Postmodernism 101, Part 12: Rousseau’s Paradise Found

What is postmodernism? Is it a problem?  The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism.  It is based on the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks.  The French Revolution discussion relies primarily on Timothy Tackett’s outstanding book, The Coming of the Terror of the French Revolution, as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The French Revolution.

Previous posts:

Enlightenment and Darkness

Rousseau’s Revolutionary Politics


Marxist postmodernism seeks to overthrow modernism.  Modernism’s political philosophy proposes reason, individualism, liberal democracy, and free markets.

jean-rousseauJean Rousseau

Postmodernism’s leftist political ideology is based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.   His political philosophy features socialism, totalitarianism, and unthinking religious fervor.  Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment was the polar opposite of Enlightenment thinking and values.  Enlightenment’s virtues were Rousseau’s vices: reason, individualism, economic liberalism, liberal democracy, science, technology, medicine.

Rousseau’s writings inflamed the French Revolution and Reign of Terror.  In 1789, the first revolution replaced France’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy.  From 1789 to 1792, leftist radicals came to dominate Paris.  In 1792, leftist Paris radicals toppled the constitutional monarchy, in a second revolution.  The Convention assembled in Paris to declare the Republic.


Exploiting war fears, Robespierre and the radical left cracked down on the Right.  The prisons filled with political prisoners.  In the First Terror, radicals slaughtered the political prisoners, in the September Massacres.

Military victories gave Brissot and the Girondists a boost.  The Girondists dismantled the Terror but failed to imprison Robespierre and the radicals.  The Convention tried and executed the King.  In the process, Robespierre and the radicals gained popular support over the Girondists.

Brissot and the Girondists tried to expand the war to gain support.  It backfired.  In March 1793, Civil War broke out over anti-religious oppression.  Urban patriot forces (the “Blues”) violently repressed religious provincial insurgents (the “Whites”).  Meanwhile, the war faltered against Austria and Prussia.  With France retreating on two fronts, General Dumouriez (a Girondist) turned traitor and escaped to Austria (as Lafayette had).

marat-assassinationMarat is assassinated

Paris was in crisis (again).  The radicals blamed the Girondists for the traitor Dumouriez.  The Girondists fought back, arresting the radical Marat.  When Marat was acquitted, the radicals attacked.  In the June 2 purge, the Paris guards joined with the radicals to arrest the Girondists. In the provinces, Girondists and moderates revolted against the Convention and the Paris “anarchists”.  On July 13, a Girondist supporter journeyed to Paris and assassinated Marat.

Things really, really went downhill, from there.


The fever of Paris radicalism became epidemic.  The murderous sans-culottes were enraged over Marat’s murder.  Radical conspiracy theories spread like the plague.  (Even the bordellos were rumored to be infected with spies.)  Frenzied feverish radicals denounced the suspicious.

The Public Safety Committee was not repressive enough.  Its less radical members were retired and replaced with extreme radicals.  It was time “to exterminate the rebel race,” the reconstituted Committee declared.  On August 4, the Convention sent Republican armies to exterminate the cancerous insurrection.  Republican armies sallied forth against Marseille, Lyon, and the federalist rebels.  Atrocities followed.

saint-justLouis “Angel of Death” Saint-Just

Out of the chaos, Rousseau’s collectivist totalitarian order would emerge.  The young Jacobin firebrand Louis Saint-Just led the second French constitution to completion.  “Fraternity, Equality, and Liberty, or Death!”, the patriots cheered.  The Committee mobilized the Republic for total war.  “Until our enemies are expelled from the territory of the Republic, all French are permanently enlisted for service to the armies,” they decreed.  Every man, woman, and child were joined, as one, to exterminate the foreign invasion.

The insidious cancer of the “enemy within” needed removal.  “Let us make terror the order of the day,” the radicals cried.  On September 5, militants burst into the Convention and the Committee.  They called for repression against royalists, moderates, merchants, the rich, the unpatriotic.  They cried for more September Massacres to exterminate the enemy within.

Chaos loomed.  Order was needed.  Robespierre resolved to bring order from chaos – the “single will”.  The Committee muzzled the radical leaders.  Marches on the Convention ended.  The sans-culotte mob (viewed as Rousseau’s “general will”) demanded purification.


The Committee established order.  On September 9, the Committee unleashed the Revolution Army, to exterminate the unpatriotic infection.  Paramilitary bands of Paris’ worst radicals terrorized and looted the countryside.  On September 17, Saint-Just led the Convention to legalize Terror.  The Law of Suspects ordered the arrest of enemies and suspected enemies.  The powers of the criminal Tribunal and local surveillance committees were expanded.

saint-justExecution of the Girondists

Times of crisis, Rousseau wrote, require dictatorship and setting aside the laws.  So, the Committee claimed near total power.  Chaos “is leading us to barbarism,” Robespierre said, to oppose the Committee is to be “an enemy of the nation”.  In September and October, the Committee consolidated power over the criminal Tribunal and the Convention. “The enemies of the Republic are within the government, itself,” claimed Saint-Just, champion of the constitution.  He demanded the constitution be set aside and executive authority vested in the Committee.  The Convention reluctantly complied.

In October 1793, the Girondists were tried, as a group, by the Tribunal.  Brissot and others had been imprisoned since summer.  Girondist ties to the federalist revolts and Marat’s assassination convinced the Convention to proceed to trial.  Brissot and the Girondists mounted a vigorous defense. To ensure conviction, Robespierre curtailed the trial.  On October 30, a hand-picked jury convicted the group of conspiracy.  The head judge sentenced the twenty-one Girondists to death.  One committed suicide, on the spot.  On October 31, Brissot and the rest were guillotined.  The crowd cheered, at first, then fell silent.

State Religion
nantes-drowningsHébertist drownings at Nantes

Robespierre clashed with other radicals on religion.  He ended years of antichristian “cultural revolution” by atheist militants.  They had closed churches, expelled clergy, banned masses, looted, and burned.  At Notre Dame, they replaced Christianity with the Cult of Reason (their atheist conception of Rousseau’s civil religion). Robespierre pushed through a decree for religious tolerance.  In 1794, he announced a state religion – the Cult of the Supreme Being (Robespierre’s deist conception of Rousseau’s state religion, promoting civil “virtue”).

The most militant atheists protested and were executed, including Anacharsis Cloots (self-styled “enemy of Jesus Christ”), the Paris Commune’s Jacques Hébert (who had pursued the Girondists’ executions), and Jean-Baptiste Carrier (a monstrous Hébertist leader, responsible for atrocities that included mass executions of innocent men, women, and children at Nantes).

nantes-drowningsDanton creates a monster

Nobody was safe from the Terror.  Radical Cordelier Georges Danton was denounced and executed.  Danton had helped architect the Terror and empower the Committee. Saint-Just prosecuted the indignant Danton, in a show trial.  Danton and other Cordelier leaders were summarily convicted and executed.

An estimated 40,000 people were executed in the Terror.  At one time, 300,000 were imprisoned.  In June 1794, Robespierre’s ally Georges Couthon streamlined the Terror laws “to exterminate the implacable satellites of tyranny”.  This “Great Terror” greatly increased convictions and executions in June and July.  Police spies roamed the streets.

Danton’s execution triggered the dramatic events that ended the Terror.  Conspiracies formed against the Committee’s “triumvirate” – Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Couthon.  Robespierre was near mental collapse.  On July 26, he made a paranoid accusatory speech to the Convention and was rebuked.  That night, he and the Jacobins plotted insurrection.  Elsewhere, conspirators plotted against Robespierre.

robespierre-shootingRobespierre is shot

On July 27, Saint-Just and Robespierre were shouted down at the Convention.  Robespierre accused the Convention of being “assassins”.  Deputies ordered the triumvirate arrested.  The Paris Commune ordered their release, declared an insurrection, and sent Hanriot’s Paris guards to surround the Convention with cannons.  The Convention ordered Hanriot arrested.  That night, confusion reigned in Paris.  Robespierre and his allies met to draft a proclamation of insurrection (left unsigned by Robespierre).  Convention forces broke in to arrest them, shooting Robespierre in the jaw, and killing another.

On July 28, the triumvirate (Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Couthon) were executed, along with Hanriot, the Paris mayor, and sixteen others.  The next day, another 140 Paris Commune members were sent to the guillotine.  Paris was purged of its most radical and most militant.  The powers of the Mountain and Paris Commune were broken.  The moderates gained control over the Convention.


Rousseau’s Social Contract was the general theory of the Revolution, wrote Hilaire Belloc, and Rousseau its “chief prophet”.  Rousseau’s triumph against competing ideas, says Belloc, was both due to his vision and his style – “his choice of French words and the order in which he arranged them”.  Rousseau had put his political theory to the French “so lucidly, so convincingly, so tersely” that it became gospel.

Rousseau’s religious ideas animated the militant atheist atrocities against Christianity – looting, murdering, and mass executions.  Many meekly accepted this as an expression of the “general will”.  Robespierre saw the horrors unleashed by the destruction of religious morality.  He responded with a Rousseauistic civil religion that included “virtue”.  Just as Rousseau’s ideas justified mass executions of Christians, they justified the executions of atheists.

Rousseau’s collectivist totalitarian ideas animated the Terror.  Rousseau called for dictatorship in times of crisis.  Dictatorship was vested in the Committee on Public Safety.  Rousseau utterly devalued the individual.  He argued that we owe our lives to the collective.  The collective cannot take our lives because we never owned our lives.  He scorned “egoism” (individual self-interest).  What mattered was the “general will” (the mob).  Rousseau’s ideas justified mass executions because his philosophy made life worthless.

In the end, Robespierre seemed to acquiesce to the “general will” in his own arrest and execution.  He didn’t sign the proclamation of insurrection.  Danton looked to Rousseau to justify the Terror that executed him, as had Robespierre, Saint-Just, Couthon, Hébert, Carrier, Hanriot, and the Paris Commune leaders.


Rousseau’s ideas sprout in the collectivist Right.  Next: Part 13, Napoleonic Stress Disorder.