Religion and revolution: Robespierre’s cult of the Supreme Being

A response to
Harrison Fluss

Originally published by the
Communist League Tampa

In a recent article written for Jacobin, Harrison Fluss revisits the civic religion of the Supreme Being enshrined by Maximilien Robespierre 18 Floréal Year II of the Republic (7 May 1794). Tracing its conceptual origins back to the philosophical discourses of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, somewhat less plausibly, the metaphysical system of Baruch Spinoza, the author argues this bygone historical moment still has much to teach the present. He suggests that Spinoza, Rousseau, and Robespierre “provide a solution for the kind of relationship between church and state needed not only for an emancipatory movement, but for the emancipated society of the future.”

Several things are already implied by this statement. First, religious institutions — i.e., the church — will by no means be done away with in the future society Fluss envisions. No less scandalously, at least from a Marxist perspective, secular institutions — i.e., the state — will also continue to exist. Both conclusions flow from the assertion that a relationship between church and state will always be necessary, since both must still be around in order for them to relate. Even after the material conditions which necessitate spiritual and temporal power have been superseded, in other words, Fluss seems to believe they will persist in every time and in every clime. Religio perennis lurks behind all the superficial changes in mythology over the centuries, expressing an immutable desire. Likewise the need for a repressive apparatus, the administrative machinery of government, never fully fades.

Whether or not this is actually the case, others have often held quite the opposite view of humanity’s prospects moving forward through history. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for example, scolded their Hegelian colleague, Georg Daumer, for promoting a new pantheistic creed. “It is clear that with every great historical upheaval of social conditions the outlooks and ideas of men, and consequently their religious ideas, are revolutionized,” they wrote in their joint review of Daumer’s 1850 book Die Religion des Neuen Weltalters. “The difference between the present upheaval and all previous ones consists in the fact that man has at last figured out the secret of this process of historical upheaval and hence, instead of once again exalting this [process] in the rapturous form of a new religion, divests himself of all religion.” Decades later, Engels famously maintained that the proletariat, in the course of its transition to socialism, eventually “abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes the state as state.” After a certain point, the state simply dies off or withers away [stirbt ab].

For Marx and Engels, then, a society in which the state endures — much less the church — cannot be called emancipated.

религия-яд береги ребят

Perhaps this is too literal, though, reading too much into too little. Here is not the place for biblical exegesis, at any rate, searching for answers in “sacred” texts. Besides, by focusing on abstruse theoretical matters like the withering away [Absterben] of church and state, one avoids the eminently practical issue Fluss was trying to address. Over and above such heady speculations, then, the historical analogy he offers in his article may be scrutinized to see if it is apt. Can Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being truly serve as a model for resolving the antinomy of church and state today?

Fluss draws a parallel between the rabidly anticlerical Hébertistes of that period and the New Atheists of the past fifteen years. In his view, both made the mistake of waging war on religious ideas rather than the economic reality on which these are based. “There is nothing inherently progressive or revolutionary about being an atheist,” asserts Fluss. “Since atheism in itself is not a positive basis for politics, it can turn elitist and reactionary if fighting religious belief is considered more important than fighting for the rights of the oppressed.” As proof, he mentions Ayn Rand, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins as “perfect testaments to atheism in the service of virulent reaction.” Rand was, of course, a lifelong anticommunist. Harris, for his part, has defended the use of enhanced interrogation techniques — a polite euphemism for torture — in order to prevent future terrorist attacks. Dawkins’ opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq is long forgotten these days, overshadowed by his numerous idiotic remarks since. Yet this is hardly an original insight: Rosa Luxemburg recognized the backwardness of bourgeois anticlericalism over a century ago, and called for socialists to devise an anticlerical strategy of their own.

More pointedly, Fluss likens an Hébertist decree outlawing sacramental garb in public to the 2004 French law prohibiting conspicuous religious symbols in schools. Widely known as the headscarf ban for its perceived bias against Muslim women observing norms of feminine modesty [hijab], the measure nevertheless garnered the support of many leftist intellectuals in France. Élisabeth Roudinesco, a Lacanian psychoanalyst and outspoken feminist, as well as Samir Amin, a Marxian economist and self-described “radical secularist,” continue to uphold the venerable tradition of Republican laïcité despite its apparent racism. Stances such as this seem to find precedent in the Hébertistes.

Paul Lafrgue Hommes du Jour 1909

Unfortunately, Fluss’ narrative runs into difficulties as soon as it encounters the historical record. It fails to appreciate the messiness and confusion with which the struggle against the church unfolded over the duration of the Revolution. Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law and a member of parliament under the Third Republic, captured these erratic shifts in policy quite well in his 1909 paper “Causes of Belief in God”:

The bourgeois revolutionists of 1789, imagining France could be dechristianized, persecuted the clergy with unequaled vigor; the more logical of them [Lafargue means the Hébertistes], thinking nothing would be accomplished as long as the belief in God existed, abolished God by decree, like a functionary of the old regime, replacing Him with the Goddess of Reason. But as soon as the Revolution had sown its wild oats, Robespierre reestablished by decree the Supreme Being, as the name of God was still out of fashion, and a few months later the curates reemerged from their cells and opened their churches, where the faithful crowded. And Bonaparte, to satisfy the bourgeois mob, signed the Concordat: whereupon appeared Christianity of a romantic, sentimental, picturesque character, adapted by Chateaubriand to the tastes of the triumphant bourgeoisie.

Lafargue’s reference to the Goddess of Reason is key here. The Hébertistes were not at all atheists, neither by the standards of their time nor the standards of today. Atheism was not unknown in eighteenth-century France. D’Holbach, Helvétius, and La Mettrie were brazenly atheistic years before the Revolution. Sylvain Maréchal and Jacob Dupont made no effort to disguise their godlessness after 1789. (Maréchal, a poet, was later asked to dedicate a hymn to the Supreme Being for the inaugural fête, in an ironic twist). Claiming that Hébert and his followers denied deity as such is inaccurate, however. “Real atheism was rare, even in those Temples of Reason where the Supreme Being was not worshiped, but the accusation was useful in discrediting the Hébertistes,” explained R.R. Palmer in his study, Twelve Who Ruled. Even an avowed Robespierrist like Albert Mathiez agreed with his former teacher, François-Alphonse Aulard, that the Hébertist program had been misunderstood, writing that “[m]ost manuals represent the Hébertistes as bloodthirsty madmen, having no other program than a violent and unreasoning hatred of Catholicism and the very idea of religion. This summary judgment is not only unjust; it proceeds from a singular ignorance of facts…[Aulard] proved some time ago that atheist demonstrations during dechristianization were isolated…Hébert himself protested that he wasn’t a preacher of irreligion.” Undeniably, the man was given to obscene outbursts — e.g., “fuck the Pope!” — but he retained a certain respect for “le bon sans-culotte, Jesus.”

If the Hébertistes were not atheists, why were they marched to the scaffold 4 Germinal Year II? To properly grasp the reasons for their downfall, the politics of Hébert must first be situated in the greater context of the Terror.

Jaques René Hébert - né en 1759 à Alençon dép. de l'Orne, substitut du proc.r de la de Paris... - [estampe] _ F. Bonneville del. ; E. Bovinet sculp 1

Jacques Hébert began his revolutionary career as a member of the Club des Cordeliers, a hotbed of populist agitation and egalitarian rhetoric south of the Seine. Over the next few months, he also enrolled in the Club des Jacobins on the north side of Paris. No less radical than their antiroyalist brethren across the river, the Jacobins placed more of an emphasis on virtuous republicanism than the Cordeliers. Following the merger of these two groups in Le Montagne, which took place midway through 1792, Hébert was appointed deputy procurer of the Paris Commune. Within the Montagnard section of the Legislative Assembly, he thus represented the extreme left wing, militating against the Girondin tendency of constitutional monarchists. Hébert demanded the execution of the king (“Louis the Last”) without trial or delay. Like his close friend Jean-Paul Marat, he ran a printing press and put out an incendiary publication, La Père Duchesne. Engels, battling Blanquist émigrés in June 1874, lamented that they had sullied its good name by adopting it for their own organ, “a miserable caricature of the paper published by Hébert in 1793,” much as Lenin would two decades afterward with Marat’s Narodnik epigones. In any event, Hébert was widely seen as the successor to Marat in the wake of the latter’s assassination by Charlotte Corday. Along with Anacharsis Cloots, the “personal enemy of God” [ennemi personnel de Dieu], Hébert advocated universal male suffrage, total seizure of church assets, legalization of divorce, requisition of arms and horses to ward off invaders, and a graduated income tax coupled with regulations fixing wages and price to ensure a fair day’s pay and affordable goods.

George Rudé was therefore right in his biography of Robespierre, quoted by Fluss in his piece, when he described Hébertism as “a convenient but imprecise term that came to be applied to all groups taking part in the Left opposition to the Revolutionary Government in the autumn of 1793 into the spring of 1794. Hébert’s associates in the Paris Commune and in the Ministry of War (Chaumette, Vincent), the ‘dechristianizers’ en bloc, the proponents of ‘universal war’ (Cloots), and the leaders of the armée révolutionnaire and Cordeliers Club (Ronsin).” Danton and the so-called “Indulgents,” who were soft on the Girondins and had an Anglophilic streak, would be the Right opposition according to this spectrum. Robespierre and his allies in the Committee of Public Safety, especially Saint-Just and Georges Couthon, constituted a majority: the “power center” of Le Montagne. Splitting the difference between these poles, the Robespierristes managed to purge the Hébertistes on the left and then the Dantonistes on the right. But this turned out to be a fleeting victory, the beginning of the end. As Engels put it in a letter to Victor Adler,

In my opinion, and that of Marx, Cloots and the Paris Commune were for the propagandist war as the only means of salvation, whereas Committee of Public Safety members behaved like regular statesmen, were frightened of the European coalition and tried to achieve peace by dividing the allied powers. Danton wanted peace with England (that is, with Fox and the English opposition, who hoped to come into power at the elections); Robespierre intrigued with Austria and Prussia at Basle in the vain hope of coming to an understanding with them. Both united against the Commune to overthrow those who wanted the…republicanization of Europe. They succeeded. The Commune (Hébert, Cloots, etc.) was beheaded.

Not only was the charge of atheism a canard, it turns out. So too was Fluss’ insinuation that the Hébertistes were more concerned with storming heaven than with the fight to alleviate suffering in this world. Indeed, few groups could match their radicalism when it came to the eradication of social ills. Either way, dechristianization emerged extemporaneously from the Parisian crowd — “from below,” as current parlance would have it — and found resonance in the provinces, even during the counterrevolutionary uprisings in the Vendée. The premier historian of the “popular classes” within the Third Estate, Albert Soboul, demonstrated how anticlerical impulses linked up with the cults of revolutionary martyrs and patriot saints so as to undermine longstanding religious convictions. Much of this energy was later rechanneled by Hébert into devotion to ratio, or the Goddess of Reason. All this aroused the suspicion of Robespierre, alongside other factors. Ferenc Fehér, a late disciple of Georg Lukács, drove this home in a 1989 essay on “The Cult of the Supreme Being”: “When the dechristianizing movement, both in its spontaneous and organized forms, arose around 1793, [Robespierre] immediately smelled anarchism, and his term of accusation was atheism.”

Historical inaccuracies and transhistorical assumptions aside, however, the matter of the relationship between church and state remains. Bracketing some of these finer points about the alleged atheism of the Hébertistes, as well as Fluss’ more metaphysical postulates about instilling public morality through “positive conceptions of the good,” the Supreme Being can be reexamined to see what lessons it holds.

Robespierre doubtless played an heroic role in the French Revolution taken as a whole. Nevertheless, the decision to consecrate the Supreme Being with constitutional clauses was not his finest hour. Jean Jaurès, whose Socialist History of the French Revolution is discussed by Fluss briefly in his article, characterized the entire affair as a fiasco. “In organizing a festival of the Supreme Being, by promulgating a philosophical dogma and organizing a sort of religion, [Robespierre] appeared to be seeking new powers for himself…Having crushed Hébertism as a faction, he seemed to be taking posthumous revenge on the Hébertist spirit…Wanting to calm the revolutionary fever by taking a religious and moral detour, Robespierre isolated himself, set himself apart at the very moment when he should have been conciliatory.” The ceremony itself, staged and choreographed with the utmost precision by the painter David, was an aesthetic triumph according to most firsthand accounts. Although few in attendance believed in the Supreme Being, the spectacle was generally well received. Onlookers hoped that it might herald a new spirit of clemency on the part of the Committee of Public Safety. Mallet du Pan, a royalist pamphleteer living in exile, recalled that “the Feast of the Supreme Being produced an extraordinary effect outside. People really thought that Robespierre was going to close the abyss of the Revolution.” But such hopes were swiftly dashed: the law of 22 Prairial, intensifying the Terror, was passed just two days later.

Yet, however poor his timing may have been, historians tend to agree that Robespierre was sincere in his beliefs. Some have sought to explain this religiosity by raising biographical details, like the fact he was an altar boy in his hometown of Arras. Others have detected a residual Huguenot influence, citing Robespierre’s various admissions to this effect. Tempting though these explanations may be, they are ultimately too easy. Irrespective of the origin of this behavior, the pious attitude and earnest genuflections of Robespierre all seemed slightly ridiculous after what had happened in the months leading up. Many jokes were made at his expense. Heinrich Heine could still lampoon him more than four decades on: “Robespierre, the great bourgeois of Rue Saint-Honoré, certainly had his bouts of destructiveness when it came to the monarchy, his shoulders jerking terribly in fits of regicidal epilepsy. But as soon as the Supreme Being was mentioned, he washed the blood from his hands and the white froth from his lips, put on his powder blue Sunday coat with the silver buttons, and stuck a bouquet of flowers in the front of his vest.” Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne and Jean-Marie Collot, radicals who belonged to the Committee of Public Safety, quipped that Robespierre was auditioning for the part of pontiff. Fluss regards the “mockery and contempt” voiced by these detractors as mean-spirited and unfair.

Subsequent philosophers and theorists were not much kinder in their commentaries on this chapter of the revolution, however. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, for example, was a thinker favorably disposed to Jacobinism — Fluss goes so far as to call him “the philosopher of the French Revolution” — as well as to Robespierre, now and again. And yet here Hegel was unsparing, referring to the universal consciousness expressed by Robespierre’s abstract deity as “the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous l’Être Suprême” (Phenomenology §586). Engels downplayed the importance of religious ideals to the great bourgeois revolutionaries who overturned the ancien régime. “[W]hen the bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century was strong enough to posses an ideology suited to its own class standpoint,” he wrote, “it made its conclusive revolution appealing exclusively to juristic and political ideas, and troubled itself with religion only insofar as it stood in its way. But it never occurred to put a new religion in place of the old; everyone knows how Robespierre failed in his attempt [to set up a cult for the Supreme Being].” The twentieth century did little to change this assessment in the eyes of Marxists. In a 1924 article, the Russian left communist Mikhail Pokrovskii commemorated the recently deceased Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin by comparing him to the Roundhead leader Cromwell and the Jacobin leader Robespierre. Pokrovskii did not deny the stature of either man, but held that Lenin had surpassed them in greatness. Lenin was greater than his French forebear chiefly in that his foresight kept him from making the kind of errors that did l’Incorruptible in: “[Robespierre] committed a lot of blunders, first by pitilessly destroying the extreme leftists Hébert and Chaumette in the spring of 1794. He then dealt himself the final blow with his ill-fated cult of the Supreme Being (a cult which absolutely no one, other than Robespierre, needed).”1 Max Horkheimer highlighted this hypocrisy as well in his 1936 essay on “Egoism and Freedom Movements.” “Ostentatious conduct, such as the feasts of reason celebrated by the Hébertists… disgusted Robespierre,” observed Horkheimer, “but his role as bourgeois statesman, which required displays for the masses, obliged him to preside over the Feast of the Supreme Being in June 1794.”

The cult of the Supreme Being was not dreamt up by Robespierre alone, out of thin air. Clearly, the idea of a civic religion was cribbed from Rousseau’s Social Contract, although it is unlikely that Spinoza was a source of inspiration. Robespierre insisted on the immortality of the soul, something Spinoza explicitly denied. (Lewis Feuer overlooked this contradiction in his otherwise excellent book on Spinoza’s liberalism, this being the ostensible reason for his excommunication from Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in 1656). Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy would have been the more direct influence, in all likelihood, particularly the chapters dealing with Roman religion. As Marx knew well, the French revolutionaries of 1789 viewed themselves as contemporaries of Varro, Cicero, and Seneca. While Robespierre had a hand in drafting the statutes in the constitution that pertained to the Supreme Being, it is not as if he concocted them by himself. His speech the next day bore his idiosyncratic imprint, to be sure, but this is of course expected. Friedrich Sieburg, Robespierre’s surprisingly sympathetic Nazi biographer, called the Supreme Being “an almost touching invention which shows [the Incorruptible] too weak for the true faith yet too profound for political idolatry…never was his eloquence so genuine as when he defended the dignity of the divine.” Palmer described the festival in similar terms:

Robespierre on this occasion was more priestIike than ever, and the eminence he attained, together with whispers that he was planning a personal theocracy, hastened his fall. But the celebration of the Supreme Being only realized a common dream…Never was Robespierre more representative of the Revolution, never less swayed by an ambition private to himself, than when officiating as hierophant of the Republic.

Mathiez was thus correct to point out in his polemic against Aulard that Robespierre merely enacted the will of the Convention, barely modifying the proposals contained in a report by Mathieu. Aulard’s contention that the Hébertist cult of Reason and the Robespierrist cult of the Supreme Being were distinct from one another, corresponding to the philosophical split between Diderot and Rousseau, was nonetheless valid. The latter was not a straightforward rebranding of the former, and Mathiez was unable to account for orders declaring that “the inscription Temple of Reason over buildings will be replaced by the inscription Temple of the Supreme Being.” Like so many historiographical disputes, however, the controversy between Mathiez and Aulard said as much about political divisions in their day as the historical events at issue. Fluss’ article for Jacobin reflects the more propitiatory line that the Left has assumed toward religion of late, hoping to appeal to believers. Here, once again, the past is forced to dance to the tune of the present.

It is instructive to note the divergent opinions of Fluss and Mathiez regarding the cult of the Supreme Being and its legacy. Each author sees himself as Robespierre’s champion, and passionately defends the initiative to found the cult. Still, their evaluations of the significance of this episode for the present could not be more at odds. “What we can learn from these figures is not so much the need to institute a new religion,” asserts Fluss, “but a very secular lesson about…how…morality can be organized to promote the struggles of the oppressed while respecting and tolerating religious beliefs.” Mathiez, by contrast, understood the cult’s value as primarily historical; though remarkable for its time, it had since been superseded by the course of events: “One can think what one likes of Robespierre’s deism. Let it be found outdated, worn out…he facilitated the passage from exclusive and tyrannical Catholicism to free thought. He was a necessary step.” For Mathiez, the belligerent Bolshevik historian, free thought meant nothing other than the laïcité of radical Enlightenment. A living secularism, in other words, rather than one that was dead. [La laïcité, telle qu’il la concevait, n’était pas une laïcité morte, mais une laïcité active].

Deism, especially such as existed then, is scarcely viable today. Robespierre’s cult of the Supreme Being was but a single variant of this ideology proposed at that time. Hébert’s cult of Reason was another. Virtue is more the specialty of post-Marxists like Alasdair Macintyre than of Marxists. Communists will have to confront religion at least until the dawn of a new society, however, so laying down some minimal guidelines for the meantime would be wise. Obviously it is pointless to go around offending people’s deeply-held beliefs, not to mention insensitive and counterproductive. By that same score, though, it would be folly to engineer some state-mandated surrogate, just to give people something to believe in. Those who do not follow a religion would see this all as cynical pandering, while those who already follow a religion would see it as disingenuous and manipulative. Atheism as it is practiced by Harris or Dawkins may well be elitist in its disdain for lay believers, placing a naïve faith in scientific advances. Nevertheless, nothing could be more elitist than to traffic in “noble” lies.

It is enough for now to remind liberalism of its old watchwords: freedom of conscience, toleration, etc. Bonapartist fantasies about “demotic magnanimity” notwithstanding, religious ideas may be at once permitted and opposed. Meanwhile, revolutionaries set their sights on the goal of liberating conscience as such from the spookery of religion [religiösem Spuk].



1 «На чем же Робеспьер попался? На том, что он наделал много ошибок, вначале безжалостно истребив крайних левых типа Эбера и Шометта весною 1794 года, а затем окончательно себя добил злосчастным культом верховного существа, культом, который решительно никому не был нужен, кроме самого Робеспьера». М.Н. Покровский. «Ленин как тип революционного вождя». Под знаменем Марксизма. (Vol. 3, № 2). Pgs. 63-73.

3 thoughts on “Religion and revolution: Robespierre’s cult of the Supreme Being

  1. Very informative reading as always, I was interested by this section: “Engels famously maintained that the proletariat, in the course of its transition to socialism, eventually “abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinctions and class antagonisms, and abolishes the state as state.””…
    Would you agree that the idea assumed in Marx and Engels is of the Proletarian attaining hierarchical power of the Bourgeois state, thereby subjugating it’s ability to enforce subjugation etc?
    If so do you perhaps think a more likely means of abolishing the state would be in rendering it useless through localism, formation of new communities, new lifestyles and new means of attaining one’s subsistance without such large hierarchical systems and institutions?
    This would seem to me to not only defeat the problem of capitalism, but the asserted requirement of the Proletariat’s ascent to power which seems to have always been unlikely without reproducing hierarchical social relations, representative political organizations and seems to look less likely day by day?
    Kind Regards.

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