Skip to main content

The “Other Side” of Jacobinism

ISSUE:  Summer 1990

As we have been celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, an epitaph to the ideology we associate with it—Jacobinism—is in order. Ideologies—political ideologies, especially—provide us with telescopes and microscopes through which we look at the world—the world around us and the world that has shaped us, our history, and, in so doing, they distort reality and standardize, so to speak, our thinking and understanding. They form the perceptions in terms of which we judge and know—perceptions that in turn harden into postulates that brook no alternative and no compromise. This has been the case with “Jacobinism”—even more so than with Marxism. No other political ideology, I believe, has shaped so much, so profoundly and so authoritatively perceptions (and misperceptions) about French politics and political history.

The Jacobinformula”: Every political ideology amounts to a vulgarization of theory or philosophy. The vulgarization lies, first, in the simplification that is necessary to motivate political action and to provide for mobilization and, second, in the incorporation of extraneous elements, sometimes incompatible with the theory from which the ideology stems and frequently directly at odds with it. This is the case with what I call the “Jacobin formula.” “Jacobinism,” no matter what it originally meant, came to mean some or all of the following: the everyday direct rule of a virtuous people acting for the general good (Rousseau); the exaltation of the nation over the individuals that comprise it (a perversion of Rousseau that we can relish in reading Jules Michelet); the rule of one man or an elite to govern on behalf of the general good that may correspond to the supremacy of the legislature or the supremacy of one man—republican Jacobinism in the first case or Bonapartism in the second. Or the government in which one man speaks on certain vital national issues for the will of all—this is the distinction between la Politique as opposed to la politique—and is, I believe, the very essence of Gaullism. Jacobinism has been also used to uphold central governance—the centralized French “administration,” speaking for the interests of all.

Jacobinism became a catchall phrase. But it has been associated with three major political manifestations: centralization, uniformity, and mobilization. In any and each and all of the interpretations it received, the Jacobin formula aimed to shape a citizenry around common values and prepare it to “march in step” with them for the fulfillment of uniform aspirations. Variations, individualisms, particularisms, different and conflicting loyalties, were to be grounded out into the common denominator of citizenship into which each and every French man and women was to be moulded. The “citizen” would subordinate and in the process liberate “the individual” from all that was inconsistent or incompatible or irrelevant to the civic good. To paraphrase Robespierre, it was to be “the despotism of the citizen over the individual”; but it was used in the course of time to justify the control of state or its agencies over the individual.

In sum, Jacobinism became an overarching political formula, much more than an ideology, that stressed the equality of all citizens before a supreme authority—the “people,” or those acting on its behalf—i.e. the state; that had central direction of the affairs of all; provided legitimacy to the parliamentary representatives that claimed to act for the good of all (and the nation) and equated obedience—presumed to be freely given by each for the good of all—with consent. The institutional mechanisms through which this formula was to be implemented varied—characteristically enough, the mechanisms never crystallized into firm constitutional and institutional arrangements. Emphasis on truth and virtue, central direction and control, the penetration of the civil society and the subordination of all loyalties became its hallmark. Irrespective of political institutions and regimes—republicanism, Bonapartism, Gaullism or even administrative governance—unity, uniformity, centralization and citizen loyalty remained its imperatives. If nationalism became, as it so often did, one of its refuges, it should be quickly pointed out that the Jacobin formula made no room for scoundrels! Only heroic citizens manned the barricades of civic (and national) virtue.

The distinction between individual and citizen and the thrust of Jacobinism to erase it is of critical importance. The individual is after all an individual—a sentient, “rational” or “irrational” being, satisfying wants and aspirations that may range from the most venal to the loftiest. The individual can be a knave or a saint—driven by utilitarian impulses so well-postulated by Benthamism or by divine messages and aspirations that would please St. Augustine. Individuals are different from each other; emphasis on individuals suggests particularisms, varieties of behavior and motivation, inequalities of looks, status, income, color, capabilities, etc., etc. Like-minded individuals can form associations pursuing common interests in competition with others. When they do, individuals undermine collective aspirations, shake the foundations of legitimacy, thwart mobilization, defy political control and order. Individual life impedes the uniformity and centralization of authority—in fact the vaunted French individualism has been at odds with virtually all shades of the Jacobin formula. Only by destroying the individual could the claim of Jacobinism triumph and not until every French individual was transformed into a citizen (occasionally synonymously used with patriot). The citizen would emerge only when the individual had assimilated fully through imposition or socialization (only Rousseau would have it that the transformation could come from rational self-restraints) common standards of conduct and obligation. It was not only the Commissar in Orwell’s 1984 that scoffed “human nature” and promised to remake it—it was the essence of Jacobinism to accomplish it. To the palpable reality, richness, and variety of the French individual life, Jacobinism proposed the creation of a gray (even if inspired) mass of citizens, equal with each other, with common values, common attitudes and aspirations, a common code of political morality and civil obligation.

The battle between the individual and the citizen has been going on ever since the French revolution, as anybody who rereads Alain can tell. Efforts to subdue and transform the individual have accounted for a dialectic between individual and citizen that is unique. The absolutist and comprehensive Jacobin demands to establish a body of equal and uniform citizenry left no room for the individual. It had to be one or the other. Hence the constant conflict between the two. The individuals constantly revolted against the citizen, refusing to assimilate themselves into citizenship norms. The citizens constantly attempted to impose their claims. It was a conflict that led to the atrophy of individual initiative and effort and dampened associational life—it became the enemy of pluralism. Very often the individual preferred to remain passive and let the citizen do the job . . .! This, I believe, is the reason for the lack of local and associative initiatives and the tendency of the French to let the higher authority settle conflict or predicaments—so much emphasized by Michel Crozier and Stanley Hoffmann. But there were occasions—only an apparent paradox of French political history—when the individuals took matters in their own hands against the citizen . . . . How else can one explain the rich and powerful protest movements that have shaken the various political regimes ever since 1789? It was, I think, a forceful reminder that the pays réel consisting of individuals could speak from “its most profound depths” even when it spoke against DeGaulle in May 1968.


For 200 years we have looked on France—and this is the point of this essay—using the Jacobin formula. France was one and indivisible—generous, civilizing, free, egalitarian, capable of assimilating in its virtuous vortex foreigners and even all those living in the Empire. In fact, the claims of Jacobinism were not only national but universal. Divisions within the nation, political or ideological, that surfaced—and there were so many (another apparent paradox)—were viewed as aberrant. They validated rather than denied the unifying claims of Jacobinism. They were viewed as deviations from the norm—from the unity of the whole. They were dealt with and, what is more, studied as such. Their validity was denied in an effort to subdue them rather than compromise them. This is one of the many reasons why the French were unable until very recently to understand and unwilling to condone the principles of federalism and local and regional autonomy. This is why—with some notable exceptions—the conflict between church and state was viewed, again until recently, as a zero sum game. This is why, until recently, any genuine separation of powers of the state could not be entertained. And this is why, notwithstanding the remarkable jurisprudence of the Conseil d’Etat, the notion of an independent judiciary to set aside actions of the sovereign was unpalatable. Under “Jacobinism” it was the pays légal that continued to dominate, even though unable to swallow and digest, the pays réel.

But (pace Maurras) was there a pays réel? The Jacobin ideology denied it and, in terms of its all-encompassing claims, prevented us from paying any attention to it. It was considered, at best, episodic, idiosyncratic, deviant, unworthy in its claims of our attention. When it appeared to be defiant, it was to be made to return to the commonweal—as it happened occasionally with ethnic and linguistic claims of minority groups and more recently with claims of distinct racial groups that live within the whole. The image of France and of the French nation-state was writ in large Jacobin letters, and all of us, including France’s schoolchildren, read about France by using the Jacobin script.

But was there a pays réel really? Were there social, economic, political, ideological, religious, geopolitical, ethnic, linguistic realities at odds with the Jacobin formula? Did we look for them? Did the French intellectuals, political philosophers, and statesmen make room for them? Did the pays réel manifest itself and if it did, in what ways? The answer is—indeed yes!

If one were to begin with an account of the various forces that constantly defied Jacobinism, one must begin with an analysis of protest in France. Not only political protests but just plain protests—the peasants throwing the fruit on the highways, the winegrowers flooding the marketplace with wine, workers occupying factories, students closing the universities, mass movements that often seemed like festivals paralyzing the society. In no other country have there been so many “spontaneous” protests, in no other country have there been so many varieties of protest, and in no other country has the individual defied the citizen in so many ingenious ways. The Jacobin formula had failed to impose its civic norms or rather, not infrequently, the individual threw overboard the burdens of citizenship and appeared to be what he or she really is!

The “other side of Jacobinism” lies precisely in an effort to become cognizant of the manifestations of the pays réel; to account for the forces that refused to be subdued and time after time confronted Jacobin claims with the validity of their own claims and their own aspirations.

I shall mention only a few.

  1. anarchism and syndicalism—from Proudhon to Sorel defying the authority of the state.
  2. utopian socialism—urging for the formation of small associations outside of and separate from the state.
  3. Christian democracy—from Lamennais on: a body of thought demanding the autonomy of the church within the state in order to live peacefully within the state—without the conflict I have alluded to as a zero-sum game.
  4. Trade unionism with both fraternal and utilitarian motives claiming the autonomy of trade unions as separate associations within the state.
  5. “autogestion”—heir to the Utopian-Socialist claims, urging for both local and associational autonomies.
  6. separation of powers in order to defy the claims of national sovereignty by dividing it; a movement that traces its venerable background to the period of the Restoration.
  7. decentralization—to separate politically and legally the central authority from localities and regions.
  8. judicial review—only recently established through the Counseil Constitutionnel to protect individual rights.
  9. economic liberalism, still looked down upon, to temper the dirigisme that went hand in hand with statism and Jacobinism.
  10. educational pluralism, confronting the claims of the state to monopolize education.

All of these manifestations, some quite old, some relatively new, attest to the vitality of a civil society, held at bay for a long time, attempting to break away from the straightjacket Jacobinism tried to impose for so long and to manifest themselves in new ways by providing a new political formula. What it will be I shall try to hint but only after I try to answer one final paradox—why the persistence and tenacity of Jacobinism for so long and why its apparent demise now?

I believe the Jacobin formula proved so tenacious because it was addressed to the very realities that it aimed to deny: the remarkable varieties of French political and social life, the intense individualism that prevailed, the marked peculiarities that distinguish the French in their mode of thinking and acting, the persistence of local differences. Jacobinism was an effort to do away with as many centrifugal forces as there were individuals, groups, localities, regions and bring them into a uniform body politic: a nation-state.

Fernard Braudel provides us with the best account not only of the “other side” of the Jacobin formula but also, without explicitly stating it, for both its emergence and tenacity and for its ultimate demise. The name of France, he writes, in his L’Identité de la France, is diversity (Que la France se nommé diversité). The greater the distinctions and variations within France, the more demanding the Jacobin formula became. Lack of socio-economic modernization made its task both imperative and difficult. Compared to England, Germany, and the USA, France, despite its pockets of industrialization, remained backward. Most of France, to use the terms employed in the 5O’s, was “static” until 1941; in the 5O’s, when the term was used as France began to modernize, a distinction was made between “static” and “dynamic” France, a distinction that only underlined the persistence of backwardness. It is axiomatic that backward societies allow for particularisms, localisms, familialisms, and village life, and for subsistence patterns of economic life. They account for fragmentation and differences and a lack of common shared national values. It was precisely the task of Jacobinism to do away with these differences, and its persistence for so long can be explained precisely because the French society remained so differentiated and fragmented for so long. It had failed to develop the common and collective values that socioeconomic modernization brings about. Jacobinism was a political substitute for the common sharing and the common values that modernization created elsewhere.

With the ongoing modernization of France in the last half century, however, there has been an increased homogenization of the society, open and direct communications among all citizens everywhere, national standards of performance, common values, common modes of consumption, common standards in education, the weakening of class and social distinctions, to say nothing of TV. The dynamics of Jacobinism began to weaken precisely when its aspiration had begun to be realized through other means! It was economic and industrial progress, economic and social modernization that accomplished, or at least appears to have accomplished what Jacobinism attempted to impose. Jacobinism, therefore, became superfluous the moment the forces in the civil society that it had tried to control and subdue managed to transform themselves. Jacobinism as a political formula began to decline when the society and the body politic became more unified and homogeneous thanks to socioeconomic modernization than it had ever been before. It will now have to fashion a new political formula.


A new political “formula” has been taking shape for some time, without much fanfare, without heroics, without appeals to absolutes and the mannichean pretensions of Jacobinism. Many commentators have already referred to the end of French “exceptionalism,” or to the “Americanization” (synonymously used with vulgarization) of French political life or to the development of “pragmatic” as opposed to ideological politics, or to the growth of a new “consensus.” More frequently than ever the term that has never sat well with the French—liberalism—is now being used.

The new formula relates to the achievement at long last of political unity—the major aspiration of Jacobinism—not around a single political myth but about political life; not on the state but about the state. It begins to put process above ends; compromise above imposition; difference above uniformity. It gives legitimacy to associational efforts side by side with the state and begins to be far more tolerant to the differences and pluralisms that Jacobinism tried in vain to set aside. France is gradually returning to Braudel’s “identity”— it is plural, as it has been for centuries. But it is now able to accept its differences and look at itself in the reality of the broken mirror—of its diversities.

The individual—alone or in associations—-has returned to the political scene with the legitimacy each and all deserve as individuals. There is no need to wage war against the state anymore or against the citizen now that the individual’s identity has been recognized. The dialectic between individual and citizen is in the process of being reconciled and transcended. Even economic liberalism—the freedom in the market and the inequalities that derive from economic efforts or success or even good luck—is grudgingly accepted. In the process there is a growing relativism about political values and political goals. The heroic dimension of French politics, of establishing a pure et dure republic, of assimilating everything into one, is giving place to an attitude of live and let live. Tolerance about truth rather than the search for one truth seems to be gaining. It is Milton not Bossuet! The irony is that having loosened the straightjacket of citizenship, the French individuals begin to look more and more alike and to act more like citizens. They trust each other more and more, do things together more; even the horreur de face à face seems to be giving place to togetherness.

But it is not only the individual that has at long last been liberated. Political authority—centralized and ubiquitous until now—is being undermined in favor of new patterns of political expression and decision-making. Decentralization— that grande affaire du septennat—that began long before the Socialists implemented it, is beginning to bring a trickle of life into the regions whose names hail from the ancien régime; the trade unions are beginning to have a share in the oversight of enterprises and in the welfare of their members within the firm; a rich associative life now flanks the activities of schools—public and private; new semi-corporatist practices have brought various interests into the public sphere— for better or worse; the decentralization and the granting of relative autonomy to universities seems to be on the way; and notwithstanding the strength of the National Front and the semiofficial reports that continue to urge for the inevitability of assimilation, the very notion not only of a plural but even of a multi-ethnic, multireligious and even multi-“national” France is gaining way.

Reforms of the state and within the state have gone hand in hand. Whatever the inspiration of the Gaullist constitution, it has generated a separation between the executive and the legislature; and whatever the original reasons for the establishment of the Conseil Constitutionnel, it has been able to gradually emerge above both the legislature and the executive not only as the ultimate arbiter of the functioning of the institutions but, even more important, as the ultimate protector of individual rights. The hierarchical notion of authority— statist and centralized—is breaking down as imperative coordination gives place to just plain coordination. Even the civil service has lost its claim to be the custodian of the state as many of its members and new recruits are inducted into local and regional administrative agencies. The budget, the purest expression of state control in the past, now provides large amounts in grants-in-aid to be spent by regions and municipalities as they choose, without prior approval by the omniscient and omnipresent inspectors of finance and préfets.

There is, in short, no new political formula—there is a new political mix. It is a mix that involves a myriad of new participatory mechanisms for the making of policy and its implementation: where various points of view compete and compromise and where none can claim ultimate authority and truth or, even more important, promise to impose it. For the first time perhaps, French democracy has been turned downside up. Or to put it better, for the first time the pays réel is beginning to flex its muscles. In the process France is rediscovering its differences, peculiarities, and pluralisms and is beginning to learn how to live with them by accepting them and by making sure that the institutions of the state will, too, accept them and protect them. Consensus has replaced the quest for uniformity and tolerance the quest for authoritative imposition. Vive la République—plural and unheroic!


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading