Front Page Titles (by Subject) Remember Robespierre - Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov
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Remember Robespierre - Frank Chodorov, Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov 
Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov, Compiled, Edited, and with an Introduction by Charles H. Hamilton (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1980).
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This was the lead article in the February 1947 issue of analysis.
It is agreed that you have the perfect plan—the final blueprint for the good society. It is all there; truth and justice perfectly balanced, and both supported by fundamental economics. All the parts are reinforced with natural rights. The beacon light of freedom is nicely placed at the pinnacle.
The perfect plan stands up, deductively and inductively, Your facts and figures are as irrefutable as your logic, and your charts and diagrams are most elucidating. One cannot help giving it a clean bill of health, and with enthusiasm. If it prevailed, if people were to order their affairs in accordance with the perfect plan, there is no question but that the long-sought-for good society would blossom in all its glory; no more poverty, no more war, and disharmony would vanish from this earth.
Your only job, then, is to familiarize folks with the perfect plan; its adoption must follow from a recognition of its merits. But, in this educational project you find yourself outside the field of pure thought, where you are in complete control, and must deal with people, with will and desire and prejudice and mental limitations. The people are either unwilling to consider the goodness you offer them, gratis, or incapable of comprehending it, and you find progress exceedingly slow. You are also confronted with opposition from vested thought. What to do now? Perhaps it would be wise to give up on the hope of participating in the millennium; the very perfection of the perfect plan is an assurance that it will keep, that in the fullness of time it will come into its own. On the other hand, you might attempt to shortcut the difficulties of education by the political method. On the theory that the end justifies the means, you might seek power to impose the perfect plan.
THE YEARNING TO GOVERN
The yearning to govern, the desire for power over others, is a most perplexing human trait. Only when it is spurred by an economic purpose does it make sense. When a man seeks political position for the betterment of his circumstances he is acting sanely, if sanity is defined as normal behavior. We call a politician corrupt when he uses his power for self-aggrandizement, but that is because we clothe politics with a fanciful myth of supernaturalness. We have but to remember man's natural tendency to satisfy his desires with the minimum of effort to realize how political power will be utilized. We call a politician corrupt when he accomplishes what we are all inclined to do, and that seems to be a perversion of values. It would be more correct to say that we are all corrupt and that the politician is merely successful.
However, the craving for power cannot always be explained in the rational terms of profit. The boy wants to be captain, not for the honorary content of the title, but because it invests him with the right to lord it over his teammates. With most fathers, governing the household is both a prerogative and a pleasure, while every wife's happiness is in proportion to the dominance she attains, by subtle means or above-board, over her husband. Few men are so rich but that a little more power over their fellow men does not flatter their egos, and no man who can command subservience deems himself poor. It would seem so much more sensible to let people alone; the exercise of power in and for itself is a thoroughly useless expenditure of effort. And most irrational of all is the desire to govern others “for their own good”—the excuse of reformers and, as history shows, the cause of great harm to reformers, reformees, and the reform.
The case of Maximilien Robespierre is most illustrative.
“THE INCORRUPTIBLE” CORRUPTED
Jean Jacques Rousseau sparked the desire to govern in many a young man of his revolutionary day. His “Rights of Man” gave the craving for political power divine sanction, while his economic, religious, and social doctrines gave it direction. Just as Marxist shibboleths turn many a noble young man toward ward-heeling and rabble-rousing and political skulduggery in general, so did the well-turned phrases of Rousseau divert promising minds from productive pursuits. One of these was Robespierre, whose first love was literature, and who gave promise of doing something in that line. The desire to do good turned into the desire for power to do good, and so he did no good at all.
The career of Robespierre is highlighted by two uncommon political experiences. First, though he rose to dictatorial power, he never used his position for his material advantage, and lived frugally all his life. Largely because of his scrupulousness in that regard he was called “the Incorruptible.” Many of his bitter fights with other leaders of the Revolution centered around the fact that they acted as rational politicians, even to the point of accepting bribes from the nation's enemies. The second Robespierrist oddity is that though he protested loyalty to the ideals of Rousseau throughout his political life, he nevertheless deliberately, and with qualms of conscience, compromised these ideals when practical politics made it necessary. Thus we see that even when a politician shuns the economic possibilities of his position, even when he tries to keep faith with the ideal which first led him to seek political power, he must fail in promoting it. That is because the business of politics does not deal in ideals.
A cardinal tenet of the Rousseau creed is the inviolable right to life; therefore capital punishment is untenable. Yet, when Louis was brought to trial, Robespierre voted for the death penalty, and was impelled by his conscience publicly to proclaim the reason for this about-face. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were sacred to Robespierre, because they were sacred to Rousseau; though he would brook no laws of suppression, he found the guillotine equally effective. When the “higher law” of the Revolution made it necessary, he suspended his democratic faith long enough to have the National Assembly arrested and some elected representatives of the people decapitated. He opposed war and waged it. And so, though Robespierre has been called “Rousseau in power,” the fact is that whenever Robespierre found Rousseau an encumbrance, as he often did, he found reason enough to put him aside.
Other cases of the perversion of principle in politics are not wanting; the case of Robespierre is striking because, unlike most politicians, he seems to have been schizophrenic about it. We need not dwell on the American habit of scrapping platform promises immediately after election, for we have learned to put these promises on a par with those of a lady on the make. One would hardly have expected that sort of thing from Ramsay Macdonald, who put in a lifetime developing the ideology of the British Labor Party; yet he scuttled the whole thing, some say for “a ribbon and some pieces of silver,” when he became its first prime minister. As every other socialist knows, every socialist who ever wielded a scepter whittled away some of the sacredness of Marxist principle; to millions of that creed Stalin is a Benedict Arnold, while Attlee is lower in morality than even a capitalist. It would be refreshing to learn of one case in political history in which the power sought to promote an ideal was consistently exercised in that direction.
PROMISE AND PERFORMANCE
The contradiction between political promise and performance is quite understandable when we dig into the nature of the business, breaking through the moral crust with which political institutions have surrounded themselves. When we look to beginnings we see clearly what it is all about, for then the purpose of political power was unencumbered with persiflage; the ruler and his henchman looted without ritual. Under constitutionalism the power is diffused and so is the profit; the object of administrators is to keep a balance between economic groups, leaning toward the more opulent and more powerful, for that way their own bread is buttered. Universal suffrage and representative government obscure but do not mutate the character of politics. Here the power is spread thin, and the practical art of politics consists in canalizing it for effective exploitation. Moral principle plays no part in this art, except as a ruse for enticing the minuscule pieces of power which the voters hold. Even then moral principle is mere garnishment, for the candidate relies more on his promise of “better times,” fully aware that the prime motivation of the voter is economic, not moral. This conflict between economic interests, between pressure groups, continues throughout the politician's regime, and must always be his main concern; expediency (or “realism”) takes precedence over principle as a matter of necessity. The first lesson the crusader in office must learn is that the crusade can wait; it always does.
And so, Robespierre in power was not sinful in betraying Rousseau. He was in error in assuming that a different course was possible.
THE POWER OF THOUGHT
To return to the perfect plan. If it is as perfect as you say it is, there is nothing you need do about it, for anything that is so sound will get around on its own power. Euclidian mathematics never had the benefit of a “movement,” and entirely without legal blessing it made headway. The only way in which the law can affect the course of thought is to restrict, ban, and burn; the law can only be negative, never positive, in matters of the mind. If you look over the record of “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” you will find that politics was helpful only when it got out of the way. So, if you would protect the perfect plan from pollution, your course is clearly indicated; keep it out of politics.
“You will be surprised to learn, once you have decided not to politicalize it, that the perfect plan is not so perfect after all. When you were preparing it for the public arena you tactically reduced it to terms comprehensible to the lowest electoral intellect; also, for practical purposes you glossed over its deficiencies. When, however, you take it back to your private den and look it over calmly, you discover its shortcomings and go to work on them. In that you benefit yourself. It is through study and reflection that the individual puts by a profit.
The technique of perfecting an idea calls for discussion. And so you call into consultation the intellectually curious, minds which, like yours, find satisfaction in striving for an unattainable ideal. You teach and are taught. Everybody profits and, somehow, the perfect plan becomes more perfect in the getting around. Millions of years elapsed before the original wheel turned out to be an automobile, but think of the fun the countless generations had in the developing process. In like manner, that which you call the perfect plan will ultimately come into its own, maybe different in details and surely much more perfect than your present conception. You won't be here to see it in operation? What of it? You had your fun promoting the idea and should be thankful for that.
But if you insist on taking the perfect plan into politics, though it will do no good, I offer the following admonition: Remember Robespierre.
Natural Rights and