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Conspiracies Real and Imagined in the French Revolution – Marisa Linton

This entry was posted in Conspiracy and Democracy Project, French Revolution on 6 May 2016 by

The French Revolution saw the invention of a new political system for France, that of modern participatory politics, with an elected legislature, political clubs, and a free press. For the first time France had politicians – answerable not to one man, but to public opinion and to the ‘people’. On the face of it conspiracy should have had little place in this new political culture. Yet conspiracies, both real and imagined, played a central role in the shifting dynamics of French revolutionary politics, and contributed to the volatility of a political system which successive revolutionaries and made repeated efforts to stabilize.

  • There were many actual conspiracies, and the Revolution’s leaders had good reason to believe in the covert manipulation of power by groups seeking to impose their own political agendas, even though they often identified the wrong conspiracies, and the wrong participants.

  • Opponents of the Revolution claimed that the Revolution itself had come about by means of a conspiracy organized by Enlightenment intellectuals and freemasons.

  • A series of genuine conspiracies were launched against the Revolution. Some of these had their origins amongst the émigrés who had left France rather than accept a form of government based on national sovereignty.

  • Fear of conspiracy needs to be understood against the unstable context. A series of actual betrayals, the attempted flight of the king in 1791, the war with the leading foreign powers which began in 1792, and the civil war in the Vendée in 1793, all fed the fear of conspiracy. It was in this context that accusations of conspiracy with the foreign powers led to a series of executions in 1793-4.

  • Conspiracy was an important political rhetoric. The revolutionaries used this rhetoric to impart meaning to events, invoking narratives of conspiracy to explain events and the intentions of other political participants.

  • Much of this rhetoric of conspiracy was concerned with disguise and unmasking. Narratives of conspiracy addressed the problem of how to establish the authentic identities and genuine motives of political participants.

  • Conspiracy also had a powerful emotional resonance. There was a genuine fear of conspiracy and anxiety about conspirators, even when that fear was often misplaced.

  • A particularly traumatic aspect of French revolutionary politics is the extent to which revolutionary leaders accused one another of being secret conspirators against the Revolution. Mutual accusations of conspiracy by revolutionary leaders was a key factor in the politicians’ terror, whereby a series of revolutionary factions, including the Dantonists and the Robespierrists, were ‘unmasked’ as ‘conspirators’ and ‘traitors’.

Marisa Linton, Kingston University