27 July 2006

 

Breaking Eggs, Omelettes, and All That

Today's Writer's Almanac reminds us that on this day in 1793, Robespierre became head of the Committee of Public Saftey of revolutionary France.
And so, a man who had fought for constitutional democracy and universal citizenship found himself helping to organize a military dictatorship. On this day in 1793, he took his place on the Committee of Public Safety, which would rule France for the next year. And in order to keep French citizens in line, Robespierre advocated the use of the guillotine, a new machine that was supposed to make all executions efficient and humane. The guillotine was set up in the Place de la Révolution, which later became the Place de la Concorde, and over the next year more than 2,000 people were beheaded for having opposed the Revolution.

At first Robespierre executed people who had supported the monarchy. But then he began to execute revolutionaries who were too moderate. And finally, he began to execute people who had merely opposed him on one issue or another. Eventually, members of the National Convention began to realize that no one was safe, and even they could be the next victims. So they turned on Robespierre. Exactly one year, to the day, after he had taken control of the Committee of Public Safety, he was arrested, and the day after his arrest he went to the guillotine himself.

For more than a year Robespierre had been executing people in the public square to cheering crowds. When Robespierre went to his own death at the guillotine, onlookers said the crowd cheered just as loudly as ever.
There's little evidence, hence little reason to beliver, that any other cadre of revolutionaries ends up any less likely to resort to such bloodlettings if/when they assume power. This applies, of course, not only to revolutionaries of the left like the Jacobins of France or Bolsheviks of Russia, but also to those of the right like the theocrats of Iran. Breaking eggs, omelettes, and all that.

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