How the idealistic leaders of the revolution turned to violence

Goodness Beyond Virtue

August 25, 2000

Patrice Higonnet's Goodness beyond Virtue is a frustrating work about a group of conflicting yet seemingly well-meaning revolutionaries who shaped one of the most studied moments in western history.

Hoping to reclaim the innocence of his subjects, Higonnet argues that the Jacobins were children of the Enlightenment whose ideals were in direct opposition to the violence of the Terror. Though Higonnet's book is aimed at a general audience, his frequent allusions to the historiography of the revolution make it hard reading for those unaware of the importance, and ultimately the questionable nature, of this claim. As with most historians of the French revolution, Higonnet's key task is to explain this phenomenon, which put to an end the idealistic hopes of the revolutionaries of 1789. His primary interest is in exculpating the Jacobins from associations with totalitarianism.

Revisionist historians of the revolution argue that the Terror was at the heart of Jacobin doctrines as early as 1789. Higonnet wishes to challenge this by proving that the Terror was not an inherent aspect of the Jacobins' political thought, but rather an unfortunate event caused by an evolving revolutionary situation.

His Jacobins are a primarily urban, educated and middle-class group whose naive beliefs in individual rights and commitment to universalist ideals led to insurmountable tensions. They believed in the possibility of upholding rights to personal property and freedom while creating an ideal communitarian state that citizens of all ranks would serve as one. When faced with growing class-consciousness and dissent, however, the Jacobin ideal of universal reconciliation floundered, leading to repression and an end to republican ideals.

Why did the Jacobins adopt the methods of repression that led eventually to their own annihilation? Higonnet argues that they turned to violence to try to control a revolution that was escaping them because "of the inherited social atavisms that structured their sensibility and that ran directly against the grain of their Enlightenment ideals". The Jacobins abandoned their ideals for more repressive and authoritarian methods of rule. The blame for this "legacy of intolerance" can be found primarily in the moral strictures imposed by Jansenist thought on public and private life in the late 18th century.

Each chapter tells the tale of how the Jacobins' ideals were derailed when faced with the reality of life in revolutionary France. Though Higonnet does not wish to posit a moment when this unravelling occurred, he repeatedly emphasises the disappointment and chaos that followed the king's flight to Varennes in June 1791. The collapse of a working constitutional monarchy led the Jacobins to rethink "the relationship between civil and political, and they did so in what proved to be the worst way. They sharpened, moralised, masculinised and made more abstract their definition of public life". Most important for Higonnet, they lost the distinction between private life and public morality.

Higonnet's vision of the revolution is at times seductive. He paints a picture of enthusiastic, politically concerned individuals who banded together to create a better world, which he believes is possible today. Yet, even as he tries to convince the reader of the Jacobins' ultimate ideological innocence, his actors' words and deeds contradict and undermine his argument. The Jacobins we hear are a puritanical, humourless,stubborn and hypocritical bunch. To equate their philosophy with that of the Enlightenment, or to hold it up as appropriate for the contemporary world seems as naive as many of the Jacobins were.

Jacobin ideals and the French revolution have had important influences, both positive and negative, on the development of democratic nation-states.Yet to see the modern world as "quite well suited to carry through the universal values that the Enlightenment and Jacobinism both embodied" ignores the inherent contradictions that made these universalist ideals dangerous. Ultimately, by over-indulging the Jacobins and their philosophy,Higonnet is unlikely to convince the reader of his version of the story.

Morag Martin is research fellow, 18th-century centre, University of Warwick.

Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins during the French Revolution

Author - Patrice Higonnet
ISBN - 0 6744 7061 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £41.50
Pages - 397

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