Kirkus Reviews QR Code
ROBESPIERRE: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat by George Rude

ROBESPIERRE: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat


Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 1975
Publisher: Viking

Few political figures have been as praised or damned as Robespierre. From the Thermidorians who charged him with eating the roasted flesh of priests to the wayward English Tories who defended him as a man who sought not an escalation of The Terror, but a return to ""some system of decency, mercy and religion,"" the debate seems never-ending. And perhaps the most revealing part of Rude's very tempered, measured biography is his review of the partisan assessments of Hippolyte Taine, Macaulay, Michelet, Jaurez, Mathiez and the rest of the historians who have continually revised and updated the verdict. Rude argues that Robespierre was never a liberal. The English parliamentary tradition was wholly alien to him and his passionate defense of popular sovereignty--he spoke in support of the people's right to take up arms, he condoned demonstrations, riots, even rebellions against ""tyranny""--clashes with the liberals' trust in representative institutions. Nor was Robespierre a socialist, and it is anachronistic to view him as one. Unlike Lenin who based his policies on an expanding proletariat, Robespierre's economic ideas were those of the menu peuple--the artisans, traders and small producers who were a large but historically declining class. Though ardent in extirpating the wealth of the emigres and the enemies of the Republic, Robespierre never questioned the fundamental sanctity of property. Rude places Robespierre, the ""watchdog"" of the Revolution, in the long tradition of radicals who believed that freedom was a constant struggle--any relaxation of vigilance and the Royalists would return like termites to eat away at the new order. Withal he was ""at no time a bloodthirsty maniac."" Rude is willing to play down much of the drama and rhetoric of Robespierre, but what his book lacks in excitement, it makes up for in poised assurance.