions, the French Revolution of 1789.

Robespierre’s Children

In particular it looks like the Reign of Terror, which lasted from September of 1793 to July of 1794 and was directed largely by Maximilien Robespierre, head of the Jacobins. The main difference is that the Reign of Terror was carried out by revolutionaries who already had managed to gain control of the apparatus of the state.

The people wreaking havoc in the streets today haven’t gotten that far—yet— although they do have countless allies in government, and other centers of power, including the academy, the news media, the New York publishing world, and Hollywood.

Like Robespierre and his Jacobins, today’s rioters seek to put an end to every vestige of the old order and to use terror to usher in the new. Robespierre believed that there’s no room for “agreeing to disagree.” If your heart’s in the right place, you’ll agree with him; if not, you’re wrong by definition—and hence represent a danger to the revolution. Consequently, the preservation, protection, and perfection of the revolution depends on your extermination.

So that the revolution may live, you must die. So it is with today’s Antifa rioters.

It may sound harsh to you and me. But it doesn’t to them. And it didn’t to Robespierre, who believed he was on the side of virtue and justice and that the use of terror was an absolute necessity to advance virtue and justice. It was he and his confrères who introduced the idea of “thought crimes,” who initiated the widespread deployment of spies, and who pioneered the practice of encouraging citizens to denounce their friends and relatives for insufficient loyalty to the revolution.

For Robespierre, the revolution, once begun, was forever. The struggle was eternal; bloodshed was eternal; terror was eternal. As the revolution progressed, its leadership would fall into the hands of ever purer—which is to say, ever more fanatical—revolutionaries.

Hence the revolution would become increasingly refined, and demand ever greater purity of its champions. Those who failed to grow in purity would be exterminated. Over time, then, the revolution would devour more and more of its own. There would never be peace, there would never be utopia—only a never-ending road to utopia that was flooded with blood.

Today’s rioters didn’t start out as vandals and arsonists. Neither did Robespierre. As a young man, he was widely considered honest and noble in his goals. He was even given the nickname “The Incorruptible.” He believed in liberty and equality. He supported direct democracy and the rights of Protestants, Jews, and blacks. He opposed slavery and the restriction of the franchise to property owners. During the ancien régime, he was so opposed to the death penalty that he resigned from his position as a criminal court judge. Originally a supporter of constitutional monarchy, he gradually became a republican, and then, increasingly, a revolutionary zealot.

Safety Through Annihilation

Elected on the eve of the French Revolution to the Estates-General, which soon became the National Assembly, Robespierre was named secretary of that body within a year. No longer opposed to the death penalty, he worked to ensure the execution of the now-deposed Louis XVI, which took place on January 21, 1793.

On September 5, 1793, having become president of the National Convention and head of its executive body, the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre presided over the official and explicit introduction of terror as a means of preserving the revolution. Thus began the Reign of Terror. A few weeks later, in an act that shocked Europe, Marie Antoinette, the former queen, was executed.

Clearly, Robespierre’s way of thinking had altered dramatically. Now, in his mind, the concepts of virtue, justice, democracy, revolution, and terror were all intertwined. It was impossible, he believed, to pursue the revolution in a serious manner without arresting, trying, and guillotining its enemies.

Who were those enemies? The list kept broadening. It included clergy—the revolution was out to destroy the Catholic faith—and the rich. Over time Robespierre’s enemies list came to include many of France’s most prominent revolutionary leaders. As the historian John S. C. Abbott wrote: “The Jacobin leaders . . . felt that there was no safety in France but in the annihilation of all internal foes.”

The Girondins, who had started out as Jacobins but had called for a reduction in violence, were executed on October 31, 1793. When an official begged Robespierre to spare them, he replied: “Do not speak of it again. I cannot save them. There are periods in revolutions when to live is a crime and when men must know how to surrender their heads when demanded. And mine also will perhaps be required of me. You shall see if I dispute it.”

Another revolutionary, Jacques Hébert, and his followers, the Hébertists, who had called for the Reign of Terror to be even bloodier, were executed on March 24, 1794. Robespierre’s predecessor as head of the Committee of Public Safety, George Danton, who was sickened by the bloodshed and said, “I would rather be guillotined than be a guillotiner,” protested to Robespierre: “Do you not know at the pace we are going there will soon be no safety for any person?” Along with some of his acolytes, Danton, accused of the “treason of clemency,” was guillotined on April 5, 1794.

By this point, as historian Charles F. Warwick wrote in 1909, the Revolutionary Tribunal—the court that officially imposed the death sentences—“had no semblance of a court of justice, for it had become a charnel house. The judges, jurors, and prosecuting officers seemed lost to every sentiment of humanity. No mercy was shown even to mothers. One woman had her infant torn from her breast on the platform of a guillotine, and another was delivered of a child while on her way to execution. The cruel work was not interrupted by such incidents.”

How the Terror Ends

The historian Antoine-Étienne-Nicolas Fantin des Odoards had supported the Revolution, but now he was horrified by its results:

Every right, civil and political, was destroyed. Liberty of the press and of thought was at an end. The whole people were divided into two classes, the privileged and the proscribed. Property was wantonly violated….and justice stripped of every appearance of humanity and honor. France was covered with prisons; all the excesses of anarchy and despotism struggling amid a confused multitude of committees; terror in every heart; the scaffold devouring a hundred every day, and threatening to devour a still greater number; in every house melancholy and mourning, and in every street the silence of the tomb.

Meanwhile, Robespierre had taken radical actions that sought to transform drastically every aspect of life in France. There was a new calendar, in which the months had new names, the weeks were ten days long, the days were divided into ten hours of 100 minutes apiece, and 1789 became Year One. There was a new national religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. As with the “woke” radicals of today, there was no aspect of French life over which the revolutionaries did not seek to exercise control.

The Terror didn’t end until it swept up Robespierre himself, on July 28, 1794. He was 36. Since April 5, the date of Danton’s death, there had been 2,085 executions.

During the entire Terror, somewhere between 17,000 and 40,000 people—including, by one count, 350 nuns and 1,135 priests—had lost their lives in Robespierre’s purification campaign. But even after he had overseen the decapitation of so many people—including old friends and allies—he continued to see himself, as he put it in his last speech to the Convention, as one of the “friends of liberty” who’d overthrown “the power of tyrants.”

He rejected out of hand the idea that he himself was a tyrant. How could that be? He was the purest of the pure. He’d seen impurity all around him and eliminated it. He’d taken human lives in the name of humanity—indeed, in the name of love! As Hilaire Belloc would later write: “In his iron code of theory, we seem to hear the ghost of a Calvin.” That would be John Calvin, of course, the severe Protestant Reformation leader who, ruling Geneva from 1555 to 1564, ordered, in the name of the Gospel, the torture and execution of those who differed with him on fine points of theology.

In essence, this is what we’re seeing in the streets today: people who see things in black and white—not just in a racial sense—and who are certain of their own purity, certain that whatever gods may be are smiling on their works. As Warwick wrote of Robespierre: “If he believed in a Reign of Terror, it was as a means to secure a Reign of Virtue.”

That’s what our rioters today are up to, as well. What history has shown, alas, not only during the Reign of Terror but during the many 20th-century reigns of terror whose perpetrators learned from Robespierre’s example, is that the road to perfect virtue always leads to the Gulag, to Auschwitz, to the killing fields.