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Louis XVI Wasn't Killed by Ideas

This is what happens when you ignore the role of politics in intellectual history

The French Revolution jump-started modern political philosophy. Contemporaries immediately sensed that something momentous was happening, but what did it foretell? The very opening scenes drove the horrified Edmund Burke to lay down the basic principles of conservatism in 1790. Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine responded in a fury, vindicating the new idea of universal rights. As one shocking event succeeded another, intellectuals and politicians across Europe and the Americas struggled to figure out where they stood, what they accepted, and what they rejected. Liberalism emerged as one possible set of responses, and nationalism, socialism, and communism followed. For Marx, the bourgeois revolution of 1789 against aristocracy and feudalism presaged the proletarian revolution to come: he repeatedly referred to the French cataclysm and hoped one day to write a history of it. Like Marx, the French aristocrat Tocqueville aimed to write a book-length account of the revolution of 1789 but never did. Instead he wrote a preliminary study, The Old Regime and the Revolution, which brilliantly explicated the links between democracy and despotism in modern politics.

No other event in modern history has had a comparable resonance. The French Revolution had this astonishing impact because it repeatedly confounded everyone’s expectations. As if planted in a political hothouse, new political terms, organizations, ideologies, and tactics sprouted up one after another. As time went on, however, it began to seem more like a tangled tropical forest. A revolution that began in the name of liberty and the universal rights of man was choked by civil war, state-sponsored terror, a penchant for armed conquest, and the Napoleonic police state. Those in charge stumbled from one unforeseen political crisis to another, raising inevitable questions about the nature of the dynamic that fed the revolutionary process. 

The French Revolution gave rise to many kinds of revolutionary ideas, not to mention ideas about revolution—but was it made by ideas that were revolutionary from the outset? In his provocative and unrelenting book, Jonathan Israel insists that a “revolution of ideas” was “the motor and shaping force” of the French Revolution. By this, he means certain eighteenth-century ideas now familiar to those who have read his previous massive tomes on the European Enlightenment: “philosophy,” and more specifically “materialist-revolutionary philosophy.” His definition of the motor force seems very precise: “the real agent was the radical current [of Enlightenment philosophy] that rejected Locke and Montesquieu, which was promoted by Denis Diderot (1713-84), Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-71), and Paul-Henri-Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (1723-89).” Materialism and atheism were what powered the revolution. The very charge levied countless times by ultra-conservatives is embraced by Israel as much closer to the historical truth than historians could bring themselves to acknowledge.

Since none of these three instigators were alive at the time of the French Revolution (d’Holbach died a few months before July 1789), their materialist and supposedly democratic ideas had to be championed by others. Israel identifies a left-wing revolutionary leadership of journalists, editors, renegade priests, and turncoat nobles who rejected Christianity and embraced republicanism from as early as 1788. This shifting group of “philosophers of the Third Estate” immediately took the offensive in 1789, even when not elected to office, and pushed through sweeping reforms of every aspect of French life. They upheld freedom of the press, defended the rights of religious minorities, agitated for the abolition of slavery and rights for women, oversaw the abolition of nobility, and eventually toppled the monarchy and established the first republic in French history. Things went wrong in June 1793 when Robespierre, a mawkish adept of Rousseau, overthrew the true republicans in a coup and installed an authoritarian populist regime that perverted the democratic and atheistic course of the revolution. Indeed, according to Israel, Robespierre’s regime amounted to nothing less than “an early form of modern fascism.”  

Illustration by Sam Vanallemeersch

There are many problems with this account, beginning with its premises. The first of these is that materialist philosophy—the contention that everything in nature (including humans) is but matter in motion—and democratic politics necessarily go together. Diderot, Helvétius, and D’Holbach are not easy to characterize politically because they wrote primarily on other matters, and because they published their most important works at a time when the French monarchy still punished its critics, thereby encouraging literary circumspection. Their political positions can be termed radical in the sense of questioning traditional practices, but they usually have been interpreted as supporting constitutional monarchy or monarchical reform (Diderot went to Russia to consult with Catherine II), and in the case of d’Holbach, even despotism when needed. Like Voltaire, d’Holbach argued that the “absolute power” of a ruler could be justified when it was used to reform abuses.

However one judges the political opinions of these three thinkers, what matters is their influence on their supposed followers, the “authors of the authentic Revolution of human rights, equality, and free expression.” It is not easy to trace the impact of specific thinkers on men and women caught up in the coils of revolutionary change. In the speeches given in the various national assemblies between 1789 and 1793, all of them now searchable online, d’Holbach is never mentioned. Helvétius and Diderot come up only a handful of times, and almost always in a list with others, most notably Rousseau. Rousseau, by contrast, is everywhere, even in the thoughts of Israel’s most cherished defender of the supposedly authentic revolution, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a mercurial and contradictory figure who went to the guillotine in 1793 in one of the early show trials of the revolution.

Although Israel seeks time and again to establish distance between his heroes and Rousseau’s positions, his arguments almost always seem forced. Brissot, he says, disagreed with Rousseau on many points, and his debt to the Genevan “has sometimes been rather exaggerated.” Yet Brissot refers to Rousseau repeatedly in his memoirs and often quite familiarly as “Jean Jacques.” Diderot and Helvétius, by contrast, turn up only a few times and almost always alongside others, especially Voltaire. Brissot’s references to Jean Jacques are especially telling (there is no Denis, Claude, or Paul, needless to say) because he, like many people of his time, felt an intense personal connection with Rousseau, making it a point, for example, to visit places mentioned fondly in Rousseau’s Confessions or in his best-selling novel Julie

This kind of nuance, even evidence, escapes Israel because he thinks about philosophy and philosophers in obsessively dichotomous terms. On the one side are Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach, the true radicals because they are materialists, atheists, and allegedly therefore democrats. Without atheism and materialism, Israel claims, “it was impossible to champion the far-reaching reforms needed for a worldwide emancipation, secularization, and rationalization of society and culture.” On the other side are the insufficiently radical philosophers whose influence can lead to no good: Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Their refusal of atheism and materialism stunts their views.

Montesquieu has to be jettisoned in such an intellectual genealogy because the constitutional monarchists who wanted to emulate Great Britain cited him as their source. Not only that, white planters used his arguments about climate to justify slavery. Israel finds it necessary to note, in addition, that Montesquieu was not an abolitionist, even though abolitionism only gained a toehold in France two decades or more after Montesquieu’s death. Israel’s own text shows that even the supposed radicals invoked Helvétius and Montesquieu in the same breath.

While Voltaire gets an occasional pat on the back from Israel for initiating the struggle against religious intolerance, he, like Rousseau, is disparaged as a timorous deist. Israel’s prime philosophical target is Rousseau. The true revolutionaries had to reject Rousseau’s major tenets because the “uncompromising antilibertarianism, anti-intellectualism, and chauvinism of Robespierre’s Revolution justified itself in large part by appealing to emotional, sentimental aspects of Rousseau, whereas opposing Robespierre’s ideology inevitably meant questioning much of Rousseau from the critical perspectives of Diderot, d’Holbach, Helvétius, Naigeon and Condorcet.”

Israel’s list of inspirational thinkers soon grows to include not only forefathers but also some actual contemporaries of the French Revolution. Who, one might ask, is Naigeon, and how could someone who published only one pamphlet concerning revolutionary choices be a major influence in combating the fearsome Robespierre? Jacques André Naigeon’s pamphlet, which appeared in 1790, favored unlimited freedom of opinion, especially as concerns religion, but the reason that he is mentioned by Israel is that he was an acolyte of Diderot and d’Holbach who wrote outspoken atheist and materialist tracts. After the Terror he became disenchanted and turned against the revolution. Naigeon was not alone in loathing the Terror “with every fiber of his being,” but that hardly makes him a major intellectual source. 

The world-famous aristocratic mathematician Condorcet is a much more serious candidate because he took the lead before 1789 in opposing slavery and after 1789 in advocating equal rights for women. If anyone is an unblemished hero of human rights, it is Condorcet. Unlike Naigeon, however, Condorcet saw considerable merit in those who embraced something less than atheism and materialism. He published laudatory biographies of Voltaire and the economist and royal minister Turgot. But is there any evidence for the supposed radicals marshaling Condorcet’s philosophy to criticize Rousseau and challenge Robespierre? Condorcet certainly differed with Rousseau, but even he recognized that no other modern thinker had had a greater influence on his fellow revolutionaries. Rousseau, he conceded, “had the talent of possessing the soul of his readers.”

In any case, like their opponents, Israel’s authentic revolutionaries were much too preoccupied with current political issues to discuss the fine points of interpretation of Rousseau, much less Condorcet’s own complex and always evolving views, which are still being sorted out two centuries later. Brissot, for example, says not a word about Condorcet’s political philosophy in his memoirs, referring only to his specific political actions. Few of the leading revolutionaries wrote memoirs, moreover, in part because so many, like Condorcet, died prematurely, whether executed as traitors, in prison awaiting trial, or by their own hand. Condorcet spent many months in hiding after the order for his arrest in October 1793, and shortly after being caught in March 1794, he was found dead in his cell.

While the source of Condorcet’s differences with Robespierre may have some philosophical foundation (Robespierre did not write philosophical tracts, so it is hard to tell), their conflicts were chiefly political; and since they were often concerned with life-and-death political choices, they easily became personal. In April 1792, for instance, Condorcet’s newspaper insinuated that Robespierre might be a secret agent of the king. France had just declared war on Austria, a war supported by Condorcet and opposed by Robespierre. But Robespierre did not invent personal vilification; every camp used the tactic to shore up its own position, and Robespierre himself was an early and frequent target.

Condorcet and Robespierre were both elected deputies to the National Convention in September 1792 and had countless occasions on which to disagree. Condorcet abstained in the vote on sentencing the king to death, whereas Robespierre argued vociferously for death. But they also had much on which to agree: Condorcet was elected to the Committee of General Defense, later called the Committee of Public Safety, which was Robespierre’s main arena for exercising power. Most importantly, they both ended up supporting a republican form of government, and where Condorcet had preached abolitionism, Robespierre and the supposed proto-fascists actually abolished slavery in February 1794. Robespierre was not the misogynist that Israel makes him out to be, and Condorcet, when given the chance to draft a constitution for the republic in 1793, did not propose giving the vote to women. Politics is not just about ideals; it is also about taking as many steps as possible at a given moment toward a particular goal. What one says in a philosophical tract is not the same as what one says in an editorial and not the same as what one says on the floor of an assembly, in a committee meeting, or among one’s friends.

Israel has no feel for politics, which would not matter if he did not want to fuse ideas and politics. Nowhere is this lack of discernment more evident than in the ever-changing cast of characters who make up his authentic revolutionary leadership. Since he wants to tie every libertarian social and legal reform to materialist and atheist antecedents, he has to find his left-wing protagonists where he can. In the early chapters he makes much of the Abbé Sieyès, his leading renegade priest, and Mirabeau, the chief turncoat noble. Sieyès “initially led the campaign for human rights,” and Mirabeau provided the most influential draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen—or so Israel argues, once again selectively presenting his evidence. Sieyès apparently counts as a philosophical materialist because he considered happiness to be the supreme human goal, a position that he shared not just with the materialist-atheist triumvirate but also with countless others including Saint-Just, the right-hand man of il duce Robespierre. Saint-Just proclaimed that happiness was “a new idea in Europe,” but in fact it was so widely embraced that “the pursuit of happiness” could figure as a fundamental right in the Declaration of Independence, which expressly invokes God as Creator and Supreme Judge. 

Sieyès and Mirabeau, Israel has to admit, were constitutional monarchists, but only “minimally.” In their hearts they were already republicans—until they changed their minds and reverted to the center. It turned out that Mirabeau was secretly working for the king, and Sieyès not only invented the distinction between “passive” and “active” citizens (denounced by Robespierre as undemocratic) but also later orchestrated Bonaparte’s takeover, famously remarking that “authority must come from above and confidence from below.” 

Since Sieyès and Mirabeau prove disappointing as exemplars of the wondrous work of atheist materialists, others have to be brought in, but the list is always fluctuating, and not because those on it are being killed off. (Robespierre and Saint-Just met their ends at the guillotine, too.) Names come and go because it is nearly impossible to win the trifecta: to espouse atheistic materialism and republicanism before 1789 and then actively promote policies during the revolution intended to realize those ideals. Contrary to what Israel would like his readers to believe, virtually no one in 1789 had such a checklist already in hand. The convinced atheists such as Naigeon had no influence, or at least not in the ways that Israel expects. Atheists did not dream up the measures taken against the Catholic Church in 1790–1791, and citations of ultra-reactionary archbishops to that effect will not make it so; the majority of deputies, including monarchists and many reforming priests, supported (when they did not initiate) the measures to confiscate church properties and require clerical oaths of loyalty. The deputies had no interest in separating church and state; they aimed to strengthen the state’s authority and lessen the church’s independence, which had long been goals of the monarchy as well.

Israel’s intellectual history, as he calls it, falls apart because the foundations are flawed, and the detailed political narrative that he develops does not support it. Countless examples could be cited, but one can serve to illustrate the flaws in the workmanship. No one will miss the implication of the title of the chapter called “Robespierre’s Putsch (June 1793),” since the word “putsch” was never used before 1919. The suggestion, of course, is that Robespierre is like Hitler, whose “beer hall putsch” of 1923 failed, in that Robespierre used force to get his way against the authentic republicans, led by Brissot. The Robespierrists were losing ground, Israel claims, so they used attacks on grocers and bakers to inflame the “anarchic” lower classes who had no understanding of the true political stakes. Yet the arrest ordered of twenty-nine deputies on June 2, 1793, among them Brissot, hardly resembles Hitler’s putsch, except perhaps in the chaos and confusion of its unfolding. Robespierre did not appear at the head of thousands of armed and uniformed paramilitaries with the aim of seizing power. By Israel’s own account, Robespierre is never seen to be doing anything, and until the very last minute it is far from clear that popular pressure will succeed in forcing the arrest of any deputies. So Israel once again backtracks in an effort save his version of history, this time by arguing that the putsch was in fact the work of four different factions who now begin to fight among themselves. 

An intellectual history of the French Revolution is indeed desirable, and Israel has contributed some important elements toward constructing one. Sometimes historians of the French Revolution bend over backward in the other direction, imagining that political or social interests always superseded philosophical and religious ones. Israel reminds us that ideas have a power of their own, and he has made a good case for an undercurrent of republicanism before 1789, rising closer to the surface among those, such as Brissot, who traveled to the new United States, or Condorcet, who had American friends and followed political developments there closely. But Israel’s fixation on atheistic materialism prevents him from noticing that the messianic quality of Brissotian republicanism had some negative qualities as well: it propelled the French into wars against the monarchical powers in the name of liberation but brought in its stead occupation and even a form of colonialism. 

A convincing intellectual history of the French Revolution would have to be less grandiose about the power of ideas. Israel is disdainful of previous scholars’ efforts to explain the French Revolution because they do not agree on its causes. How could the one cause everyone agrees on—that a debt crisis occasioned by French support of the Americans in their War of Independence pushed the regime into bankruptcy—be sufficient to explain the advent of universal human rights, the abolition of slavery, and the establishment of a democratic republic? In his view, “it is not even remotely plausible” that such a foundational transformation could be explained by anything other than an equally grand cause, such as a revolution in ideas.

It is hard to imagine a more telling example of the failure to comprehend how politics works. No law of history dictates that dramatic outcomes must have dramatic causes. We have learned, moreover, that a sovereign debt crisis can have quite momentous consequences, precisely because it opens the door to political and social unrest. The threat of bankruptcy in France in 1788–1789 led to a constitutional crisis that transformed France into a constitutional monarchy, which for its own reasons failed to stabilize the situation, so that increasingly radical and democratic solutions became imaginable, and so on. New situations bring new causes into the mix. The causes at work in 1789 need to explain only what happens then, not what happens ever after.

Israel’s palette is too black and white for any such subtleties. He is always right, and so are his heroes. Since there is no room for discussion, there is no sense of puzzlement or discovery. In contrast, Tocqueville’s account remains so powerful a century and a half after its publication because he worked out of a sense of bafflement. Even after offering a trenchant account of “how, towards the middle of the eighteenth century, men of letters became the principal political men of the country” (the title of one of his chapters), Tocqueville confessed to a friend his lingering uncertainty: “Independently of all that can be explained about the French Revolution, there is something unexplained in its spirit and in its acts. I can sense the presence of this unknown object, but despite all my efforts, I cannot lift the veil that covers it.” History, and especially the history of an event such as the French Revolution, can never be pinned down like a dead butterfly in a display case. Some part of it always escapes us, and we know it better if we admit its elusiveness, and accept the help of others in our studies, and retain some humble sense of our own limitations.