Friday, August 29, 2008

Robespierre by S.L. Carson

(Book Review)

I picked up this book at the Oita Prefectural Library the last time I was in Oita City. This book is part of a larger series entitled: “World Leaders: Past & Present”. Since I checked out 7 books in this series, I’ll start by saying a few words about this series itself, before reviewing this book in particular.

“World Leaders: Past and Present” Series:

I’ll be honest, I don’t think I would be reading these books if I had more reading material to choose from around here. But in the Japanese countryside, beggars can’t be choosers, and the books in this series were the only European history books I could find.

This series of books was published back in 1987-88, which was a few years ago now, but then the Oita Prefectural Library was never famous for its collection of new books. It is a series of 157 biographies of world leaders from all time periods and all places.
(Hmmm. Bit of an odd cut off point there, 157. Why not 294, or 129? Perhaps there were other books in this series that came out later. Oita library only has through 1988).

Each book contains a 5 page introductory essay on leadership by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. And it’s always the same introductory essay in every book, which can feel like a bit of a waste of paper when you have several books from this series in your library. The essay argues against the idea of historical determinism, and instead argues that:
1). Individual actions, not historical determinism, shapes the course of history and
2). Leaders are necessary for society.
(The first point I agree with, the second point I disagree, but I won’t get into that now).

The 157 profiles of leaders chosen for this series are chosen in part to demonstrate this thesis. And I have to admit that whoever was in charge of this project did a great job of choosing some of the most fascinating people from history for this 157 list. It’s not just the usual suspects either, there are some really interesting names chosen. It makes me wish the Oita Library actually had the whole set, because I’d love to read more about a number of these people such as Sun Yat-sen, Robert Mugabe, Che Guevera, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Leon Blum, Willy Brandt, Oliver Cromwell, Lech Walesa, Leon Trotsky, Pericles, Daniel Ortega, Emiliano Zapata, Zhou Enlai, Layfayette, Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, Yasir Arafat, et cetera.

The books are all just slightly over 100 pages, which prevents you from getting in depth, but on the other hand it is just long enough to give you a few interesting facts you didn't know, and yet short enough that you can get through several of them in a short period of time.

They’re classified as Juvenile Literature in the publication data, and Young Adult literature on the back cover. And indeed the picture book proportions (about 25 cm by 20 cm) of the book and large illustrations ensure that no self respecting businessman is going to be caught dead reading this in a coffee shop. However the short length and large pictures in this book aside, I didn't find it a particularly easy read. There’s a lot of information packed densely into a small amount of space, and you have to read very slowly and carefully so as not to miss anything. Consider for example the passage on the beginning of “The Reign of Terror.”

Believing he had been ill treated by the Jacobins, Herbert presented himself to Paris as the new guardian against corruption. His sweeping program called for cracking down on suspects, trying the queen, and ridding the military of aristocrats. Followers of both Herbet and Danton wanted the Committee of Public Safety to take on more tasks and responsibilities. Under this pressure, the committee extended its control over the state. Danton resisted having anything more to do with the committee, although he urged it to expand its work. Couthon, Sechelles and Saint-Just were frequently away from Paris on various assignments and their absence left Robespierre to become the vital link between the National Convention and the busy committee. In September, the committee was joined by the more extremist supporters of the left: Jean-Nicolas Billaud-Varenne and Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois. The only moderate on the committee was the engineer Lazare Carnot, who quarreled bitterly with Saint-Just.” (p 103)

…Now is it just me, or is that a lot of information for your average “Young Adult” (which is what? 10-12?) to absorb in one paragraph? I’m not saying the brighter ones couldn't do it, but those kind of kids could probably go right into the regular length popular histories anyway.
And as you can see from the quoted paragraph above, there’s also a lot of name dropping in this book—another side effect of cramming a lot of information in a small amount of space. Sometimes a name will be introduced briefly on one page, and then won’t pop up again until 50 pages later, at which time you've completely forgotten who they are. Fortunately, there’s a good index to help you keep track of the names, but it still meant a lot of flipping back and forth for me.

Interestingly enough, not one of the books I checked out in this series was written by a trained historian. This book on Robespierre was written by a Presidential speech writer. The book on Lenin was written by someone with a honors degree in classics who plays in a musical ensemble. The book on Queen Victoria is written by someone described simply as a “mother of three”.

…Well, this series may not be ideal, but it will at least allow me to get a broad understanding of these historical figures. At this point there are so many gaps in my historical knowledge, that I’m sure I can learn a lot from even these brief biographic overviews.

…Now, onto this book itself:

Robespierre is one of the most fascinating historical figures, and if I ever get the chance I’d love to sink my teeth into an actual full length biography instead of the Young Adult summary version. For now, however, this will have to do.

What makes Robespierre so fascinating is the difference between the young Robespierre and the old Robespierre. (Well, since Robespierre died at 36, maybe it would be better to make the comparison between the reformer Robespierre and the tyrant Robespierre.)

The reformer Robespierre was an opponent of the death penalty, who “once spent two sleepless nights struggling with his responsibility as a magistrate to impose the death penalty on a convicted murderer”. (p 34).
The tyrant Robespierre was the master of terror, who “caused 60 to 80 people to die on the guillotine each day during the dreadful summer of 1794.” (p. 106)

I am not, of course, the first person to point out these contradictions, and when talking about Robespierre one is always in danger of slipping into clichés. When people say, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” they are usually thinking about Robespierre.

Robespierre was one of the first revolutionaries who exposed views on freedom and equality, and then became an absolute tyrant when in power. Unfortunately he was not the last. Lenin, Castro, Mao, Daniel Ortega, Robert Mugabe, and many others later followed his example. (Many conservatives claim that Lenin, Mao, Castro, et cetera, became brutal dictators because they were communists, but Robespierre’s example shows that even republicans are not safe from the temptations of power.)

Had these revolutionaries been wolves in sheep clothing all along, desiring nothing but power from the beginning and managing to fool everyone around them? Or is there something about the nature of power that manages to corrupt even “the incorruptible”.
The answer to these questions can not be found in this brief biography, but I was able to learn several interesting biographical tidbits.

For example, I learned about the cases that Robespierre argued as a young lawyer. (“Accustomed to living modestly, Robespierre took on cases that allowed him to display his high regard for social virtue and justice.” (p.33))

I also learned that Robespierre started out as a poor public speaker, and at first was constantly overshadowed by Mirabeau. “When Mirabeau entered the chamber, other deputies drew away in disgust, but he nevertheless commanded their attention whenever he spoke. As for Robespierre, however, it was reported that on one occasion he was so flustered that he was forced to leave the rostrum in tears. Mirabeau gave more than 100 speeches from 1789 to 1790. Robespierre managed to give fewer than 30.” (P.62).

The French Revolution, with all its various stages and with all its competing factions, is a lot of information to cram into a small book like this. As a consequence, the book focuses mostly on the stages of the Revolution, and doesn't go into detail on Robespierre’s life at this time. However the book does note his position on a number of issues.
* Robespierre argued in the assembly that all citizens, not just property owning citizens, should have the right to vote (and he eventually won on this point).
*He argued that the French slave trade should be abolished, but lost out to strong deputies in favor of the slave trade.
*He was unequivocally for freedom of the press.
*In an effort to prevent power from being established, Robespierre argued that the new Legislative Assembly should consist of entirely newly elected members, and none of the members of the old Constituent Assembly should be allowed to stand for election.
*Robespierre opposed the war with Austria, correctly cautioning that Revolutionary zeal was no substitute for military strength (although he lost out to Brissot on this point).

In short, Robespierre appears to be a reasonable man of pure democratic principles. He was considered radical at the time, but by the standards of today he stands as a moderate classical liberal. And then, he begins to lose his mind with power.

Unfortunately, because of the brevity of this book, there isn't space to do much more than list Robespierre’s positions, with little insight into why he began to harden into a dictator, and almost no information about his personal life.

Hopefully someday I’ll be able to find a more in-depth biography. In the meantime, this was a very interesting short book for the amount of time it took to read.

Link of the Day
Targeting Civilians: The Path to Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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