The execution of Robespierre
In “The Tragedy and Triumph of Lyndon Johnson” Joseph Califano describes LBJ’s view of the left wing of his own party. “A liberal is intolerant of other views. He wants to control your thoughts and actions,” Johnson declared. Califano then describes the president moving forward in his chair to deliver his punch line:
“You know the difference between cannibals and liberals?
Cannibals eat only their enemies.”
Using LBJ’s insightful quip as a starting point I set out to explore the history of leftist politics from the Reign of Terror to the Stalin’s Great Purge in Part I and compare it with the ‘Resistance’ we see from today’s angry and intolerant leftists in Part II.
Part I: Highlights of the Old Left
Leftwing French radicals led by lawyers like Danton, Robespierre and others laid a foundation for leftist thought and action that has resurfaced throughout history. Here I provide a synopsis of the two revolutions that have most shaped modern leftist thought in the West: France in the late 18th century and Russia in the early to mid-20th century.
After the fall of the Bastille and the arrest of the King, the French insurrectionists were facing the decision of what to do next, specifically what to do with Louis XVI. Robespierre argued that the dethroned king could function only as a threat to liberty and national peace and that the members of the Assembly were compelled to execute the king as part of their duty to protect the public safety, rather than administer justice by trying the King according to the law in a fair and impartial manner:
The critical question concerning you must be decided by these words alone: Louis was dethroned by his crimes; Louis denounced the French people as rebels; he appealed to chains, to the armies of tyrants who are his brothers; the victory of the people established that Louis alone was a rebel; Louis cannot, therefore, be judged; he already is judged. He is condemned, or the republic cannot be absolved. To propose to have a trial of Louis XVI, in whatever manner one may, is to retrogress to royal despotism and constitutionality; it is a counter-revolutionary idea because it places the revolution itself in litigation. 
In essence Robespierre argued that the King must die so that the nation may live and his view carried the day. Without trial Louis XVI was voted guilty of conspiracy and attacks upon public safety by the Convention and sentenced to death by guillotine.
During the insurrection Robespierre had scrawled a note in his memorandum-book:
What we need is a single will (il faut une volonté une). It must be either republican or royalist. If it is to be republican, we must have republican ministers, republican newspapers, republican deputies, a republican government. The internal dangers come from the middle classes; in order to defeat the middle classes we must rally the people. … The people must ally itself with the Convention, and the Convention must make use of the people.
Robespierre’s brief statement about the need for a single will provides insight into the dynamics of his brief tenure at the helm of the Reign of Terror. He did not just debate with fellow revolutionaries and let a majority of diverse voices rule. Instead, he carefully hunted down anyone who disagreed with him and plotted to have them guillotined.
Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety
In the spring of 1793 the infamous “Committee of Public Safety” was created, which gradually became the de facto revolutionary government after the French King Louis XVI was guillotined. Foreshadowing the brilliant Orwellian practice of “doublespeak”, the Committee’s chief function was to orchestrate the Reign of Terror. Between June 1793 and the end of July 1794 they were very busy. At least 300,000 French citizens were arrested; 17,000 were officially executed, and 10,000 died in prison or without trial.” 
Robespierre justified this slaughter of his own countrymen by more Orwellian logic:
If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue.
When some members of his own party, the Jacobins, lobbied for war with Prussia and Austria, Robespierre, who disagreed with them, disdainfully labeled them as ‘the faction from the Gironde’. The Assembly in April 1792 did decide for war, following the ‘Girondin’ line on it, but from then on, a polarization process started among the members of the Jacobin Club, between a group around Robespierre, after called ‘Montagnards’ — and the newly labeled Girondins. These groups never had any official status, nor official memberships. Robespierre’s Montagnards were not very homogenous in their political views: what united them was their hatred of the Girondins.
The Assembly, governing France from October 1791 until September 1792, was dominated by Girondins like Brissot, Isnard and Roland. But after June 1792, Girondins visited less and less the Jacobin Club, where Robespierre, their fierce opponent, grew more and more dominant.
On 13 July 1793 the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat — a Jacobin leader and journalist — catapulted the Jacobins to dominance. Georges Danton, the key leader of the uprising against the king, was removed from the Committee of Public Safety and a few weeks later Robespierre took his place. 
Once Robespierre was appointed, anyone with “strong presumptions of complicity with the enemies of Liberty” could be arrested. In early November, 1793 Robespierre got his revenge upon the Girondins with whom he had disagreed the year before. Brissot, Philippe Égalité, Olympe de Gouges and Madame Roland were arrested and all were guillotined; the last shouted on the scaffold: “Oh liberty, what crimes they commit in your name!”
As the number of dead leftists mounted, Danton made a plea for an end to the Terror and a return to sanity. But Robespierre fervently believed that the Terror should be increased in intensity, rather then diminished:
The theory of the revolutionary government is as new as the revolution that created it. We must not look for it in the books of political writers, who have not foreseen this revolution, nor in the laws of tyrants who, content to abuse their power, do little to seek its legitimacy…” Robespierre would suppress chaos and anarchy; “the Government has to defend itself” and “to the enemies of the people it owes only death.”
According to Donald Clark Hodges, this was the first important statement in modern times of a philosophy of dictatorship. Robespierre’s Committee became a war cabinet with unprecedented powers over the economic and political life of the nation. 
The Enemy Within
During the autumn of 1793 the National Convention asserted its authority further throughout France, creating the bloodiest period of the French Revolution in which some historians assert that approximately 40,000 people were killed in France.
By the end of 1793, two major factions emerged to challenge Robespierre: the Hébertists, who called for an intensification of the Terror and threatened insurrection, and the Dantonists, led by Georges Danton, who demanded moderation and clemency. By this point these various factions of revolutionaries had begun to fear one another. Led by Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety would take action against both. A majority of the Committee decided that the Hébertists would have to perish or their opposition within the Committee would overshadow the other factions due to its influence in the Commune of Paris.
In March 1794, Robespierre led attacks on the Hébertists who had been criticizing him. Hébert and 18 of his followers were arrested on charges of complicity with foreign powers and guillotined on March 24th. Their collective death was a sort of carnival, a pleasant spectacle according to Michelet’s witnesses.
Following the fall of the Girondins, the Dantonists had emerged as the legislative right within the Convention, with Danton as their most vocal leader. As he attempted to shift the direction of the revolution away from terror, ultimately, Danton himself would become its victim. The Committee of Public Safety began to search for any reason to indict Danton for counter-revolutionary activities. Foreshadowing Stalin’s dictum “Show me the man and I will show you the crime”, the committee found ample reasons in Danton’s call for an end of the official Terror, an end to de-christianization, as well as his launching peace overtures to France’s enemies. These actions were sufficient to lead to his investigation.
Danton angered many members of the Committee of Public Safety with his more moderate views on the Terror they were conducting, but Robespierre had persisted in defending him. For several months he had resisted accusing Danton. His aim was to sow enough doubt in the minds of the deputies regarding Danton’s political integrity to make it possible to proceed against one of the most important leaders of the Revolution. Like Robespierre, Danton played a crucial role in bringing about the death of Louis XVI. After the King was executed, Danton thundered “The kings of Europe would dare challenge us? We throw them the head of a king!” But now he was seen as too moderate for Robespierre and his Committee.
Danton and his allies, Desmoulins, Chabot and Fabre d’Eglantine, were arrested on 30 March without a chance to be heard in the Convention. A trial began on charges of conspiracy, theft and corruption; a financial scandal involving the French East India Company provided a “convenient pretext” for Danton’s downfall. The directors of the Company were never interrogated at all.) Legendre attempted to defend Danton in the Convention but was silenced by Robespierre. No friend of the Dantonists dared speak up in case he too should be accused of putting friendship before virtue.
A few days later Desmoulins’ wife was imprisoned. She was accused of trying to raise money to free her husband and Danton. Saint-Just helped to pass a law that prevented any accused from speaking in his own defense. Robespierre, their oldest friend and witness at their marriage, kept his mouth shut. )
Danton, Desmoulins, and other Dantonist associates were tried from 3–5 April before the Revolutionary Tribunal. The trial was purely political, and as such, unfolded in an irregular fashion. The jury had only seven members, despite the law demanding twelve, as it was deemed that only seven jurors could be relied on returning the required verdict. Danton made lengthy and violent attacks on the Committee of Public Safety and the accused demanded the right to have witnesses appear on their behalf. But a decree was passed by the National Convention, preventing the accused from further defending themselves, thus ensuring a guilty verdict. Danton and the rest of the defendants were condemned to death and at once led to the guillotine.
“I leave it all in a frightful welter,” Danton said; “not a man of them has an idea of government. Robespierre will follow me; he is dragged down by me. Ah, better be a poor fisherman than meddle with the government of men!” The phrase ‘a poor fisherman’ was almost certainly a reference to Saint Peter, Danton having reconciled to Catholicism. Of the group of fifteen who were guillotined together on 5 April 1794, Danton was the last to be killed, at the ripe old age of 34. 
The Fall of Robespierre
Two weeks after the execution of Danton and his followers, the Committee of Public Safety assumed the power to search and to bring accused persons before the Revolutionary Tribunal, in the same manner as the Committee of General Security. The General Police Bureau was set up, tasked with gathering information and reporting directly to Robespierre. Within a week Robespierre took over and expanded its remit when Saint-Just left Paris for the army in the north. The decree of 8 May suspended the revolutionary court in the provinces and brought all political cases for trial in the capital.
A month later Georges Couthon introduced the drastic Law of 22 Prairial, which was enacted on 10 June. Under this law, the Tribunal became a simple court of condemnation refusing suspects the right of counsel and allowing only one of two verdicts – complete acquittal or death. Now all power was in the hands of a few individuals who could seize anyone they suspected and, within a day or so, detach their head. In the next three days, 156 people were sent in batches to the guillotine.
With this new power of life and death over the citizens of France, Robespierre now wanted to take away all authority from the rival Committee of General Security. Both Committees were responsible for suppressing counterrevolution, but ended targeting each other.
Having executed many of his former friends and allies, Robespierre became increasingly isolated and paranoid. He complained of being blamed for everything. Not only England but also members of the Committee of General Security were involved in intrigue to bring him down.
“Punish the traitors, purge the bureaux of the Committee of General Security, purge the Committee itself, and subordinate it to the Committee of Public Safety, purge the Committee of Public Safety itself and create a unified government under the supreme authority of the Convention”.
The Fall of Robespierre came with a sudden ferocity. It began with Robespierre’s address to the National Convention on 26 July 1794, his arrest the next day, and his execution the following day. In his address Robespierre spoke of the existence of internal enemies and conspirators within the Convention and the governing Committees, but refused to actually name them. This, of course, alarmed the deputies who feared Robespierre was preparing another purge of the Convention.
Gathering in secret at five in the morning nine members of the two committees decided that it was now all or nothing; Robespierre had to be eliminated or else they would all die. The crucial factor that drove them to make up their minds to join the conspiracy seems to have been that they decided Robespierre’s few remaining allies had to be arrested first, so he would be without any possible support.
On the following day, the tension in the Convention allowed Jean-Lambert Tallien, one of the conspirators who Robespierre had in mind in his denouncement, to turn the Convention against Robespierre and decree his arrest. By the end of the next day, Robespierre was executed in the Place de la Revolution, where King Louis XVI had been executed a year earlier, following Danton by just a few months, as he had predicted.
On the afternoon of 28 July 1794, Robespierre and his fellow convicts were taken to the Place de la Révolution along with the last president of the Jacobins, Nicolas Francois Vivier. A vast mob screaming curses followed them right up to the scaffold. Robespierre kept his eyes closed. According to the executioner’s grandson, it all happened very carefully but Robespierre did roar like a tiger. The applause and shouts of joy seem to have lasted 15 minutes. Later they were hastily buried in a common grave.
William Doyle, a British historian notable for his “Oxford History of the French Revolution” (1989) writes that “It is not violent fulminations that characterize Robespierre’s speeches on the Terror. It is the language of unmasking, unveiling, revealing, discovering, exposing the enemy within, the enemy hidden behind patriotic posturings, the language of suspicion.” Doyle argues that Robespierre never meant to become a dictator, but that his own paranoia, in the face of plots and assassination attempts, drove him into mortal conflict with his political opponents in the Revolution.
Legacy of Robespierre
In the Soviet era, Robespierre was used as an example of a Revolutionary hero. During the October Revolution and Red Terror, Robespierre found ample praise in the Soviet Union, resulting in the construction of two statues of him: one in Saint Petersburg, and another in Moscow. The latter was commissioned by Vladimir Lenin, who referred to Robespierre as a “Bolshevik before his time”. Due to the poor construction of the monument (it was made of tubes and common concrete), it crumbled within three days of its unveiling and was never replaced.
But a more important and lasting legacy of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror would be revealed during the reign of Josef Stalin, whose concept of a purge was far more grandiose than Robespierre ever dreamed.
Stalin’s Great Purge
The Great Purge was a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union which occurred from 1936 to 1938. It involved a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials, repression of wealthy landlords and the Red Army leadership, widespread police surveillance, suspicion of saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, imprisonment, and arbitrary executions. The period of the most intense purge, 1937–1938, is called Yezhovshchina commonly translated as “times of Yezhov” after Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police (NKVD )who was executed a year after the purge. Modern historical studies estimate the total number of deaths due to Stalinist repression in 1937–38 to be between 700,000 and 1,200,000.
Trial of Grigory Zinoviev; Zinoviev was executed on August 25, 1936 after Stalin had promised to spare his life in return for confession.
As we saw with Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, the Great Purge was primarily an effort by Stalin to eliminate all challenges from past, present or future opposition groups, including the left and right wings led by Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin, respectively. Following the Civil War, Stalin’s opponents on both sides of the political spectrum chided him as undemocratic and lax on bureaucratic corruption. Stalin enforced a ban on party factions and banned those party members who had opposed him, effectively ending democratic centralism.
In the new Party organization, the Politburo, with Stalin incharge, were the sole dispensers of ideology. (Note the similarity with Robespierre’s Committee). This required the elimination of all Marxists with different views, especially those among the prestigious “old guard” of revolutionaries. (il faut une volonté une). As the purges began, the government (through the NKVD) shot prominent Bolshevik heroes, as well as the majority of Lenin’s Politburo, for disagreements in policy. The NKVD attacked the supporters, friends, and family of “heretical” Marxists, whether they lived in Russia or not. The NKVD nearly annihilated Trotsky’s family before killing him in Mexico, under the personal orders of Stalin.
In 1934, Stalin used the murder of Leningrad party leader Sergey Kirov as a pretext to launch the Great Purge, in which about a million people perished. Some later historians came to believe that Stalin arranged the murder, or at least that there was sufficient evidence to reach such a conclusion. Kirov was a staunch Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival because of his emerging popularity among the moderates. The 1934 Party Congress elected Kirov to the central committee with only three votes against, the fewest of any candidate, while Stalin received 292 votes against. After Kirov’s assassination, the NKVD charged the opposition with Kirov’s murder, as well as a growing list of other offences, including treason, terrorism, sabotage, and espionage.
Another justification for the purge was to remove any possible “fifth column” in case of a war. The Soviet press portrayed the country as threatened from within by fascist spies. Lenin had used repression against perceived enemies of the Bolsheviks as a systematic method of instilling fear and facilitating social control, especially during the campaign commonly referred to as the Red Terror. This policy continued and intensified under Stalin, although for the first time, members of the ruling party were targeted on a massive scale, and a substantial number of victims were Communist Party members and office-holders.
“Show me the man and I will show you the crime”— Stalin
Between 1936 and 1938, senior Communist Party leaders were accused of conspiring with fascist and capitalist powers to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, dismember the Soviet Union and restore capitalism. These trials were highly publicized and extensively covered by the outside world, which was mesmerized by the spectacle of Lenin’s closest associates confessing to the most outrageous crimes and begging for death sentences.
From the accounts of former OGPU officers, the methods used to extract the confessions are known: such tortures as repeated beatings, simulated drownings, making prisoners stand or go without sleep for days on end, and threats to arrest and execute the prisoners’ families. For example, Kamenev’s teenage son was arrested and charged with terrorism. After months of such interrogation, the defendants were driven to despair and exhaustion.
Zinoviev and Kamenev demanded, as a condition for “confessing”, a direct guarantee from the Politburo that their lives and that of their families and followers would be spared. This offer was accepted, but when they were taken to the alleged Politburo meeting, only Stalin, Kliment Voroshilov, and Yezhov were present. Stalin claimed that they were the “commission” authorized by the Politburo and gave assurances that death sentences would not be carried out. After the trial, Stalin not only broke his promise to spare the defendants, he had most of their relatives arrested and shot.
In Stalin’s own words: “To choose one’s victims, to prepare one’s plan minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed… There is nothing sweeter in the world.”
Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin’s Soviet government, were executed until Stalin himself was the only one who remained alive. However, the highly visible trials and executions of the former Bolshevik leaders were only a minor part of the purges. Thousands of prominent writers, intellectuals, and artists were imprisoned and at least 1,500 died in prisons and concentration camps. The Orthodox clergy, including active parishioners, was nearly annihilated: 85% of the 35,000 members of the clergy were arrested. Particularly vulnerable to repression were the so-called “special settlers” who were under permanent police surveillance and constituted a huge pool of potential “enemies” to draw on. At least 100,000 of them were arrested in the course of the Great Purge. Finally, in the summer of 1938, Yezhov was relieved from his post as head of the NKVD and was eventually tried and executed, as were the other high military commanders who served under him.
Although the trials of a few prominent Soviet leaders were widely publicized, the hundreds of thousands of other arrests and executions were not. These became gradually known in the West only as a few former gulag inmates reached the West with their stories. Not only did foreign correspondents from the West fail to report on the purges, but in many Western nations (especially France), attempts were made to silence or discredit these witnesses; according to Robert Conquest, Jean-Paul Sartre took the position that evidence of the camps should be ignored so the French proletariat would not be discouraged. Finally, a series of legal actions ensued at which definitive evidence was presented that established the validity of the former labor camp inmates’ testimony and the scope of the Great Purge became more widely known.
The Great Purge has provoked numerous debates about its purpose, scale and mechanisms. According to one interpretation, Stalin’s regime had to maintain its citizens in a state of fear and uncertainty to stay in power (Brzezinski, 1958). Robert Conquest emphasized Stalin’s paranoia, focused on the Moscow show trial of “Old Bolsheviks”, and analyzed the carefully planned and systematic destruction of the Communist Party. As different facts came to light, historians generally concluded that the violence of the late 1930s was driven by fears of counter-revolutionary reactions that were perhaps justified given the dismal conditions of life the average Russian endured under Stalin.
Of course, the total control of Russia and the USSR were but stepping stones to Stalin’s overall plan:
“Divide the world into regional groups as a transitional stage to world government. Populations will more readily abandon their national loyalty to a vague regional loyalty than they will for a world authority. Later the regions can be brought together all the way into a single world dictatorship…World dictatorship can be established only when the victory of socialism has been achieved in certain countries or groups of countries … [and] when these federation of republics have finally grown into a world union of Soviet Socialist Republics uniting the whole of mankind under the hegemony of the international proletariat organized as a state.”
“The press must grow day in and day out – it is our Party’s sharpest and most powerful weapon.”
For Stalinists, totalitarian control of a people, and eventually of all peoples must proceed methodically, not just by eliminating all opposing voices, but ultimately by the control of all language, thought and action. This means not only control of the press, as Stalin observed above, but also the arts and entertainment, and most importantly, all levels of education, which in a totalitarian state becomes the primary agency of indoctrination.
In Part II we turn our attention to current efforts by the Left to eliminate their opposition and finalize control over these same levers of power and influence in the West, with a focus on the USA.