Why is it that conspiracy theories are such an enduring feature of modern democracies? This one of the questions posed by the Conspiracy and Democracy Project, a five-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and based at CRASSH (the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) at the University of Cambridge.
A major strand of the project is research into the history of conspiracy theories, and a pivotal moment for the history both of conspiracy theory and the invention of the modern democratic process came about with the French Revolution.
Kingston University’s History Department has one of the UK’s leading academic experts on the Revolution, Marisa Linton. The directors of the project therefore invited Marisa, who is Reader in History at Kingston, to spend time as a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, to conduct research into the links between conspiracy, democracy and terror in the French Revolution.
During her visit Marisa gave a public lecture on ‘Conspiracy and Terror in the French Revolution’, delivered at Cambridge University on 19th April, 2016. You can see that lecture here:
According to Marisa, conspiracies, both real and imagined, played a central role in the shifting dynamics of French revolutionary politics. Fear of conspiracy influenced decisions taken by revolutionary leaders during the most traumatic period of the Revolution – the Terror of the Year II (1793-94). Successive revolutionary factions were subject to a specific form of terror, the ‘politicians’ terror’, whereby they themselves were denounced as ‘the enemy within’ and put to death.
The Year II was the crisis point of the Revolution, a year overshadowed by external war and civil war. Revolutionary leaders feared many external enemies, ranging from the foreign powers, royalists and emigres, to lone assassins, successors of Charlotte Corday. Yet the people they came to fear the most were other revolutionaries.
In Marisa’s view: ‘One of the most traumatic features of revolutionary politics in the Year II was the denunciation and eliminiation of a series of political factions said to be ‘the enemy within’, in league with the foreign powers. Revolutionary leaders used the narrative of conspiracy to ‘unmask’ a succession of revolutionary leaders, many of whom were former colleagues and friends, as traitors against the Revolution. Amongst the victims of this narrative of conspiracy were such stalwarts of the Revolution as Brissot, Danton, and – ultimately – Robespierre himself’.
Moreover, in Marisa’s estimation, this raises an interesting question: ‘Why were the trials of revolutionary leaders so ruthless?’ She said: ‘In part it was a consequence of mutual fear on the part of the protagonists, both accused and accusers. The revolutionary leaders who dealt out terror were also themselves subject to terror – both as an emotion and through their own vulnerability to the laws that enabled terror’.
Kingston’s History Reader added: ‘This unsettling phenomenon may also say something more universal about human nature and the nature of politics. It is a scenario with many parallels in the modern political world – though thankfully without the guillotine as the denouement. As David Cameron can probably attest, in politics your worst enemies are all too often those who sit behind you, your trusted colleagues and – most dangerous of all – your former friends’.
You can find out more about the Conspiracy and Democracy Project here: