Remember Robespierre

Frank Chodorov

[Reprinted from Fragments, 1964]

It is agreed that you have The Perfect Plan -- the final blueprint for the Good Society. It is all there: Truth and Justice perfectly balanced, and both sup-ported by Fundamental Economics. All the parts are reinforced with Natural Rights. The beacon light of Freedom is nicely placed at the pinnacle.

Your only job, then, is to familiarize folks with The Perfect Plan; its adoption must follow from a recognition of its merits. But, in this educational project you find yourself where you are in complete control and must deal with people. They are either unwilling to consider the goodness you offer them, free, gratis, or incapable of comprehending it, and you find progress exceedingly slow. You are also confronted with opposition from vested thought. What to do now? Perhaps it would he wise to give up on the hope of participating in the millenium; the very perfection of The Perfect Plan is an assurance that it will keep, that in the fulness of time it will come into its own. On the other hand, you might attempt to shortcut the difficulties of education by the political method. On the theory that the end justifies the means, you might seek power to impose The Perfect Plan.

The yearning to govern, the desire for power over others, is a most perplexing human trait. Only when it is spurred by an economic purpose does it make sense. When a man seeks political position for the betterment of his circumstances, he is acting sanely, if sanity is defined as normal behavior. We call a politician corrupt when he uses his power for self-aggrandizement, but that is because we clothe politics with a fanciful myth of supernaturalness. We have but to remember man's natural tendency to satisfy his desires with the minimum of effort to realize how political power will be utilized. It would be more correct to say that we are all corrupt, and that the politician is merely successful.

However, the craving for power cannot always be explained in the rational terms of profit. Few men are so rich but that a little more power over their fellow-men does not flatter their egos, and no man who can command subservience considers himself poor. It would seem so much more sensible to let people alone; the exercise of power in and for itself is a thoroughly useless expenditure of effort. And most irrational of all is the desire to govern others, "for their own good" -- the excuse of reformers and, as history shows, the cause of great harm to reformers, reformees, and the reform.

The case of Maximilien Robespierre is most illustrative.

Jean Jacques Rousseau sparked the desire to govern in many a young man of his revolutionary day. One of these was Robespierre, whose first love was literature, and who gave promise of doing something in that line. The desire to do good turned into the desire for power to do good, and so he did no good at all.

The career of Robespierre is highlighted by two uncommon political experiences. First, though he rose to dictatorial power, he never used his position for his material advantage, and lived frugally all his life. Largely because of his scrupulousness in that regard, he was called Incorruptible. Many of his bitter fights with other leaders of the Revolution centered around the fact that they acted as rational politicians, even to the point of accepting bribes from the nation's enemies. The second Robespierrist oddity is that though he protested loyalty to the ideals of Rousseau throughout his political life, he, nevertheless, deliberately, and with qualms of conscience, compromised these ideals when practical politics made it necessary.

A cardinal tenet of the Rousseau creed is the inviolable right to life; therefore capital punishment is untenable. Yet, when Louis was brought to trial, Robespierre voted for the death penalty, and was impelled by his conscience publicly to proclaim the reason for this about-face. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were sacred to Robespierre, because they were sacred to Rousseau; though he would brook no laws of suppression, he found the guillotine equally effective. When the "higher law" of the Revolution made it necessary, he suspended his democratic faith long enough to have the National Assembly arrested and some elected representatives of the people decapitated. He opposed war, and waged it. And so, though Robespierre has been called "Rousseau in power," the fact is that whenever Robespierre found Rousseau an encumbrance, as he often did, he found reason enough to put him aside.

The contradiction between political promise and performance is quite understandable when we dig into the nature of the business, breaking through the moral crust with which political institutions have surrounded themselves. When we look to beginnings, we see clearly what it is all about, for then the purpose of political power was unencumbered with persiflage; the ruler and his henchman looted without ritual.

The first lesson the crusader in office must learn is that the crusade can wait; it always does.

And so, Robespierre in power was not sinful in betraying Rousseau. He was in error in assuming that a different course was possible.

* * *

To return to The Perfect Plan. If it is as perfect as you say it is, there is nothing you need do about it, for anything that is so sound will get around on its own power. Euclidian mathematics never had the benefit of a "movement," and entirely without legal blessing it made headway. The only way in which the law can affect the course of thought is to restrict, ban, and burn; the law can only be negative, never positive, in matters of the mind. If you look over the record of "the best that has been thought and said in the world," you will find that politics was helpful only when it got out of the way. So, if you would protect The Perfect Plan from pollution, your course is clearly indicated; keep it out of politics.

But if you insist on taking The Perfect Plan into politics, though it will do no good, I offer the following admonition:

Remember Robespierre.