By Sasha Simic
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David Lawday, Jonathan Cape; £20
Issue 339

There is a wonderful statue of Georges Jacques Danton in the Carrefour de l’Odéon in Paris reputedly raised on the very spot where his front door would have opened onto the streets in the early 1790s.

Danton deserves a statue. He was central to the progress of the great French Revolution. He was a founder member of the Cordelier Club, which was firmly anchored to the street politics of the Parisian poor, and a leading member of the Jacobin Club which provided the revolution with its radical ideology.

He was an inspired tactician whose audacity, vision and willingness to mobilise the Parisian masses kept the revolution moving forward.

For the revolution did not progress in a smooth uninterrupted advance from the creation of the National Assembly out of the Estates General in the spring of 1789, through to the fall of the Bastille in July, the abolition of feudalism in August 1789 and then on to the Republic in September 1792. The revolution frequently stalled.

Alarmed at the egalitarian and democratic sympathies opened up by the revolution, and at the increasingly active role of the lower orders, some of the more cowardly bourgeoisie argued from its earliest days that the revolution had achieved its aims.

The key issue was the problem of King Louis XVI. In 1789 most revolutionaries were not republicans and hoped for a constitutional monarchy on the English model.

It was Danton who broke the political deadlock of the previous years by organising the mass uprising which finally deposed the king in 1792.

Lenin thought Danton the “greatest master of revolutionary tactics yet known”.

In September 1792 when the counter-revolutionary troops of the Duke of Brunswick were a mere 60 miles from Paris, it was Danton whose eloquence inspired its citizens: “To vanquish them, gentlemen, we must be bold! Bolder still! Ever bolder! And France is saved.” But Danton was no saint, which is only a problem to those who require revolutionaries to be saints.

The weakness of David Lawday’s biography is that he gives us a sanitised Danton, and detests Maximilien Robespierre.

Robespierre was a young lawyer who had, as an elected member of the Estates General in May 1789, been involved in the revolution from the beginning.

Robespierre understood that the revolution made the complete social transformation of France possible.

Robespierre won respect and authority in the radical Jacobin Club through the clarity of his egalitarian ideas and his opposition to all things “aristocratic”. In a milieu where bribery was endemic, they called Robespierre “the incorruptible”.

Lawday’s treatment of the period is typical of the bourgeoisie’s general ambivalence towards its own revolutionary past. His Danton is a stick with which to beat Robespierre and through him all “extremists”. His biography suffers as a result.

Lawday struggles to depict Danton and Robespierre as polar opposites and natural enemies. But they agreed on much and could work closely together. Lawday ignores this. He gives us a Danton who is warm, humane, generous and, above all, pragmatic. Robespierre, by comparison, is depicted as a “drudge”, an “ogre” and so inhumanly icy he cannot write Danton a letter of condolence over the death of his wife without there being an ulterior motive.

To demonise Robespierre, Lawday has to sanitise Danton. So he deplores the calls made by Robespierre for the heads of their enemies but dismisses Danton’s equally violent speeches as rhetoric. Danton loved good living and enjoyed a lifestyle that required a lot of money. It is highly probable that he accepted bribes from a number of sources including the Duke of Orleans – the brother of Louis XVI. Lawday simply dismisses this.

Lawday’s Danton is a realist. He has no time for the utopian schemes of Robespierre and his ilk. He grants that Danton made mistakes, but they were “honest” mistakes free of dogma.

Before his fall from political grace Danton cleared the way for the reign of terror that reached its height in the summer of 1794. It was Danton who made the Committee of Public Safety the executive body of government in the summer of 1793. It was Danton who created the infamous revolutionary tribunal (“Let us be terrible to prevent the people from being terrible!”).

Early in 1794 Danton began to campaign for clemency within the revolution. It was an open attack on the authority of the Committee of Public Safety, which Robespierre saw as the revolution’s only hope – a revolution threatened on all sides by foreign armies and by counter-revolution from within. Lawday celebrates Danton’s compassion but it had its limits. He wouldn’t lift a finger to save the ultra-left Jacques Hébert and his followers when they were guillotined in March 1794.

In the spring of 1794 the Committee, under the leadership of Robespierre, arrested Danton and shortly afterwards the tribunal had him guillotined.

For Lawday, Danton is the “acceptable” face of revolution not least for advocating the end of the Terror. Robespierre, by comparison, stands condemned as an idealist, a dogmatist and a utopian – the blueprint for every bloodthirsty revolutionary since.

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