The Meaning of Violence: Understanding Counterrevolution and Violence in the French Terror



In defense of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, Robespierre declared that “[t]error is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”[1] This, at first, may seem an impossible pairing; virtue and terror appear fundamentally counterposed. Rather than go on the defensive, Robespierre linked virtue with terror, by claiming that terror is inflexible justice, and thus virtuous. But why? This seems to go against our instincts that terror is bad, and therefore not virtuous.

The key to understanding why Robespierre made this connection can be found in how he, and other revolutionaries, past and present, understood the role between revolution and counterrevolution. Robespierre understood the goal of the French Revolution as overthrowing the Old Regime and instituting a republic based on equality and overthrowing tyranny. To him, any attempt to counter these efforts was despotism and a return to tyranny. That is why terror, that inflexible justice, in response to attempts to overthrow the new republic, is so interconnected with virtue.

However, the historian must exercise extreme care in understanding such a violent and messy affair, and no doubt historiography has shifted a few times in trying to interpret the French Revolution. The reason for this is simple: events of the 20th Century have caused historians to backtrack and view the French Revolution primarily in connection with that next great revolution of human history. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution has increased what is at stake in understanding the French Revolution and its accompanying reign of terror. As Francois Furet notes in introducing his view, “[t]he historian of the French Revolution … must show his colours. He must state from the outset where he comes from, what he thinks and what he is looking for; what he writes about the French Revolution is assigned a meaning and label even before he starts working … As soon as the historian states that opinion, the matter is settled; he is labelled a royalist, a liberal, or a Jacobin.”[2] One reason for this is that subsequent events have shaped the way historians have looked back on the past. It is in the context of the Cold War that many of these historians have attempted to understand the role of terror and violence within the French Revolution. In attempts to wrestle with the deeply complex Russian Revolution, historians have often drawn connections between the French and Russian Revolutions. The conservative historians see the Gulags and purges of the Russian Revolution as further proof that terror, repression and violence are inseparable from the ideas of revolution itself.

The French Revolution is also important because of the reactions it engendered. The emergence of conservatism and reactionary politics can be traced directly back to the French Revolution.[3] And as the Furet quote above illustrates, a scholar’s political thought determines what they make of the French Revolution and the terror. These historians focus on the violence and terror of revolutions, but what is often missing or downplayed is the role of violence within the standard functioning of societies. The spectacle of the guillotine and the passionate speeches of the revolutionaries rightfully capture our attention. In understanding revolutionary violence and terror, it must be put into the context of the violence and terror that existed in the society the revolutionaries opposed. While this may at first glance seem like an obvious task, arguments about the Reign of Terror consistently neglect this point. The violence of revolutions is merely a different, more visible type of violence.

Rather than introducing new primary sources for analysis, this paper engages intensively with historiographical scholarship on the French Reign of Terror, as well as political philosophy in relation to violence and terror. To show my colors, as Furet would say, the argument presented here is a variation on the circumstance thesis. However, the critical intervention this paper makes is a focus on the meaning of violence, and its relationship to revolution and counterrevolution. A narrow view of what constitutes “violence” has led scholars to moralize about the terror. In turn, arguments about the terror have tended to avoid critical theorizing about what it means to wage revolution, and the role violence plays in revolutions and human society.

To put it rather bluntly, even if one is to concede to the conservative view that the terror was an essential and necessary part of the revolution, a judgement must still be made whether the relatively small number of executions was worth the cost when compared with the hundreds of years of structural violence in the Old Regime.


In the historiography of the French Revolution, there are essentially two interpretations with their own variations. The conservative view sees revolution as inherently violent, with terror built into it. Gough sums up this view by drawing on the work of numerous historians. The book Citizens by Simon Schama “condemned the revolution as an act of mass violence with terror at its core … The revolution, for Schama, was flawed from the outset by physical violence which developed into mass terror and set a model for 20th-century dictatorships.”[4] This view has its roots in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Though a later section will further explore Burke in relation to conservative political philosophy, here it is enough to point out that this view opposes revolution not out of the tactics that revolutionaries employ, but rather out of a desire to preserve existing structures.[5]

The opposing view sees the actions of the revolutionaries and the Terror as responses to those who aimed to overthrow and stop the revolution. This argument is often called the “circumstance” thesis. “[Leftist historians] see the terror not as an integral part of the revolution but as a tactical defense of the republic against its enemies when it was threatened with total defeat … Terror had been forced on to the politicians by counter-revolution and war and once that pressure was relieved, it vanished.”[6] Although Gough seemingly mistakes political liberals as on the left, he identifies these historians as well as republican democrats who founded the Third Republic and Marxists as defenders of the circumstance thesis.[7]

Italian Marxist philosopher Domenico Losurdo offers something like the circumstance thesis, and sees efforts to condemn the French Revolution as part of a larger effort on the part of historical revisionists “[t]o explain the ravages of the revolutionary disease in the twentieth century” by linking the Bolshevik Revolution with that of the French.[8] He claims that “[t]he main theme of this comprehensive reinterpretation of the contemporary world [by historical revisionists] thus becomes even clearer: it involves the liquidation of the revolutionary tradition from 1789 to the present.”[9]

However, he goes even further than the circumstance thesis by arguing that those who condemn the French Revolution as specifically violent or repressive, completely ignore the violence and repression of other “good” revolutions, specifically pointing to the elimination of colonialism in these historians’ works. In his analysis,

To demonstrate that Terror and dictatorship are an exclusively French creation, and the immanent result of a determinate ideology, historical revisionism – here in full agreement with the neo-liberal vulgate – proceeds to a double or triple arbitrary abstraction. The first erases circumstances; the second isolates a single stage (the most relatively painless) of the British and American revolutionary cycles, triumphantly contrasting it with the French Revolutionary cycle as a whole. At the same time, isolation of this single stage (the Glorious Revolution and the War of Independence) involves abstracting the experience of the truly civilized community from the experience of the barbarians and savages (Irish and Scottish in the one case, blacks and Native Americans in the other).[10]

In essence, Losurdo uses the circumstance thesis while also showing how historians have obscured the actual history of revolutions by employing a selective and narrow focus only on those things that support their ideological views.

One interesting interpretation of the terror comes from French historian Sophie Wahnich. Her book is somewhat misleadingly titled In Defence of the Terror, since the only strong defense comes from Slavoj Zizek’s forward. However, she does seem to suggest that the terror arose as a response to chaotic mob violence. In her words, “[e]stablishing the Terror had the aim of preventing emotion from giving rise to dissolution or massacre, symbolizing what had not been done in September 1792 and thus reintroducing a regulatory function for the Assembly.”[11] This view goes a little bit further than the previous left historians in defending the institutional terror, but suffice to say, it still fits in with the circumstance thesis.

All this is to point out that historians have hardly come to agreement over how to understand the terror. “Clearly historians have disagreed over why the terror happened. Conservatives see it as an integral part of the revolution, revisionists as a flaw in an otherwise positive development, circumstance historians as a response to counter-revolution, and post-circumstance historians as a development within revolutionary politics closely linked to conspiracy theory.”[12]


Almost as soon as the revolution broke out, Edmund Burke wrote his critique of the revolution, Reflections on the French