Robespierre and the Reign of Terror

french terror

Robespierre and The conspiracy theory:

We will try to show that the french revolutionary terror is indeed based on a conspiracy theory that leads to a theory and a practice of an ideology of transparency, which in turn leads to death of politics. Terror, which began in September 1792 and ended in July 1794 with the arrest and killing of Robespierre, was presented as a law enforcement system to protect and defend democracy from its internal enemies. In the name of “public salvation” they have imprisoned nearly five hundred thousand “traitors of the people” during this period, of which fifty thousand deleted. How the Terror reveals a reversal of democracy against itself ?

Protecting democracy from its enemies

Terror means the systematic removal of alleged traitors against the Revolution. The “law  of suspects”, voted by the Committee of Public Salvation in September 17, 1793, establishes a reign of suspicion and accusations, which are encouraged and rewarded with bonuses. The suspect, unlike the guilty would be the real enemy, whose guilt can be proved, is a potential enemy, which is ready for the views, aspirations, or intentions that can make a schemer. Saint-Just told :

Let us raise the veil that hides the plots; let us psy speeches, gestures of each of us

Saint-Just implies the idea that the Terror would be only a reply, a counter-violance to a first violence made to democracy. The tyranny of transparency would be a response to conspiracies and secrets. Now it is clear that hunting made no secret of discharges, it causes a forced consensus, an artifact of unity. Transparency induced by the elimination of the secret behind the illusion of a harmonious society in which there would be no conflict, a kind of “consensus of hearts” in the words of Rousseau, immediate and spontaneous . This indicates first that transparency denies the debate because it is based on the plurality of opinions, it is unbearable to Jacobin deputies: the contradiction is treachery, the opposition against revolutionary. When advertising is under discussion, which provides the material for the formation of opinion, transparency staged, claims state definitely the sense, say the real, and therefore make it impossible to debate. Transparency makes the power of free criticism, advertising makes it possible. Advertising puts the power in the middle, the transparency is unlocatable and omnipresent. Claude Lefort has analyzed the Terror as a tyrannical company whose originality was the travesty of democracy: the generalized suspicion established a regime of power in that generalized suspicion transferred power in the whole social body. The proliferation of places and positions of power (the implementation of the informer) mask the real exercise of power: transparency is therefore the hallmark of the omnipotence of power.

Robespierre, in his speech of March 31, 1794, warns those who fear the famous “terrible acts”, which he defends the wisdom:

I say: Anyone who trembles at this moment is guilty because innocence never fears public scrutiny.”

Uncover conspiracies, probe the consciences to strip them of their supposedly secret dream of overthrowing democracy, as is the political project of Terror. This systematic suspicion, the word “who” suggests, urges citizens to exchange glances, observing and being observed, scrutinize and be scrutinized. Robespierre, who claims to acknowledge fear, cause in reality. The dichotomy drawn between innocence and guilt related to fear or lack thereof, reveals a desire to hold on consciences. Control of all by each, reinforced by the local monitoring committees, says the politicization of thoughts, the end of privacy, an inquisitorial unit. This transparency is all the more arbitrary than the victims of betrayal are without defense. Indeed, revolutionary justice itself participates in the ideology of transparency. The defense witnesses were absent at the trial, physical evidence are made redundant by a decree, the deliberations must be done out loud, the very category of “suspect” is at the discretion of each, a system based purely discretionary . It is interesting to note that this travesty of justice also makes obsolete the rights of man and citizen, soon established soon denied, and by the same members.

Terror and Transparency

The most interesting is that the Terror, then as now, calls into question the foundations of public space. Indeed, Kant, and Habermas after him, taught us that the latter, as intermediate sphere between the state and civil society, based on a strict separation of the public sphere and private sphere. But chasing the secrets of interiority, by probing the conscience, the law of the suspects as the provisions of the Patriot Act, a provision of archetypal Reign of Terror, merges the two spheres, it means the sinking of the private into the public : everything, including the most intimate, must be in the public square.

However, transparency, initiated to protect democracy, however, destroys this intermediate sphere which is the sine qua non of modern democracy, proclaiming that everything is political: the “everything-politics,” the politicization precisely led to the death of policy. Transparency is erasing the dividing line between what is policy and what emerges from the private sphere. This merger is part of a logic “totalitarisation” of society, which absorbs the power of civil society, man is reduced to the citizen. Thus, transparency involves a dialectic, that of the politicization and depoliticization, the depoliticization of the politicization leading to the disappearance of public space.

The opposition of transparency and publicity has also been materialized as through that of Robespierre and Desmoulins, who, being a journalist, was an adversary system of suspicion, accusing Robespierre to create more enemies to democracy than supporters.

Yesterday, as today,  uncover conspiracies seem to justify the decline of individual liberties, as if security was the final enemy of freedom.

Cite this article as: Tim, "Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, June 12, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, June 12, 2012,

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