What are we to make of the stubborn association, even confusion, of Marxism and Jacobinism? From Jacob Talmon to François Furet, enemies of the two tendencies have long insisted on conflating them in order to condemn them together (Talmon 1952; Furet 1991). This equation of Jacobinism with Marxism – extended to their historical trajectories, so that Robespierre equals Lenin equals Stalin – has been wielded by critics to discredit not just Communism as a continuation of the Revolutionary Terror, but, beyond that, any project of radical social transformation (Losurdo 2015). Pointing to Marx’s many explicit criticisms of the Jacobins has never been enough to dispel this error. My proposal is that the misidentification persists because it contains deeper truths concerning Marx the author and Marxism as a historical-political project, which always remained, despite themselves, in a sense deeply Jacobin.
A basic difficulty in refuting the misidentification of Marxism with Jacobinism is that the latter existed sensu stricto only from 1789 to 1794, with the Society of the Friends of the Constitution and the Friends of Liberty and Equality. Ever since, Jacobinism has lived on as a ghostly inspiration, a recurrent desire to take up the spirit of the French Revolution that has assumed diverse and sometimes contradictory forms, from conspiratorial radicalism (Babeuf, Buonarroti, Blanqui) to the triumphant republicanism of the Third French Republic (Vovelle 1999). While the outlines of a Jacobin political philosophy can be assembled from the writings of Robespierre and Saint-Just, its canon consists of occasional writings composed on the fly, under the pressure of events. Reconstructions by its many critics and fewer supporters nonetheless converge on a number of core commitments.
As a doctrine, Jacobinism is rationalist, individualist, and humanist. It combines ethical idealism and a belief in the paramountcy of citizen virtue with republicanism and patriotism, a basis in natural law and natural rights (including the right to property) with legalism and constitutionalism, and strong universalism with an equally strong insistence on popular sovereignty. Jacobinism seeks the broadest possible freedom and equality now, with the state as the indispensable agent of the popular will. As a politics, it represents an attempt to conquer the state and use it to transform society on behalf of the people (Guilhaumou 2002). In its content as well as its tactics, Jacobinism is an expression of what Marx in On the Jewish Question called ‘political emancipation,’ carried to its most radical conclusions. Insofar as Marx’s work, beginning in 1843, develops out of a critique of the limits and contradictions of this political emancipation (along with natural rights, bourgeois citizenship, civic equality, etc.), Jacobinism represents the negative foundation on which ‘Marxism’ was built.
Yet it would hardly be Marxist to stop at criticizing this ideology and program in ideological or even programmatic terms. For Marx and Engels, Jacobinism, and indeed the French Revolution as a whole, were of interest as historical phenomena and incomplete anticipations of the communist revolution to come. They accordingly considered these phenomena diagnostically, finding in them lessons for future struggles. In the references to ‘Jacobinism’ scattered throughout their texts of the 1840s and after, the term functions as shorthand principally for two things: the ‘bourgeois revolution,’ undertaken to throw off the feudal estates and the absolutist state; and the attempt to force by political means a revolutionary change for which the social bases have not yet been laid – a usage often conjoined with, or replaced by, ‘Babouvism’ and, after 1848, ‘Blanquism’.
In both respects, Jacobinism amounts to what could be called politicism: the (false) belief that politics alone, in the form of state power wielded by a revolutionary elite, can impose freedom and equality on society from above. Jacobins (Babouvists, Blanquists, etc.) identify with the cause of ‘the people’ and aim to wield state power on their behalf, yet they cannot do so because they lack a proper understanding of, and practical relation to, the social forces on which, as Marx discovered, all politics is based. Thus, even when these revolutionaries in a sense speak for the popular classes and seek to advance their interests – in the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx calls the Blanquists the “only real leaders of the proletarian party” (Marx 1990, 15) – they will do so in vain, ending at best in the violent flailing against society that marked the original revolutionary Terror (Higonnet 2006).
This is why for Marx Jacobinism, however left, popular, radical, or democratic it becomes, remains ‘bourgeois’: it envisions a messianic redemption of the popular classes through the heroic intervention of a revolutionary elite, a wise and virtuous force outside and above the masses. As great as Marxism’s ideological and programmatic distance from Jacobinism is, the underlying divide between them concerns the relationship of politics to history. Contra Robespierre or Saint-Just, Babeuf, Buonarroti, or Blanqui, Marx understood the coming revolution as consisting not simply of seizing the helm of a bourgeois revolution and steering it further, as the Jacobins had tried and failed to do, but of making a revolution on new social bases. The crucial Marxist departure from the Jacobin tradition is the idea that revolution must somehow grow out of society itself. Politically, this means that the emancipation of the proletariat can only be the work of the proletariat.
Yet critics like Talmon and Furet are not entirely wrong to associate Marxism and Jacobinism, even if they are, textually speaking, incorrect. This is not because of any doctrinal filiation between the two projects, whose understandings of rights, nature, individualism, and the state are irreconcilable. What they have in common is rather a problem, which Marxism inherits from Jacobinism and neither has been able to solve: the problem of conjugating politics and history, of making a revolution not simply within but ahead of history. For, despite all the efforts of Marx, Engels, and their later interpreters to turn Marx’s thought into a philosophy or a science, its revolutionary element always consisted in the imperative of accelerating history, of standing at the limit of present possibilities and giving history a push.
For this reason, the depiction of Lenin as the growth of a Marxian seedling that had been germinating since Robespierre – essentially the analysis that Furet inherits from a century of anti-Marxism – is not just the expression of an anti-revolutionary ideology, even if it is that as well. It points to the question of revolutionary politics, and specifically of using force and vanguardist agency to bring about social change. This is why it is ultimately insufficient to draw a line between a good (democratic) Marx and a bad (Jacobin) Lenin, even if this, too, is not exactly wrong. To be sure, Luxemburg and Trotsky denounced the Bolsheviks’ ‘Jacobinism,’ as did Gramsci in the early 1920s (even if he reversed his position under the sign of Machiavelli in the 1930s), while Lenin was happy to don the Jacobin mantle (Löwy 2005, chapter 4). But it is clear that Marx himself was quite open to overthrowing the old society by political means, with the quintessentially Jacobin instruments of a party (even if it was to have no interests other than those of the working class) and a state (even if it was to be swiftly converted into a dictatorship of the proletariat, and then to wither away once its work was done).
Marxists have never entirely disarmed the question of Jacobinism, then, because this question, precisely as that of the political form of a social revolution, has always been internal to Marxism as a revolutionary project. What makes Marxism in most of its varieties ‘Jacobin’ is its untimeliness, its commitment to a transformation for which society has never been ready. To the extent that ‘forcing’ such a transformation on society by means of a party and a state was for Marx the deeper content of Jacobinism, he never ceased being, despite himself, a kind of Jacobin. It is therefore hardly surprising that Marxist or Marxian thinkers today who seek to revive its revolutionary impetus (Žižek in Robespierre 2012; Dean 2015; Hallward 2009) have done so by taking up such Jacobin motifs as sovereignty, the party, virtue, and the will of the people.
This is the deeper truth behind the last major public battle waged over Marxism, Jacobinism, and the legacy of the French Revolution, which took place between Furet and Michel Vovelle, the distinguished Communist historian and Chair of the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne, on the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Since 1989, commentators have awarded a decisive victory to Furet, as seems to be confirmed by the global hegemony of (neo)liberalism over the subsequent decades (Kaplan 1995). Yet here the sort of historical reserve Zhou Enlai counselled concerning the French Revolution is advisable. For what was really at stake in this contest, as both Furet and Vovelle saw, was not simply Jacobinism but rather the question of revolution as a question. Furet sought to close the question, to put a definitive end to the Revolution; Vovelle sought to keep it open. The current state of the ideology and world order Furet hoped to enshrine as an unsurpassable horizon, liberal capitalism, may be enough to suggest that it is still too soon to say who will turn out to have been right.
Where the Jacobin and anti-Jacobin agree is that a sort of Jacobinism will persist in Marxian politics as long as there is a will not to submit to the logic of evolution and reform, but to use political action to escape the apparent fatalities of history. But any attempt to revive the link between Jacobinism and Marxism – in Vovelle’s sense, as a question that can and must remain open – must be subject to a distinctly Marxist kind of critical-historical labor. Latter-day Jacobin Marxists cannot simply reverse the signs and dig up the legacy of the French Revolution where the liberals would bury it. Instead, they should follow Marx and draw all the lessons from the Jacobin (Bolshevik, Maoist…) failures. For Marx the task was to explore how and why Jacobinism was unable meet the challenges of its day and ill-equipped to meet those of his. There are good practical-historical as well as theoretical reasons for not trusting the party or the state as the expression of a unified popular will, believing in natural rights that need only be given constitutional form, or imagining a neat reconciliation of national sovereignty and universal emancipation. If the question of revolution is one we inherit from Marx as he did from the Jacobins, it is one for which twenty-first century answers will have to be found.