Was the Reign of Terror totalitarian? Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Reign of Terror

Hannah N Malcolm


The French Revolution of 1789 abolished the monarchy and transformed France into a republic which claimed to rule by the general will. Based on the Enlightenment concepts of natural rights and legal egalitarianism, the French Revolution can be seen in part as an ambitious attempt to not only create a new government but also an ideal republican society. However, this resulted in the reign of Terror, during which the revolutionary government disregarded its earlier promise of liberty and instead systematically eliminated its opponents, arguing that this was a necessary step before France could arrive at the perfect society. In order to understand the recent communist revolutions and the totalitarian regime of Stalin, twentieth-century scholars turned to the French Revolution and analyzed the phenomenon of the Terror. By comparing the analyses of the French Revolution by two political philosophers, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and J.L. Talmon (1916-1980), this paper will explain why the reign of Terror occurred how the historical context of the Cold War shaped these thinkers’ interpretation of the Terror. Both presented Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought as a cause of the reign of Terror. I will explain why these scholars portrayed Rousseau’s conception of the general will as being a negative influence on the French revolutionaries and how this helped them to understand contemporary politics. Talmon studied how Rousseau's influence on the French revolutionaries led them to conceive of democracy in a totalitarian way; since the general will, which is allegedly infallible, would be governing France, there could be no legitimate reason to disagree with or oppose the revolutionary government. Arendt pointed out that in Rousseau’s philosophy, members of society must subjugate their own individual wills to the general will. The French revolutionaries adapted this to mean that anyone who disagreed with them was not subjugating their will to the general will and thus was an enemy of the state. However, since most modern social revolutions have had reigns of Terror, Rousseau’s philosophy, though proto-communist, cannot be entirely to blame. Acknowledging this, Arendt posited that the reign of Terror occurred because the French revolutionaries addressed social problems instead of focusing solely on political changes; this view of the Terror could account for the similar reigns of Terror in other social revolutions.


French Revolution; Totalitarianism; Terror

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