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The Terror of the Radicals: The Jacobins in the French Revolution

"Terror" is usually the word that comes to mind when people think of the Jacobins in the French Revolution. But why? Many people demonize it, arguing that violent rule comes from the evil of its members. In fact, the real situation may be the opposite.

Published onDec 07, 2022
The Terror of the Radicals: The Jacobins in the French Revolution

The Terror of the Radicals: The Jacobins in the French Revolution

The Reign of Terror (arrests, executions of political opponents) is something many people in modern times have not experienced. Most people cannot imagine how to live in such a social environment, although it has happened throughout history. Therefore, people generally demonize it, such as leaders being evil. Yet a reign of terror does not necessarily stem from a terrorist leader. This article will explain this by analyzing the Jacobins in the French Revolution.

Who are the Jacobins?

The Jacobins were a party led by Robespierre at the time of the French Revolution (1793-1794). The Jacobins (radical republicans) defeated the moderate republicans in an uprising in 1793 and seized power.

The Jacobin reign began in June 1793 and ended in July 1794. During Jacobin's control, they guillotined suspected counter-revolutionaries, and thousands were brutally murdered.

No one can deny that this behavior belongs to the Reign of Terror, so the keyword of the Jacobins is "Terror".1

Why did the Jacobins do this?

Just as not every criminal likes crime, not all Reigns of Terror are because their leaders want terror. The original intention of the Jacobins was not to create a terrifying social atmosphere. On the contrary, the Jacobins had good intentions. Their political philosophy can be understood as "popular republicanism" 2 It emphasizes the interests of the people at the bottom more than moderates.

The Jacobins have done a lot, or plan to do a lot, to help the bottom.3

  • Economically, the Jacobins try to control prices and avoid making the currency worthless (the behavior of the next government).

  • Politically, they removed property restrictions on citizens' votes.

  • Educationally, they made the primary education program universal for the first time.

The fact that the Jacobins came to power and were supported by the sans-culottes (Parisian radicals from below) also confirms this.4

But I am not defending the Jacobins. Regardless of their original intentions, in the end, they carried out a reign of terror.5 The reason for this was the extreme fear of counter-revolution. The Jacobins were revolutionary, and there were large numbers of people who disapproved of their policies. This made the Jacobins constantly worried about "conspiracies from within." This fearful attitude is especially evident in the rhetoric of Jacobins such as Robespierre, who felt that conspiracy was everywhere and that maintaining internal unity was crucial.

The Law of Suspects passed on September 17, 1793, gave the government vast powers of arrest. Many people were arrested simply because they were suspected of being counter-revolutionary. Jacobins

A wave of paranoid revolution gradually swept across the country. Personal liberty was severely violated during this period.

What can we learn from this history?

First of all, from the behavior of the Jacobins, we can understand that an excellent original intention does not necessarily bring good results; instead, it can be unexpectedly bad. The original purpose of the Jacobins was to bring democracy to France, which ultimately failed to materialize. Their reign was short before being overthrown by the Thermidorians.

Although the Jacobins initially gained the support of the people at the bottom, they lost their political base. Their fear and purge of the counter-revolution did not allow them to carry the revolution forward. This broad definition of the counter-revolution, and hostilities, even hastened their decline. In short, their original intentions were distorted during the process.

Jacobin's behavior is not an exception among radical revolutionaries, which is worth pondering. There are similar cases in the course of revolutions led by leftists in many countries. Even when people mention the left, the keywords that come to mind are "radical" and "terror."

Demonizing the radical left is not conducive to understanding its actions. Historians have had a lot to say about the Jacobins, and not all are negative6. The brief reign of the Jacobins contributed to the political development of France.7

From the behavior of the Jacobins, we can find some commonalities with the radical left. Actually, like the Jacobins, those failed revolutions were not for nothing. In addition to experiences and lessons, they may also have left some historical legacy.

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