The French Revolution Is Still a Work in Progress

Alexis Corbière

Today’s French political leaders are more likely to present the Jacobins as bloody authoritarians than forerunners of modern democracy. But redeeming their legacy is key to understanding the Revolution’s unfulfilled promise.

Painting of the storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789, by Charles Thevenin. (Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Interview by
Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

Foreign observers often call France’s political model “Jacobin” — a byword for a strongly centralized state that imposes a uniformizing civic order from above. Yet, admiration for the real Jacobins of the revolutionary era is hardly unanimous in today’s France. In recent decades, historians like François Furet cast the Terror as the forerunner of modern totalitarianism, and on the bicentennial in 1989, Maximilien Robespierre’s name was largely absent. While the Republic pays lip service to “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the legacy of the Revolution and its different leaders remains controversial.

Not all political forces are similarly willing to reduce the Jacobins and their plebeian supporters to architects of bloodshed and division. An MP for the left-wing France Insoumise, Alexis Corbière is author of Jacobins! Les inventeurs de la République. A former high school history teacher, Corbière emphasizes the emancipatory promise of this era. His account also foregrounds figures like Jean-Baptiste Belley — a former slave who fought in the American and Haitian Revolutions before becoming the first black member of France’s National Assembly.

In an interview for Le Vent se Lève, Corbière spoke to Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet about the importance of the Revolution to French republican identity and why defending the Jacobins’ legacy remains a political battleground in the present.

Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

You set your book in a particular historiographical tradition, pointing out how far disputes over the past can shape the perceptions and political behavior of the present. Could you tell us about the political role played by a historiography hostile to the Jacobins, as it developed at the end of the twentieth century around figures like François Furet?

Alexis Corbière

First off, we should look at the moment of the first centenary of the French Revolution, in 1889. The Third Republic was looking for role models from the Revolution to celebrate, but ones who hadn’t gone too far on social issues. [Georges] Danton rose to prominence in this sense, even though in reality he was a much more textured figure than the one portrayed by the Third Republic. So, 1889 was the moment when the opposition between Danton and Robespierre came to the fore.

If we move forward a little in time, we come to the period when the French Communist Party (PCF) exerted a certain influence. With the Popular Front, the PCF took a national turn and, in the words of leader Maurice Thorez, combined the folds of the red flag with those of the tricolor. At the time of the 150th anniversary in 1939, and in the years leading up to it, the Communists often referred to the Revolution. But they copied the model of the Russian Revolution onto the French Revolution. The Jacobins were presented as the precursors of the Bolsheviks and Robespierre was compared to Lenin.

The Left upheld this legacy until the 1980s. But at the moment of the bicentenary in 1989, François Furet launched an ideological offensive that divided the Revolution into two periods: the liberal years from 1789 to 1792, which put an end to the shackles of the Ancien Régime; but then, from the end of 1792 to the summer of 1794 — i.e., from the advent of the Republic to the fall of Robespierre — the time when everything went wrong. The second half of the Revolution was likened to a proto-totalitarianism.

These arguments had quite a powerful impact. Robespierre was excluded from the bicentenary celebrations. People like Olympe de Gouges, surely an interesting figure, were highlighted, although it should be remembered that her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen, of which few copies were printed, had very little influence on events. Furet’s liberal interpretation was long dominant and insinuated that we could have done without this Revolution.

This was also the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the end of the great ideologies, and many parallels were drawn between the Communist system and the Montagnards. Today we must fight this ideology, not to defend museum pieces, but because these issues are so topical. The word “Republic” has come back with a vengeance in public debate — the party of the conservative right is called Les Républicains. There is now an exhortation to be “republican” — and of course I am one, but we need to define exactly what we are talking about.

Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

Your book takes us deep into the life of the clubs, the sansculottes, the plebeian Paris that is often described as a gigantic cauldron of revolution. What role did popular pressure play in the upsurge and radicalization of the revolutionary movement?

Alexis Corbière

My Jacobins would not have had the same energy behind them if there hadn’t been a popular urban movement, the sansculottes, which historian Albert Soboul presented so magnificently in his study written in the 1960s. The driving force behind the Revolution was this popular movement, which exerted constant pressure on all its debates. Under popular pressure, the Jacobins split: on the right, the Club des Feuillants broke away, Jacobin branches sprang up all over France, speeches were read, letters were sent, ideas circulated…

The big difference is that today Paris is mainly home to the winners of globalization; at the time, the city was quite the opposite. The capital was inhabited by a mass of craftsmen and workers, small shopkeepers, and people who sold their labor on a day-to-day basis — these were the beginnings of waged labor. These popular masses exerted constant pressure on events because they believed that the Declaration of the Rights of Man should be applied in practice.

We are talking about a time when the price of bread had never been so high and famine was looming as a result of events in the provinces. The government had to find answers under pressure from the people of Paris, who were taking part in debates in the various assemblies, demonstrating and petitioning, invading the Convention, occupying the galleries, shouting and screaming, and enforcing their rights by abrupt means.

The popular violence was extremely powerful. Anyone suspected of hoarding bread risked having their door broken down by people who came to settle their scores with speculators who made others starve. Popular pressure was behind all the major events: the uprising of August 10, 1792, the massacres of September 1792, the fall of the Girondins… the Montagnards sought to channel this violence and respond to it politically. As Danton put it: “Let’s be terrible so that the people don’t have to be.” Laws of exception were proclaimed because, without them, people would settle their scores themselves.

I chose to talk about the Jacobins because in today’s public debate, “Jacobin” has become a repulsive, confusing word, especially when Emmanuel Macron proposes a “Girondin pact” [for administrative decentralization] to the country. However, I am well aware that these Jacobins would have remained powerless and disarmed if there had not been, in the first place, a powerful popular movement taking part in political debates. Let’s not take a cold, bureaucratic view of the Revolution.

Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

You define Robespierrism as “the Declaration of the Rights of Man in action.” Is it possible to define an ideology specific to Robespierre or the Jacobins? What distinguishes them from more moderate groups like the Girondins?

Alexis Corbière

These were people who evolved as events unfolded. From the outset, Robespierre was familiar with the debates on political economy: he knew [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, he knew [Gabriel Bonnot de] Mably. He was someone who took the Declaration of the Rights of Man seriously. He saw clearly that the law of “laissez-faire, laissez-passer” and the [economic] liberalism that was taking root would not allow for the satisfaction of popular expectations. Robespierre’s feeling for the people and his attentiveness to their suffering led him to evolve — and to look for answers in the regulation of the economy.

The Jacobins came from the small and middle bourgeoisie, but they could not be described as “bourgeois.” What characterized them between 1792 and Thermidor of Year II was that they wanted to provide concrete solutions to the difficulties the people faced. Like the others, Robespierre evolved between 1789 and his death at the end of July 1794. But the core of the Montagnard Republic was the belief that the public authorities should intervene against the total freedom of the market and the inequalities that it generated and perpetuated.

The leading thinker for the “Girondins” was Jacques-Pierre Brissot. The Brissotins believed that equal legal rights were enough to fulfill the promises of the Revolution and that the public authorities should avoid intervening in the economy; whereas the Montagnards believed that the urgent demands expressed by the popular movement required measures be taken.

In any case, we should be wary of imposing our contemporary interpretations on these figures by assuming that they belonged to political parties and had well-defined programs. Above all, they all wanted to save the revolutionary cause. One of the dividing lines was about whether the revolutionary dynamic should be stopped or continued, whether the Revolution should be considered complete or, on the contrary, go further. For instance, faced with the disorder stirred up by the “enragés” faction, the Montagnards chose to supress the most radical elements, which would pose a problem for the Robespierrists during Thermidor.

We are talking about people who wanted a Republic capable of fighting its enemies, taking care of the poorest citizens, and organizing the redistribution of wealth. The Jacobins believed that the Revolution had not brought down one aristocracy only to replace it with another — in Robespierre’s words, “the most intolerable of all, that of the rich.” The Jacobins did not see the Republic as a neutral regime, just a state governed by the rule of law, a system of formal legal rules. Their project was widely supported by the people, which explains the Revolution’s victories over its enemies at the beginning of 1794. To realize it, they were in favor of a strong leadership taking decisions. This was the mission of the great Committee of Public Safety of Year II.

Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

Jacobinism is often criticized for promoting the idea that the people is a homogenous, monolithic entity, without any kind of internal conflict producing fractures within it. Yet we can only be struck by the conflictual dimension of Jacobinism, which constantly drew new dividing lines and pointed out new enemies of the people. What was the Jacobins’ relationship with conflict?

Alexis Corbière

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people who were at the head of a country in a state of war. The Jacobins in my book were trying to save a revolution under attack from Austria, Piedmont, and the whole of Europe. Political debate was organized within this constrained framework. In summer 1793, they declared that “the government will be revolutionary until peace is achieved.” This was the source of constant tension — and of their striking against anyone who might weaken the Revolution. Jean Jaurès wrote that “they wanted death to create the immediate unanimity around them that they needed.” I wouldn’t want us to impose a present-day model of political action on men and women from the eighteenth century, in a moment of agitation and exhaustion when they were fighting a war and risking their lives.

As far as revolutionary conflict is concerned, there was indeed a moment when, in order to settle debates and make them intelligible, the political vocabulary had to find ways to identify adversaries and mobilize supporters. But we shouldn’t fuel a one-sided vision in which Robespierre and his friends were the only ones to use conflict. Let’s take the example of dechristianization. Robespierre was greatly opposed to this. He did not want the peasants to be alienated by issues that he considered secondary. Once the power of the Church had been curbed, he felt that acts of vandalism — the word was invented by Abbé Grégoire — against places of worship added unnecessary conflict at a time when it was better to concentrate on the essentials.

As for the supposed Jacobin monolithism, we can take the example of language. Contrary to a certain legend, it was only the [late nineteenth-century] Third Republic that imposed the French language. The Jacobins were far from doing so. All that mattered to them was that the Revolution should be understood by a country where only a small proportion of the population really spoke French. The Jacobins were not opposed to several languages being spoken, but they wanted French to be learned and known by all citizens — otherwise, how could we have a Republic?

The revolutionary and Jacobin political vocabulary is certainly rich in conflict. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about a country with no democratic tradition, where there was a war on, and all political discourse used a vocabulary of mobilization. I don’t know whether we need to go any further in theorizing a Jacobin vocabulary that we would no doubt find in other periods when the country is gripped by threats.

Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

You also devote a chapter to Jean-Baptiste Belley, the first black member of parliament, and to the struggles for what was known at the time as “skin equality”…

Alexis Corbière

What an extraordinary life Belley had! [In 2019,] all the France Insoumise MPs jointly signed a letter asking the president of the National Assembly to welcome to the Assembly the painting by Anne-Louis Girodet, currently at Versailles, which depicts Jean-Baptiste Belley, the first black MP in France’s history, dressed as a member of the Convention and wearing a tricolor scarf. I love this figure, who was born in Senegal and brought to Saint-Domingue as a slave. He was eventually emancipated, took part in the birth of the United States by fighting against the British in Savannah, Georgia, and then took part in the events of the French Revolution.

In 1789, the rights of man and the citizen were proclaimed, but slavery was not abolished. After three years of intense debate on the subject, in 1792 the legislature agreed to equal rights for whites and “free coloreds” — as mixed-race men were known. When two representatives of the National Assembly arrived in Saint-Domingue to put this decision into practice, the colonists would not hear of it. The black slaves rose up, finally siding with the representatives of the National Assembly and helping to win the war against the colonists.

It was a revolution within a revolution, and the former slaves imposed the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue on August 29, 1793. Six deputies were elected — two whites, two mixed-race, and two blacks, including Belley — to represent the island, announce the decision in Paris, and have it ratified by the Convention. Belley’s journey was extraordinary: he passed through New York and the colonists tried to assassinate him. He finally arrived in Paris and entered the Convention on February 4, 1794, where he was welcomed and acclaimed. Officially, the first abolition of slavery is dated to this moment, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it was the slaves of Saint-Domingue who forced it to happen.

So, I believe that the life of this first black MP is a powerful symbol of the political strength and universalist dimension of the French Revolution. Belley is a major figure in our republican and national history, who deserves at least to have his name passed down with the same attention as that of Victor Schoelcher, who played a central role in the second abolition of slavery in 1848, after its reinstatement by Napoleon I. I regret that Belley is virtually unknown today and can only hope my book will help correct this historical injustice.

Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

You return to the traditional opposition between the figures of Robespierre and Danton, and you write: “The time is past when in order to appreciate one you had to hate the other.” Have you reconciled yourself with Danton?

Alexis Corbière

In August-September 1792, when the country was in danger, Danton was a minister. He opposed the government and the Assembly leaving the capital, in his famous speech: “Boldness, more boldness, always boldness, and France is saved.” This patriot who saved the nation should remain part of our pantheon. He had the energy of a political leader, but he was also a man of action who played a decisive role.

I think it’s a shame that the largely artificial opposition between him and Robespierre that was constructed during the Third Republic forces us to choose. He was undoubtedly a corrupt individual, but many were corrupt at that time. His friends certainly were, and he also found himself embroiled in the scandal around Charles François Dumouriez, the energetic general who won at Valmy and whom Danton supported before his defection [to the Austrians].

Finally, in March 1794, at a time when plots and doubts were everywhere, the Committee of Public Safety feared that a new popular uprising would topple the Revolution once and for all. With two opposing factions conspiring, the committee decided to strike first at the followers of [Jacques] Hébert, and shortly afterward at the “indulgents,” who were close to Danton. This “drama of Germinal,” as the historian Soboul called it, was a complete political error. Danton was swept away with his gang — Camille Desmoulins, Fabre d’Églantine, etc.

Robespierre was not a man of the streets, he did not take part in the great revolutionary journées [days of uprisings], he was not a “mass leader” to put it in today’s terms; unlike Danton. The memory of his life ought not disappear. But what was their main disagreement?

Consider the role of fear and fatigue. Robespierre withdrew for six weeks at the beginning of summer 1794, exhausted and already angry with a lot of people. When he returned to the Committee of Public Safety he fell out with most of the other members. People shouted — witnesses could hear them from the street and the meeting room had to be moved — and Robespierre left, slamming the door. On the eve of 9 Thermidor, Robespierre made a speech that threatened only a small number of people in name — but frightened everyone.

[Louis Antoine de] Saint-Just, who was no longer completely behind Robespierre, attempted conciliation, announcing that he was going to work on a speech and promising Bertrand Barère and Jacques-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne that he would have them check it before he delivered it. Finally, he worked on it all night and went straight to the Convention. There was an atmosphere of general paranoia. The historian Jean-Clément Martin tells us something interesting about this. Two days later, a large military parade was planned. Robespierre’s opponents were worried about a military coup because the student soldiers were led by people close to Robespierre.

On 9 Thermidor / July 27, 1794, Saint-Just gave his speech, which began with the phrase, “I belong to no faction, I will fight all of them.” In reality, the speech was fairly conciliatory, but Saint-Just’s presence on the rostrum without the approval of the rest of the Committee of Public Safety was enough to unleash the deputies’ passions. Saint-Just remained silent in the crowd, at a loss for words. From then on, one event followed another: Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Georges Couthon were arrested. Robespierre was released, but hesitated, the resistance was not organized, and events could have been different…

The aim of this book is to convey this story in all its complexity and beauty. We cannot accept the way in which our great national narrative is being amputated from this history. I see in this amputation a desire to dissuade our contemporaries from starting a new revolution tomorrow.

Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

As a history teacher and political activist, you’d already written a book on Maximilien Robespierre in 2012. Your more recent book Jacobins! is devoted to nine figures from this revolutionary club. How does studying history feed into political action, and yours in particular?

Alexis Corbière

I’ve always believed that cultural battles are decisive in politics, and that cultural victories precede electoral ones. What’s at stake in the battle I’m entering into with this book? It’s quite simple. You can’t make people love the Republic — and here I’m talking about republican ideals, not the authoritarian shell of the current Fifth Republic — if you make them hate those who invented it and formed the most advanced wing of the Revolution, the ones who fought to ensure that the Republic answered social demands.

This is connected to a certain ideological offensive we see today, which seeks to turn the French Revolution into a moment of darkness and confusion, one according to which nothing is worth remembering about it except the Terror. It wants to tell us that even if revolutions begin with admirable ideals, they always end badly. This is what many cultural endeavors are telling us today. I’m thinking especially of Stéphane Bern’s Secrets d’Histoire, a program on the public broadcaster, funded by our taxes, which sometimes attracts over 2.5 million viewers. I’ve done the math: since 2007, in 134 episodes hosted by Bern, only four have been devoted to republican figures. The rest are about kings, queens, favorites, and courtiers — in short, a history of the powerful that blurs the history of the people. Who will tell the general public the history of the people and not just that of their masters?

So, we have the problem of restoring our shared history to its proper place. The ideological stakes are obvious. This controversy can sometimes be found in unexpected products like video games. Jean-Luc Mélenchon and I joined a debate about Assassin’s Creed Unity. It was a magnificent game with a highly developed universe, but it rehashed various anti-Jacobin clichés. In this game, Robespierre, for example, was involved in trading human skins! So, our counteroffensive needs waging on all fronts: at the cinema, on TV and radio, with history books, video games, and all manner of cultural products. As I see it, this kind of hostile commentary is about turning the Revolution into an inherently brutal event and its leading figures into hideous, violent characters.

So why have I written this book? First of all, I’d like to point out that its title is Jacobins! in the plural. That’s to show that this club, which has an illustrious name but remains so little known, brought together many figures, often with exceptional backgrounds. They didn’t always agree with each other, but they pooled their intelligence to drive forward a revolution in the face of immense difficulties. I’m interested in getting to know some of the personalities at the heart of this debate and trying to capture the atmosphere of intellectual ferment.

I’ll return to my starting point, the cultural battle. The underlying aim of my book is to rehabilitate these figures in order to show the relevance of the ideas for which they gave their lives. This book aims to place history at a human level, on the scale of individuals, some well-known, others less so. Finally, my ambition, as you will have gathered, is to tear off the caricatured mask with which some people are dressed, to rekindle the flame of an intellectual fire that could be useful in the future.

Lenny Benbara, Vincent Ortiz, and Antoine Cargoet

In your introduction, you mention the pervasiveness of the imaginary of the French Revolution, even in a recent movement like the gilets jaunes. In what sense do you think this movement stemmed from the long history of the French passion for equality?

Alexis Corbière

From primary school onward, every child in our country is taught — and it’s a great thing, too — that it was during a great popular revolution that new and universal political and social rights were proclaimed and somehow applied. We learn that a prison that stood for tyranny was torn down by the people and that this event became a national celebration, that the King was executed for having betrayed and plotted against the Revolution, and that the monarchy gave way to a republican system headed by an assembly elected by universal suffrage (though it was male-only).

The fact that these founding acts were carried out by a mobilized people, claiming its own sovereignty, is deeply rooted in our shared history. It even makes for a broad cultural hegemony in French society. It is part of a unique shared national identity. I noted that the gilets jaunes, as soon as they got together, showed their knowledge of this history. They wore Phrygian bonnets, waved the tricolor flag, and sang La Marseillaise, a national anthem whose revolutionary dimension, and in particular the refrain “To arms, citizens!,” is not lost on anyone.

This imaginary is still alive and well and has not lost its meaning. We should also mention the work of the Plein le dos collective, which has collected photos and slogans written on the protesters’ yellow vests and inspired by the French Revolution. These thousands of slogans again marched through cities across France, referring to 1789 and the storming of the Bastille, expressing the revolutionary “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” and many other examples.

I also pointed out, following Gérard Noiriel, that one of the best-known songs of the French Revolution, La Carmagnole, also refers to a vest — a red one, worn in particular by the Jacobins. History is woven from these invisible threads that link the present to the past, whether they are deliberately chosen or the product of chance.

The return of revolutionary symbols expresses an old French passion for equality. The Republic only makes sense if it organizes popular sovereignty and if it is social. To fight for a vibrant democracy, for more justice, for more equality, is in keeping with French history. But the people taking action today do not live in nostalgia for the past. The yellow vest — a compulsory item for motorists and, for many, their work clothing — was an unprecedented symbol, and it [represented] people’s keen desire to break out of invisibility.