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New Left Review 43, January-February 2007


Christopher Prendergast on Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity. The life, career and death of Robespierre, permeated by tensions between ends and means, terror and virtue; and the polemical furies that have clouded his legacy.

CHRISTOPHER PRENDERGAST

FROM ARRAS TO THERMIDOR

Synthesize the numerous biographies of the leaders of the French Revolution during the high period of radical Jacobinism, and perhaps the first thought to emerge is what an improbable collection of characters they were. Ruth Scurr begins her biography of Robespierre with the masterly understatement: ‘Political turmoil can foster unlikely leaders’—indicating that, at a deeper level of explanation, the sheer contingency of political fortunes at a time when traditional sources of authority and legitimacy were collapsing might be very much to the point. Joseph de Maistre famously described the Revolution as God’s retribution for human folly; if so, His purpose in selecting precisely these individuals as the instruments of His vengeance remains profoundly inscrutable. Nothing here seems remotely foreordained or even moderately predictable. Danton, Marat, Fabre d’Eglantine, Saint-Just came out of nowhere: middle-class provincials with little or nothing in their backgrounds to suggest they were qualified for major parts in a great world-historical drama, and—especially in the cases of Fabre and Saint-Just—much to suggest that they were not. Paradoxically, given his own stress on the Rousseauist ideal of ‘transparency’, the most mysterious of them all was Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre.

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