From Robespierre to al-Qa’eda: categorical extermination


An intellectual is someone who thinks ideas matter more than people.

Maximilien Robespierre

If people get in the way of ideas they must be swept aside and, if necessary, put in concentration camps or killed. To intellectuals, individuals as such are not interesting and do not matter. Indeed individualism is a hindrance to the pursuit of ideals in an absolute sense. The individual, with his quirks and quiddities, his mixture of good and bad, intelligence and stupidity, longing for justice but anxiety to promote his own selfish interests, does not fit into a utopian community. Hence utopians, if they are in earnest, tend to become terrorists. A significant case was Robespierre, who invented both utopianism and terrorism in their modern forms. On 17 February 1794 he outlined what the new and perfect republic was going to do:

"In our country we want to substitute ethics for egotism, integrity for honour, principles for habits, duties for protocol, the empire of reason for the tyranny of changing taste, scorn of vice for the scorn of misfortune, pride for insolence, elevation of soul for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good men for amusing companions, merit for intrigue, genius for cleverness, truth for wit, the charm of happiness for the boredom of sensuality, the greatness of man for the pettiness of ‘the great’, a magnanimous, strong, happy people for an amiable, frivolous, miserable people, that is to say all the virtues and all the miracles of the republic for the vices and all the absurdities of the monarchy."

This is a fascinating passage and in some ways a frank one. By admitting he wanted to abolish honour, habits, taste, vanity, wit and sensuality, Robespierre indicated that he was not only opposed to many of the ineradicable characteristics of individuals but out of sympathy with human nature itself. And he was not proposing reform or education into virtue, but the immediate abolition of the old order of behaviour, which he identified with the monarchy. It is therefore no wonder he felt impelled to further his utopian solution by using terror against an entire, undifferentiated class, the nobility, a huge section of the population, variously calculated as from one eighth to one tenth, who were to be judged, imprisoned or executed not on the basis of their individual behaviour or guilt, but solely on account of their birth and class.

Lenin, who regarded Robespierre as one of his heroes, pursued the same policy, but with wider aims and an extended list of categorical enemies.

Intellectuals engaged in building utopias have, without exception so far as I know, invariably ignored individualism and operated against entire categories of human beings. Lenin, who regarded Robespierre as one of his heroes, pursued the same policy, but with wider aims and an extended list of categorical enemies. He wanted to destroy not merely the aristos but the entire bourgeoisie, the very class from which Robespierre sprang, and for whose benefit the original revolution had been conducted. He used terror in exactly the same way as Robespierre, only on a much bigger scale. Tsarist Russia was a cruel and merciless society, but it was also, in its own way, a Christian one. In the 80 years before 1917, an average of 17 people were executed every year in Russia, virtually all of them convicted of murder. By 1918–19, with Lenin firmly in power, his prime instrument of terror, the Cheka, was executing 1,000 a month. The methodology of the terror was explained by a senior official of the Cheka:

"We are not carrying out war against individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. We are not looking for evidence or witnesses to reveal deeds or words against the Soviet power. The first question which we ask is — to what class does he belong, what are his origins, upbringing, education or profession? [The answers to] these questions decide the fate of the accused. This is the essence of the Red Terror."

Stalin’s expansion of the Leninist terror, or the ‘Great Purges’, raised the execution rate, in the years 1937–38, to 40,000 a month. But the principle was the same. Those executed, whether prominent ex-comrades or simple party officials (or anyone else), were not judged on account of actual deeds, albeit in certain ‘show trials’ evidence and confessions were extracted under torture. They all belonged to categories, ‘enemies of the USSR’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries’, ‘Trotskyists’, etc.

When it comes to killing in pursuit of their respective utopias, Hitler and Stalin were essentially the same. Hitler killed counter-revolutionaries and enemies of his state on the basis of individual guilt, but most of his victims fell into racial categories: gypsies, Jews and Slavs. Unlike Stalin, who was building a class-utopia and killed or caused to die a likely 20 million in pursuit of it, Hitler worked for a race-utopia, in the process killing six million Jews, men, women and children, judged worthy of death on account of their birth, in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws.

The total number of victims thus killed under Mao’s brand of communism is calculated by Jung Chang in her life of Mao as 70 million, an atrocity rate which makes even Stalin and Hitler, let alone Robespierre, seem almost amateurish.

There was a further extension of this categorical extermination during the long reign of terror of Mao Tse-tung in China. He killed millions at all periods of his rule, with little or no attention to individual guilt. His categories were loosely defined too: a ‘rich peasant’ was whoever he declared one, at a particular time or in a particular place. And during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s the victims were defined as all those affected by or exhibiting the traditional culture. This last was a huge extension of the class category, and tended to expand into an age category — people were often killed primarily because they were old and therefore, by definition, ‘unreformed’. The total number of victims thus killed under Mao’s brand of communism is calculated by Jung Chang in her life of Mao as 70 million, an atrocity rate which makes even Stalin and Hitler, let alone Robespierre, seem almost amateurish. It is argued that, in relation to the total population of China, this death rate was comparatively minor. But examples of categorical terror extermination, when applied by intellectual fanatics to smaller countries, can amount to a variety of genocide. In Cambodia, between April 1975 and the beginning of 1977, Pol Pot and his colleagues, who have been well defined as ‘Sartre’s Children’, ended the lives of 1.2 million people for ‘cultural’ reasons — one fifth of the population.

Categorical extermination or mass killing did not begin with Robespierre, of course. It is an ancient phenomenon. And many examples of modern times — in the Congo Basin, Sudan, West Africa and Zimbabwe, for example — are primitive in their essence, being racial, religious and tribal, though sometimes dressed up in modern intellectual garments, such as ‘anti-colonialism’ in Zimbabwe. We have to remember that the witch doctor was the original intellectual. Modern Islamic terrorism-extermination is undoubtedly a mixture of old and new. Young Islamic intellectuals from Leeds who become suicide-bombers and kill London commuters indiscriminately are motivated by a mixture of religious faith and modern subvarieties of Marxism. They kill people not on the basis of individual guilt but of race and culture or even mere association (with the West). They tend to kill the poor because they are easier to get at and unprotected (the rich and powerful are well-defended). Whether Islamic terrorism, already categorical, will extend itself into a general policy of extermination against the West — a practical policy if they obtain and, still more, manufacture nuclear and thermonuclear weapons — depends on how far we are prepared to go to stop them.


Paul Johnson. "From Robespierre to al-Qa’eda: categorical extermination." The Spectator (September 10, 2005).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Johnson

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