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Reflecting On Maximilien Robespierre And Other Things

Reading an article on Maximilien Robespierre published in the New York Review of Books (23 June 2022) has led me to reflect (or more accurately, further reflect) on both my short time as an active member of a far left political organisation in New Zealand in the early 1970s and the state of the wider left today.

Reader beware: this is a bit of a hopefully not tortuous personal journey. As a young Victoria University student I was National Party leaning and looking for a campus National Club to join only to discover that it had been taken over by members of the Socialist Club.

Under its new ‘leadership’ the National Club then issued a public call for the establishment of workers and peasants soviets in New Zealand. This attracted much bemused media interest, including television. Few things have tickled my fancy more than this.

Turning to the far left

However, it was the horrors and devastation of both the American war in Vietnam and apartheid South Africa that turned me first away from my conservative leanings and then towards the left and then quickly towards the far left.

Although only a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Action League for three years, it significantly defined my understanding of the world we live in and why it is what it is. It enabled a qualitative transformation of my political consciousness.

Of the far left groups at that time, especially Maoists, I found the SAL much less sectarian. I was attracted to its much more broad front approach.

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Nevertheless sectarianism was still evident, particularly towards the rest of the far left (a mutual sentiment).

I struggled with this. I quite liked and respected them. At one point I wrote a conference discussion paper titled something like ‘Personal Sectarianism: A Malignant Disease’.

Need for a wider lens

Eventually I left through a sense of frustration that my cognitive thinking was being too narrowly constrained. I wanted to interpret the world through a wider lens.

This was not an abandonment of many of the premises of Trotskyism. Even today I still find Trotsky’s writing on fascism and uneven and combined development, for example, very relevant to my thinking and writing.

But I wanted to expand my thinking beyond this and in a non-sectarian way. Socialist intellectuals whose writings have subsequently helped widen my horizons include:

  • Antonio Gramsci’s thinking on hegemony;
  • Ralph Miliband on the state in capitalist society and parliamentary democracy;
  • Edward Thompson’s approach to class as a relationship rather than a thing and the link between class struggle and class consciousness; and
  • Boris Kagarlitsky’s astute observations on the dialectical relationship between reform and revolution.

Going beyond the left and no regrets

But it was also important to expand understandings beyond the left. The New York Review of Books has been a stimulating pleasure as has some considered conservative writers such as journalist and historian Max Hastings.

I have also valued reaching across the broad political divide in order to engage over whether common ground be found on particular issues.

I did this with my political opposite, former ACT MP and deputy leader Heather Roy over a joint paper on making patient-centred care the cornerstone of our health system: If you don’ take the temperature you can’t find a fever (31 January 2023).  

However, I don’t regret that involvement in the Trotskyist movement. Its approach to self-disciplined organisation was helpful although probably I learnt more on that front from my mother.

I continue to respect my comrades of that time (most of whom have subsequently also left; a small number expelled), and believe that its broader principles are embedded within my political consciousness. They are just not its totality.

In lighter moments I sometimes observe that I wore shorts then but now wear long pants (a tad silly but there is a message somewhere in these words).

Two, Keith Locke and Matt Robson, became respected MPs for the Greens and Alliance respectively (the latter also a cabinet minister).

I have no regrets over my involvement in the organised far left although relieved it was not any longer than what it was.

I’m also proud of my collection of works by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky (and many other socialist thinkers) that reside in my study. It is a quiet place of peaceful reflection.

Thesis, obscure antithesis and synthesis

So what has all this got to do with Maximilien Robespierre? In terms of dialectics, the thesis is quite a lot, the antithesis is obscure, and the synthesis of sorts follows below.

The New York Review of Books article (paywalled) was by Lynn Hunt, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California (Los Angeles): The people and  Robespierre.

It was a review of a book by French historian Marcel Gauchet titled Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most. Gauchet is a controversial historian whose politics have over the years migrated from the left to the right.

Robespierre was the leader of French Revolution in the period 1793-94. Had it not been for one Napoleon Bonaparte coming to power and been involved in war against much of Europe from 1799 to 1815, so the argument goes, Robespierre would have been France’s most controversial figure of that time.

Fearing that he would turn on them, Robespierre’s  fellow deputies in the National Convention that governed France from 1892-95, ordered his arrest in 1794.

This had followed Robespierre driving through an infamous ‘Law of Suspects’. After an escape and recapture he was promptly executed in public when he was only in his late-30s.

Gauchet describes how a young (born in 1758) “…unprepossessing, previously unknown lawyer came to incarnate the Revolution in its most intense period?”

In late 1792 the previously “unprepossessing” Robespierre concluded that “In order to form our political institutions, we would need to have the morals that one day they ought to give to us.”

This had origins in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1792) when he advocated for a ‘supreme legislator’.

Hunt argues that Robespierre had rejected democratic processes and become more autocratic “…because he could not imagine that a political party was anything other than a particular interest, and therefore it was incompatible with the general will of the people.”

Similarities within worlds of difference

Robespierre’s adaptation of Rousseau’s ‘supreme legislator’ has cause me to further reflect on political parties of the far or revolutionary left.

The politics of the French Revolution was so dynamic, so bitterly contested, and the forces of counter-revolution so determined, that Robespierre and his followers increasingly became a sectarian bubble isolated from the popular will.

Inevitably this sectarianism led to the influential and popular Robespierre becoming less influential and more vulnerable.

There is a world of difference between the turbulent politics of the French revolution and the left in Aotearoa New Zealand. To begin with we are nowhere near a pre-revolutionary situation, let alone revolutionary.

By left-wing I mean something different to the way the descriptor is often used. I mean being transformational, either by reformism, revolution or both, depending on circumstances. I have discussed this previously in Political Bytes (30 April 2023): What does being left-wing really mean?     

There is also a world of difference between the revolutionary sectarianism of the far left in the 1970s and the revolutionary French sectarianism of the 1790s. The closest the former got to the executions of the latter were obscure expulsions.

The similarity is that sectarianism’s origins includes living in bubbles divorced from popular will and akin to ever decreasing circles.

A word that should never have been invented

The far left of today is a mere whisper of that in the 1970s. But sectarian bubbles are unfortunately evident in the wider political left. I refer to the messy and rather artificially constructed debate between class and identity politics.

In my view the word ‘woke’ should never have been invented as I have previously discussed in this blog (9 October 2023): Make war on the word ‘woke’ .        

Politics in New Zealand would benefit from a healthy debate on the relationship between class and identity politics. I regard them as interconnected and supplementary rather than opposites.

However, throwing the unsubstantiated ‘woke’ into the mix guarantees repeating the similarity between Robespierre and the ‘supreme being’ sectarian bubble of the French Revolution and the sectarian bubble of far left New Zealand politics in the 1970s.

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