Albert Mathiez on Robespierre and the cult of the Supreme Being

recently published an article by Harrison Fluss about the Robespierrist Cult of the Supreme Being, instituted 1794. An okay article, overall, useful for sharing an obscure bit of revolutionary history (if for no other reason). The piece is marred by several historical inaccuracies and theoretical assumptions, which I address in a piece that is forthcoming on a couple of websites. Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin, informed me that Fluss’ essay was a bit of a departure from the stuff they usually publish, so they weren’t planning on running a response.

In any case, one of the main historiographical controversies I touch on toward the end of my response is the dispute between François-Alphonse Aulard and his former pupil Albert Mathiez. Both men were partisans of the French Revolution, defenders of its legacy, but where the former was more of an historian of the popular movement (an historian “from below,” as they say) the latter was more an historian of the revolutionary government (an historian “from above”). Mathiez is a bit blinded, at times, by his unwavering devotion to Robespierre, but he is right that Aulard unfairly adopts some of the Thermidorian rhetoric regarding the Incorruptible’s private ambitions to dictatorship, etc. He never provides an adequate response to Aulard’s central contention, however, that Robespierre counterposed his own Cult of the Supreme Being to the Cult of Reason proposed by Hébert. Nevertheless Mathiez raises a number of pertinent points here, in his usual lively polemical style.

Evaluations, overviews, and synopses of this crucial conflict of interpretations between Mathiez and Aulard are almost ubiquitous in the literature on this subject. Ferenc Fehér, Arno Mayer, R.R. Palmer, and Albert Soboul all dedicate several pages to an assessment of the debate. So I was somewhat flabbergasted to see it wasn’t mentioned at all by Fluss in his article. It is not a minor omission, especially if it concerns Robespierre and the Hébertists. The scholars Fluss cites instead are Lewis Feuer and Nick Nesbitt. While Feuer’s book on Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism is an otherwise excellent text, he’s mistaken to see a Spinozist influence in Robespierre’s doctrine of the Supreme Being. Robespierre insisted on the immortality of the soul, something Spinoza explicitly denied. Feuer admits as much: “Spinoza…held to a view which was tantamount to a denial of personal immortality.” Indeed, this was ostensibly the reason he was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter in 1656. Nesbitt, whose book Caribbean Critique I have read (despite Fluss’ allegations to the contrary) and whose name Fluss seems unable to spell (“Nisbett”), nowhere argues that Spinoza was a source of the civic religion proposed by Rousseau and actualized, albeit briefly, by Robespierre. Paul Vernière is the classical source of this line of inquiry. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy clearly would have been a more direct influence on Rousseau, who Robespierre took this idea from, particularly the chapters dealing with Roman religion. It surprises me that Fluss would be so enthusiastic about Robespierre’s Supreme Being, in any case, seeing as his philosophical master Hegel referred to it derisively in the Phenomenology (§586) as “the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous l’Être Suprême.”

Anyway, Mathiez is an interesting character, a self-styled Jacobin and Robespierrist who, despite his chauvinist support of France during World War I, later sympathized with the Bolsheviks in Russia. There’s a lot of language praising the Jacobins’ patriotism, their love of Fatherland, etc. Below are some images of the Festival of the Supreme Being from the period, followed by the text. You can enlarge them and scroll through by clicking on them. Enjoy!

Robespierre and the cult
of the Supreme Being

Albert Mathiez
Annales révolutionnaires
April-June 1910

The figure of Robespierre has been so misrepresented during the last twenty years, even by republican historians, that to talk of the Incorruptible’s religious ideas nowadays may seem a rash undertaking.

Robespierre, it is proclaimed, was a narrow intelligence, a man of the ancien régime, a coldly ambitious nature who desired to reign over France by imposing upon the country, through the Terror, a counterfeit Catholicism, a deism glorified into a religion of State.

I cannot hope to study here the whole religious policy of Robespierre backed up by the documents and proofs.

It must suffice to choose one example; to examine precisely what part was played by Robespierre in the establishment of the Cult of the Supreme Being: especially since this is the usual butt of all his detractors.

What do the republican historians hostile to Robespierre say? They contrast the Cult of the Supreme Being with the Cult of Reason. The Cult of Reason, which they praise unreservedly, was, according to them, the Hébertist party’s own creation. It was, they say, a pantheistic or even atheistic cult, a means of intellectual emancipation. The Cult of the Supreme Being, on the contrary, they allege to have been invented by Robespierre, in all its details, for the satisfaction of his unbridled ambitions and mystical passions. It was, they say, an attempt at political enslavement and intellectual reaction.

Now, however generally accepted this contrast between the two revolutionary cults may be, it is nonetheless false. Far from having been the invention of a few men, Chaumette, Fouché, Hébert, and Cloots, or even of a party, the Cult of Reason was merely the culminating point in a series of civic festivals, the origin of which goes back to the great Feast of the Federation of July 14, 1790.1 The Festival of Reason resembled all the preceding ones. The same odes were sung, the same processions went through their evolutions, the same patriotic emotion stirred men’s hearts at the sight of the same republican symbols. The new feature of the 20th Brumaire, Year II, the day on which the Commune and the Convention glorified Reason in Notre-Dame de Paris, was not even the place chosen for the ceremony — a cathedral — for churches had already, witnessed similar scenes beneath their vaulted roofs. The new feature was this: that the fall of constitutional Catholicism, the secularization of the churches, and the abdication of the priests coincided with this festival.

But even the overthrow of the constitutional Church cannot be ascribed to the Hébertist party alone, for the Girondins themselves, such as Pierre Manuel, Guadet, and Vergniaud, had worked for it energetically since the days of the Legislative Assembly.

Nor was the solemn abdication of the Archbishop of Paris, Gobel, which gave an impulse to the dechristianizing movement, exclusively the work of the Hébertists; for it arose from the initiative of Pereira, Proli, and their friends, the party of the Enragés [extremists] which had its center in the people’s societies in the sections, and caused the Commune and Convention a moment’s alarm; and the initiative of the people’s societies was seconded by some notoriously moderate men, such as Thuriot, Basire, and Chabot,2 The truth is that the Hébertists, Chaumette, Cloots, and Hébert were merely falling into line with the obscure patriots of the sections, the nameless crowd of sans-culottes in the outlying parts of Paris. Continue reading

Je suis Bezbozhnik

Just over a week ago, I published a series of antireligious images from the early Bolshevik journal Bezbozhnik u stanka along with an article by Leon Trotsky from 1925 on the subject of atheistic propaganda. In it, he praised “the satirical journal Godless, where there are a great many cartoons, sometimes quite effective ones, by some of our best cartoonists…Issue after issue one finds in its pages an ongoing, tireless duel being conducted with Jehovah, Christ, and Allah, hand-to-hand combat between the talented artist [Dmitrii] Moor and God. Of course, we are to a man on Moor’s side completely.” Many of the images are every bit as offensive as the ones printed by the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, the offices of which were recently the target of a brutal assault by reactionary Islamists. Eleven were killed that day, executioner-style. Several hostages at a printing house and a kosher market in Paris were murdered along with the gunmen in the standoff a few days later.

There was obviously no way of knowing this tragedy would take place when I uploaded the aforementioned post. Like everyone else, I followed the drama that unfolded and watched with dismay the flailing attempts by various leftists to spin the story to fit their own preexisting narratives. Richard Seymour’s article over at Jacobin, which largely framed subsequent debate, was exemplary in this respect. While he condemned violence against civilians, he nevertheless felt it necessary to add that “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that [they] are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.” Appended to this was the condescending suggestion: “If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with Edward Said’s Orientalism as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia.”

Der Stürmer, Sonderausgabe 1934

Islamophobia has been Seymour’s main concern for some time now. Other issues occasionally show up, such as austerity and intersectionality, but these are few and far between. Wasn’t always so: back in 2004 you could still find him defending revolutionary universalism against the idiocy of left-liberal multiculturalism. Take this entry, “Jihad Chic,” from 2004 (back when Seymour was just a poor man’s Christopher Hitchens). Anyway, going from his description of Charlie Hebdo above — i.e., “frankly a racist publication” — one could easily get the mistaken impression that it’s some latter-day Der Stürmer. Surprisingly, Seymour seems totally oblivious to the context in which this imagery appears. His old buddy Sebastian Budgen, on whom he relies for most of his gossip about the French Left, came much closer to getting this right:

There is a silly debate about whether Charlie Hebdo is a “racist” publication or not. Clearly not, in the sense of its origins lying in a left-wing, post-′68, highly transgressive vulgarity and its opposition to the far Right. It is part of the mental furniture of much of the French Left, radical included (think of a mash-up between Private Eye, Viz, Oz, Ben Elton, and The Young Ones), and most people will have affectionate memories of it prior to the 2000s. Charb himself illustrated Daniel Bensaïd’s Marx for Beginners books not so long ago.

Not just that, either. Cabu, one of the staff cartoonists, got his start as a kind of avant la lettre Oliver North. He’d served as a colonial soldier in Algeria, but later publicly lampooned French militarism in numerous comic strips. Virtually everyone involved in the magazine had campaigned on behalf of immigrants and mocked right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen. (There is cruel irony in the fact that she’s now cynically using their memory for political gain). Regardless, Seymour’s brief characterization is highly misleading. Perhaps certain cartoons in the magazine could be construed as racist or antisemitic, and several clearly are, but to smear the entire project and those involved in it as virulent racists is grossly unfair. One comrade even went so far as to compare the victims of the attack to “Nazbols.”

Bob from Brockley posted a response to Seymour written by Contested Terrain on his blog. The rest of Seymour’s argument is boilerplate; Contested Terrain parries its thrusts with relative ease. Seymour, he contends, “portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors.” This weakness is compounded by an overall reticence to entertain that it might have origins in Islamist ideology. “In [Seymour’s] account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.” He’s since posted a rejoinder to the criticisms he’s received, which more or less states that he thought some things went without saying. Continue reading

1776 — revolution or counterrevolution?

Recent challenges to
the classical narrative


Anti-revisionist revisionism

Predictably, with July 4th fast approaching, a flurry of interviews and articles attacking the revolutionary credentials of the American War of Independence have come out over the last couple days. First and foremost, there’s the interview Amy Goodman and Juan González conducted with the Stalinist historian Gerald Horne on his new book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. (Horne’s politics are more or less identical to those held by the CP-USA, that grand old bastion of anti-revisionist orthodoxy. While he voiced a few tepid criticisms of Stalin’s “excesses” in his biography of W.E.B. Dubois, Horne still saw fit to draw a moral equivalence between the Soviet premier and the American revolutionaries in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Stalin was no worse than the Founding Fathers.” I’m no vulgar Stalinophobe. Still, I find the comparison ridiculous.)

One of the more choice quotes from this interview, though obviated by the title of his latest release, runs as follows:

July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade.

Nothing really too new about this, to be honest. Arguments of this sort have been presented before, even half-jokingly caricatured, by intellectuals like Richard Seymour, who once referred to the American Revolution as “a preemptive strike against liberty.” If so many seem to hold this view, though, and certain facts seem to support it, what’s wrong with their argument?

Well, for starters, the British didn’t end up abolishing slavery outside of the colonial metropole, permitting its continuation in the colonies well into the nineteenth century. Whether or not the main impetus behind the revolt of American patriotts against the crown was based on a (mis)perception that emancipation was just around the corner is immaterial. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay advanced a program of radical republicanism that not only did away with monarchical rule over the thirteen colonies, but helped to usher in the French Revolution across the Atlantic. Both materially and ideologically, it so happens: materially by bankrupting the Ancien Régime  over in France, and ideologically by providing Thomas Paine’s blueprint on The Rights of Man. France also vacillated on the question of hereditary rule, incidentally, much as the United States offered Washington the throne in the 1780s. Later, the Jacobins would draw upon another revolutionary tradition, that of the England of 1648, to find precedent for their own regicide.

Ever since the New Left began its “long march through the institutions” decades ago, such counter-narratives have become commonplace within contemporary historiography. Domenico Losurdo’s long and scathing Marxist critique of liberal thought in Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011), typifies this approach. In an interview I conducted with him a couple years ago, Losurdo stated that “the American Revolution was, in reality, a ‘counter-revolution’…” “[I]f we consider the case of the natives or the blacks,” he continued, “their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course conditions in the white community became much better. But…numerous U.S. historians…consider the American Revolution a counter-revolution.” Gerald Horne is certainly prominent among them.

Classical Marxism and the bourgeois revolutions

Such a dismissive attitude toward the bourgeois revolutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries will no doubt come as a surprise to those who have any acquaintance with Marx’s high opinion of the Dutch Revolt of 1572, the English Civil War of 1648, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, and the Great French Revolution of 1789. As Marx himself wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the First International in 1864, “[t]he workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. “

Veen01 1647 Civil War painting  Basing House

This perspective was hardly limited to Marx, either. Classical Marxism in general smiled with admiration at the history of bourgeois revolutionary struggles. Lenin, for example, asserted in his “Letter to the American Workers” that “[t]he American people…set the world an example in waging a revolutionary war against feudal slavery.”

He continued:

The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners, or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilized” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.

Today, however, accounts like this are regularly written off as teleological, tainted by Marxism’s uncritical adoption of “Whiggish optimism” from bourgeois liberalism (which it otherwise ruthlessly critiqued) Late Stalinists like Losurdo and Horne make entire careers out of these claims.  Against such petty iconoclasm, James Vaughn explains:

While classical Marxism readily assumed and asserted the epochal significance of 1776, it has become necessary in the postmodern wasteland of the present to painstakingly reconstruct the historical and social imagination from which such statements sprung.

Vaughn’s outstanding essay on “1776 in World History: The American War of Independence as a Bourgeois Revolution,” provides a much-needed antidote to the debilitating disease of “history from below.” I urge everyone reading this to take a look at it.

Petty iconoclasm

Anyway, Thomas Jefferson is one of the more significant casualties of this tabloid-style exposé. Pointing out liberal hypocrisies, especially those that are several centuries old, has become such a hackneyed routine that I’m not sure why anyone even bothers with it anymore. Everyone knows that Jefferson was a slaveholder, and that he would do business Napoleon and try to suppress the Haitian Revolution during his presidency is common knowledge also. But few are aware of Jefferson’s earlier commitment to ending slavery, eloquently expressed in this deleted passage from the Declaration of Independence:

[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Delegates from Carolina and Georgia struck such language from the final draft only with great difficulty, and after much debate. Though the contradiction between liberty and slavery tormented Jefferson in his youth, and despite his naïve belief (shared with many other Founding Fathers) that the peculiar institution would wither away within the space of a couple generations, he clearly changed his tune later on and became an apologist for the status quo. What gives, then? Surely there’s no point defending such an obvious hypocrite.


In anticipation of Independence Day, however, and looking further down the road to Bastille Day, it behooves us to consider more carefully Jefferson’s place within the revolutionary pantheon of his time. For Jefferson not only instigated the American Revolution, after all; he was a participant in the French Revolution as well, though in the role of a diplomat and observer. And his sympathies lay with the Jacobins, which is something he makes clear in several of his letters. Continue reading

Thomas Jefferson: American Jacobin?

The American revolutionary
on the French Revolution

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

On Independence Day, in anticipation of Bastille Day, here’s author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson on the French Revolution: Continue reading