This article is part of a series on the Ideology of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. The revolutionary government, which aspired to establish a new utopia for mankind, shifted into a ‘democratic’ despotism during the Terror. The ideology that inspired democracy, civil rights, and emancipation in 1789 also gave justification for the totalitarian regime of the Terror in 1793-4. The Terror instead of contradicting revolutionary beliefs, was a manifestation of the ideology of the French Revolution.


While Rousseau’s Contract Social inspired democracy and the founding of the first French Republic in 1792, it also gave credence to the totalitarian regime of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror. Prominent philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that the Contract Social only “paid lip-service to democracy” while justifying authoritarianism.[1] Russell suggests the totalitarian state of the Terror was played out again under dictatorships in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany[2] saying, “Hitler is an outcome of Rousseau.”[3] Robert Palmer, also writing during the Second World War, links Rousseau’s idea of the sovereignty of the General Will to the totalitarianism of Adolph Hitler.[4] But, what is the General Will, and how does it justify totalitarianism?

The General Will is the will of the sovereign of a state that represents all citizens of the state, or the general will of the people that results from the culmination of all common needs and political aspirations of the people, which ensure the equality of the people. Because the General Will represents the people, it is always right and is thus, sovereign. Rousseau argues “As nature gives each man absolute power over all his members, the social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members also; and it is this power which , under the direction of the general will , bears , as I have said , the name of Sovereignty”[5] By giving up their liberties to the state in order to be represented by the General Will under the social contract, citizens are subject to the authority of the state. Even when the authority of the state says to the citizen, “It is expedient for the State that you should die,”  the citizen ought to die , “because it is only on that condition that he has been living in security up to the present , and because his life is no longer a mere bounty of nature , but a gift made conditionally by the State”[6] Revolutionaries in power during the Reign of Terror, saw Rousseau’s arguments as a justification for the legitimacy of their authority. They believed that what they were doing was morally right, because they represented the sovereignty of the General Will, even as the number of people who they believed attributed to the General Will dwindled lower as the Reign of Terror went on.

Because the General Will is always right, there could be no dissent against it, as Rousseau said, “Whoever refuses to obey the General Will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.”[7] The revolutionaries, using the logic of the Contract Social, believed that any malefactor opposing the revolution, in mild or aggressive terms, revoked the right of citizenship as they are no longer a member of the state.[8] Thus, whichever faction of the revolution that was currently in power had a legitimate argument to purge their political opponents, believing their power was that of the sovereign and of the General Will. And indeed, there was a fear shared among revolutions of betrayal from within. As Robespierre said to the applause of the National Convention, “He who seeks to debase, to divide, to paralyze the Convention is an enemy of the fatherland, whether he sits in this hall or is a foreigner.”[9] The Convention was complicit in the purges of the Committee, even as its members where subject to these purges. Even if someone was innocent of any counter-revolutionary activity, merely being a friend or family member of anyone who was convicted often resulted in guilt by association. The Committee of Public Safety pursued punishment without hesitation, for as Saint-Just said, “ you have no longer any reason for restraint against enemies of the new order…You must punish not only traitors but the apathetic as well; you must punish whoever is passive in the Republic…We must rule by iron those who cannot be ruled by justice.”[10]


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