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

The golden age of bourgeois portraiture, before the rise of photography

What follows is an assortment of extremely high-resolution portraits of famous figures gleaned from various sources around the web, along with a short text by the French photographer and media critic Gisèle Freund. Almost 175 portraits are included, featuring well-known philosophers, political economists, and revolutionaries such as Thomas Münzer, Stepan Razin, René Descartes, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Ricardo, G.W.F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Toussaint Louverture, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, Baruch Spinoza, Georges Danton, and numerous others who I’m forgetting. Included also, as mentioned, is an extract from Freund’s Photography and Society (1970), a book more than thirty years in the making.

Freund’s close friend and theoretical influence Walter Benjamin commented on an earlier draft of this chapter:

Study of the history of photography began about eight or ten years ago. We have a number of publications, mostly illustrated, on its infancy and its early masters. But only this most recent study has treated the subject in conjunction with the history of painting. Gisèle Freund’s study describes the rise of photography as conditioned by that of the bourgeoisie, successfully illustrating the causal connection by examining the history of the portrait. Starting from the expensive ivory miniature (the portrait technique most widely used under the ancien régime), the author describes the various procedures which contributed to making portrait production quicker and cheaper, and therefore more widespread, around 1780, sixty years before the invention of photography. Her description of the “physiognotrace” as an intermediate form between the portrait miniature and the photograph shows in exemplary fashion how technical factors can be made socially transparent. The author then explains how, with photography, technical development in art converged with the general technical standard of society, bringing the portrait within the means of wider bourgeois strata. She shows that the miniaturists were the first painters to fall victim to photography.

Besides Freund’s masterful study, I would also recommend Aby Warburg’s longish essay on “The Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie” (1902). Less obviously Marxist than the remarks by Freund and Benjamin in this post — Warburg was a self-professed follower of Burckhardt — but quite complementary to them. Feel free to browse and enlarge any of the images below.


Precursors of the photographic portrait

Gisèle Freund
Photography &

The development of the photographic portrait corresponds to an important phase in the social development of Western Europe: the rise of the middle classes when for the first time, fairly large segments of the population attained political and economic power. To meet their resulting demand for goods, nearly everything had to be produced in greater quantities. The portrait was no exception: By having one’s portrait done an individual of the ascending classes could visually affirm his new social status both to himself and to the world at large. To meet the increased demand for portraits, the art became more and more mechanized. The photographic portrait was the final stage in this trend toward mechanization.

Around 1750 the nascent middle classes began pushing into areas that were formerly the sole domain of the aristocracy. For centuries the privilege of aristocratic circles, the portrait began to yield to democratization. Even before the French Revolution the bourgeoisie had already manifested its profound need for self-glorification, a need which provoked the development of new forms and techniques of portraiture. Photography, which entered the public domain in 1839, owes much of its popularity and rapid social development to the continuing vogue of the portrait. Continue reading

Entretien avec Domenico Losurdo sur le liberalisme

A propos d’une contre-
histoire du libéralisme

Image: Italian theorist and Marxist
philosopher Domenico Losurdo


Le 17 mars 2012 Ross Wolfe et Pam Nogales de la Platypus Affiliated Society ont interrogé Domenico Losurdo sur son récent ouvrage Contre Histoire du libéralisme.

Ross Wolfe: Comment caractérisez-vous la contradiction  entre émancipation et désémancipation dans l’idéologie libérale? Et d’où vient précisément cette logique?

Domenico Losurdo: Je pense que la dialectique entre émancipation et désémancipation est un élément clé pour comprendre l’histoire du libéralisme. La lutte des classes dont parle Marx est précisément l’objet d’une confrontation entre ces forces.  Ce que je souligne c’est que parfois émancipation et désémancipation sont étroitement connectées l’un à l’autre. Evidemment on peut voir dans l’histoire du libéralisme un aspect d’émancipation. Par exemple, Locke polémique contre le pouvoir absolu du roi. Il défend la nécessité de la liberté des citoyens contre le pouvoir absolu de la monarchie. Mais d’un autre côté Locke est le champion en ce qui concerne la défense de l’esclavage. Et dans ce cas, il agit comme un représentant de la désémancipation. Dans mon livre je développe une comparaison entre Locke d’un côté et Bodin de l’autre. Bodin est, quant à lui, un défenseur de la monarchie absolue, mais en même temps un critique de l’esclavage et du colonialisme.

Esclavage photos de 1880

Esclavage photos de 1880

RW: Le contre-exemple de Bodin est intéressant. Il en appelle à l’église et à la monarchie, le premier et le second Etat, dans sa défense de l’humanité des esclaves contre le «pouvoir arbitraire de vie et de mort» que Locke défend pour le propriétaire, le maitre, sur son esclave.

DL: Oui, chez Locke nous voyons l’inverse. Alors qu’il critique la monarchie absolue, Locke représente l’émancipation, mais lorsqu’il célèbre ou légitime l’esclavage, Locke devient alors un représentant de la désémancipation. En menant le combat contre le contrôle de la monarchie absolue, Locke affirme en réalité le pouvoir total des propriétaires sur leur propriété, et cela inclus les esclaves. Dans ce cas on peut clairement voir l’enchevêtrement entre émancipation et désémancipation. Le propriétaire devient plus libre, mais sa plus grande liberté signifie une dégradation des conditions de l’esclavage en général. Continue reading

A Soviet homage to the Great French Revolution

Happy Bastille Day, everyone. To celebrate, here are some assorted artworks by early Soviet sculptors and painters commemorating the Great French Revolution.

We begin with two pieces from the years immediately following the October Revolution. One of these, of course, is the sculptor Nikolai Andreev’s frightening Head of Danton (1919). Less well known are the memorials to M. Robespierre (1918 & 1920) by Beatrice Sandomirskaia [Беатрисе Сандомирская] and Sarra Lebedeva.

Still more remarkable, though from a slightly later date, is the set of illustrations by the Bolshevik artist Mikhail Sokolov depicting the principal actors and main events of the last great bourgeois revolution. These were intended as part of a volume entitled Figures of the 1789 French Revolution (1930-1934), and are reproduced below alongside some of the historical representations on which Sokolov’s work was based.

Continue reading