The name Robespierre is synonymous with terror and mass murder. But the author of The Terror that accompanied the French Revolution was also the prototype of the revolutionary leader who would become all too familiar in the 20th Century. Robespierre loosed the hordes of hell on his people, utterly convinced that he was preserving the purity of his political movement. In the current City Journal, John Kekes offers a fascinating analysis of Robespierre, the man, and those who have since adopted his method. “Why Robespierre Chose Terror” also looks at the way “reasonable” people filter ideologies by subjecting them to a healthy skepticism:
An ideology is a worldview that makes sense of prevailing political conditions and suggests ways of improving them. Typical ideologies include among their elements a metaphysical outlook that provides a God’s-eye view of the world, a theory about human nature, a system of values whose realization will supposedly ensure human well-being, an explanation of why the actual state of affairs falls short of perfection, and a set of policies intended to close the gap between the actual and ideal. This last component—commitment to a political program and its implementation—is what distinguishes ideologies from religious, personal, aesthetic, or philosophical systems of belief. Ideologies aim to transform society. Other systems of belief do not involve such a commitment; if they do, they become ideological.
In the course of history, many different and incompatible ideologies have held sway, all of them essentially speculative interpretations that go beyond undeniable facts and simple truths. Resting on fallible hypotheses about matters that transcend the existing state of knowledge, they are especially prone to wishful, self-deceiving, anxious, or self-serving thinking—to unchecked flights of fantasy and imagination. Reasonable people therefore regard ideologies, including their own, with robust skepticism and demand of them conformity to elementary standards of reason: logical consistency, the explanation of indisputable and relevant facts, responsiveness to new evidence and serious criticism, and recognition that the success or failure of policies derived from them counts as confirming or disconfirming evidence.
As Kekes points out, the first object of terror for the revolutionary ideologue is often his own people.
But the chief reason that people followed [Robespierre] was fear. No one was safe, and people hastened to testify by words and deeds that they were loyal, enthusiastic supporters. Robespierre wielded his power over life and death as arbitrarily as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did. Arbitrariness is the key to terror: if there are no rules, justifications, or reasons, then everyone is at risk. People can try to minimize the risk only by outdoing others in toeing the line. Dictators understand that, and it explains much of the “spontaneous demonstrations” and public adulation that they extract from the duped and terrified people at their mercy.
A pretty fair definition of political freedom might begin with — the freedom from fear of one’s rulers.