Jacobins and Marxists : A Shared History




Political Education Snippet #9

How it started

It started with wondering about two questions. 1. Why are the Jacobins called that? 2. Why is a  Marxist 21st Century magazine about modern socialism called Jacobin? 

The first question is easily answered. (Thanks to Wikipedia.) 

Jacobin (political) Not to be confused with Jacobitism or the Jacobean era.

A Jacobin was a member of the Jacobin Club, a revolutionary political movement that was the most famous political club during the French Revolution (1789–17991 ). The club got its name from meeting at the Dominican rue Saint-Honoré Monastery of the Jacobins. The Dominicans in France were called Jacobins (Latin: Jacobus, which corresponds to Jacques in French and James in English) because their first house in Paris was the Saint Jacques Monastery2.

OK, that makes sense. And I must confess, when I was only a little bit younger, I did confuse Jacobitism with Jacobinism, which is understandable as it’s only one letter different, though poles apart politically. But we’re only talking about Jacobinism here, because Jacobitism is a silly romantic fantasy unworthy of socialist discourse. 

The answer to the second question will involve a brief gambol through European political history. 

Marx and Engels and their timelines

A still from the film “The Young Karl Marx”

One thing you must first appreciate is how close the lifetimes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were to the time of the French Revolution and its chaotic aftermath. Marx was born in 1818, Engels in 1820. By the time of their fruitful meeting, in a Paris cafe in 1844, they were 26 and 24 years old respectively. The tumultuous, terror- and trauma-ridden First Republic of France was founded only 52 years prior, and fell a mere 40 years back in their personal histories. Robsepierre had only been dead for 50 years, Napoleon for only 25. 

By comparison, 52 years ago for us would be 1970 (the Beatles breakup, death of the Egyptian president Nasser, US secret invasion of Cambodia) while 40 years ago would be 1982 (the “Falkland Islands” War, death of Leonid Brezhnev, Lebanese Phalange massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila). Just as these are modern problems to us, even if not all of us were yet born when they happened, so for Marx and Engels, Jacobinism was a very new and modern problem. 

How it’s going

Jacobinism is a problem for socialists today, just as it was a problem for Marx and Engels in their lifetimes. It also is or has been:

  • An uncontested slur and evocation of horror for centrist (non-French) Europeans from Thomas Carlyle to Tony Blair
  • A casual political signifier, stripped of violence to simply mean “strong central government” by mainstream French historians (which is why until quite recently it was generally not a slur in France) 
  • A major point of argumentation among the Bolsheviks of the early Soviet Union, and socialist theorists and historians since then
  • A handy accusation in fights between factions of socialism, or between socialists and anarchists, both historically and today 
  • Little-understood in the US as a term, even though we argue endlessly and inexpertly about its actual manifestations in history. 

Given that, it’s even more mysterious why Bhaskar Sunkara chose that particular term to grace the masthead of what has become the dominant journal of left politics in the US. And I have an answer to that, but before I get to it, let’s talk theory. 

On a web app I visit periodically called Quora3, a person asked the question “Are Jacobinism and socialism/communism/Marxism related?” One of the top answers, I think, summed it up very succinctly:

“Jacobinism is a movement of thought and a political doctrine born during the French Revolution and which partly inspired the future thinkers of socialism such as Marx. Its main characteristic is the defense of popular sovereignty and the indivisibility of the French Republic. This doctrine, however, remains far removed from the ideals of socialism and is reminiscent of Soviet bureaucratic centralism.”

They go on to clarify:

“Nowadays, we talk about a Jacobin France when denouncing an excessive centralism and too much influence of the administration on the lives of citizens which sounds like socialism for some but is in fact quite remote and could apply to any authoritarian or even fascist state.”

Checking in with experts

But to get back to Marx and Engels, how much influence did the Jacobins have on them in the development of their theories? And was the influence good, as in admiration? Or bad, as in a cautionary tale? And what of Marx’s inheritors down through the years, the Marxists, the Bolsheviks, the Marxist-Leninists, the Democratic Socialists? How has the view of the Jacobins been analyzed, and how has that analysis changed?  

Patrice Higonnet, a prominent Marxist scholar and retired professor at Harvard, published a very interesting article in 2006 on how the French Revolution shaped Marx’s earliest political thinking. 

He wrote, in his 40-page piece in 2006 in the academic journal Past and Present, published by Oxford University Press:

In his [Marx’s] view, the French Revolutionary bourgeoisie worked to its own destruction because its twinned cultural purpose could not be sustained. On the one hand, the origin of the Revolution was in the decline of feudalism and the emancipation of the individual: in other words, as society grew more open, ‘each individual could affirm his liberty by becoming more bourgeois.’ But that was only one half of the picture, because ‘by definition, the existence of one person as bourgeois presupposes the existence of other people as non bourgeois.’

How then could Jacobinism reconcile its completely sincere defense of individual, particularist rights with its equally sincere defense of universal values? The answer is that it couldn’t do so, though it desperately tried to work towards that self-appointed goal by redefining the nature of true civic equality. “Robespierre, St. Just and their party fell,” Marx wrote “because they confused the ancient, realistic and democratic republic based on real slavery with the modern spiritualist democratic representative state which is based on emancipated slavery, on civil society.”4

Employing, probably for the first time in analyses of Marx, the emerging concept of inherited trauma, Higonnet goes on to evaluate in great depth the impact that the French Revolution, then fairly recent history, had on Marx, not just ideologically and intellectually, but emotionally and viscerally. 

In Krisis, an open-access and peer-reviewed journal for contemporary philosophy, James D. Ingram writes in his article titled simply “Jacobinism” (in Issue 2, 2018):

What are we to make of the stubborn association, even confusion, of Marxism and Jacobinism? … Enemies of the two tendencies have long insisted on conflating them in order to condemn them together. This equation of Jacobinism with Marxism – extended to their historical trajectories, so that Robespierre equals Lenin equals Stalin – has been wielded by critics to discredit not just Communism as a continuation of the Revolutionary Terror, but, beyond that, any project of radical social transformation. Pointing to Marx’s many explicit criticisms of the Jacobins has never been enough to dispel this error. My proposal is that the misidentification persists because it contains deeper truths concerning Marx the author and Marxism as a historical-political project, which always remained, despite themselves, in a sense deeply Jacobin.  

… critics like Talmon and Furet are not entirely wrong to associate Marxism and Jacobinism, even if they are, textually speaking, incorrect. This is not because of any doctrinal filiation between the two projects, whose understandings of rights, nature, individualism, and the state are irreconcilable. What they have in common is rather a problem, which Marxism inherits from Jacobinism and neither has been able to solve: the problem of conjugating politics and history, of making a revolution not simply within but ahead of history. For, despite all the efforts of Marx, Engels, and their later interpreters to turn Marx’s thought into a philosophy or a science, its revolutionary element always consisted in the imperative of accelerating history, of standing at the limit of present possibilities and giving history a push.5

Bhaskar Sunkara speaks 

So, with all this bad press and confusion, both of which are much more acute in the US than in Europe, while the adoration or excoriation of Jacobins may seem a great irrelevance to much of today’s “global south” and working class, why on earth did Bhaskar Sunkara name a serious magazine about contemporary socialism Jacobin

The answer is revealed in an interview with Sunkara published in March 2016 in Vox

The name Jacobin, while [usually] meant to invoke the French Revolution, has a different meaning for Sunkara. In naming the magazine, he was inspired at least in part by C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, a hugely influential Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution.

C. L. R. James
[Sunkara’s father was born in India and immigrated to Trinidad as a young man. His mother was Trinidadian by birth. His parents arrived in New York a year before Bhaskar was born.]

”We had a lot of C.L.R. James in the house, since he was Trinidadian,” … he told New Left Review in a 2014 interview. “I actually heard of the Haitian Jacobins before I heard of the French ones. The Black Jacobins was probably in the back of my mind when I first started thinking about the magazine.” 6

Bibliography and Further reading

By Deb K R


1 The starting dates and ending dates of the French Revolution, or the First French Republic, vary according to source, and according to which part you are speaking of. The “revolution” period is used here, 1789 – 1799, from the abolition of the Ancien Regime to the Jacobins’ fall from power when Napoleon Bonaparte staged a successful coup and was appointed “First Consul” (a kind of emergency dictator) of the Republic. The range I used in the fourth paragraph above is 1792 – 1804, the “republican” period. This is the time from when France was officially constituted as a Republic, just a year before the outbreak of “the Terror,” and when Napoleon was given the title of Emperor, effectively ending the pretense of democracy in France until a new Republic was established in 1848. Marx himself was involved in the struggle to bring to birth a new republic in France, but alas, this one only lasted four years.  

2 Once the Jacobins got into power, their chief opponents going into the Revolution were the Girondists. Sometimes you will hear these original Jacobins referred to as the Montagnards (see for instance Mathiez from the bibliography above.) The reason for this is that Montagnards refers to people who live in the mountains. Wikipedia explains “The Jacobins had a significant presence in the National Convention, and were dubbed ’the mountain’ for their seats in the uppermost part of the chamber.” 

3 In case you’re not familiar with Quora, it’s one of the strangest beasts on the Internet. With a low barrier to entry, members ask random questions, and anyone can answer them, giving their credentials for their knowledge if they have any. Surprisingly, although the quality of both questions and answers varies wildly, there is very little trolling or squabbling. 

4 See Bibliography, third entry, for a fuller citation. 

5 See Bibliography, fifth entry, for a fuller citation. 

6  See Bibliography, fourth entry, for a fuller citation.