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The French revolution marked a political watershed in human history. The Revolution started by overthrowing the monarchy and ended with the monarchy. However, it represented the ideas of liberty and democracy to the world and abolished the privileges of nobles, achieved the empowerment of lower social classes. The establishment of the Jacobin Republic was an important event during the revolution. Because most of the members of the Jacobin club were the bourgeoisie and they were supported by the ordinary people, sans-culottes.
Their governance was characterized as mob rule. Nevertheless, the French revolution is also has been seen as the exercise of violence and terror. This essay will examine the concepts of mob rule and terror and analyze whether Rousseau’s works these ideas. It argues that even though Rousseau’s concepts of the general will, positive liberty and collective power had formed the module of the Jacobins’ mob rule, his ideas could not be used to justify illegitimate terror during the mob rule.
The Jacobin Republic, which members was inspired by the ideas of Rousseau, could be defined as a vivid illustration of mob rule. According to Rousseau (1998, 88), when the state is failed, the rule of the government takes the name of anarchy; democracy turns into ochlocracy. Rousseau’s view of ochlocracy or mob rule can be understood as the degeneration of democracy into mob rule under the circumstances of the government overthrew. Actually, mob rule is the type of democracy in which the state is governed by the mass of people; accompanied by the pressure on the authorities.
In this case, it should be remembered that Jacobins came to the governance through the overthrow of the National Convention and with the major support of Sans-culottes (Rousseau 1998, 68). Hobbspawm (1987, 70) describes the Jacobin Republic as the glorious reign of justice and virtue when all good citizens were equal; illustration of free, local, direct democracy and free argumentative elections on which the Sans-culottes prospered. Generally, the justification of mob rule upon Rousseau’s ideas could be presented in three ways.
Firstly, it is crucial to point out Rousseau’s notion of positive liberty. Carter (2003) views a positive liberty of Rousseau in a way, according to which individual liberty is accomplished via taking part in the process whereby people exercise collective control over their own concerns in accordance with the ‘general will’. It should be highlighted that Rousseau significantly influenced political ideas of Robespierre who was one of the leaders of the Jacobins and Montagnards; his idea of revolutionary virtue and program for building political sovereignty out of direct democracy originated from Rousseau (Doyle and Haydon 1999, 37-53). Therefore, it is reasonable to consider that Jacobins’ mob rule, especially with the application of direct democracy, was inspired by Rousseau.
Secondly, mob rule could be explained by Rousseau’s idea of general will and his view of political ontology based on collective power. Roy (1991, 108) views Rousseau and agrees that the only political power which is acceptable is the rule by the general will. As Rousseau (1998, 96) states: “Sovereignty can not be represented for the same reason that it can not be alienated. It consists essentially for the same reason that it can not be alienated. It consists essentially in the general will, and the will does not allow of being represented.” Actually, the application of the general will could be seen in the Montagnard Constitution of 1793, which mentioned sovereignty of the people’s rule, different economic and social rights. In addition, it is important to mention Rousseau’s idea of collective power and agency. Because, his idea appeared in Robespierre, who stated that weaknesses of individualism were resolved by supporting the “common good” which was the concept of people’s collective will. Moreover, notion of mob rule itself involves the governance of the mass, which corresponds with the Rousseau’s collectivity concept. To bring it all together, even though Rousseau had never mentioned mob rule in his works, his ideas of the positive liberty, general will and collectivity concept had shaped the model of mob rule.
Although the Jacobin’s Reign of Terror during the French Revolution was a consequence of mob rule, it was not clearly justified by the Rousseau’s ideas. According to Hobbspawm (1987, 68), in 1793 France was helpless and bankrupt; most of the departments were against new republic, German princes and Britain were carrying out invasions of the state. However, after fourteen months since the start of Terror, French army repelled all foreign invaders, the values of French currency remained stable and the general situation of the state had quietly stabilized. Mayer (2000, 11) considers that the Jacobins admitted all of those violence and terror as a “war of liberation”. Even though the Jacobins were careful in sustaining a legal structure for the Terror so records exist for official death verdicts, numerous number of people were executed without legitimate judgements announced in a court of law; actually many of them were not politically against the Jacobins, but condemned to death for a slight motive beyond simple suspicion (Linton, 2006). Therefore, many historians (Mayer, 2000) recognize the Reign of Terror as the government’s brutal and immoral method of breaking the opposition and tend to think that the idea of using terror was taken from Rousseau. It is reasonable to argue that occasionally Rousseau perceives violence as a way of resolving some issues. Ansart-Dourlen (1975, 130-132) agrees that Rousseau had seen violence as a resolution to different problems. However, Roy (1989, 198) strongly stresses that he clearly emphasized a lawful justification for the use of violence. Rousseau (1998, 35) himself holds the view that if person has broken the law, trial and investigation confirm this, and the verdict pronounces it—so he is not a member of the state anymore; in such a situation the right to kill is acceptable. It shows that Rousseau admitted the usage of violence and condemnation to death, if the judgement is justified by law. Moreover, he was of the opinion that: “every wrong-doer could be turned to some good. There’s no right to put to death, even for the sake of making an example, anyone who could safely be left alive.”(Rousseau, 1998, 35). Eventually, the ideas of Rousseau did not let loose the exercise of ruthless terror by the mass execution; rather, they permitted a possible usage of violence if it is only legally justified.
To conclude, although mob rule of the Jacobins was shaped by the ideas of Rousseau, terror can not be justified by his philosophy. Rousseau’s political ontology was based on collective power, which laid a foundation for the idea of mob rule as governance by masses. Furthermore, he suggested an idea of positive liberty that can be seen in the Jacobins practice of direct democracy. In addition, Rousseau’s notion of “general will”, which describes inalienability of power and restricts power of authorities, also was used to form an idea of mob rule. However, the Jacobins’ mob rule is often criticized for its ruthless usage of illegal violence during the Reign of Terror; violation usually attributed to Rousseau. Nonetheless, Rousseau had never encouraged the exercise of an illegitimate violence and even supported the idea of amnesty.
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