‘On ne peut point régner innocemment. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. This man must reign or die.’ Saint-Just’s maiden speech to the Convention on 13 November 1792 marked his unforgettable entrance onto the national political stage. Arguing that in place of the formal hypocrisies of a judicial tribunal, the representatives of the People of France, the Convention, must judge their king, and judge him as a vanquished foreign enemy under the law of nations, rather than as a fellow citizen subject to common laws and entitled to a share in their protection, it showed not only his extraordinary talent for brutal political simplification, and his capacity to seize the hour, but also the ease and completeness with which he was able to change his mind.
Some eighteen months earlier, in his Esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution de France, Saint-Just had accepted without apparent strain (and with some explicit deference to the authority of Montesquieu) the view that what the Revolution had established was a moderate government: a constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch did not reign but simply governed, and in which, even if he had in the past been somewhat injudicious, he was plainly no closer to being an enemy alien (and rather less obviously inhumane, cruel and untrustworthy) than the mob which had stormed the Bastille and created the conditions which made a constitutional government possible. Less than two years later, on the tenth of Thermidor of the year II, Saint-Just himself was dead, guillotined with his friend Robespierre a few hours after a detachment of National Guards broke into the Hôtel de Ville, on the orders of the Convention, to arrest them.
No one could claim for him the manifest historical importance or the enduring political influence of Robespierre, let alone the intellectual penetration of a pioneer interpreter of the Revolution like Sieyès or a Thermidorian enemy like Constant. But in those two extraordinary years, no one in France came to have a sharper or more menacing political identity. L’archange de la mort, as Michelet called him, the man who, as Camille Desmoulins imprudently sneered, carried his head as though it were a consecrated host, was not just one of the most histrionic figures in a glitteringly theatrical cast, adjusting his immense silken stock painstakingly in front of the mirror while dictating death sentences to his secretary. He was also one of the most decisive and masterful members of the great Committee of Public Safety which did not merely impose the will of the Jacobin dictatorship on its less single-minded and bloodthirsty political opponents but led France to victory against the armies of Ancien Régime Europe. Saint-Just is certainly no contender for a place in any sanitised recuperation of a Revolution at last made safe for the Europe of 1992. It is unsurprising, for example, to find him missing from François Furet and Mona Ozouf’s Critical Dictionary. What Babeuf and Barnave and Carnot and Condorcet and Danton and Lafayette and Marat and Mirabeau and Burke and Constant and Fichte and Guizot and Kant and Maistre and Stael (and many, many others) have in common is that, in some way, either their role in the Revolution or their conception of what the Revolution really meant still demands to be taken seriously. Not so, apparently, with Saint-Just. This would certainly not have been the opinion of Michelet. It is a very nice point whether it is Norman Hampson’s.
When Michelet introduces Saint-Just to his readers he does so with as little enthusiasm as Hampson, showing him calling implacably for the death of Louis XVI and sending shivers of joy through the ranks of a Convention whose favourite speakers up to this point had been des parleurs, des prêcheurs, des pédagogues. Ici, c’était un tyran. But by the time Saint-Just goes to his execution, Michelet has clearly fallen under his spell, seeing in his death not just a striking theatrical dignity but genuine historical grandeur. Il mourut digne, grave et simple. La France ne se consolera jamais d’une telle espérance: celui-ci est grand d’une grandeur qui lui est propre. Hampson, however, never shows the faintest sign of entrancement. For him, Saint-Just is more or less grotesquely silly throughout, almost always disreputable in his motives or disagreeable in his attitude, and, as time goes by, ever more hideously dangerous to know. This is a far from unreasonable response to a human being who was in many ways authentically appalling. But it does not make for a very illuminating book.
Albert Soboul pointed out in 1948 that Saint-Just had long been one of the most popular revolutionary figures among writers and poets, but had still at that point failed to attract a full-scale and responsible critical study. Since 1948, three major works have been devoted to aspects of his career. The first was a highly tendentious political biography by Albert Ollivier, Saint-Just et la Force des Choses (1954), memorably savaged by Soboul on its appearance. The second was a careful analysis of his role as representative of the Committee of Public Safety to the Army of the Rhine in the winter of 1793-94: J.P. Gross, Saint-Just, sa Politique et ses Missions (1976). The third was a biography, drawing on its author’s doctorat d’état, which greatly extended knowledge of the political and economic life of the little country town of Blérancourt in Picardy in which Saint-Just grew up: B. Vinot, Saint-Just (1985). None of these works really does much to explain his astonishing career. One reason for this is simple paucity of evidence, aggravated by the untrustworthiness of much of the testimony we do have. As Hampson says on page one of his book, ‘two hundred years later the historian finds himself in front of a locked door to which there is no key.’
There are at least three ways in which it might be possible to write more compellingly about Saint-Just. One, banally enough, would be by contriving to understand him. To do this would require at least an initial suspension of personal distaste, if not perhaps of political judgment. To succeed in doing so would be a remarkable (and perhaps disquieting) imaginative feat, very much against the grain of the early 1990s. It would also be the best possible vindication for choosing the biographical genre. Saint-Just’s life, it should be said, was of some interest in its own right. Not every murderous protagonist of revolutionary virtue – and bosom friend of Robespierre – chose in adolescence to abscond from home with his mother’s jewellery and silver. A second approach would be to study Saint-Just’s performance in the relatively public setting of revolutionary high politics, especially over the 14 months in which he served as a member of the Committee of Public Safety. But to do this at all effectively would require a far broader canvas and a less hasty style of presentation. A third possibility would be to focus principally on Saint-Just’s ideas, and to seek to show that his political performance followed, more or less directly, from their central implications. It is this last approach that Hampson comes closest to adopting, explaining in his Preface that he has chosen what he calls the ‘quaint’ strategy of concentrating on what Saint-Just said because there is every reason to suppose that in general Saint-Just meant what he said.
Unfortunately, however, Saint-Just’s ideas were as rebarbative as his personality; and to fathom their significance requires considerable intellectual effort. Their most persevering modern student, Miguel Abensour, has been reduced by a lifetime’s study to expressing his conclusions as evasively and opaquely as Saint-Just at his very worst: ‘Saint-Just and the Problem of Heroism in the French Revolution’, in Ferenc Feher’s The French Revolution and the Birth of Modernity.Hampson himself plainly finds them too irritating to describe with any great care or reflect on with much patience or energy.
They are worth closer attention, not because of their cognitive force (which is modest) but because of their diagnostic value. As sources for Saint-Just’s biography all no doubt offer some insight, the perfunctorily pornographic (and punitively unrewarding) satirical poem Organt (published in 1789, with its characteristic preface: J’ai vingt ans; j’ai mal fait; je pourrai faire mieux) and the solemn and muddled Esprit de la Révolution of 1791, just as much as the two unpublished manuscripts, ‘De la Nature’ and ‘Fragments d’Institutions Républicaines’. But it is principally the two unpublished works, and their resonances in the public pronouncements of his last two years at the centre of French national politics, which illuminate Saint-Just’s extraordinary role in the Revolution. Of the two, ‘De la Nature’ is the harder to handle and the more important. What it shows is that the mildly imbecile conclusion of L’Esprit de la Révolution (Quand les hommes seront libres, ils seront égaux; quand ils seront égaux, ils seront justes. Ce qui est honnête, se suit de soi-même), and even the apparently conventional primitivism of parts of Organt, meant something deep and violently emotive to Saint-Just himself, and that he carried this meaning, with all his stunning self-assurance and self-righteousness, intact into the storm centre of Revolutionary politics.
In ‘De la Nature’ Saint-Just took the theoretical framework of European natural law and contorted it to express his own hectic vision of the chasm between the social, economic and political realities of Ancien Régime France and the ways in which human beings could hope to live as he supposed that they ought. ‘De la Nature’ is an attack on the contractarian thesis that human social life rests in the end on the choice or the acceptance of voluntary but binding mutual constraints on freedom of action. Saint-Just’s response to this is that human sociality is natural, not a product of choice. It is government, resting intrinsically on force, which destroys the natural relations between human beings, replacing the sentiments of the soul (the penchant to live together and love one another) by passions (the fruit of usurpations and appropriation secured by force) which lead to slavery, domination and savagery. Saint-Just himself proclaims his love for his fellows and modestly affirms that only the most tender heart, aided by the most vivid imagination, can now hope to recapture what this first and natural society of human beings was really like.
The view that the natural relations of human beings were those of independence and equality, that the human species was at first, as John Locke put it, the ‘great and natural community of mankind’, was accepted in some form by virtually every natural-law thinker. But no other natural-law thinker of whom I am aware seriously supposed that this community could be fully reconstituted, even on the scale of a city-state like Geneva or an island like Corsica, in a civilised European society. Most natural-law thinkers took as their central task to explain why this great and natural community no longer existed in practice, and to determine whether and in what ways a smaller and elaborately conventional community could hope to take its place. Saint-Just appears to have viewed this feeble concession to historical realities with unmitigated contempt. Even Rousseau, whom he credits with a proper degree of attention to nature and a genuine search for a society of independence, subverts these merits by his taste for vigorous government: Il étouffe la liberté de ses propres mains et plus il établit les ressorts contre l’esclavage, plus il forge d’armes à la tyrannie. But for all his distaste for convention, rule and even vigorous government, Saint-Just had no real explanation of how force had leaked into the natural history of human beings, and replaced the sentiments of the soul with the savage passions inherent in political society. In what appears to be an earlier draft of his text, he does explore the relation between reason and social development, insisting that reason was merely a culturally variable deformation of human beings’ natural intelligence, which in the contemporary world enabled them to manipulate nature and cope with the increasingly disturbing challenges which they posed to one another. What it emphatically did not have was an innate role of directing them towards a naturally given good.
For Saint-Just therefore, human history was essentially an unintelligible but keenly resented catastrophe. What was distinctly less clear was what could possibly be done to reverse that catastrophe. On this reading, vigorous government, his own most prominent contribution to history, could only hope to play the most marginal and precarious of roles in the rescue. A more promising candidate was the institutional recreation of an entire republic, guaranteeing the government of a free people against the latter’s corruption, and the people and individual citizens in turn against the corruption of their government. The ‘Fragments d’Institutions Républicaines’, a brief and incomplete work which loses heart towards the end, prescribes many of the hallowed recipes for republican virtue and the protection of citizens against injustice and misgovernment. But it has two striking features. The first, prompted by the intensity of the political crisis and the quickening tempo of the Terror, is Saint-Just’s rapt, self-dramatising sense of his own historical significance. All the great historical champions of the republic had been murdered by its enemies: the Gracchi, Demosthenes, Sidney, Oldenbarnevelt. Les grands hommes ne meurent point dans leur lit ... Les circonstances ne sont difficiles que pour ceux qui reculent devant le tombeau.
The second has been analysed by Philippe Rolland in perhaps the most illuminating of all modern studies of Saint-Just (Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française, 1984). As in any relatively ambitious conception of the civil and moral institutions of a republic, great emphasis is placed on education. Children are to be brought up under rigorous discipline, being removed firmly from their mothers at five years of age, even if she has breast-fed them. (If she fails to breast-feed them, she and her husband must present themselves before the magistrate or their union will be legally dissolved.) They are to be raised dans l’amour du silence et le mépris des rhéteurs. They are forbidden to play, since all their games revolve around pride and interest. The truly astonishing aspect of Saint-Just’s view, however, is his treatment of the part played by the ‘affections’ in the institutional order of the republic.
In his republic, friendship has a core public-law status. Each man, when he comes of age – women do not appear to have friends, or, if they do, this is not a matter of public concern – is obliged to declare publicly in the temple who his friends are; and this declaration must be renewed annually. Anyone who falls out with any of his friends has to explain why in the same setting, and will be banished if he declines to do so. Friends fight together in war, dig one another’s tombs, and life-long friends are buried together. (Tombs play a very large role in Saint-Just’s social imagination.) Those who have the nerve to admit that they do not believe in friendship, or who have no friends, are also banished, as is anyone convicted of ingratitude. Even contracts can only validly be made in the presence of friends, must be registered by friends, and can only be voided in the presence of friends of each party. In friendship, the sentiments of the soul (love) are least contaminated by the passions of pride and interest, and the equivocal and opaque conditions of the most highly commercialised republics come closest to the transparency and spontaneous warmth of natural sociality.
Hampson closes his biography by diagnosing spiritual pride as the source of Saint-Just’s extraordinary sense of his own wisdom and rectitude and of the ruthless confidence with which he acted out these convictions: ‘Saint-Just,’ he writes, ‘was Lucifer.’ It is certainly true that Saint-Just had the most astounding gall, and perhaps reasonable to believe that any effective revolutionary leader needs a fair measure of gall. But what is enduringly important about Saint-Just is the ascendancy which he established over others, and the acts which he induced them to carry out. To understand these, it is necessary to take seriously, in all its chaotic unwisdom, what it was that he felt himself to be fighting for and what he made others feel that they wished to fight for too. The confidence to split the good from the bad in the historical possibilities facing a society is still the key stock-in-trade of any political leader in peace or war, as essential for John Major and George Bush as it was for Robespierre or Lenin and is for Saddam Hussein. The shadowy line between friend and enemy which picked out victim from executioner in the Terror was only a hideous domestic instance of the same process of judgment by which, under the law of nations, the leaders of one society decide when another society has violated its own or other human rights and become due for punishment. To make any such judgment is to take a hideous risk. But to refuse to make it is every bit as risky. Saint-Just was a very muddled man, a mixture of philosophical anarchist and barely reconstructed ancient republican with urgent political purposes in a situation of acute and protracted national political crisis. There is little, if anything, to be said from today for the content of his political judgment. But we still need to take seriously the scale of his error.
Towards the end of his short life, he did not merely know that he was overwhelmingly likely soon to be killed, a prospect to which he had long looked forward with an unnerving combination of gusto and self-pity. He had also become at least dimly aware that his struggle was irremediably flawed. In a late note on the corruption of laws, first published by Albert Soboul in 1949, he wrestled to capture his own sense of what he had been trying to do. Celui qui veut régner sur ceux avec lesquels il vit, doit leur céder tout. Les hommes ne sont tous en guerre que parce qu’ils sont esclaves l’un de l’autre. Si vous voulez être indépendant de tout le monde, laissez tout le monde indépendant. It was scarcely a description of the operating style of the représentant en mission to the Army of the Rhine, or the Committee of Public Safety. Indeed it no longer even preserved the key distinction between the latter’s plainly legitimate public purposes and the categorical illegitimacy of royal rule. However self-deceived he may have been, Saint-Just plainly knew that it was a hard struggle to sustain his political ascendancy. On ne peut point régner innocemment.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.