Revolutionary Violence Christopher Lilley A HEROINE, MALE CITIZENS AND FEMALE CITIZENS

Revolutionary Violence
Christopher Lilley
THE HEROINE pointing to the arc de triomphe
Musical Interlude
Worthy children of Mars, end your wait!
Avenge suffering humanity!
Liberty calls you to combat;
We are burning to follow your steps.
To the tyrants of Europe we will bring war:
It is time to purge the earth
Of Phalarises, of Geryons!
Topple their thrones of lava,
Crush their scepters of bronze;
Break their shackles of mankind:
Let us destroy the name of slave.
Let us destroy the name of slave:
And break the shackles of mankind! 1
In the words of Stanley Hoffman “violence was indeed a mark of the French
Revolution.” 2 Separating violence from the French Revolution is as meaningless as trying to put
the sun out with a water pistol. Such an attempt would be inadvisable and nearly impossible.
What started with a series of attempted legislative reform led to the most violent of all possible
changes: the execution of the King and a complete break with hundreds of years of tradition and
monarchy. Unfortunately, the initial focus of the violence on freedom and liberty was replaced
with mass executions and terror like cataracts over an eye. Violence is a key factor in the
Act II Scene I
Stanley Hoffmann, “A Note on the French Revolution and the Language of Violence,” The
Journal of Modern History 56, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 149.
ultimate failure of the revolution. Authors Mona Ozouf, Gunther E. Rothenberg, and Stanley
Hoffmann all write about violence during the French Revolution. 3 The question is exactly how
violence was used during the French Revolution. Based upon a study of these three essays there
are three important types of violence used during the French Revolution: the rhetorical violence,
revolutionary warfare, and ultimately the Terror itself.
Violent rhetoric reinforced the militancy of the French Revolution. In his rhetorical study
of French Revolutionary violence Stanley Hoffmann argues that the strongly unitary
communitarian language of the latter half of the French Revolution led to violence and paranoia.
First he quotes a portion of one of Robespierre’s speeches: “We want to substitute in our land
immorality for egotism, probity for honor, principles for customs, ethics for propriety, the rule of
reason for the tyranny of fashion, disdain for vice for disdain for misfortune, self-respect for
insolence… In the system of the French Revolution what is immoral is impolitic, what is
corruptive is counterrevolutionary.” 4 With language this strong it is easy to imagine a powerful
speaker such as Robespierre castigating a foe as a counterrevolutionary simply for not adhering
to a specific virtue strongly enough. In response to this Hoffmann asks:
What was the significance of this language? It has a number of features that one will find,
of course, in other revolutions again. There is the underlying myth of unanimity and of
unity, the idea that all the people would be united and transparent, open to one another, if
it were not for the traitors, for the criminals. In this view, behind which lurks Rousseau,
division and conflict are not natural at all. Division is a crime, and it is the product of
Mona Ozouf, “War and Terror in French Revolutionary Discourse (1792-1794),” The Journal
of Modern History 56, no. 4 (December 1984): 579-597; Gunther E. Rothenberg, “The Origins,
Causes and Extension of the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon,” The Journal of
Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (Spring 1988): 771-793; Hoffmann, “A Note,” 149-156.
Hoffmann, “A Note,” 150.
plots, factions, and intrigues. This leads, inevitably, to the politics of paranoia. There are
multiple kinds of enemies; there are new ones everyday, like mushrooms after the rain.
And even they belong to all imaginable categories, they are all part of a system that can
only be dealt with by purges. 5
Hoffmann’s argument is problematic for anyone who is critical of deterministic logic. In the
portion of her article devoted to rhetorical historiography, Ozouf argues that the Terror was not
the cause of or response to victories or losses in war. She writes: “When Louis Blanc wished to
make the revolutionary debate incarnate in personalities, was this not a recognition that
individual temperaments had their role to play in events?” 6 The Terror was not a reflexive
response to internal and external threats. Hoffmann on the other hand argues that the Convention
created the Terror without actually intending to. He writes, “I am going to concentrate here on
the question of Jacobinisme, and what I would call the involuntary invention of totalitarianism
during the French Revolution.” 7 Whether or not the Terror was created intentionally by
individuals or some more deterministic factor, such as demographic changes, Revolutionary
language asserted dramatic violent change. Hoffman writes that “There is this view of ‘before
and after’ which is so strongly expressed by Robespierre in many of his speeches. Now France is
in the hell of war, the war of freedom against its enemies. But tomorrow, after the war has been
won, there will finally be time for a constitution and for the regime, as he put it, of victorious and
peaceful liberty.” 8 Unfortunately, wars occur frequently enough that there is always a reason to
wait to create a constitution. Hoffman’s arguments about the revolutionary rhetoric are mostly
limited to the public rhetoric of the revolutionary leaders, not private correspondence or diaries.
Hoffmann, “A Note,” 150.
Ozouf, “War and Terror,” 583.
Hoffmann, “A Note,” 149.
Hoffmann, “A Note,” 150.
For understanding official revolutionary rhetoric, Robespierre’s speeches are sufficient. To truly
understand revolutionary rhetoric, it is necessary to understand unofficial revolutionary rhetoric.
What was revolutionary language like in bars, within the family home, and within individual
minds? Hoffman’s source, though greatly helpful is not sufficient for understanding
revolutionary rhetoric in general. Even though the violence in rhetoric is difficult to characterize,
the violence in Revolutionary wars are not.
The Revolutionary wars between France and the other European nations were a new type
of war. In his study of short term and long term historical trends, Rothenberg argues that the
Revolution resulted in a type of warfare with new tactics, ideology, and breadth. He states that
“Even though the French armies sustained about as many defeats as they gained victories, their
progress was striking enough to compel opponents to remodel their forces and, to a greater or
lesser degree, their entire military systems.” 9 Rothenberg argues that it is difficult to accurately
describe the causes of the French revolutionary wars. 10 Even though he acknowledges that the
causes of the Revolution are difficult to accurately grasp, Rothenberg does give specific causes.
He attributes the declaration of war to specific events such as the Assembly’s misinterpretation of
the reality of the declaration of Pillnitz, the strange pro-war alliance between the republican
Girondin, conservatively royalist Feuillants, and moderate Feuillants, and a French ultimatum. 11
He adds these proximate causes to the fact that the French sought to convince the Prussians to
fight the Austrians and argues that the sum was that “For all the ideological rhetoric of both
sides, the ideological factor, if not totally absent, was not foremost in causing war.” 12 Ozouf
makes a negative argument. She criticizes both versions of the “causality hypothesis,” that the
Rothenberg, “The Origins,” 773.
Rothenberg, “The Origins,” 772.
Rothenberg, “The Origins,” 781-782.
Rothenberg, “The Origins,” 783.
Terror anticipated and contributed to military victories, and that the Terror also was developed as
a desperate attempt measure to prevent military defeat. 13 Rothenberg argues that the eighteenth
century was a period of limited warfare until the French Revolution occurred. 14 Hoffmann does
not give a cause for the war, but he compares the radical stage of the revolution with the Soviet
Union. He writes “To be sure, the motor of the Russian Revolution was class warfare, but the
proletariat was seen as a universal class, which would prevail once the enemies of the class were
literally cut off. One finds the same contrast between the evil contemporary state, which has to
be purged, cleansed, purified, and the later stage.” 15 If this were true, it would mark the
revolutionary conflicts as different from all wars before them.
Finally, the cause of the Terror is unknown. Rothenberg argues that the origins of the
Terror are the external threat of successful invasion and critical internal problems. 16 He argues
that the Committee of Public Safety created the Terror as a war measure to create a unified front
against invasion and rebellion, that in this role it used the levée en masse to strengthen and
supply its military, and that
This phase was only temporary. As long as there was a clear threat, the French people
were willing to give their support and to make the sacrifices needed to create the armies
to check invasions, suppress revolts, and carry the revolution abroad. But after the
victories of 1794 removed the immediate danger, Robespierre’s ever more radical and
repressive regime became intolerable and, in 1794, Thermidor, he was over thrown by his
own colleagues in the Convention. 17
Ozouf, “War and Terror,” 581.
Rothenberg, “The Origins,” 774.
Hoffmann, “A Note,” 155.
Rothenberg, “The Origins,” 785.
Rothenberg, “The Origin,” 785.
In other words, according to Rothenberg, the Terror was “nothing but” a war measure.
Considering this same conclusion Ozouf writes that:
Hence the success of Robespierre’s ‘nothing more’ phrases in the language of
Revolutionary historiography—‘Terror,’ he said, ‘is nothing more than prompt, severe,
inflexible justice’ phrases which have been transmitted intact from Louis Blanc to Albert
Soboul. In the mind of the former, for example, ‘terrorism was nothing more than the
bloody side’ of the revolutionary dictatorship; for the latter, ‘it was nothing but an aspect’
of the civil war. 18
Ozouf clearly does not think that the Terror is nothing more than a necessary part of desperate
war measures or a preceding cause of victories. If the Terror started before the French suffered
losses, then it was not created as a war measure.
The violence in the French Revolution can be partially explained by violent rhetoric like
that from the highlighted portion of The Meeting of August 10th. Of course, the language of
political leaders sometimes exaggerates the beliefs of those they represent. In their respective
articles Hoffman, Rothenberg, and Ozouf do not give voices to anyone besides political leaders,
government officials, and historians. However, words alone were not responsible for the Terror.
It was probably not caused alone by the stresses of interior crises and foreign invasion and
probably did not completely anticipate victory either. It was most likely some combination of the
three. The revolutionary wars were fought in new ways that anticipated twentieth and twentyfirst century wars including the Cold War. The French Revolution may in fact have been the
pivot point of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the same way that the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries have so far rotated around the world wars. The French Revolution set the
Ozouf, “War and Terror,” 584.
stage for the revolutions in the mid nineteenth century, and provided strategic precedence for the
World Wars. The French Revolution was, in all seriousness revolutionary.
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