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Book review A resurrection of the vital role of the Parisian masses

A thrilling and purposeful narrative for workers who wish to consider its implications for their own struggles today, writes PAUL SIMON

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris
by Colin Jones
Oxford University Press £21.99

COLIN JONES’S impeccably researched and written “up-close” account of the 24 hours that saw the demise of French revolutionary Maximillien Robespierre, naturally puts one in mind of Kark Marx’s dictum that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Reconstructed from the plethora of personal accounts and official records documenting the unfolding events from a range of different perspectives, The Fall of Robespierre is certainly a box set of individual dramas.

But crucially, aided by occasional authorial comments and cross references, the bigger issues of state as to the direction the revolution should take are not submerged in the detailed depths.

Professor Jones therefore resurrects the vital role of the Parisian masses from their burial under the Thermidorian propaganda onslaught that subsequently interpreted the events as a victory for the National Convention against mob rule (not least the so-called sans culottes) in general and the Commune in particular.

Building up a case individual testimony by individual testimony, it is clear that the fissures in French society, and especially those in the capital, intensified by wars with hostile neighbours, was far more complicated than this simplified dualism.

Crucially, there was a growing rift between different groups of Montagnards comprising those around Robespierre who saw the revolution being endangered both by foreign influences and domestic corruption and those who considered him to be a dictator who threatened their very existence.

The 24 hours under scrutiny were therefore a clash between two sections of the most advanced revolutionary forces.

The defeat of Robespierre’s wing was partly tactical — a lack of thorough planning and a vainglorious effort to appeal to the political centre — and partly strategic in that large swathes of sans-culottes opinion genuinely feared his supposed and unevidenced tyrannical ambitions.

Jones makes clear that the implications of 9 Thermidor were profound. Months after the day in question, the role of the people in “co-producing” the defeat of the Robespierre faction was already being undermined and was soon, thereafter, written out altogether from official reports.

It was during this transitory period, prior to the Directory and ironically Napoleon’s very real dictatorship that the myth of the Terror was instigated — a useful cover as all of the revolution’s wider social mobilisation and economic and social justice schemes were curtailed.

Non-specialist readers should not be put off either by the “up-close” details or the 100-plus pages of notes and bibliography.

Although this is an academically robust account of a pivotal point in Western economic and political development, it provides a thrilling and purposeful narrative for workers who wish to consider its implications for their own struggles today.

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