One is tempted, almost, to pity poor Robespierre. In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk squarely identifies Robespierre as the political fruit of the sanguinary philosophy of Rousseau, which separated intellectual virtue from moral virtue, a “loathsome thing.” This “defecated rationality” lead directly to, first, the overthrow of the ancien régime, and second, to the Terror, and from then to a greater or lesser degree to every lesser revolution in the subsequent bloody century.

Robespierre’s France is, for some, the model for murderous dystopia, Orwell’s Oceania avant la lettre. Robespierre himself has been a metonym for faceless tyranny, his life a metaphor for how revolutions eat their own; he was executed in 1794 by orders of the very National Convention he had ruled. But perhaps it is time for a reassessment. The Terror, the show trials, the suppression of half-remembered prison plots, the repeated executions: surely these atrocities were not solely his fault, the revisionists would say. The overheated and anxious atmosphere of France in 1793 and 1794 was more complicated than that. In any event, the horrors were worth the cost—just look at France now (ok, maybe not).

Peter McPhee’s book seems to provide just such a reassessment. He asks, was Robespierre, “the first modern dictator” or a “principled, self-abnegating visionary”—although one can of course be both. McPhee, a former provost at the University of Melbourne, aims to bring the private Robespierre into a light equal to that of his public career, although the first three decades of his life before he burst on the scene in 1789 are obscure and Robespierre left little in the way of private papers, preferring speeches and pamphlets. McPhee writes with clear mastery of the material, and his Robespierre is a more complex figure than some of his critics have thought him. In the tumultuous years following his death, from the restoration of the monarchy in 1815 to the Second World War, his name has gotten caught up with contemporary French disputes and co-opted by various factions for their own purposes.

Alas, despite McPhee’s conscientious historiography, the shadow of the guillotine still obstructs the view. McPhee’s subject remains something of a monster.

The beginning is inauspicious enough. Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) was a scholarship boy in Arras, a small town in the north of France. The boy lost his mother when he was six, and his father disappeared. Maximilien, his brother Augustin, and his beloved sister Charlotte lived among relatives. Arras, although a provincial town, was prosperous enough, though like all of France organized under fairly clear hierarchical lines. The Church and the large noble landowners held the social and political power, and McPhee carefully paints the picture of a society on edge, even though most of its inhabitants did not know it. For the middle class, there was trade and some wealth, but no real social mobility; for boys like Robespierre, of questionable family backgrounds and more straitened circumstances, there was even less room. He came to chafe under its strictures.

In 1769 Robespierre saw the wider world, receiving a scholarship to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he was to remain for the next thirteen years. Once done, he returned home a lawyer. Robespierre practiced in Arras, with some success, for a few years, although he alienated most of his peers and the professional classes with strident positions over various real and perceived injustices. He never married, and McPhee notes the irony of a Robespierre speech in which he argued that “bachelorhood seems to encourage rebelliousness.” If he had done nothing more, Robespierre would still be the unacknowledged inspiration for countless “social justice” lawyers seeking to remake society through law, though with less justification than Robespierre.

But that was not to be: after a grueling campaign (during which he was said to have rediscovered disdained country relatives in order to attract rural votes and engage in rabble-rousing), Robespierre was elected to represent his town in a meeting of the Three Estates being called by the king. His first speech of note in Paris: attacking the Church when an archbishop asked for a quick start to proceedings organized to help the poor.

So, an unmarried lawyer with a chip on his shoulder and a penchant for making grand pronouncements against his society: not a recipe for a stable political outlook. And so Robespierre spent 1789–91 solidifying his radicalism. More specifically, he identified the actions of the Third Estate—almost half of which were lawyers like himself—as representatives of the “people” whose will could not be broached without betraying the nation. Against the people, Robespierre arrayed the church, the nobility, and anyone else who might traduce their will. In his last years, this ideological fervor became little more than conspiracy-mongering.

After a brief stay in Arras in 1791, Robespierre returned to Paris as a member of the National Assembly, writing to a friend that he expected to stay in the city for merely “a few months.” He soon took to making nightly speeches at the Jacobin Club, and quickly became known as “incorruptible” due to his devotion to the principles of the revolution and his personal probity. His success and popularity were undeniable, as were the enemies he created along the way. He was repeatedly accused of conspiring to overturn the law and take the revolution for himself and his friends, including the young Jean-Paul Marat and Saint-Just.

Although rhetorically abjuring the death penalty, he gave a speech in December 1792 arguing that “Louis must die because the homeland must live,” without even the benefit of a trial, because the “people” had already found him guilty. By then Robespierre had already been complicit in the massacres of imprisoned Swiss Guards (the protectors of the king) and thousands of others and had called for the creation of an “extraordinary tribunal” to try counterrevolutionary conspirators. Thus, the precursors of the first show trials that would become so familiar in twentieth-century tyrannies were born in revolutionary France.

His calls on behalf of the “people” won him admiration when his Jacobins struggled against the Girondins and other factions; McPhee ably explains the endless plots, schemes, betrayals, accusations, and internecine violence that characterized chaotic Paris at the time. But when Robespierre and his faction finally gained the upper hand in early 1793, Robespierre was forced to look for other sources of the people’s discontent—when there was popular unrest in Paris about obtaining certain foods, the people themselves could not be at fault. Robespierre instead blamed conspirators and the influence of British bribes. By April 1793, he was promoting the death penalty not just for the king, but for anyone who rose up “against the security of the State or the liberty, equality, unity, and indivisibility of the republic.” In the event, this meant all those with whom Robespierre disagreed and whom he could arrange to punish. By June 1793, the hapless Girondins were arrested or in hiding, and the “people” represented by the Jacobins and their allies were alone.

In July 1793, Robespierre became a member on the Committee of Public Safety, his first position of real political power; like many later shadowy “party leaders” without official titles, Robespierre’s true power was not reflected in his public positions. Among his first acts there, he proposed a new national education policy that would “create a new people,” the existing one apparently not revolutionary enough; McPhee only calls the plan “bold and wide-ranging.” When the killings started (again), McPhee tries to make the case that Robespierre was not as involved as later generations thought. But ultimately he fails to convince. Robespierre turned against his friends, such as Georges Danton, curtailed freedom of the press, prevailed against bringing sections of the “old” Constitution back into operation, and ordered enough people to death—including old comrades and colleagues—that McPhee’s attempts to justify Robespierre fall flat. This horrific course of action resulted in the Law of 22 Prairial (June 10, 1794), which almost eliminated evidence for trials of “enemies of the people.”

The end came swiftly. Robespierre’s creation of the festival of the Supreme Being, though praised by some, smacked too much of omnipotence to others. Robespierre essentially personified the revolution in these cult rituals, which rendered everyone else a potential enemy. As even McPhee admits, by this point Robespierre had become unable to distinguish “dissent from treason,” and his long-held conspiratorial sentiments had clearly overwhelmed him long before. Moreover, the arrests continued and the sight of so many heads separated from their bodies spurred the diminishing number of survivors into action. Robespierre himself was arrested and put to death at the end of July 1794, along with his brother Augustin and other allies, and buried in a common grave.

Kirk wrote about Robespierre that his particular type of ideological furor “is a kind of delusory ethical snobbery, ferocious and malicious, annihilating ordinary human beings because they are not angels.” McPhee’s sympathetic account does not change this verdict.